My modern version of prostitution was fun, easy and body-positive—until it wasn’t.
I woke up, still drunk, on a thrifted couch in a punk-house living room. Aaron and I shook off the sleep in the shower and when he touched me, I felt like vomiting. He always wanted sex. I always had sex, but rarely wanted it.
“Aaron, cut it out.”
“Come on, Emily. It’s been a week.”
I submitted and fell to my knees, praying for him to finish before my jaw locked. It was a workday and, as usual, Aaron was robbing me of the sexual energy I was saving for my johns.
I finally swallowed and stood up, bruised from kneeling in the empty tub. I dried myself with someone’s damp, mildew-y towel and brushed my teeth with a spare toothbrush. Aaron’s five-year-old son, Leo, tapped on the door. He was something out of a fairytale – a radiant woodland creature whose innocence disturbed me.
“Papa, I’m hungry.”
Aaron left the bathroom to fry thick-cut bacon for Leo. I locked the door and spit blood in the sink. My reflection disturbed me. There were silver-dollar pockets beneath my eyes and my cheeks had puffer-fished with beer bloat. I applied mascara and eyeliner that I had stolen from Walgreens, buttoned up the pink shirt I’d worn every day that week, slid into blue jeans borrowed from a friend, and strapped on high heels from the Salvation Army. At noon, Aaron drove me to Bloomington’s Super 8 in our broken blue station wagon as Leo mumbled about hemlock and Inuits from the backseat.
Outside of the motel, Leo pointed to the pool and begged me to take him swimming. He thought I was a lifeguard and I didn’t have the heart to correct him, so I told him I was sorry, but the pool was closed for the season.
Aaron parked by the dumpsters on the side of the building and kissed me on the cheek.
“Bye, Emily! We see you soon,” Leo said. I ignored him.
I stumbled across the gravel walkway to the main office. A bell dinged when I opened the door, but the receptionist didn’t greet me. There was an unspoken agreement between us. If she didn’t look at me, she wouldn’t have to acknowledge that she knew what I was doing – that I would be checking out in two hours with smeared makeup and disheveled hair.
I placed my elbows on the counter.
“A single room, please. One night.”
I gave her $59 in cash, she gave me a key, and I turned left at the desk, holding my breath to fend off the smell of stale booze and cigarettes. Room 57. I turned on the lights and stripped down to my thrifted lingerie and heels.
Professor Mike knocked at 1:15. He was a theater instructor at the nearby university who insisted I use the “professor” part of his name. He was squirmy like a ferret and always showered before saying anything more than “hello.” I held my breath when the water stopped running, afraid he would spring from the bathroom and stab me.
Professor Mike was one of many johns with pedophilic tendencies. He loved that I was nineteen. He called me his “sweet baby.” During our sessions, he rapidly oscillated between porn star and protective father mode, pulling and then smoothing my hair, kissing and then biting my neck. He called himself a prostitute connoisseur – a title born from his inability to sleep with blonde college students – and prided himself on his knowledge of sex work etiquette. He knew how to tip. He knew when to check the clock. He knew to set the money on the table. He knew how he wanted me to suck his cock. Professor Mike took the full ninety minutes and countless repetitions of “yeah baby, cum for me” to orgasm. When he finally did, he spasmed like a water mammal.
When our session ended, I returned the key to the front desk, the shame sitting on my tongue like morning breath.
Aaron was parked by the dumpsters again, smiling from the front seat of the station wagon. He leaned in for the type of kiss I’d charge fifty dollars for. I blocked his lips with my hand and told him to take me to the liquor store. It was time, once again, to transform.
* * *
I didn’t always hate prostitution. It started as an exercise in reclaiming power over my body, giving me the role of puppet master and casting johns as my paying audience.
Aaron shattered this fantasy.
I met Aaron, whose name like Leo’s has been changed here to protect his privacy, in Bloomington, Indiana, two months before I turned nineteen. My brother had recently been declared a missing person, having run from the boarding school he was sent to against his will. I was accused of helping him escape. I dropped out of Hampshire College in December and moved back to Chicago to live with my parents, whose suspicions about me continued to build. In early January, my computer disappeared from my bedroom. One night when my mother fell asleep, I packed my hiking bag, stole a handful of bills from my father’s wallet, and wrote a goodbye letter on my walls in black chalkboard paint. It was my turn to run away.
I was loosely homeless for nine months. Before meeting Aaron, I moved from a friend’s bed in Hyde Park to an anarchist squat in Logan Square, then back to Hyde Park, where I housesat a friend’s condo while he was in Israel.
In mid-January, I accompanied a roommate from the squat to Bloomington, where we stayed with fellow anarchists at a house called Gangsta’s Paradise. I noticed Aaron from across the room at a dumpster-dived dinner party on the first night. He was tall, athletic, and slightly clueless – a younger replica of my father. I asked a friend about him. She said Aaron was 28, only ate meat, and had a five-year-old son. He was six feet and three inches of bad news.
That night, Aaron and I had sex on the pull-out couch while our friends were on the floor a few feet away. I woke up to his shirtless torso pressed against me. I wanted to kiss and uppercut him simultaneously, but chose to override the latter urge in favor of potential protection. He was a Clyde in need of a Bonnie. I was a child in need of a daddy.
I remained motherless until I met a 23-year-old lesbian who I’ll call Beth. We introduced ourselves on the porch of Gangsta’s Paradise, where she supported her whiskey-drunk self on the railing with one hand and scissored a cigarette with the other. She was wearing a fanny pack around her beer belly and had tucked her dread mullet into a neon strapback hat. When I asked her what she did for a living, she told me she had sex with men for money.
“Is it hard?”
“Nah. I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s good money, man.”
She stuck her tongue in my mouth and we later had sex at her house – another punk house on the same block – while Aaron slept on a mattress in her basement. When we finished, I joined Aaron in his sleeping bag, drunk and turned off, but too passive to tell him that I wasn’t in the mood for blowjobs. This pattern continued for months. My evenings started in Beth’s bedroom, getting head that I didn’t want, and ended in Aaron’s crotch, giving head that I didn’t offer. Eventually, Beth grew attached and began crying to me after sex. She said she loved me. She begged me not to leave her bed. She said that if I left, it meant I didn’t love her back.
Of course I loved her. She was one half of my adopted family.
* * *
I began prostituting in Chicago a few weeks later under the pretense of monetary desperation. The truth was far more Freudian. Since leaving home, I had given my body to anyone who expressed interest in it, desperate for safety and validation – for something to prove that I was alive and worth being with. Sex work felt like a natural next step.
I stuck strictly to fetish work for the first few months. I sold a pair of underwear to a man in a Blockbuster parking lot, hiding an open switchblade in my sleeve. I sold my second pair of underwear at an intersection near my parents’ house, my little brother and his friend waiting in the backseat of my car. I burned a man’s feet with cigarettes. I spit in the face of an advertising executive. I peed in a cup for a man who said he would drink me with a cigar.
Sex work in Chicago felt glamorous. Johns took me to upscale hotels, bought me dinner, and gave me wine, weed and compliments. They respected my boundaries.
Indiana was a different story.
When my relationship with Aaron intensified, I agreed to join him in Bloomington, despite the fact that he was homeless and mostly transient. I found Craigslist jobs immediately, both to support us and because I was chained to the rush of whoring. It was dirty. It was dangerous. When I got stuck in a dissociative muck, prostitution woke me up.
Indiana men were grimy, they were fat, they smelled awful, and they were selfish. They didn’t take me to upscale hotels or offer me wine or respect my limitations. They pushed for penetrative sex, ass slapping, anal and facials.
One of the Indiana men showed me the extent of my powerlessness. He was a Craigslist find who said he wanted a blowjob in his truck. Aaron walked with me from Gangsta’s Paradise to the Kohl’s parking lot across the train tracks. We arrived early in order for him to tag the resting freight train with paint markers. When the white truck pulled up, Aaron hung back, watching me wobble across the parking lot in my strappy heels. The man got out and said we were going in the store – that he wanted to buy me a lacy white bra. He was probably sixty years old. Probably invested in a fantasy of taking his daughter bra shopping. Probably more turned on by my childlike breasts than he wanted to admit. I shook in the checkout lane, hoping the cashier would notice my discomfort and save me.
When we left Kohl’s, the man brought me back to his truck and told me to get in. Once I complied, he turned the key and took off, announcing that we were going back to his house instead of staying in the parking lot. I said nothing. He unzipped his pants and placed his hand on the back of my head. I took a final look at Aaron, who was still sitting by the train tracks. Was he smiling? Did he wave goodbye? Was he worried? The man pushed my head towards his lap and told me that from then on, I should call him “daddy.”
* * *
With Aaron’s permission, Beth and I began working together that spring, deciding that we would be safer and more successful as a team. I was a Craigslist hustler. She was a sexual chameleon. Before jobs, we laid on the bed at the Super 8 and laughed about the fluids we were probably rolling in. Beth drew pictures of me and I counted money, splaying the bills out on the floral comforter and grinning. We joked about previous johns, like the one whose cum shot three feet in the air, causing us to press our lips together to stifle the sound of our laughter. I sometimes pranced around in Beth’s long black wig, blowing kisses to the mirror and pressing my childlike breasts together, lost in a daydream of stripping instead of having sex for money. I liked being someone else, concealed beneath thick, synthetic hair. If I was someone else, my real self could hover above the body that was licked and kissed and groped and broken. While johns molded me like Jell-O, I composed mental grocery lists, planned shoplifting trips, and played dead.
Aaron picked us up when we were done and we spent the remainder of our evenings getting drunk and high and telling stories from the day, trying to attach humor to them. I needed to make sex work sound easy and rewarding. I played the feminist card, desperately attempting to convince myself that prostitution gave me power over myself and my body. I was my own boss. I had no pimp. I was strong and in charge and if I worked at McDonald’s or Starbucks, I would still be metaphorically whoring myself, but for $290 less per hour. I told myself I was special. I cherished my secret – it created distance between me and the people I found threatening. I was powerful. I was in control. I owned my own real estate.
Beth broke my heart that summer. She had one rule when we were working together: she could eat me out, but not the other way around. I figured it was trauma-related – she, like me, was a rape victim – so I respected it. But then we had a customer who demanded it, pushing my head towards her spread legs. I glanced up at Beth, panicking. She was silent. I went for it. After the session, she yelled at me, making me promise to never do it again.
The day before Aaron and I left for Seattle, Beth handed me a half-empty PBR and asked me to join her on the porch.
“I have to tell you something, man. Please don’t be mad.” She was looking away from me – first at the grass, then at the street, then at her hands. “I have herpes.”
After seven months of intimacy, weeks of sharing johns, and daily arguments over vague boundaries, she had finally told me the truth. It came too late. I looked up the symptoms and realized that the night I was woken up by a bout of projectile vomiting meant I had contracted something – not from a filthy john, but from my friend. My lover. My surrogate mother.
Aaron broke out in blisters on our first day in Seattle. Months later, I would learn that I had contracted oral herpes and unknowingly passed it on to Aaron when I gave him head. I had already started staying away from prostitution, viewing my primary asset as contaminated.
I had nothing left. The end of my relationship with Beth and the hiatus from my career exposed me to a hideous truth: I had been trapped in a trauma cycle dating back to my youth. The hands that typed out Craigslist ads, the legs that spread in strangers’ cars, and the mouth that took in wrinkled flesh – those things weren’t mine. They belonged to my past. They belonged to the part of me that still felt voiceless, choiceless, and desperate for something resembling love from men who had none to offer.
“When our session ended, I returned the key to the front desk, the shame sitting on my tongue like morning breath.”
My freedom was a facade. I hated myself. I hated the warm PBRs and the cheap tequila shots and the grape-flavored blunts. I hated the fat men who grunted when they fucked. I hated Professor Mike and the man in the white truck. I hated blowjobs and anal beads and high heels and my bruised body. I hated the motels. I hated the anarchists and their glorification of hooliganism, shoplifting and prostitution. I hated Aaron and his stolen flank steaks and his complacency and ignorance and immaturity. He was nothing but another john. I gave him sex in exchange for safety. I was trudging through life with Newports dangling from my lips and thousands of secrets swirling through my head, half-dead.
But I still needed him. Aaron was my ticket out of Bloomington.
* * *
Aaron and I were hiding in the trees bordering a Chicago rail yard, squatting there for hours until, sometime past midnight, he grabbed my elbow and hissed, “run!” I sprinted after him, unprepared for the enormity of the adrenaline rush, and mimicked his movements as he ducked behind a train car. He instructed me to wait with our packs as he weaved around the train, looking for a big enough space for two stowaways. Three cars down, he turned back, grabbed the packs, and told me to follow him.
The car Aaron chose had a two-foot-wide ledge with a grated top and a metal bottom, leaving just enough room for our bodies to slide between. The remaining six-foot space between the ledge and the shipping container was floorless, save for two crisscrossing bars, which meant the slightest misstep would kill us.
It was my first time on a freight train and Aaron had promised to keep me safe. He didn’t tell me that riding in a floorless freight car was called “riding suicide.” He didn’t ask if I wanted to put my life at risk. Instead, he had me crawl into the two-foot cubby and then scrunched in next to me, covering us with a tarp and tying our bodies to the ledge so we wouldn’t fall onto the tracks while we were sleeping.
I woke up alone in the cubby. We were somewhere along the Mississippi, nine hours from Bloomington, from Beth, from the johns and the motels and the degradation. My body was stamped with mayflies and grime, but I was free, going sixty-miles-per-hour toward Seattle.
And then I looked down. Aaron was hopping back and forth between the crisscrossing bars, gambling with his life and laughing about it. He had brought me as close as possible to death, forcing my reliance upon his rope, his tarp, and his knowledge of the rails for my survival. I was still his hostage.
Thirty-six hours later, Aaron and I were arrested in Havre, Montana for train hopping. We spent four days in jail, hitched to Seattle, and crashed on couches for a month. It was two months before I finally stopped riding suicide; I broke up with Aaron. I moved to the East Coast. I landed a job as a full-time barista in Rochester, New York, where I enrolled in school, signed a lease, and started therapy.