Sex Work and the City: Follow the ‘rules’ and avoid the common narrative of getting strung out

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by Ethan Paul
they/them
contact@queerkentucky.com

There I was again, leaving a group of art school kids behind to go make some money. At age 18 I fled the lush and lurid forests of Kentucky, trading them for the most urban of all the urban jungles. New York City always had a narcotic appeal for me, and just like the infinite chemicals I put into my body, I would do anything for it.

So when I got out of that cab on Avenue A, I knew I’d fuck to live there if I had to. The euphemistic way to describe my career was “escorting” or “sex work” and just as sneakily as those euphemisms I left my friends behind in the dorm room on 15th & 1st after an exchange of furtive glances. It was 10pm and the night was as young as me. I hopped in a cab traveling downtown to a bougie condo building next to 1 Police Plaza. The piggy proximity did nothing to dispel my plans for the evening. I took the elevator up several floors and met my job for the night at his door. 

There is a law of tricking that held true for me, at least — there are 100 ugly Johns for every attractive one. And tonight was not my lucky night. But fueled by the promise of $250 an hour and a couple eight balls of cocaine and the man before me transformed into the most beautiful man in the world. So he thought anyway. 

Before I ever set foot in my first class at my $20,000-per-semester college, I was already living the sex-positive NYC escort dream. It was 2010, in the golden age of the twink, and my slender frame and dark brown eyes appealed to the type of dude who had enough money to buy sex but not enough looks to get it for free. (Besides, who ever said that twinks have to be blonde?) I was boundlessly energetic (with or without the blow), 10x too arrogant, and hopelessly naïve.

My newfound life was hedonism 24 hours a day, and for awhile I loved it. Only a few years later I’d lost that spark, no longer fucking without consequence but sucking dick to get a fix. I went from breathing in life’s beauty to gasping for air. When your trick in a midtown apartment , it’s telling you to go join AA, it’s time to pack up and go home. 

I looked good on the outside but my life was a house of cards. Every meal I ate, every train ride, every bundle of dope was paid for by men with more stability than me — and at least as much delusion. Sex positive: “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, encouraging sexual pleasure and experimentation.”

That sure sounded good, but as I tried harder and harder to fit myself into a box of carefree sexual liberation I fell lower and lower into an abyss of depression, drug use, and despondency. Each Craigslist ad I posted became more and more desperate. I no longer wanted to fuck for money as a creative, sexual being; I was forced to trick so I could get my next bag of anesthetic. My queerness was once filled with joyful sexual experimentation and free love but now was withered into loneliness and guilt. I knew logically that sex work was nothing to be ashamed of, but I lost sight of the fine print — I was now locked into a very much non-consensual cycle of self-destruction. 

My foray into sex work was ultimately quashed by my own undeveloped sense of self-worth, self-love, and self-esteem. The lesson I learned (and one that I hope all young queers take to heart) is that our external liberation is dependent on our internal liberation; before you share your beauty with the world you must be assured of it, and capable of mentoring yourself. 

I realize that my years of tricking were (at least at first) fraught with privilege. I, unlike many other queer folks, initially made a choice to engage in sex work on my terms, online and off the streets. Queer folks are forced into sex work at a higher rate than straight people, many of us tricking as a way to stave off food and housing insecurity or as a means to escape an abusive home life. The sex work industry in Lexington and the rest of the Commonwealth retains little of the glitz or glamour afforded to high class escorts working for millionaire clients in big cities.

After Congress passed SESTA/FOSTA in 2018, law enforcement agencies closed down many of the big online platforms for selling sex, forcing many at-risk queers to return to tricking on the street instead of advertising their services behind the comfort and safety of a computer screen. I am glad to have found other employment, and let’s be real — I’ve long since aged out of sex work anyway. For some queers retirement is not an option.

I hope that stories like mine can encourage us to be more caring of sex workers in our community. We need better legal protections for sex workers who are often left without recourse when faced with sexual assault, theft, or customers who don’t disclose STIs. We need more robust harm reduction and supportive services for sex workers who use drugs or face incarceration. As always, I believe that much of the most important change should come from within our community, by raising young queer folks to have respect and love for themselves and each others’ bodies and health. 

For resources or support, check out the Sex Workers Outreach Project at https://swopusa.org or this list of resources: Sex Work Resources

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