David Henry Sterry laughs a lot. He is generous. He is kind. He’s an activist who’s written sixteen books. He used to be a prostitute. He prefers talking on the phone rather than e-mailing or texting. He reworked my query letter while driving his kids to the circus, with their singsong giggling in the background as he compared my memoir to The Wizard of Oz and gave me advice. We have never met.
Sterry’s memoir, Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, sold for six figures one lucky afternoon in 2000 and became an international best seller that was translated into ten languages. Not only is Chicken a heart-punching story about seventeen-year-old Sterry getting sucked into the sex industry while attending a fancy, private high school, it is also about a homeless kid in Hollywood with acting aspirations and negligent parents, digging food out of a trash can to eat. It’s a story that kicks with loneliness, vulnerability, humor, and terror. Chicken doesn’t read like a confession, but sings its redemptive heartbeat.
I expected Sterry to be brittle after reading his stories, but he is everything but. While discussing the publishing industry, words like “Zen” and “karma” came up. “After Chicken happened,” Sterry said, “I swore I would help anyone who asked.” Another rare, beautiful thing about Sterry is that decades after he left the sex industry, he remains dedicated to the stories of sex workers. His first anthology, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex, was featured on the front cover of the Sunday edition of the New York Times Book Review, and his follow-up to that book, Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks: Professionals and Their Clients Writing About Each Other, contains stories by people who have bought and sold sex (including one by me, “The Man I Gave A Handjob in West Hollywood Will Surely Blow His Brains Out Before I See Him Again,” which was snatched up from my blog by Stephen Elliott in 2010 and appeared in a different form on The Rumpus at that time).
In addition to being a writer, Sterry is a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor. He also authored The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published with his ex-agent and current wife, and his novella, Confessions of a Sex Maniac, was a finalist for the Henry Miller Award. He has written books about working at Chippendales Male Strip Club, the teenaged brain, how to throw a great pajama party if you’re a tween girl, a patricidal mama’s boy, and World Cup soccer.
Sterry and I talked on the phone about the deep cultural roots of shame associated with the sex industry and how freeing it can be to bleed out the truth about our lives as buyers and sellers of sex. We discussed the possibility of being loved and the necessity of giving voice to our secrets, even when the probability of being reviled is high—especially because it is so.
The Rumpus: Your first anthology, Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks: Professionals and Their Clients Writing About Each Other, a collection of essays by sex workers and clients, is a follow up anthology to Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex (now in its fifth printing). How did you procure so many essays from clients and sex workers?
David Henry Sterry: When we did Hos and Hookers, it came out of two different avenues I was pursuing. First, I was doing a workshop in [San Francisco] centered on sex workers who had been arrested. Many were former drug addicts and street people. Every Tuesday for two years, we did this workshop. At the same time, I was being introduced into the sex worker artist/activist world because of my book Chicken. I did a one-man show in SF and Annie Sprinkle was in the audience. I was floored she came. Then I toured with the Sex Workers Art Show, where I meet this huge community of people. Hos are good networkers—you have to be. Very generous people in that world.
The two worlds had similarities: educated organizers, artists, and hard workers. And others were high school dropouts. The stories they told were very different. There is a great chasm—the abolitionists and the decriminalizationist. They hate each other. There are five-dollar blowjob-givers and five-thousand-dollar-a-night courtesans who get flown to Dubai in one book. I wanted to create that book. Once we put that book out, it blew up. So, I started a reading series called Sex Worker Literati, every month in NYC. I met a whole other crop of writers. People contacted me bummed that they weren’t included in the first book. So, people came to me after I put the word out and I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have a book of people who sold sex with people who bought sex together in one book?
Rumpus: Why do you think it’s so hard for people to admit they have paid for sex? What does this mean culturally? Emotionally? Personally? I think that in the U.S., there is underlying respect towards anyone who hustles because of the materialistic nature of our culture, but also, historically, women mostly occupy the adult industry, so the current of sexism and disrespect also runs deep.
Sterry: I didn’t realize the enormous stigma attached to the statement to say, “Yes, I hire someone to have sex with me.” Easier to get people to admit they are a “whore” than to get people to admit they hired a whore. So I was looking for those stories.
I posted everywhere. I asked my friends. They were liberals, pro-sex artists, and yet none of them would admit it. I thought, Interesting. Here’s a billion dollar industry with no clients. A few gay men would say it publicly. It’s more accepted in the gay male culture for some reason, maybe because it’s so hard to be gay to begin with, they already are used to taking risk rejection in society to some degree. The worst thing you can say in any culture is “your mother is a whore,” but I agree with you that there is a certain respect for the hustler, somewhat begrudging towards someone who can make a living with their wits and their body.
Rumpus: Isn’t it interesting that early feminism embraced sexual freedoms and birth control, but kind of left sex workers out to rot? And what about the archaic shame that johns have? Should more clients speak out about their positive experiences with sex workers? What effect would this have?
Sterry: There were consciousness-raising groups in my parents’ generation and that empowerment has bled into the sex industry. Whereas you never hear yes, I have this empowered beautiful prostitute who made me cry when she gave me a blowjob and has opened my third eye. The shame surprised me. The only people who were heteronormal men who admitted to hiring pros used fake names. I mean, I am in touch with like 10,000 writers! Hardly any men would say they paid for sex and here’s my real name.
Rumpus: Have you ever paid for sex?
Sterry: Many, many, many times. I spent many years binging on sex. I was a problematic hypersexual. A sex addict. I would structure my days around when I could binge. I would work hard all week as a professional actor and screenwriter in LA and NY, and I would be off at five p.m. on Friday and I would line up a series of dates—some free and some paid for.
Rumpus: What kind of client were you as an ex-sex worker?
Sterry: Because I sold sex first in my life as a young man, I always wanted to be extra nice because I had clients who were mean to me. So, I was a competitive client. I wanted to be clear and nice—the nicest client. I didn’t want them to do a job with me if they were uncomfortable. At the same time, there were certain things I wanted to do and wanted done to me and I would tip nicely.
Rumpus: What types of things did you want from a sex worker?
Sterry: I liked to be more in control and dominating and I liked to have hard sex, not to the point of causing pain, but a little bit rough. So, that’s what I was looking for. I hired people from the top end—Beverly Hills, Park Avenue courtesans—to crack addicts in MacArthur Park and the Bronx. I’d get coked up and go on these benders. What’s interesting is that there are thieves on both ends that are masquerading as sex workers. Then there are beautiful, incredible sexual athletes at both ends. I did find that people at the lower end of the food chain tended to be more physically violent, but also more appreciative, as well.
Rumpus: Have you ever fallen in love or had a crush on a sex worker or a client of yours?
Sterry: I met this woman in the East Village. At twenty paces, she was a gorgeous blonde with a great body, and closer, she was beaten by life. She talked like a chainsaw, was so skinny and scarred. She was sweet, so I picked her up and she took me to her squat in Alphabet City. She was a crackhead, so she wanted to buy some crack first. “Yeah,” I said. “Let’s do some crack.” She smoked and mellowed and she was really into the sex.
So, I asked her, “Do you have any friends that want to join us next week?” Then she wrote my phone number on her wall. She put a star next to my name and I felt so good about that. This beautiful, fallen crack angel, writing my name on her wall with a star.
She called me the next day, and said she had some beautiful girl with her and she wanted a woman to make out with. We had this crazy threesome. I ended up painting her walls in her apartment and we became close friends. She kept saying she wanted a job. She was so nice and so sweet, smart and funny. I hooked her up with a job. All she had to do was walk in the door and she would have a job. I even helped her pick out an outfit. But, she didn’t show up and I didn’t push her after that. I knew she was scared. Then I showed up one day and she was gone.
When I was a rent boy, I also had a big crush on a client who was a tantric sex practitioner. I was so untethered from reality in a certain way, I thought maybe I could just move in with her and be with her and her yoga friends. I wanted to be her son and her lover. I had a kind of love for the crackhead. It was a complicated relationship. I wanted to help her and I wanted to be with her, too.
Rumpus: It’s common for sex workers to leave “the life” and shut the door on their past. You have done the exact opposite. How and why did you end up in the sex industry? How long did you do sex work?
Sterry: I only sold sex for nine months, when I was living in a tiny apartment in Hollywood when I was in college at Immaculate Heart College. I was studying with nuns and focused on existentialism. They had no dorms and I had nowhere to stay and no money. So I wandered on Hollywood Boulevard. At that moment, I was on the streets. This guy had a t-shirt on that said “Sexy” and he asked me out to steak dinner. Of course I went. The steak was drugged, and he sexually assaulted me viciously, and I whacked him with my elbow and escaped. I was seventeen.
There I was at four a.m. on Hollywood Boulevard, where the predators were. I found a dumpster with a container full of fried chicken. A guy watched me and asked me, “Are you hungry? Are you looking for a job?” He was the manager of the chicken place, but also was the procurer of the sex industry in Hollywood at that time. He turned me onto the Hollywood employment agency on Sunset. This place was the most generic office you’ve ever seen in your life. Like, the secretary that worked there was so generic, you forgot her the second you looked at her. The man I met with was like Bob Newhart. The exact opposite of the pimp look—he was like a soft-boiled egg. And his specialty was underaged kids. So, he sent me out on my first job and the manager of the chicken place said if I pissed off the Bob Newhart guy, they would kill me.
The hardest thing about being a male hustler is that there are many things you can fake, but an erection is not one of them. I was very nervous that I would not be able to perform. This woman was very thin and very rich. She was mean. She would lay in a bed like she was in a coma. I was supposed to crawl under the covers and have oral sex with her. She didn’t move a muscle. And then she wanted my eyes closed. She was going to be on top of me. I was very nervous about that part of it. But I managed to do it. I found a mental porn movie. I would get into my personal porn in my head and disappear, and that’s how I was able to perform.
Sunny, my fairy godfather/employment counselor/pimp had me work for a week frying chicken. It’s horrible, miserable, greasy, stink work. After a week he gave me my paycheck. It was so small, it was horrifying. When he offered me real money to have professional sex, only a moron would turn down that money.
Rumpus: Where were your parents at the time? Did they ever read Chicken? What was their reaction to it?
Sterry: My mother had four kids and had just come out as a lesbian. My father had a mental breakdown and could not admit it. My mom was supposed to come live with me in LA but she never showed up. She decided to live in Oregon. I thought I could do all of this myself, which is typical innocent arrogance of a seventeen-year-old. My mother never read my book. My father read my book and didn’t speak to me for five years. He was angry. I never told anyone about my book until I had my deal. So I sent my family a galley of the book thinking they would be proud of me. My father called me, livid. “How dare you?” he said. He was screaming and shouting, completely beside himself.
Rumpus: How did you leave the sex industry?
Sterry: I wanted to stop working. It wasn’t making me happy anymore. The cash was intoxicating, so I couldn’t stop. I was scared. One day my pimp said to me: “I got you this job: it’s not sex, but you show up and smack this guy around and talk dirty to him.” What is sex? If it didn’t involve my genitals it was not sex to me, but it was a sexual exchange. The client was very presumptuous and told me to sit in his lap. He was sucking on my hair. It was revolting. My stomach turned over. I was so angry. All of the anger and rage came out and I beat the shit out of the guy. I thought maybe I killed him.
After that, I could not go back to working for those people. It was like I was a caged animal who lashed out. I hid out and left LA three weeks later. They never found me. I escaped to Oregon to where my mom was living with her lesbian lover. They accepted me back and I went back to school, Reed College for three years, and got my degree.
Rumpus: One thing I have heard a lot from people—from clients to people who are pro-sex and have a liberal view of the sex industry—is that it’s cool to be a stripper or escort as long as you don’t make a “career” out of it. Well, I did make a “career” out of it for twenty-plus years. The great thing about stripping is showing up with an empty gas tank and fifty cents, and leaving with four hundred bucks or more. Why do you think people say that? From where do these comments stem?
Sterry: The underlying assumption is the idea that it’s bad and bad for you. Another assumption is that the end result will not be a positive thing. If you ask a parent about their son or daughter—if they want their kids to be sex workers—they would never say, “Yes, I’d love for my kid to grow up to be a prostitute.” People believe it’s okay to dabble but not to get sucked in too deep. That shame is in our cultural DNA. I have friends who have sold sex, porn stars, strippers, surrogates, and some are very happy making their money doing this and some are looking to get out. The fact is, being a sex worker is a difficult job that is high-risk and high-reward, like my friend who works in the ER. Lots of people would not be able to do that job, or do the job of a firefighter. Not everyone is cut out to run into that building on fire. Sometimes you walk into someone’s life and his or her life is on fire, but you’re built for that job.
Rumpus: I am built for that job. I run through the fire of people’s lives all the time. Sometimes I forget to carry a hose.
Sterry: Important to remember your hose. It’s not for everyone, but for some people, it’s the best part-time job in the world if you are cut out for it. Meaning, you are emotionally and physically equipped to handle it.
Rumpus: Do you ever miss it? Would you ever go back to it? Have your views changed about the sex industry over the years?
Sterry: I was made an offer and I talked about it with my partner, and we discussed it and I decided to not do it. But, I seriously considered it. I never carried any shame about doing sex and getting money for it. The only immoral thing about the sex industry is when there is the lack of choice. That’s slavery. My main ideas about the industry have not changed. I feel sorry for those who try to shame sex workers. I feel bad for them for being an unenlightened, uninformed person.
Rumpus: I am currently heartbroken. Men I have dated seem to love my independence and sexiness, but eventually, they wind up using the fact that I have done sex work as a weapon against me, to hurt me or push me away. Is it a mistake to tell men I date about my history? Will I ever be loved and accepted? Male opinion, please.
Sterry: I never told anyone about myself for twenty years. But all of my secrets ate at me from the inside. Eventually, it consumed me. From the outside, I looked great: I had sold screenplays, I had a red sports car and all the trappings. And I was dying inside. I was married to this beautiful woman who was not very capable of giving love. I hated acting. I was a cog in a machine. My thought process was, Oh, you’re not happy? Buy a bigger TV.
I was a dancing monkey and I hated it. My addictions got bigger and my binges more intense. I found this beautiful woman in Harlem who asked me for a date. She took me to this crack house in Harlem, and her hands were big and her Adam’s apple, huge. In that dump, one crackhead hit me with a pipe and stole my money. Luckily, I come from a long line of hardheaded coalminers. They [the crackheads] all looked funny to me and I started laughing. Soon, we were all laughing. I just walked out.
That was my bottom. I vowed that I was going to tell my true story if anyone asked me and I was never going to hide again. Soon after, I went on a date with this literary agent, who liked a book I wrote, but then I told her my real story that became Chicken: Portrait of a Young Man for Rent. I thought it would make people run from me, but that night, this woman—who was a well-educated, Jewish woman—thought it was so interesting. She told me, “This is the book you should write.” And, I did.
I believe that you telling your story will lead to someone giving you unconditional support and love. Antonia, you will find love.
Photograph of David Henry Sterry © 2004 by Lothian Photography.
Click here to read the first of four interviews by David Henry Sterry with some of the contributing writers from Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks: Professionals and Their Clients Writing About Each Other.