We construct personalities based on a few shreds of information and make assumptions that aren’t always justified.
Nowhere is this more true than with sex workers. Prostitutes. Women who sell the use of their bodies to strangers. For money.
They must be desperate or amoral to share intimate moments so indiscriminately in exchange for cash, right?
Not necessarily. Some of them aren’t desperate. Fatima certainly isn’t. She’s not a drug user, she doesn’t have money problems other than student loans she’d like to repay sooner rather than later. She has no pimp, nobody forcing her to do what she does. She’s an independent contractor. A small business owner. And in her mind, what she does is no more amoral than a poet selling his art for money. “I’m just more successful than poets, is all,” she says.
Not only does she not work the streets, she gets to choose her clients. First from their phone conversation, which she does from the apartment she shares with a friend, to which she had a second phone line added. If she’s satisfied potential customers sound serious enough, she arranges to get a second look at them from the safety of her bedroom window.
The system she has in place is not fool-proof but it is ingenious and designed to maximize her autonomy. People who call her after reading her newspaper ads have to engage in minimal conversation with her. At her request because, she says, “guys rehearse their lines and unless you make them talk past their lines you don’t get a sense of who they are.” They usually start by asking how much she charges (between $80 for what we’ll call “a manual” and $200 for an all-inclusive hour) and where she is.
Sometimes they make requests. The most frequent one she gets, by far, is for anal sex. She turns those down flat. “I may be crazy,” she explains, “but I’m not stupid. This sort of thing is how a girl like me gets hurt.” Other requests are less intimidating; for instance some men ask for a particular colour of underwear or whether she’d be willing to wear a school-girl uniform. “I don’t mind that so much provided it’s not unreasonable — I don’t do dog collars — and they bring the costume.”
A few ask bondage questions. Would she let them tie her up (no) or use particular toys (not really unless they are very benign). Some ask her to tie them down, and perhaps abuse them as well — by insulting them or hitting them with a riding crop. “I can do that, no problem. But if you’re asking a small woman like me to be restrained by a strange man, you’re creepy dangerous and you’re lucky I can’t call the cops on you.”
Otherwise, she reserves the right to turn down anyone she doesn’t like, for any reason. When they get past the first conversation she directs potential customers to the street corner beneath her window where there is a phone booth. They are to call her back from that booth within five minutes of the appointed time. They can’t see her, but she can see them. She observes how they walk, whether they look over their shoulder or not, what they look like generally. “In this business,” she says, “you have to learn to trust your gut if you want to make it… and stay alive. Some people, I just don’t like the looks of them. When they call from the phone booth, I don’t answer. Eventually they go away. Usually they’re quite angry. That’s just life, I guess.”
A word to the wise: Anyone who shows up late to the phone booth is rejected out of hand, unless they’re a regular client who’s already demonstrated that he was a decent man who paid well. “People who call a girl for sex aren’t necessarily super organized. It’s not something they plan like a trip to Disney with the kids. They feel the urge, they call, and make an appointment for half an hour from the call. I figure just calling someone like me gets them going, if you know what I mean. They’re not in the mood to wait patiently. So if they’re late, it means they’re some kind of joker and these guys never pay,” she adds with the look of someone who’s learned that lesson the hard way.
Sex work is a lot more complex than some of us imagine. Almost as though making assumptions based on incomplete information was a bad idea.
“I like it,” Sebastian said as he finished reading the draft. “But you know what I’d really like to hear more about?”
“What her clients say to her after they’re done.”
“Just curious, that’s all.”
“It’s probably nothing.”
“No, no, I think it’s important.”
“I mean, they probably don’t say anything once they’re done.”
“Oh,” he scratched his chin a little, “then it’s probably not that interesting.”