In Conversation With My Friend, a Prostitute
by Caroline Leung
Mary (not her real name) is a 22-year-old student, writer, and sex worker. She has no problem calling herself a hooker, or prostitute, or what her clients prefer: an escort.
“When I jokingly call myself a ‘prostitute’ — or not even jokingly, seriously, with a client — he’d be like, ‘don’t say that! That’s not what you are! You’re an escort!’”
Mary and I met in a creative writing class in university. We talked about being writers, about being women, about being women and writers — the two, for us both, inseparable. It’s now been about a year since we met. We’re sitting in her apartment. By a lone student’s city-dwelling standards, it is enormous: double-storied, triple bedroomed, with a rooftop deck. It’s airy and cool, and the glossy hardwood floors are littered with empty wine bottles and confetti.
“I had a party,” she says. She’d offered to host one for her literature class, a course she still has to finish an essay for. She’s stressed out, because she’s only got until 6 p.m. on Sunday to finish it. “You’d be surprised,” she says, “Sunday nights get busy.”
She had started out wanting to strip. It makes sense: She has the body, a performer’s aplomb, a healthy ego, a desire to please. As a teenager, she had posted nude pictures of herself on 4chan as a, perhaps, misguided attempt to garner virtual high-fives; it worked. It was last April when she went to her first strip club, Jilly’s.
“It’s, like, the bottom of the barrel in Toronto,” she describes.
She was stoned and drunk, with a friend. Jilly’s is at best an eyesore, at worst a crime scene; a porno porta-potty comes to mind. But Mary’s take on this shithole is near revering. Temple is the word she uses.
“No, seriously,” she says. “To me, watching a woman masterfully work the pole — a woman who is considered, by society, as the lowest form of woman; the woman who doesn’t have any other options — how do you explain the fact that she can get up to the top of the pole and hang upside down and stay there and spin? That takes dedication. That takes work. That takes strength. How can anybody say that this woman is a low kind of woman?”
By the way: For all her unbelievable joy and enthusiasm about the job, Mary has never, ever seen a single episode of Showtime’s prostitution-glamorization vehicle, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. She’s never seen Buñuel’s Belle de Jour; never read Tracy Quan’s columns on Salon. She’s never read a fictional account of being a prostitute; never had an interest, she explains. At least, not before going to Jilly’s, and it was easy enough to Google for a firsthand account of a real stripper. She began her education through the considerably more grounded chronicles of women like Kat (of Tits & Sass) and Holly O’Hare.
“Through them, I realized there was a way to do this without being degrading.” It was simple. Perhaps frightfully so, for some people.
Shoes were bought, a white pair with neon yellow straps that wouldn’t look all that out of place at a Preen show. With a barista’s salary, and a timely birthday present, she bought pole-dancing lessons and her own pole to practice with. I vaguely recall her playing me a song, something mellow and reggae-y, when I asked her back in November what kind of song she’d strip to.
This all happened in a period of eight months, and at the end of it, she met a series of people who all asked the same question: Why didn’t she just become an escort?
“Now, stripping seems almost… comical,” she says. “Clownish. It was the kind of thing I could tell people; joke about it. Telling people you want to be a prostitute is a totally different ballgame. There is such a difference between teasing people and actually… doing it.”
But she doesn’t strike me as ashamed. She never did; I wouldn’t have asked her for this favor otherwise.
“Well, not anymore,” she admits.
She told me a few weeks ago that she’d told her parents; her boyfriend already knew, and is fine with it. Her mom reacted as expected: worried and confused.
“She called me one night at 4 a.m.,” she says. “She’d felt like a failure as a parent, and I had to remind her: Mom, I’ve got dreams. How could you have forgotten so easily? It was like she’d erased it from her memory because she thought it was my end-all. Like, ‘hooking is something you can do with a grade-six education; why did she spend all her money on a post-secondary education if this is what I was going to end up doing?’” Her dad, in contrast, handled it well. She wasn’t surprised.
After Googling toronto high class escort agency — much like a john — she’d decided to call the agency with the spiffiest website.
“This madam had a fucking Twitter feed. She would say things like, just hired three new girls!” Mary never heard back, though, so she called another agency. “We had an interview the next week, and I started the day after.” There were, seemingly, few requirements: All she had done was show up, and she was hired without having to answer any questions.
A bullet dodged, then?
“Oh, yeah. I love my manager. Um, madam. Pimp?” She throws her hands up in the air in confusion.
Financially, the sex industry in Toronto is fairly self-regulated. There’s little variation of pricing between agencies. The first couple agencies that pop up on Google charge between $240 and $270 an hour. That’s not a lot, you might think. What about the Ashley Duprés and Sophie Andertons of the world? What about the filthy lucre that’s supposed to justify the appeal of this ‘whoring’ business? If not money, what else does it take for somebody to do something like this?
I ask her what was the most extravagant thing she’d bought herself with her earnings.
“Gold medal ping-pong game at the London Olympics, baby.”
She insists she’s good with her money, and I believe her. Her earnings are split into fours: one for bills, one for her travels, one for long-term savings, the last for instant gratification.
I ask her how much she earns.
“About a grand a week.”
Her clients pay $260 an hour. From that, the agency takes 40 pecent for advertising, photographers’ fees, gas if they’re an out-call agency, rent and utilities if they only do in-calls.
“Have you ever thought about going independent?” I ask, when what I really meant was, don’t you think you deserve more?
She says no. She’s grateful for the security and relative stability of business that an agency provides her, and doesn’t have the time to run a business.
“Because that’s what you are when you’re an independent escort,” she says. “You are selling yourself as a product. There needs to be advertising, management — it’s too much of a hassle.”
She speaks of “career hoes”. Those are the women whose faces are in the pictures, unobstructed and clear. Once, she dared give out her number to a client who seemed safe enough; he was a guidance counselor. He was fine, and handed over the envelope gamely — likely a decent fraction of his yearly salary — but treated her “inappropriately.” Intimacy: What’s too much when it’s perfectly okay, even preferred, to provide too little? She shudders, reliving the memory. “It was weird. The day after, I saw him at a psych conference.”
If you consider Mary’s resume, escorting doesn’t seem too far of a stretch. She had been a waitress, an actress, a barista. “They were all the same thing — jobs that rely on a woman teasing men — just socially accepted. And aren’t we all whores, to an extent? We’re selling energy, talent, time for cash. With this?” She gesticulates towards Meyer-esque breasts. “I’m just getting straight to the point.”
At the height of her sex-work daydreaming, she had been working at a restaurant that had introduced its employees to a new uniform. It was a t-shirt that said this is a delicious body. She had refused, politely, with an eloquently worded e-mail. And was then promptly and unceremoniously fired.
“I thought that was wrong on so many levels,” she says. “I’m fine with sexualization. Obviously. But that message on the t-shirt was not something I consented to. I did not want people ordering food by looking at my tits and thinking, oh yeah, I really like where this is going.”
I ask her how much she was earning as a server. She says minimum wage. She hated it — hated the smallness of that amount, the smallness of the validation, the smallness of her importance.
“Every table was a battle,” she recalls. “You don’t want to build yourself around how much you make. That’s incredibly dangerous. But you get old, and for various reasons you can’t work, and then what? You fall. Your entire world falls apart. Fuck that. That’s not what I want.”
There’s fear in her voice — a fear that she does acknowledge and battle, and a fear that I’m sure we all can sympathize with every time rent is due, a pet gets sick, or the gas tank empties.
“I would like to live comfortably,” she says. “I would like to make money doing something I like, doing something I’m good at. And I’ve found it. I’ve never been better at any other job.”
I click around Mary’s agency’s website. The pictures are lit extremely carefully. There are pinks and browns, highlights and shadows; there are hollows and excesses, the obviously fake, the surprisingly real. There’s a site out there where one can buy a steak and have it delivered overnight in a cooler. The same magic applies here. With the faces blurred and the body parts contorted to maximize appeal, they look like fabulous pieces of meat. In their bizarre focus on the mammalian they have ended up looking like aliens.
“Tell me about the worst client you’ve ever had.”
She was never quite sure of what he did for a living; he did not make much conversation. He was affluent — that was for sure. He lived in a condo with a doorman who she mistakenly gave her real name.
“I think he was one of my first clients, actually,” she says. “I wasn’t used to my fake name yet.”
He had a routine. She would knock on the door, and he would holler at her to come in from the bathroom. She would enter, a CD of thumping bass music playing in the background, and head into his bedroom. The money would be in an envelope by the bedpost, and she would count it. Then she lubed up and lounged on the bed, posed, waiting.
He would enter in a white bathrobe. A small Korean man, with impeccable English, she recalls. The lights would be dimmed, but he would always tell her to turn them off. A little white dog in the corner watched. And then the routine changed.
“He would fold me up in a box, almost,” she says. Her legs in the air, straight back, like she was in the middle of a backwards roll. “It was hell on my hips. Then he wanted to switch positions, which never happens. He wanted me from behind. I was in pain. He was my fifth client of the night. I told him that I was hurting, and he went fucking ballistic. It became vicious. He wanted to hurt me.”
I ask her why didn’t she just leave.
“I thought I’d tough it out.” She shrugs. She did not say goodbye politely that night. She broke down in the elevator, sobbing. Her madam said she never had to see him again. Since that encounter, he’s been blacklisted from a bunch of other agencies. She wasn’t the first girl he had done this to. The owners do talk; some of them even get together for ‘TERB parties’ — TERB standing for the Toronto Escort Review Board, a forum clients and prostitutes and agency managers all frequent.
“I had talked about him to another girl at the agency, before that happened. She said he’d treated her like shit. He, like, fisted her.” Her own fist moved in imitation — not even a swoop, but a punch, rough and hard. “I didn’t think he’d do anything like that to me. Or so I thought.”
That is unquestionably rape, I thought. I look at her. She’s moved on from the memory. Now she’s talking enthusiastically about some psychologist she saw the night before; her eyes aglow, her hand gestures frantic, the jokes and impression of his O-face forthcoming.
“What about the wives?”
“I can’t afford to think about the wives,” she replies brusquely.
When Mary talks about her clients, she describes them as “her guys.” She is almost protective, which some might see as un-businesslike. She takes ownership in the relief she provides them. One of her most faithful regulars is in a wheelchair. These men are absurdly, amazingly grateful. Her reviews read like genuine erotica; hardly the scoreboard relay I was expecting from men who prowl around a forum that literally rates women’s cocksucking skills with Pitchfork-style precision.
“Let me explain,” she continues. “I am not responsible. The sad, pimply 16-year-old serving Big Macs to obese people? That’s me. This is a game. This is a system. And I’m just a pawn; he’s just a pawn. It was his choice, paying me to do a service. I’m just trying to make money.”
She does believe in monogamy, but she’s realistic. When I ask her how she might handle her own significant other seeing an escort, she shrugs. “Well, at that point, you have to question if you should be with that person at all.”
Prostitution’s recently resurfaced as a legal hot topic in Canada. Tits & Sass has a great post on it here. Long story short: Prostitutes are one step closer to being recognized as workers, with actual needs for security, in the name of the law. But it’s not exactly a victory for Mary, or even people like Mary’s boss.
“They’re talking about licensing, which might cost up to $10,000 for the year,” she says. And my manager’s, like, what prostitute starts hooking with ten grand already in her pocket? If that’s the future of the industry, that means it’s going underground. It’s going to be more illegal, there’s going to be less protection.”
To be licensed also means to go public with your profession, which is even more of a repellent. For many, the secrecy is sexy. Or necessary. And if, in some alternate world, it was to become legal? What then?
“More girls,” she says. “And I think that’s great. That means better product.” It’s striking how little anger she feels towards the system, and I ask her how she could be so optimistic.
“I think my industry deserves a better reputation,” she says. “I see it happening for porn, and it’s remarkable. Prostitution and pornography aren’t that different; we’re essentially doing the same thing.”
Is it her dream job?
“No. But it’s a damn fine one in between,” she says. “It’s the best in between job I could ever have. It’s the pre-show — an essential part of the foundation of what is already being built. I’m a writer,” she says.
Her job gives her stories every night: the man whose paltry inheritance pays for her visits, the curator with the white thong, the cable TV star with a penchant for double-ended dildos. She’s a discoverer of strangely-shaped birthmarks. She’s inspected a thousand bookshelves. She’s answered fucked up questions, and has been a solution for fucked up problems.
She genuinely feels blessed.
“You know,” she says. “There’s this new driver. He’s a rambler, and old, and he can’t really see the street signs. He has these false teeth that jut out, like this, and oh God, it’s so grotesque. I think he’s about sixty. And he would say things like, ‘you’re a dollhouse, sweetie. You’re a dollhouse.’ And I’ll say to him, ‘I’m all the dolls, baby. I’m Barbie, Ken, and Chelsea.’”
“We were sitting on the highway last night, like three in the morning. Nobody was calling, and we were just going. I had no idea which direction we were headed. I had no idea where we were. And then he puts Roy Orbison on. Roy Orbison, man. Fucking Roy Orbison. You can’t make this up.”
And then she sings, in a beautiful impression of the deep, aged baritone of the men who make up her economy, “Only the lonely.”
Caroline Leung is an aspiring barfly living in Toronto. She still uses air quotes when she describes herself as a writer.
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