By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
During Game Five of the 2010 World Series, my dad and I sat side by side at a sushi bar in my Central Coast hometown. We ordered two scallop hand rolls and two sake bombs. The head rush of the wasabi and the calming heat of the sake dulled the anxiety of a day spent navigating ICU doctors and nursing assistants.
My mom was awaiting brain surgery. She had been diagnosed with a rare cranial bleed that had rapidly claimed her ability to walk, speak, eat, and breathe on her own. I dropped everything I had going on in San Francisco and drove down the Peninsula to be by her side. By the opening pitch of Game Five, I hadn't been to work in more than a week. I had recently quit my horrible retail job at a stationery store in Pacific Heights and started dancing naked full time at the Lusty Lady Theater in North Beach. My dad didn't know that yet, but tonight I was considering telling him. I feared he'd be upset or disappointed, and I'm sure he'd want to know why I'd chosen this new profession.
I've heard that your first year in San Francisco is the hardest, and I had absolutely found that to be true. Even working full time at my retail job, I barely made enough money to make ends meet. The first month I lived here, I didn't have enough to buy groceries, so I rationed myself one piece of pita bread with butter each day. For lunch, I'd go to the La Boulange bakery on Union Street and fill up on free olives and those tiny French pickles.
I also hated my retail job. Hawking rhinestone-covered greeting cards to Danielle Steel and the upper crust of the city took a little piece of my soul each day.
But it wasn't just financial pressures that prompted the leap into sex work. I had read about the Lusty Lady in college. It was a unicorn in the adult industry: a worker-owned unionized peep show where alternative looks and attitudes were celebrated. Sex work had always intrigued me and whenever money got tight post-college I would cruise the Craigslist Adult Services listings and contemplate the option. One of my babysitters when I was little was a retired San Francisco stripper who had danced on Broadway in the early 1980s. She told me stories of Champagne bubble-baths and dancing the night away. It certainly sounded like much more fun than my current position.
I decided to audition. I didn't think they'd hire me; I was chubbier than your average stripper and had always thought that my body would hold me back from doing any kind of sex work. But it didn't. They hired me immediately, and before I knew it I was spinning on a pole in 6-inch heels. As it turns out, I loved dancing naked.
For a while, I was still working my retail job. When I got off work at 5 p.m. each day, I'd hop on Muni with my stripper heels in my purse and transform from frumpy retail girl to powerful goddess of sex and mystery. I felt like I had a delicious secret, and it made the hours at my straight job a little less excruciating. At the end of the shift I'd be tired, and my feet and knees would throb, but I'd also be exhilarated.
My dad had always been supportive of my endeavors in arts and music, but I wasn't sure how he'd react to my recent pivot to the sex industry.
He was also in a union. I grew up going to protests and hearing lectures on the power of the people. Blue-collar values and union pride were an important part of our household. That's partially why I ended up at the Lusty.
We talked baseball instead of feelings, even though baseball makes my dad cry more than any emotional conversation. Then Edgar Renteria hit the three-run homer in the seventh inning and everything shifted. The Giants pulled ahead and it looked like they might actually take the Series for the first time in a half century.
It was a night for miracles, so I just went for it. Made bold by the sake and the magic of baseball, I came out to my father about being a sex worker.
I didn't expect him to be proud, but he was. Without having to explain, my dad understood that sex workers needed labor rights just like any other worker.
Brian Wilson took the mound as the closing pitcher. It was the bottom of the ninth. "Fear the Beard!" my father shouted at the television and ordered another round of sake. We watched the final batters crumble under Wilson's prowess. When Wilson raised his eyes to the heavens in the wake of the historic win, my dad and I stood up and started high-fiving the sushi chefs.
My confession hadn't changed a thing.
My career change had come just in the nick of time. My mother's brain surgery left her unable to work and had given my father the new role of full-time caregiver. Sex work brought along the luxuries of a high hourly wage and a flexible schedule that allowed me to visit regularly, take her to doctor's appointments, and help out financially on occasion.
I have a suspicion that I would have become a sex worker even without the circumstances of my mother's illness, though. I grew up idolizing historical figures like Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee — outspoken women who used sexuality to leverage their careers. I saw that female sexuality was used to sell clothes, food, cars, and liquor, yet in the United States it is illegal to sell sex itself. That just didn't make sense to me.
I was also fascinated by human intimacy and desire. I went on a lot of OkCupid dates and had a lot of one-night stands in my exploration of my own sexual identity. When I moved to San Francisco, I discovered that I enjoyed and excelled at kinks and fetishes beyond my wildest dreams, and I was ravenous for more. By the time I began my career at the Lusty, I knew more about sexuality than your average 24-year-old. Eventually, being promiscuous no longer thrilled me. If I was going to have a just-for-fun one-time encounter with someone who was only mediocre at sex, I wanted to be compensated with more than just pizza and beer.
Despite my logical understanding that sex work could be an empowered choice, I was still afraid to make the jump from stripper to hooker. The first time I took an appointment, I was terrified that I wouldn't know what to do or that the client would be rough or mean. Instead, I intuitively knew exactly what to do, the client was attractive and kind, and I made more money in an hour than I ever had.
I lived in the inner Richmond, but to take appointments with clients I would commute across the bridge to a small apartment in the East Bay. The building was modern and secure, but the walk to and from the BART station always made me feel vulnerable. It only took about 10 minutes, some of which I often ran. I don't usually get scared when I walk around in the Bay Area; it's my home. But I was not used to carrying large sums of money around and it made me nervous. The idea of going to the police had also shifted for me. Being a sex worker could put me at risk for incarceration even if I was the victim of a crime. I tucked the money I had made for the day under the arches of my feet in my canvas tennis shoes. It made the shoes too tight and the walk to the train painful. I must have looked ridiculous: a freckle-faced girl with an overstuffed bag full of dildoes and cheap lingerie limping down the street at full speed. Riding back to the city on BART, I tried not to make eye contact with anyone for fear that my secret identity would be revealed. In hindsight, I'm sure I wasn't fooling anyone, since the riding crop I used for sessions was a bit too big for my bag and poked the people I stood next to when the train was crowded.
My paranoia was perhaps a bit overblown at first, but not unwarranted. Though I sometimes feared arrest or robbery, I rarely feared my clients. I've been fortunate enough to have largely positive experiences at work. The Bay Area is home to a diverse group of eccentric people with disposable incomes. My clients were often nerdy, and always interesting. From Google-busers to sensitive New Age guys from Marin, they were often surprisingly endearing. San Francisco offers a buffet of sexual explorations, from festive polyamorous play parties to elaborate professional dungeons. I've had the opportunity to explore those things, but many of my clients have not. Some of my clients are in relationships that do not allow them to explore their kinks, some have professional identities that make public exploration impossible, and some are simply curious and want to explore their desires with a professional before embarking on a journey on their own. My clients and I have a great deal in common. If my life had gone a different way and I had ended up in a more traditional lifestyle, I might be paying someone to tie me up and tickle me as well.
Not everyone I see is kinky, though. Some are looking for something as vanilla as a glass of wine and a heated conversation about the merits of Star Trek vs. Star Wars. The reasons they come see me are as varied as their desires. I'll say it: Many of my clients are married. Some of their spouses know that they see me, some of them don't. For the ones that don't, they see their time with me as something that enables them to stay in a marriage that, aside from a lack of intimacy, is successful. Unlike having an affair though, I will never text a client in the middle of the night when he is home with his family. I will never get upset when a client chooses to spend time with his family rather than with me. I would never expect or desire for my client to leave his wife to be with me. I am a professional, and I am pro-marriage. I intend my services to support the relationships that matter to my clients the most, not to destroy them.
People ask me, "What if he's ugly?" My attraction to a client is largely irrelevant. When I find my clients attractive, it's a bonus, but it's not a requirement. The service I provide is companionship, and when someone is respectful, generous, and communicative, I am almost certain to have a good time with them.
I am reminded of when I used to work as a waitress. It wouldn't matter if someone was attractive or interesting, I would still serve them. But certain customers are more pleasant than others and that always made the job more enjoyable. I looked forward to the man who came into the restaurant I worked at every Thursday, ordered a BLT and a chocolate milkshake, talked baseball with me, and always left a large tip. Now I look forward to my weekly client who likes to be spanked, brings me comic books, talks baseball with me, and always leaves a large tip.
Like most people, I also have hard days at work. Sometimes I don't want to put on makeup and lingerie and exude old Hollywood sexuality and coquettish moans; some nights I'd rather stay at home with my cat and watch Game of Thrones. I imagine most people feel that way. I chose sex work for many reasons, but mainly because I enjoyed the work, I excelled at it, and it allowed me to live in the city that I love. I understood that choosing sex work made me vulnerable to criminalization and stigma, but seeing myself as an entrepreneur fulfilled me in a way work never had before. People hope to find a job that is best suited to their skills and interests, and for me, that job is sex work.
Once there were naked pictures of me on the Internet, I knew I had to say goodbye to (openly) dating senators and being crowned Miss America. I thought that perhaps traditional long-term commitment might have to be crossed off the list as well. Even though I felt confident about my new professional identity, I understood that bringing a whore home for the holidays is not something many people are keen to sign up for.
Then, in February 2011, I met Jesse James, a sweet Midwestern boy who moved to the big city with the secret hope he'd someday get to date a girl who worked at the Lusty Lady. He loved Star Wars and had studied third-wave feminism. He even had friends who had put themselves through school by doing sex work. So he came to the table with an understanding that sex work was my job, and not a threat to our relationship. He also understood that I had no interest in leaving the industry any time soon. The stigma that comes with dating a sex worker can be cruel. Many people have negative opinions about sex workers, so coming out to friends and family can be challenging. Moreover, that stigma also informs legislation that criminalizes the partners of sex workers. I worried that Jesse wasn't sure what he was getting himself into.
"When Prop. 35 was put on the ballot and sex workers got wind of it, we were very concerned," says Carol Leigh, one of the founders of the sex-worker rights movement. Leigh actually coined the term "sex worker" in 1978 to reduce the stigma associated with "prostitute." The sex worker community vehemently spoke out against Prop. 35, but it seemed the arguments fell on deaf ears. The proposition was almost guaranteed to pass. Former Facebook executive Chris Kelly provided the major funding for a campaign that seemed to have an endless budget for billboards and commercials depicting images of nameless young girls with chains around their wrists and teary eyes to evoke the horrors of human trafficking. If I saw Prop. 35 on the ballot and didn't know any better, I may have voted for it too.
"Everyone's against trafficking and sexual slavery," Leigh says. "Of course issues of force and coercion are of concern to sex workers. ... At the same time, usually that's done in a way to dis-empower us, and Prop. 35 was no exception."
Sex trafficking is an appalling crime in which a person is forced, coerced, or exploited into sexual labor. It is prevalent worldwide, and San Francisco is certainly not immune. "We know first-hand that there are incidents of trafficking within the San Francisco Bay Area," says Laura Lasky of Solace SF, an organization that provides aid and services to both sex workers and survivors of trafficking. However, sex work is a business transaction between two consenting adults; it is simply my job. When sex work is criminalized under the same laws that criminalize trafficking, it drives the industry further underground and results in a climate where consensual sex workers cannot be involved in the fight against human trafficking. If I meet someone who is working under force or coercion, I wouldn't be able to report the crime without facing legal ramifications myself. Anonymous reporting is potentially an option, but if sex workers like myself could actually work with law enforcement and legislators, then real atrocities like rape, assault, forced labor, and trafficking could be more effectively addressed. For now, sex work continues to exist on the boundary between the socially acceptable and the morally repugnant.
As Election Day grew near, I knew I had to do something more than just cast my vote. Then I remembered a road trip Jesse and I had taken once. We were listening to one of filmmaker Kevin Smith's podcasts. Smith is kind of a podcasting evangelist, so when he started to rant about how everyone should make one, Jesse turned down the stereo and said, with a twinkle in his eye, "You should start a podcast."
I called up a friend who had audio equipment and know-how. We recorded the first episode in our living room. Our mission was to humanize people in the sex industry by sharing their stories, art, and voices. I thought that if more people knew the real-life experiences of real sex workers, then maybe they'd reconsider voting "yes" on laws that criminalized them and their families. We crossed our fingers as we uploaded the first episode onto iTunes. The WhoreCast was born.
Jesse insisted he was open to telling his parents whenever I was ready, but I continued to put it off. I was afraid that even if they got to know me first, the fact that I was a sex worker would be a deal-breaker. I was plain crazy about Jesse and desperate for his family to think I was good enough for him.
The decision was taken out of our hands in the spring of 2013 when a segment I filmed for CNN Money on sex work was slated to air in homes across America. We knew we couldn't wait any longer to tell them.
Jesse's mother came to visit and we told her. The visit went well as far as we could tell, and she seemed to take the news with an open mind. However, as soon as she arrived home, we learned that nothing was okay.
Jesse's parents no longer speak to me. This time, my greatest fears came true. Despite the Christmases and vacations we had spent together over the past two years, the fact that I was a sex worker had indeed been a deal-breaker. Soon after the visit, boxes filled with things from Jesse's childhood started showing up in the mail.
It's not easy being the partner of a sex worker. Sometimes the consequences of coming out are quite grave, and the loss of Jesse's family is compounded by the threat of criminal prosecution under Prop. 35. There are times when I'm beside myself with guilt. This year hasn't been easy for Jesse or me.
Sadly, there is no shortage of people in San Francisco who have troubled relationships with their families.
I asked my close friend, Courtney Trouble, founder of QueerPorn.TV, for advice. Courtney identifies as gender-queer and has been in the sex industry for close to a decade. Courtney is very close to one parent, but is now estranged from the other.
"Me and my mom haven't spoken in three years. A lot of it has to do with my choice to be a sex worker." Courtney's advice was simple: "Our friends are our chosen family. Queer people have been forced to define their own families for a really long time. Picking people to be your chosen family is so incredibly important for our mental health."
San Francisco has been a destination for outcasts and freethinkers for decades. Beat poets are our ancestors, drag queens are our civic leaders, and flocks of parrots grace our skies; this place is like no other. Many times a year, the city celebrates sexual freedoms with huge events like Folsom Street Fair and LGBT Pride; they are as quintessential to San Francisco as sourdough bread and the Golden Gate Bridge. A culture of free sexual expression, combined with periodic economic booms like the Gold Rush and Silicon Valley, make fertile ground for a thriving sexual economy. What is now the wealthy neighborhood of Pacific Heights was once the red-light district of the Wild West known as the Barbary Coast. The modern sex worker rights movement, founded by Beat Generation darling Margo St. James, was born in this city in the 1970s alongside San Francisco icons like Harvey Milk and Ken Kesey. The Armory, in the heart of the Mission District, is now home to Kink.com, which is the largest producer of kinky adult content in the world. Sex work and therefore sex workers are part of the fabric of this city. Transplants from all over the world have come here in search of acceptance. The queer, the kinky, the radical, and the artistic have made their homes and found community in San Francisco. I am no different. I did not come to this city with the intention of becoming a sex worker, I came here in search of my people and my community. I found them in the sex industry.
Unfortunately, legislation like Prop. 35 deepens the potential wedge between sex workers and their families by stating that anyone who involves themselves with a sex worker is not an ally, but an accessory to a crime. Sex work can be isolating; forging community bonds is necessary for survival. Additionally, the goal of traffickers is only made easier when it is illegal to reach out to family, community, and city for support.
In the face of Prop. 35, his parents' disapproval, and every other narrative that says a good Midwestern boy shouldn't love a whore like me, Jesse still wanted me to be his wife. It was snowing in Disneyland when he proposed. He got down on one knee in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle and I said yes.
With the Christmas season upon us, this was both the happiest time in our relationship and the saddest. Not being able to share the good news with Jesse's parents hung heavy on our hearts, so this happy ending, like most, was bittersweet. Instead of dwelling on that, we took Courtney's advice and hosted a holiday party that included biological family as well as chosen family from our sex worker community. My mother, who is still on the long road to a full recovery, took me aside and promised me that she would be able to dance at our wedding. I wanted to stitch all these people together like a quilt that I could wrap around Jesse and me to remind us that family is not about the people who brought you into this world; it's about the people who are by your side while you're in it.
Siouxsie Q will continue to bring us tales of sex and sexuality in a new column, starting next week. Cinch your corsets.
I know this is off story, but do you recommend, any good resteraunts, close to Fisherman's Wraf, that are good for birthdays, sorry ?
" I chose sex work for many reasons, but mainly because I enjoyed the work, I excelled at it, and it allowed me to live in the city that I love. I understood that choosing sex work made me vulnerable to criminalization and stigma, but seeing myself as an entrepreneur fulfilled me in a way work never had before."
An excellent collection of delusional rationalizations. I usually find narcissism hilarious, but this is just sad...
Props to Siouxie for injecting some sanity into the mix. Props also on yr column, lk forward to it! Prop 35 definitely uses peoples' proper horror @ a really sick & twisted business (trafficking) to attack an entirely different business: willing sex work. Unfortunately its backers have succeeded in confusing the two for many people.
Wonder how her BF feels knowing he's exposed to all kinds of bugs including HPV (which she certainly carries and spreads) which can cause cancers in womyn and men.
I don't know what's more horrifying. That a young Gen-Y sexworker thinks she discovered "hidden kinks" in San Francisco that have been obvious and popular for decades, or that people are STILL commenting that sex work is somehow not real work, or the work of the emotionally damaged.
Come on world, you're changing much too slowly.
Sorry, long rant. I had a lot of time to think on this. :)
I guarantee the troll is a religious nutjob. If she finds sex working so abhorrent then she should definitely never try sex working. But for religious people to demand their chosen morality should be inflicted upon all Americans is to indoctrinate a FREE society into their own perceived ideal way of life. Separate the church and state. Do not have abortions if you are against them.
Rape victims, women who cannot support themselves or are just teens, women who have done drugs during their pregnancies need to have this option. Why are the conservatives
trying to close abortion clinics and force women into having babies they cannot care for or ones who put out their babies in danger by living a reckless life or birth a baby with horrible health trauma and deformities? But they refuse to teach REAL sex ed, they refuse to make birth control pills an OTC drug though it's safer than Tylenol and they'll die before they make condoms free and available. So, have those babies, girls. We won't give you an ounce of help except we will pray for you. Prayers don't feed babies.
We enjoy our free society and the right to pursue happiness. Do not make your religious beliefs my American law. Do not begin 1.31 lives in a manner that they maybe cannot survive in.
You are a group of people who deny sex for fun. If sex is only for procreation, should infertile couples be required to get divorced? Are you a failure if you only have one or two kids? No. That's insane. We are a free nation. Sex workers may not be your cup of tea - personally, I couldn't do it - but you should allow them the freedom of choosing what to do with their own bodies. WE OWN OURSELVES. I don't believe in your god and refuse to worship him. I don't fear his wrath if some women support themselves this way and maybe support a few children they didn't abort but might have done so without the income that sex work provides.
You religious beliefs cannot become my national law.
Let's begin to make sex work a legitimate industry with health and safety standards, a database or licensing system that treats workers as employees and clients as, well, tax-paying clients. Instead of banishing women to the dark alley or making them fear bullshit trafficking laws, let's bring it out into the open and make it better.
Oh, and lazy? I think that's probably the last thing this writer is. She is aware of her sexual side, embraces it, gains pleasure from her work and makes a good income that would otherwise make her a retail worker needing food stamps. It's HER choice. Her clients are exercising THEIR choice. YOU can go and pray for them. The rest of us are trying to take away the stigma of this "oldest profession".
And if you think your god is against this and our nation must stand firm against this industry, how will you feel when Allah is the god in charge?
We don't have to personally be involved in their world but we do need to make sure that they can pursue whatever they want. It's a basic citizen right. And we are all citizens.
More power to the sex worker, it's a thankless occupation, a good article.
It's odd that Susie consulted Courtney/Trouble, as Courtney/Trouble is an unpleasant nut job.
If the strip clubs didn't take so much money from the girls, especially house keys.. Girls wouldn't feel the need to do extras. The term independent contractor means you can walk into work and leave whenever you want you are your own boss. The San Francisco strip clubs have some nerve telling you that you cannot leave. That is illegal. You are paying to work at their dirty ass venue: and yeah yeah so many people have them sacks work now it's just so cool. I'm a former sex worker except I was doing it legally in porn films as well as the ranches in Nevada. I pay taxes on that. I could write a book too but I figured it would all sound the same. The guys are come by are all overweight and have either too big of a penis or too small of a penis. Most of them smell that's why they come to the prostitute. Most of them are cheap. And a whole lot of celebrities. There's my book
It's not a profession. Medicine, Science, business are professions. You were showing your cootchie for cash. There is a big difference.
^^^ To judge another, is to judge yourself. Unconditional love means to accept another fully without judgement. Stand in front of a mirror, look into your eyes, and say to yourself everything you wrote. Then experience what you feel fully.
Fantastic article! As someone who loves a sexworker and who has nearly been arrested for being a "pimp" because of it, it feels good to know that there are people like you out there actively working to make things better. You are awesome keep it up!
go to school and go put your energy a real career.you are lazy.and stop dragging or keeping ostage fragile /co- depend boyfriend in your desease. and BTW:you are not selling intimacy to the married johns you provide your services to ,no ...you are just sexing them up.The men you serve are sick very sick.You need therapie ,you need to heal,go to "SAGE" it's an community that will provide you with the help you need. .you are worth more then the self inflicted abuse you put yourself through.this paper is well written but the content is pure sex traffic propaganda.she knows and we know it.you are a sad girl.
What's delusional. Everyone with a job is being used, I'm not saying that from a moronic SF progressive angle, just as a statement of fact. If a person does sex work what's that to you.
Do you do Valley speak as well?
@downtownbrown But venereal diseases are empowering to this "professional"! You know you've become a real SF entrepreneur when you contract herpes...
@Kestrel I am an atheist and have been since a child. I am pro abortion and OTC birth control. I am also the parent of 3 and having an industry that clothes itself as a profession when it consists of hourly hole rental is not the role model for children. It teaches girls that bodies are not for enjoying in athletics but for sexualizing and monetizing. It teaches boys to pay for the rent a hole dopamine rush. Giving people "choice" to sell flesh and condone this as benign freedom is, at the same time, denying them the freedom to see the other side: a hotbed of low self esteem riddled with essays like this to convince you they are grand entrepreneurs saving sad men, and a body with viruses that spread like wildfire and cause compromised immune systems overwhelmed with so many pathogens. The rent a hole industry is not freedom no matter how many sex workers would love to seduce with words as well as shaved genitals.
@ExecuteTamayoNow Medicine, science and business are industries IN which you can have a profession-like by being a nurse, researcher or accountant. Sex is also an industry, with publications, products, venues and tourism. Even if you reduce the author's work to "showing cootchie for cash" the longevity of her commitment and the skills required classifies it as a profession. And that is discounting her achievements as a sex-work author and sex-work podcast host.
@ExecuteTamayoNow business can mean almost anything. For example an account execs main tasks include entertaining clients, sealing deals over drinks, making someone feel like the most important person of the room. basically sales. think about it for a second.
@whorelover Enjoy your venereal diseases! They're empowering!
Not everyone feels the way or experiences life the way you do. Not every sex worker is "damaged" and many non sex workers are. As long as a person is doing it out of choice and not coercion then there should be no problem.