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Paying to Play: Interview with a John

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To use a tennis analogy, I played all four corners in an attempt to interview clients. I hit up escort friends of mine with long-terms regulars, old clients who were articulate and thoughtful and guys I’d never met who had contacted me with sex work-related questions. I figured the client viewpoint—the missing piece, would be easy to obtain. After all, I’d had many a deep and intimate conversation with clients about sex workers and the negative way that clients were viewed in our culture. They openly shared their feelings about paying for it—what it meant culturally and what it felt like in the context of their lives. Men who thought of themselves as powerful came to me stripped of their routine status and its burdensome accessories. They wanted to tell their secrets. They’d crawled up my stairs in marabou slippers and a pink spandex thong, glided around my pole in the living room. They wanted to share their innermost desires and act them out. But, when I sent along my questions, I was met with silence.

I guess I was supposed to disappear in a puff of stripper-smoke. I guess they were put off by my confrontational, searing inquiries. It was one thing to tell me stories about their cancer-stricken wives and college-bound daughters while I listened in a fishnet bra by the paid hour. It was another to type their story in print. I was told my questions were too “hard.” The irony is not lost on me. I’d nearly given up when Max finally responded. He agreed to do the interview if it were 100% anonymous. I thought of the NY broker wearing my dress in my living room, red-faced and trembling with terror at the thought of giving up control. I remembered telling him “Stand up.” I held his damp chin in my gloved hand and said to him, “You’re safe here.” This was one of those moments. Max’s gentle courage was by turns surprising and tender as he flipped from sex worker to client. I was inspired by his vulnerability. I hope you are too.

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The Rumpus: Growing up, what messages did you receive from your family about sex workers?

Max: Even though my home town is known for vices of various kinds, I can’t say I was ever aware of sex work going on in the 70’s, other than seeing strip clubs from the outside. I certainly never saw any prostitutes, or if I did, I didn’t know that’s what they were doing. My father was a sailor and spent long periods of time stationed overseas, and in recent years I’ve learned that he used to have relationships with women when he was stationed there, some of which involved financial arrangements. Some day I hope to get up the nerve to ask him more about it.

Rumpus: What impression did you have of strippers? What impression did you have about John’s? What about the messages you received about sex workers from your peers, neighborhood and your culture?

Max: There was a famous club in the red light district where I grew up which was owned by an old burlesque performer, and you could see old black and white pictures of her on the marquee outside. I guess I didn’t really find it sexy at all, the elaborate costumes, the big hair, the exaggerated physiques and mannerisms. Mind you, I was a teenage boy and it was the 70′s and so my tastes reflected my age and the era…I was hotter for Tatum O’Neal than some buxom older woman with a big hairdo.

Rumpus: I was more of a Kristy McNichol fan: her mole, her butch-y baseball shirts and her effortless toughness slayed me in Little Darlings.

Max: OH MY GOD KRISTY MCNICHOL! And Jodie Foster and Linda Blair.

Rumpus: What were your early sexual experiences? Did porn have a starring role? What were your first experiences like with sex workers?

Max: My dad started letting me read porno mags when I was 12. Mostly stuff like Hustler. That’s when my inner sex life took off. In the 70′s and early 80′s, video porn wasn’t really available. Phone sex lines hadn’t been invented yet, so magazines were the primary wank- material. My early sex life was pretty typical for a teenage boy, involving tons of masturbation and trying to (and eventually succeeding in) sleeping with lots and lots of women.

My first experience with sex work, I was the one who got paid. I was working summers when I was 19 and 20 at a sign-makers shop. It was a family-owned business, and the most senior employee was a very overweight, very effeminate guy named Ralph who was known for trying to instigate inappropriate relationships with all the young guys in the shop, most of whom just laughed at him. Ralph was my direct supervisor, and one summer he wrote me a pretty pornographic letter about all the things he wanted to do to me. It was the early 80′s, I was very young, I wasn’t a homophobe but gay sex seemed pretty icky to me, and my first reaction was anger. To my shame, I reported him to the owner.

And then the following summer, I wanted some money to buy something (some really cool mod boots that I would never be able to afford on my own) and I thought I could use his lust against him. He came to work way earlier than everybody else, so I showed up early too and told him I could do some of those things for money. I suggested that we swap blowjobs for $70, and he thought that was crazy expensive. I told him to “Take it or leave it.” I thought that by making him blow me that it somehow made me less gay, because I wasn’t only servicing him. I was getting something out of it. So I sucked him off, tried to mostly use my hand instead of my mouth, didn’t let him come in my mouth, tried to do as little as possible, and then we ran out of time before I could get him to reciprocate.

Rumpus: With any other job, it would be “working an extra shift” the doing more in order to buy shoes or pay for a vacation, but you’re also talking about another aspect of sex work: The part where one crosses lines drawn in the sand. At several points, I had disdain for certain acts, but when I felt trapped or needed rent or wanted those shoes, I crossed those self-imposed boundaries. The result was unexpected: It made me feel a stubborn and unspoken alliance with women I’d previously judged.  But it also felt like a relapse of sorts.

Max: Yeah, you go into this with a list of things you’ll never do. Lines you’ll never cross. You’ll never get a blowjob without a condom (until you find out how uncommon covered blowjobs are, and well, that’s an easy temptation to give in to.) You’ll never see a girl who’s being coerced by a pimp, and then you find out that, well, you’ve been doing it, and now what? Try harder to screen people? You’ll never see a girl who’s got a bad drug habit, but then you run into one, and now what? That list of things you’d never do becomes the list of things you’ve done.

Rumpus: I found that the acts get easier to do, never harder. It gets harder to stop doing them. Like when dancing in New Orleans, it was never “necessary” or expected to do hand jobs in the clubs where I stripped. During that same time, in LA, I worked at a hand job parlor.

Max: That’s very true. But it’s true about sex acts in general, not just pay-for-play ones.

Rumpus: You’re leading me into deep waters where there was something thrilling and frightening about sleeping with someone I swore I wouldn’t ever fuck. Then, while working, there was something freeing and incredibly lonesome about being desired by someone who wasn’t invested in me at all.

Max: There were years I spent in an unsatisfying marriage that I felt crushingly lonely. My self-esteem took a lot of blows and the way I dealt with it was I drank too much, gained weight, and I pretty much felt like I was an enormous sweaty unlovable loser who was doomed to a life of no compassionate skin contact. I watched a ton of porn. My sex life and my love life were Porn and Astroglide. At that time, I’d never been to a strip club. I didn’t know how they worked. I didn’t know that sex went on in clubs; I thought it was kind of like going to a restaurant where you were allowed to look at the food but not eat it. And I was too hungry for that kind of torment.

I tried meeting women on the Internet, but fat, drunk and married does not exactly make for a compelling personals ad. And then one day, about ten years ago, I ran across a personals posting that was clearly an ad from an escort. And I was like, “Escorts? On the Internet? You can do that?” I searched around a lot, researching, eventually finding the web discussion forums where escorts and customers interact, where escorts advertise, where customers post reviews of women and warnings about rip-offs or dangerous situations, and after about a year of getting my nerve up, I made an appointment with a woman named Amy. The session (I hate the word “session.” It sounds so clinical, but I don’t know what else you call them, they’re not “dates”) was weird. She smoked, which I didn’t like. She was really sweet, very friendly and she knew it was my first time. And it’s hard to judge from pictures on an Internet ad, but she wasn’t the type of woman I would date. We didn’t have a lot in common to talk about, music or books or movies or whatever. It was like Patton Oswalt on a date with Suzanne Somers or something. At some point, there’s not really a whole lot to say, so you’re not left with anything but the sex. And the sex was not great.

Still, there’s something thrilling to going from feeling utterly alone and unlovable to realizing that all these women with all these pictures in all these ads, you can be with any one of them, at least for one hour, and pretend. And all you need is money. It’s not a replacement for love— it pales in comparison to a real loving relationship with somebody who you are sexually compatible with, but it sure as fuck beats being alone and feeling untouchable.

Rumpus: What do you think Amy’s experience of you was in that moment? Or any of the women you hired?

Max: The positive experiences (and the vast majority were positive), I want to think that they enjoyed my company. That maybe I was more fun than the typical customer. I want to think this. Maybe sometimes it was true. Maybe sometimes they were just good at convincing me it was true.

Rumpus: Tell me about your most positive and negative experiences you had with hiring women for sex acts/entertainment/ lap dances.

Max: The most positive experiences were always ones where there was a real emotional connection, where the sex part of the relationship took a back seat to just talking.

I remember one night going to a strip club. It was late on a Friday night, and I hate Fridays in clubs. It’s always really crowded and loud, everybody’s drunk, there are frat boys and bachelor parties, the girls are all making tons of money and you can’t really talk to anybody. But I was bored, and lonely, so I went, and this dancer that I had not seen in a year or two recognized me across the room and ran up and practically jumped in my lap. We were both sober by this point in our lives, and we just talked. For four hours. She was sick of the business— didn’t feel like working, I didn’t really want a lap dance anyway, and we just sat and talked until the club closed at 4am (about marriage and boyfriends and school and careers and music and life). It was just nice. Especially when you’re a socially awkward guy who has trouble talking to people and meeting people, you don’t drink any more so your old social life is dead, being able to sit and have an intense conversation with a really pretty girl all night is a precious thing. And there was really no other way I could see that ever happening. I couldn’t talk that way with my wife any more. I didn’t have any friends. I couldn’t meet a “civilian” girl somewhere, because I was married and unavailable. This was what I had, this was a rare moment, and I took it.

Rumpus: That reminds me of good nights I’ve had in clubs on Bourbon Street. During the Occupy movement, I remember sitting at a table with a group of guys discussing politics and education—just having a brilliant conversation for hours and enjoying that I was sober and sane and speaking to smart, engaging guys from various states with letters after their names. They paid me for some dances but it was secondary to the fun discourse at the table.

Max: The negative experiences were usually when I found myself in a situation where I felt I was doing something wrong, dangerous or exploitative. I think my situation is not uncommon, and I think most of us do not want to hurt anybody. Not wanting to participate in anything that’s harmful, that’s wrong, that’s cruel. But like a lot of other industries, both black-market ones like drugs or gambling and legit industries like food processing or farming, there are abuses. And so you go into it navigating through the abuses.

You’re in this for a connection. Physical—but also emotional. And a shadow of the dark side of sex work kind of hovers around in the background.

It’s like with drug use. You just smoke pot once in a while, and then one day you find yourself buying a little more weight, from a guy who’s got a gun in his car, and you realize there is this whole other big scary reality behind the little bit that you can see.

Rumpus: Yeah, both can be hiding places and places of refuge. I often met professional gamblers and people who led subversive lives who preferred the company of sex workers because it was familiar and safe for them. And there is danger lurking due to the fact we aren’t protected by law enforcement but criminalized and scorned. I often found myself with people where something could easily go array.

Max: And so the bad experiences were ones where I saw someone based on an ad and some email conversations, and then when I met her, she clearly had a drug problem. Or there was evidence she was being “managed” (pimp). I had met one woman a couple of times at her apartment, she was funny and we got along well, and then I saw her a year later and she had a black eye and was pleading for an extra $40, offering things like sex without a condom for a little extra money. And it’s a difficult situation to know how to handle. You can’t just take your money and walk out, because if there really is a pimp you think he’s either going to meet you at your car to extract the cash, or he’s going to take it out on her in ways that make you sick to imagine. And so you maybe go through with it, get it over-with, leave the money and go and never come back.

Rumpus: What is the thing you are most ashamed of? Afraid to tell me?

Max: I think the thing I am most ashamed of is that I’ve been to Asian massage parlors. These are places with women who are very recent immigrants from China and Southeast Asia, and for a fixed door fee you can get a massage, and for a fixed “tip” you can have sex. On the one hand, it’s convenient; it’s cheaper than a typical escort and you don’t have to make an appointment in advance or have your references screened by the woman. You just show up. On the other hand, the sex is often not that great.

And call me naive, but what I discovered after a couple of trips to these places is that many of these women are victims of sex trafficking. They’re imported into the country under the ruse of getting a good American job, and then their handlers make them work off their exorbitant “travel fees” in the sex spas before they are cut loose. And even after they work off their debt, often they just return to the sex industry, because they lack skills, they lack a verifiable work history, they don’t speak very good English, and the sex work is what they know and it becomes, in a way, easy money.

Thing is, they are not glassy-eyed robot slaves sobbing under their oppressor like you see in movies about this kind of thing. They’re funny, they’re charming, they’re nice to you. And they’re very much in control as far as the sex goes: they set fierce limits about what is and is not allowed, and are usually much stricter about condom use for every act than regular escorts.

Rumpus: But it’s not consensual. It’s coercion. It’s sex slavery.

Max: And I felt very remorseful when I learned this.

And then I did it again.

I want to tell you about one of one of the best escort relationships I had which was also the most heart wrenching. It was with a woman who I clicked with right away. What I mean is: Our interests, our sense of humor, our musical tastes. We became friends. But she was a recently sober addict and was still having some trouble getting her life back together. Some things happened that resulted in her getting a 24-hour eviction notice from her landlord, and we texted about it that night, and then…I stepped back a little. I was afraid I was getting into something over my head. I sometimes have a problem with compulsively wanting to save broken people, and this compulsion gets me into trouble, and I recognized I was starting to do it again. A few hours after we texted, she killed herself.

She was a secret. Nobody knew that I knew her. I didn’t know her family or friends. I didn’t know if they knew what she did. My family and friends and girlfriend certainly didn’t know she existed. So I had to grieve for a dead friend secretly and I had to question in private, without anybody to talk to, whether I had failed her as a friend in her hour of need. It was around the time that all those dead sex workers were turning up in New York and the police had not really been investigating, because they’re just hookers, they’re just disposable women, who cares, right? And I wondered if I was doing the same to her in a way.

I looked up her address in the local police department’s crime website, just to see the police report. “Deceased person” is all there was. I found her obituary online and sent a contribution to her funeral fund, through PayPal, and a few days later I saw somebody from her hometown finding my blog by Googling my name, so I guess they wondered whom the fuck I was. She was very beautiful and very sweet and I’m still sad.

Rumpus: Do you think that any of the women you hired felt degraded or exploited? Did you? Do you think the women you hired considered themselves feminists? Do you think they considered themselves victims?

Max: Other than the women in the massage parlors I visited, I honestly don’t believe that most of the women doing this felt degraded. The ones that were escorts who didn’t have pimps, didn’t have drug problems, and weren’t trafficked, I honestly believe that they chose their profession about as much as any of us choose our profession. I don’t think they feel any more exploited than all of us workers feel exploited. We all have to work to live, and most of us would rather be doing something else.

Many years after my first blowjob-for-money experience, I went through a bi-curious phase and I guess I have to say now that I’m really a bisexual who leans hetero. Speaking only for myself, if my only two choices were becoming a warehouse picker for Amazon for $10 an hour, or sucking dicks ten times a day for $50 bucks a pop, I’d buy me some kneepads. Somebody can point to, say, a fellatio porn scene where the guy is rough on the girl and calls her names, and say that it’s inherently degrading, and my argument would be that it’s only inherently degrading if the girl doesn’t want to do it. I mean, I’ve had it done to me. I thought it was a blast. And I didn’t even get paid.

I really don’t know whether they considered themselves feminists. Do people even talk that way, outside of literary and political forums? We didn’t talk about it, specifically, although I imagine many of them did, and some of them didn’t, for the same reasons that non-sex workers do or do not.

Rumpus: What did you get out of your experiences with sex workers? How did you feel afterwards?

Max: Seeing women for money, made me a little less sad. It was a brief respite from loneliness, from my skin being hungry for human touch the way a drowning person is starving for oxygen.

Rumpus: Beautifully said. You basically summarized the book I’ve been writing for three years.

Max: Afterwards, it was a really nice feeling. Sometimes there was guilt. Sometimes there was fear of disease, especially if I slipped and did something that was not 100% safe. I got a sore throat, or a zit in a weird place, and there was a voice in the back of my mind saying, “See? You’re a diseased sex maniac and now you’re getting what you deserve.”

After I got sober and lost weight and got some of my self-esteem back, the attraction of these relationships was the implicit agreement about non-commitment. I was unavailable for a long-term relationship. When I got involved with a non-professional, feelings would develop, things would go too far, and eventually somebody, usually both of us, would get hurt.

The money changing hands is a way of saying, “This money symbolizes our agreement that this is temporary, a fantasy, it’s just pretend, and at the end of the hour we go our separate ways. Now c’mere and let’s pretend!”

There’s a saying, which I think is kind of crass-sounding, that “You aren’t paying for the sex, you’re paying for her to go away afterwards.” But it’s true in a way, and the agreement goes both ways. By paying, you are agreeing that the hour is all you get, is all you are entitled to. In some ways, this is preferable to one-nighters and hookups and short-term affairs, when even if there is agreement to not get attached, inevitably somebody might anyways, and then there may be resentments and long-lasting emotional consequences to deal with.

Rumpus: If you think sex work is humiliating, how is sex work more humiliating than, say, working at Wal-Mart?

Max: I don’t think sex work is humiliating in and of itself, I think society makes it humiliating. You want humiliating? Try cleaning vomit-filled toilets in a frat bar on a Friday night. Try mopping floors for a person who spent more on their car than you will earn all year. Try being lectured in public by a man ten years younger than you because you poured his wine wrong.

Next time you’re in a fast food drive-thru at 2am on the way home from some bar, look through the window at the people in the kitchen, see how they are spending their Friday nights for minimum wage, and think about humiliation. Read about chicken-processing plants, Amazon warehouses. There are a million humiliating ways to make a living in this capitalist world we live in. At least escorting takes place in private.

Rumpus: Why do you think people react so strongly against sex work?

Max: It’s a combination of things.

First is the conflating of the worst abuses of sex work with all of sex work. A drug addicted single mom being pimped and beaten and coerced to walk the streets is a horrific and inhumane thing, but it’s the extreme end of the scale. It’s not inherent to sex work that it be done that way, any more than it’s inherent to casual drug use that drug cartels have to leave dozens of beheaded bodies by the side of the road every week. Otherwise everybody who laughed about smoking up on 4/20 has an awful lot of blood on their hands.

Also, people react very strongly against sex— or at least against sex done in a way that they disapprove of. People are going to say that sex work was created by the patriarchy, to serve the patriarchy, that it commodities women, treats them as objects to be bought and sold. I don’t agree. To believe that, you have to believe that all of these women lack agency, lack any will at all. That’s not been my experience. I’ve never “bought” a woman, any more than I’ve “bought” a guy to mow my lawn or “bought” a barista to make coffee.

Rumpus: Why do you think our culture is so invested in seeing sex workers as broken and hopeless? Why do you think our culture condemns men who hire women for entertainment?

Max: Well, I mean, half the culture condemns all of us for even having any sex at all outside a marriage between a man and a woman. It’s easier, when confronted with behaviors or social issues that you don’t approve of, to extend your opinion about the act to a judgment about the person. Sex workers are broken women the way drug addicts lack willpower, the poor don’t have a work ethic, the homeless are bipolar drunks, women who want birth control and abortions are sluts, students studying the liberal arts are spoiled hipster narcissists, and men who hire sex workers or go to strip clubs are losers who can’t get a date or misogynists with a straight white male sense of entitlement.

Rumpus: What in our past provokes us to feel shame about sex, to recoil from these conversations and to be honest with ourselves about what type of intimacy we seek?

Max: I go through life with an intense fear of being judged, found wanting, rejected, and left to die alone. Not just about sex work, or sex, but about everything. I know I’m not alone in this. And so when society condemns a thing, it’s natural to want to keep it a secret, or to seek out communities of like-minded people so you can feel normal. It’s why drunks hang with other drunks, and why recovering alcoholics hang with other recovering alcoholics. Nobody wants to feel like an outcast.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there is growing acceptance in some areas, like The Rumpus, like in the Bay Area, for sex workers. There seems to be solidarity and a reclaiming of this identity, to try to turn it into something noble and strong and creative— to drag it out of the shadows. There is less of an effort to do so with the customers. The Johns. Whatever advances for acceptance are gained by sex workers, I feel like the customers will always be seen as losers. Despite the fact that there are probably more sex worker customers than there are sex workers, we live in more of a closet than they do.

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Photographs by Marc McAndrews.


Antonia Crane is a writer, teacher and performer in Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir SPENT by Barnacle Books/Rare Bird Lit. Her other work can be found in Playboy, Dame Magazine, Salon, PANK magazine, Black Clock, The Believer, Frequencies, Slake, The Los Angeles Review The New Black, and lots of other places. She can be found running up Griffith Park mountain and here: http://antoniacrane.com. More from this author →