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

by Ethan Paul

Every time the elevator doors opened at The New School dorm building on 15th St & 1st Ave, my olfactory nerves were hit with the scent of dozens of strains of weed. Always a reliable source of debauchery, the 12-story Stuy building served as temporary home for a bunch of art school kids whose Northern star was anything but studying. If the course assignments included intoxication, many of us would have straight A’s. Tonight a few of us freshmen were lubricating our social hour with bong rips and Four Lokos (pre-caffiene exodus), soundtracked by that unfortunate early 2010s artifact of egregious dubstep drops. Even the dubstep would pale in comparison to the lurid shit I had planned for the post-midnight hours. 

Those hazy nights in the East Village took the edge off my vague guilt over the $37,000 a year education I was mostly ignoring. Any anxiety caused by this detour from my goals quickly faded, becoming indiscernible as I daydreamed about my future and entertained delusions of the present. The majority of my classmates were hardly plagued by concerns of stability or comfort, many coddled by a privileged upbringing and newly-available trust funds. My burgeoning substance use served a similar purpose, a novocaine that blunted my creeping feelings of doubt and difference. Though I was by no definition a product of poverty, I lacked the assuredness of many of my peers whose upbringing assuaged any potential concerns of fiscal self-responsibility. In moments like these, though surrounded by other people, my inner narrative was like the hypnotic choruses of so many catchy pop songs, a constant reminder of the fear and sadness in my head, a violent and interminable river of self-criticism. Was fleeing Louisville two weeks after my eighteenth birthday the right choice? Was a decent-paying job going to materialize for me soon? Was I creatively skilled enough to compete with my classmates and would that be enough to make a life for myself? Why was I getting fucked up every night and avoiding the education I wanted to pursue? Was my drug use a problem or just the hallmark of an art school freshman?

But then again, making it here was not so easy or simple. I’d had difficulty finding a job, caught in a Catch-22 of employers who demanded NYC experience but wouldn’t give me a chance to attain it. Applications went unnoticed or declined as my bank account went negative. I was at a loss. As a queer person coming of age in 2010, I fancied myself to be sexually enlightened. I felt that queer sex was a radical act worthy of celebration, an act of joy, a work of art which I performed with love and passion. I believed that sex was inherently beautiful, a transformative dance to be viewed with unwavering positivity. By extension, I saw sex work as an opportunity to support myself and feel powerful as I came of age in circumstances that felt uncertain and lonely. 

I began escorting regularly soon after I moved to the city, at first as a way to make extra money. Soon it became a necessity. So, yet again, I brushed off the heavy gravity of a smoke session to leave my friends so I could make some money. I hugged goodbyes to the others cramped in Brandon’s tiny dorm room, offering a vague explanation of “I’m going to hang out with a friend,” my lack of specificity betraying the supposed sex positivity I’d tried to manifest for myself. This was not missed by Brian, who cast shade onto my departure, his disdain and concern for my activities unspoken much like my plans for the evening. 

It was 10pm and the night was as young as me. I hopped in a cab traveling downtown to Battery Park. After losing myself for a few minutes in a motion blur of yellow, blue, and green city lights, the cab deposited me at a bougie high-rise condo building adjacent to 1 Police Plaza. The proximity did nothing to dispel my plans for the evening. I walked down the drab concrete path past the Italian restaurant downstairs, the gamey scent of sewage and algae from the Hudson River wafting toward my nostrils. Walking through a pair of automatic double doors, I greeted the doorman with a curt hello and took the elevator up several floors. Manhattan doormen are famed for their discretion; this one would not betray any suspicion of my activities whether he was aware of them or not. Somewhere around the tenth floor I exited the elevator and walked briskly down the featureless tan carpeted hallway, one of many similar corridors that would blur and blend in my memory.

Arriving to my destination for the evening, I pressed the ubiquitous black doorbell below my date’s apartment number. After a few expectant seconds he cracked the door a few inches. Recognition softened his eyes and he opened it further to welcome me in. After a few introductory hellos and how are yous, I took my black Diesel tennis shoes off and joined him on the couch. We made small talk, conversing about his television production job in Queens and my less-than enthusiastic studies. Men of this type loved to hear about my education; it made them feel more justified in the evening’s damage to their bank account. This John had found me on the escorting website Rent Boy, which would later meet its demise when SESTA/FOSTA* was signed into law. At the time I was barely legal, thin enough to count my ribs, and still had an air of confidence and carelessness possessed by a person who had not yet experienced the bulk of their trauma. I was a prime cut on this particular meat market. Though my profits and prospects would decrease as my years and substance use grew, for now I was making more money by the hour than I would ever make in my life. The payout was my North star, and on nights like these I endured these old men and their objectification with money always on my mind. It helped that the majority of my clients were kind enough. Most were caring, generous, and even sweet. But despite my efforts to cultivate a sense of empowerment in my logical, conscious mind, each one of these encounters and their aftermath were poisoned with a pulsing sense of shame and disgust for both myself and my suitors. But fueled by the promise of $250 an hour and a couple eightballs of cocaine and the man before me transformed into something bearable, if not a vision of beauty. It was my job to make him feel that way, anyway. 

For now, I looked good on the outside, but my life was a house of cards that grew as high as one of the skyscrapers on every block. Every meal I ate, every train ride, every bundle of dope was paid for by men with more stability, capital, and value than me, though we had similarly plentiful amounts of 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 sounded good, and it made sense to my logical mind, but as I tried harder and harder to fit myself into the enlightened box of sexual liberation, I fell lower and lower into an abyss of depression, drug use, and despondency. Each ad I posted became more and more desperate, and so did each bag of drugs I consumed. My desire to fuck for money as a creative, liberated person quickly collapsed into a series of mechanical steps devoid of happiness and self-respect. Each transactional sex act followed a vector of fuck, cum, money, drugs. Every night I worked filled me with more exhaustion and cynicism and self-hatred. The playful and radiant queerness that impassioned me in early adulthood was melting into a smoldering black wax of loneliness and guilt. It dripped down my body, covering me until I felt like one of the figures at Madame Tussaud’s, lit in a spotlight in settings of glamor, but devoid of motion or life. I knew logically that sex work had the potential for revolutionary empowerment, but I lost sight of my fine print – I missed the prerequisite unwavering sense of love and respect for myself. 

One day I woke up and realized that my life had become a hurricane of self-destruction. In my naivety I believed that I could simply show up to my life each day with an assumption of happiness and success, and that the key to these golden things was free and entitled. I had no understanding of karma, of cause and effect, of sewing and reaping, of working hard and then enjoying the fruits of my labor. I had even less understanding that this work was also necessary on an internal level. I dismissed the singular importance of self-actualization and the central life work of healing from wounds inflicted not only on me but on generations of my ancestors. With so little understanding of who and why I was, I was painfully unprepared for work which demanded an inner garden well tended to. With hindsight it is no surprise that my foray into sex work was ultimately the antithesis of empowering. Instead I opened myself up to harm, abuse, and trauma. I ultimately learned 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 defending yourself from the people and things that wish to take it from you. 

Despite all this, I realize that my years of sex work were 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 (though, like substance use for many people including myself, it eventually overtook my ability to control it). For many queer folks, this is the story from the beginning. We are forced into sex work and sex trafficked at a much higher rate than straight people. For many of us who initially use our own agency in choosing to become sex workers, we engage in it as a means to combat extreme food and housing insecurity or as a means to escape abuse, neglect, or poverty. The sex work industry in Lexington and the rest of the Commonwealth has never been painted with an illusion of glitz or a mythology of glamour afforded to “high class” sex workers who serve millionaire clients in lavish homes or clubs in big cities. But in a stifled and oppressive culture of denial, even those of us who have avoided the dangers of street sex work through the privilege of internet access are under attack. After Congress passed SESTA/FOSTA in 2018, law enforcement agencies closed down many of the big online platforms for advertising sex work, forcing many at-risk queers to return to street sex work instead of advertising their services behind the comfort and safety of a computer screen. 

I know that I am happy and privileged to have found other employment, and let’s be real — I’ve long since aged out of sex work anyway. Despite my assumptions, that life was not for me. But those of us who still depend on sex work are desperately in need of legal protections and are often left without recourse when faced with rape, sexual assault, theft, or customers who don’t disclose sexually-transmitted infections. Those of us who use substances for enjoyment or to socialize or out of necessity need much more robust harm reduction and supportive services. And our brothers, sisters, and siblings who have faced incarceration as a result of their job need our support now and as we fight for abolition. All of these changes necessitate a framework of compassion as we uplift each other and encourage young queer folks to have respect and love for themselves and a sense of stewardship and knowledge regarding our bodies and health. 

For resources or support, check out the Sex Workers Outreach Project at or this list of resources:

*2018’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Against Online Sex Trafficking Act.