Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys

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“There’s something unique about being a member of the sex worker club, an instant camaraderie that bonds one to people who would otherwise be strangers, and this chemistry is something of which Sterry can’t get enough.”

You might be one of those people who doesn’t believe that sex workers are interesting. You may downright resent the cultural fascination with those who take money to titillate and masturbate strangers. Maybe you’re convinced that the only thing these men and women have going for them are passable looks and a wildly miscalibrated moral compass, and that paying attention to their déclassé life of the body glamorizes underachieving and turpitude.

If you belong to this camp, you probably don’t actually know any sex workers—at least none who would come out to you, and why would they? You’ve made up your mind about them already. You say things like: “Stripping is 1) a way to make a lot more cash than other “unskilled” service jobs [and] 2) incredibly degrading,” then add, “I’ve never been a stripper and I don’t know any strippers.” Never, for that matter, will you actually ever know anything about strippers, because they aren’t going to talk to you. Sex workers just don’t feel comfortable around you.

But many do feel comfortable with David Henry Sterry, a former gigolo best known for his memoir Chicken, and what they share with him should convince even the grouchiest non-believers that sex workers are an engaging, unusual tribe. In Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys, Sterry and co-editor R.J. Martin have assembled an array of poems, interviews, and essays in a professed attempt to humanize sex workers. The mission is an admirable one, but raises the question of how many individuals who don’t already believe in sex workers’ humanity are going to pick up this hefty anthology.

It also masks the true motivating energy behind the collection, which is Sterry’s exuberant love of his fellow pros and his desire to celebrate their histories and personalities. There’s something unique about being a member of the sex worker club, an instant camaraderie that bonds one to people who would otherwise be strangers, and this chemistry is something of which Sterry can’t get enough. He refers frequently to this sense of kinship and stresses the uncommonness of his access to such candid and diverse workers. (This bragging about connections ultimately seems a little silly, given that many of the book’s contributors are well-established go-to writers like Audacia Ray, Annie Sprinkle, and Xaviera Hollander.)

Sterry’s enthusiasm also manifests as frequent, ill-advised introductions to pieces written by individuals whom he personally knows. As he details first meetings with contributors such as Surgeon and mochaluv, the focus is directed on himself rather than the person he’s touting, and it creates the impression that the writing itself isn’t good enough to hold one’s attention—that without knowing how beautiful Lorelei Lee or Carla Crandall or April Daisy White are, we won’t care about their essays.

We do care, though, because in addition to being porn stars and prostitutes, many of these people are talented writers with strong voices and precise observations. They’re natural born storytellers who manage to encapsulate an aspect of their experiences in wonderfully succinct (Sebastian Horsley: “Brothels make possible encounters of extreme intimacy without the intervention of personality.”) and stark, unsentimental ways (Brenda: “I have been arrested eight times for prostitution. It messed up my life.”)

Among the most effective pieces is Melissa Petro’s “Mariposa,” an essay on her time spent in Mexico as a white American stripper, an unforgettable script-flip of the highest order (our girls go there to make money?)  Candye Kane reminisces about her sweet and genuine childhood friendship with an exotic dancer, while Sadie Lune explores the decadent excitement that comes from self-consciously inhabiting the role of an archetypal whore. Sterry himself reflects on his session with an 82-year-old woman, an encounter he initially dreads but eventually delights in: “I am making this happen. I have such a sense of joy and satisfaction.”

The standout offering, however, is Juliana Piccillo’s “Vice,” an exploration of her relationship with an invasive and needy client that rendered her alternately gratified and repulsed. Piccillo relentlessly mines the conflicting emotions that come with clients who want to play the white knight, a common but relatively undiscussed topic in most sex worker literature. “His fatherly concern co-existed with his hard-on,” she writes. “He left me to reconcile this.” She also admits to coming unintentionally (and practically unwillingly) while working in a job that generally disgusts her, and not wanting to leave in spite of hating the routine—paradoxes that many prostitutes shy away from acknowledging.

Some of these essays barely even explicitly address sex work, particularly those culled from SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation) workshops. The focus is instead on struggles with addiction, particularly clear and affecting memories, and current personal relationships. The inclusion of these selections may be the book’s greatest, albeit most subtle triumph. It serves as an invaluable reminder that hos and rent boys aren’t as prone to filtering their complex lives through the sieve of clients’ orgasms as are the civilians who debate about and condemn them.

Monica Shores is an editor for and regular contributor to $pread magazine. Her writing has appeared also appeared on Boinkology, Popmatters, Alternet, and Feminist Review. More from this author →