Through business consultancies, political rallies and poetry readings, sex workers of all stripes have stepped out of the shadows.
“When I got raped,” Jodi S. Doff says plainly, as if talking about a mild bout of stomach flu, “I went to work that afternoon. I’d been kept in the house for six hours and raped and tortured and I just called in late.”
Friends and colleagues of Doff’s had been murdered, kidnapped, beaten, slapped, spit on. This was early ‘80s New York, and these were strippers, “hoochy-coochy gals,” as Doff calls her former self, working the poles at places like Robbie’s Mardi Gras and the Lollipop.
“Really,” she remembers, “you looked at it like it was part of the package: you play with snakes, you’re gonna get bit.”
Doff’s rapist, a pimp who hung out in the club she worked in at the time, came in for a drink hours after he attacked her. She was battered and bruised, he was clinking a cup of ice and liquor. Doff’s bosses simply shrugged, ultimately kicking the guy out of the bar at Doff’s insistence, but welcoming him back two weeks later.
Doff knows now that she needed an exit, but she saw none.
“Had there been some place to go, or someone to talk to, or outreach done, I think it would’ve been a point that I would’ve been ready to hear it,” she says. “But I did not leave at that point. I did not clean up my act.”
Doff counted several friends among the strippers she worked with, but the camaraderie of the job extended only so far beyond the mirrored walls and the besuited men of Midtown. So she continued stripping.
“Looking back with sober eyes,” she says of the superficiality of the job, of the self-preservation that it forced upon young women like herself, “it was the kind of community you make, and the friendships you make, when you’re in a war zone.”
* * *
On a stunning afternoon last April, the scene on a small hill in the middle of Central Park seems plucked from a snow globe purchased in a tacky tourist shop, except with Frisbees, baseballs and kites instead of floating flecks of white. Near a tall oak there’s a gaggle of tiny children laughing and playing tag—right over there, near the sex workers.
There are about twenty of them—escorts, dominatrices, call boys, rent boys, strippers, burlesque dancers, porn actors, fetish workers, sensual masseuses and their allies—lounging on blankets amid paper bags of bagels and cream cheese and boxes of miniature cupcakes. There’s even a rabbit on a leash, sniffing about the stacks of intertwined legs. The gathering looks downright normal, aside from the rather chubby bunny in their midst—just a group of sex industry pros doing what they, too, sometimes do on weekends in spring—picnicking.
In the crowd is a 29-year-old woman named Sarah Jenny Bleviss. Heavy-set, brown-haired and baby-faced, Bleviss is fond of altering her t-shirts with scissors so that they reveal a few fleshy inches of cleavage—which inevitably calls even greater attention to the sex-worker advocacy slogans splashed across her chest.
Bleviss is a co-founder of the New York chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a national grassroots organization founded in 2003 that is dedicated to improving the lives of those in the sex industry. SWOP-NYC, which formed in ’07, has taken its pro-sex-worker and anti-trafficking advocacy from the State Capitol in Albany to Village Voice Media in Manhattan, where members picketed this summer for the salvation of Backpage.com, the intensely controversial adult services website. (Thought by critics to be a haven for human traffickers, SWOP argues that in the absence of sites like Backpage, predators would be pushed even further, and more undetected, into the fringes of society; Village Voice Media recently announced a split-off from the company that owns Backpage.)
SWOP, which welcomes sex workers and their “allies,” along with sister organization SWANK—Sex Workers Action New York, a sex-worker-only group—is also promoting a bill before the State Assembly that would prohibit police from using condom-possession as evidence of sex work.
Doff, now an eccentric 55-year-old with a gray bird’s nest of thick, curly hair—who, by the way, says her official middle “initial” is actually “Sh.”—sometimes refers to this new breed of activist as the “intellectual sex worker.”
Perhaps more so than the rallies, it’s the monthly support groups and workshops run by SWOP and SWANK—and the Central Park picnics, beach outings and stoop sales—that provide the sense of empathy, protection and community that Doff was missing that awful night thirty years ago.
“Most sex workers are extremely isolated and do not know other sex workers,” Sarah Elspeth Patterson, a community organizer for SWOP-NYC, explained in her Brooklyn apartment last spring. “And so this is really an opportunity for them to feel that there’s a space that’s safe.”
SWOP workshops have titles like “Tantra 101: A Practitioner’s Skill-Share” and “How to Date as a Sex Worker.” But these meetings, and political outings, are just one aspect of a burgeoning movement that is drawing sex workers in New York and elsewhere out of the shadows, where they’ve been marginalized for millennia. From sex worker luncheons offering legal services, to literary readings and even a business consultancy providing web design and workflow advice, the city’s sex workers continue to expand their public presence, humanizing an industry that is frequently cast in gloom and doubt.
Of course, these self-described sex worker activists insist they have actively chosen the lives they lead, and many say they’re proud of their profession—a vital distinction from those forced into prostitution against their will.
The sex worker activist is not without his and her foes, though. Their work, after all, is a bit murky, legally and ethically speaking. Is this promotion of prostitution that they champion, the green-lighting of a lifestyle that seems to extend a welcome mat to sexual predators? Or is it merely the protection of a vulnerable class that will continue working, even in the shadows?
At a Backpage rally outside Village Voice Media in June, several dozen members of the Coalition Against the Trafficking in Women chanted their opposition to sex work:
“Village Voice, change your career, no more selling women here!”
Meanwhile, a handful of SWOP and SWANK members—the “counter-protest”—stood silently in the wings, scoffing at the opposition’s signs, which said things like, “Real Men Don’t Buy Sex,” and “Prostitution is the World’s Oldest Oppression.”
More often than not, however, the sex worker activists’ embrace of the right to work in this industry is loud and clear, if often provocatively dressed and peppered with x-rated proclamations.
At the gay pride parade in June, one SWOP/SWANK member strutted down lower 5th Avenue in a red dress that fit like a fingerless glove, holding a sign adorned with the widely recognized acronym J.A.P. Except, this woman spelled out the words a bit differently, announcing with a smile and a wag of her tongue that she was “Proud to be a JEWISH AMERICAN PROSTITUTE.”
“It’s a small but growing movement,” Bleviss, the SWOP-NYC co-founder, explains of sex-worker advocacy, or “anti-oppression work,” as she calls it.
“It’s a broad social, economic and racial goal,” she says.
* * *
In truth, the hard-charging, rights-brandishing sex worker advocate is not an entirely new persona. A former prostitute named Carol Leigh, who remains an activist today, is widely credited with coining the term “sex worker” in 1978, at a San Francisco conference organized by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media.
She had been offended by the conference’s references to the “sex use industry,” a term that, Leigh would later write, objectified women “as only something used,” and obscured their role as willful participants.
Leigh’s coinage came on the heels of landmark “sex-positive” events like the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco, one of the first recorded transgender rights uprisings in U.S. history; the infamous Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in ’69; and the formation of Prostitutes of New York, or PONY, in ’76. (Doff attended several PONY meetings in the early ‘90s but was “disappointed they weren’t reaching out to current sex workers or street workers,” she said. “It seemed like they were trying to promote themselves, their books, etc.”)
Three and a half decades later, in December 2010, the bodies of several prostitutes turned up on a deserted barrier island in Suffolk County, N.Y.—the presumed victims of a serial killer.
These women were working class, and they’d traveled long distances from home to find clients; they had not, presumably, chosen prostitution out of feminism or pride or sexual liberation. These were not your typical “intellectual sex workers.”
Still, at a beach-side vigil the following June, there was Audacia Ray, a brainy activist leader and former escort and sensual masseuse from Brooklyn, comforting and empathizing with the families and friends of the victims.
The founder and director of the Red Umbrella Project, Ray would perform the following evening at the second annual Sex Worker Cabaret, held in the slightly dingy event space at Public Assembly, a popular bar in Williamsburg—far from the barren stretch of beach where the prostitutes had turned up dead.
On stage, and off, the fair-skinned and bespectacled Ray has the knowing demeanor of an educator—the kind, caring type whose rebellious past is somehow evident. At the Cabaret, hosted by Sarah Jenny Bleviss of SWOP-NYC, Ray read from a memoir about her interactions with the news media and their critical stance on sex workers.
But the evening as a whole, which also featured performances by sex worker allies, was lighthearted.
“For those of you who have early sessions, you’ll be out of here by 10:45,” a co-host said in her introduction, evoking laughter from the crowd of about 75 people, dozens of sex workers among them.
The Cabaret featured a raffle with vibrators, condoms and lingerie as prizes, and an impressively talented line-up of performances: a film about the life of a call boy; a burlesque show by a peacock-feathered “Incredible, Edible Akynos;” and, among other acts, a hilarious and telling one-woman comedic play (sample line: “Have you ever tried to tie a penis into a pretzel? I know someone in this crowd has!”).
It was clear, looking around the delighted audience, that the Cabaret hit home—that it succeeded in cultivating a sense of community, if just for one night, among those who often work late, solitary and dangerous hours.
A self-described “rent boy” named Blair B. said the Cabaret had been his first experience, in ten years as an escort, of being surrounded by such a large and vocal group of fellow sex workers. Blair, 31, lean and tanned in a low-cut tank top, ate it up, even jumping on stage at one point to participate in a demonstration.
“I just think it’s really important for this group of people,” he said, gesturing across the room. “It’s a hard job, it’s a lonely job—and just to be in this room, it’s really…” He paused, searching for words, and becoming slightly choked up: “I’m going to sleep well tonight.”
But sleep would have to wait, Blair admitted, noting that he planned to visit a longtime client after the show.
For Ray, 32, who says she spent most of her 20s “off and on” as a sex worker, the sense of empowerment that Blair felt was nothing knew—it was exactly the point.
“There’s definitely strengths to showing your face and saying, ‘This is what I did,’” she says. “But I also realized I had a lot of choice in being able to do that.”
“There’s a gap between the experience of the vigil on Saturday and these kinds of events,” she goes on. “The victims of the Long Island serial killer probably didn’t call themselves sex workers.”
The term “sex worker,” Ray explains—or the movement the term represents—could be alienating to those who aren’t willing or proud participants, “and it doesn’t always reflect people’s realities.”
She admits that she hadn’t quite thought through the impact, or the “long tail,” of her own coming out as a sex worker several years prior. “I don’t know that I would make the same decision knowing what I know now, and seeing what has happened to other folks,” she says.
Without a doubt, it can be hard for any out-and-proud sex worker to escape the stigma that sticks to them like resin. Doff, for instance, who is currently pursuing a creating writing M.F.A. and has written a blog about her work as a stripper, says she was recently rejected for a job cleaning animal cages after the veterinary clinic learned of her past.
“I’m like, really—I can’t clean up cat shit because of something I did thirty years ago?” she recalls, incredulously.
Over time, though, the sensual massages that Ray doled out from an “in-call center,” or sex-work office space, near Penn Station became vital to her identity—and rather than run, she embraced it. For several years she served as the executive editor of $pread magazine, a quarterly publication for and by sex workers. (The magazine, which folded in 2011, featured in its last issues articles about hormone therapy for transmen, stay-at-home pole dancers, and a London graveyard for medieval prostitutes.)
“It became important for me to be out in some capacity,” Ray says. “It became important for me to tell my own story and make room for other people’s stories.”
She continues to do so the first Thursday of every month at Happy Ending, a bar on Broome Street whose past as a sensual massage parlor is the perfect fit for the live storytelling series Ray hosts there.
Known as the Red Umbrella Diaries—a product of Ray’s Red Umbrella Project advocacy group—the series’ website describes it as a platform for “people who’ve tangled with the sex industry” to “tell true stories about the complications that arise in the mix of sex and money.”
And complications—humorous, sensual, scary, sad, dangerous—do arise, as an escort named Josh Ryley described, in a witty, lyrical tale delivered pitch-perfect in May, when he guest-hosted Red Umbrella. His piece opened:
“I am standing in the St. Regis hotel lobby and while it is not a particularly hot evening I am sweating profusely. I feel a bead of sweat roll down my back, into my khaki dress pants, right into my ass crack. GREAT! I hate sweating before a job.”
Ryley, who claims he’s in his 20s but is hazy on the details for “professional reasons,” looks like someone you’d find on an elliptical machine in a trendy Downtown gym. He keeps his brown hair short and his beard neatly trimmed. Ryley is handsome, nearly six feet tall and blue-eyed—and he has a circumcised penis that’s eight inches long and six inches around—“big and thick with great balls to match,” as one reviewer wrote on DaddysReviews.com, which Ryley checks the mornings after all his client sessions. “One of the best cocks I have ever seen.”
You, too, can see Josh Ryley’s cock. He’s right there, in the flesh, in his profile on RentBoy.com, which lists all his measurements, interests and talents. His photographs would make you laugh out loud—and they’re probably meant to—were it not for Ryley’s stone-faced look, staring at you above a rock-hard erection.
In one, he’s shirtless, tight jean shorts unbuttoned, and holding what appears to be a soft drink. In another, he raises an eyebrow as he struggles to pull off a football cleat, genitalia dangling like a referee’s whistle.
Josh Ryley is not his real name. It’s a sex-work pseudonym he created to help keep his profession secret from his family in Massachusetts, though Ryley says he’s “not really hiding what I do in New York City.”
Like many of the sex workers interviewed for this story, Ryley began escorting on a whim.
“My freelance business had dried up. And it was like 75 bucks to go over to some guy’s apartment and jerk him off,” he recalls.
“The first one, I was nervous,” he says. “And afterward I was surprised that I was able to do it. It sort of changed my perspective in terms of what it meant to be a sex worker and the service that you’re providing.”
Ryley’s outlook changed again when he began reading at Red Umbrella, attended its writing workshop, and ultimately volunteered to edit the Red Umbrella audio podcast. This spring, he plans to take Red Umbrella’s media-training workshop, intended to equip sex workers with the tools they need to handle often-critical journalists. Ryley considers his involvement “an awakening,” especially since most sex worker advocacy organizations are so female-centric, he says.
Listening to other sex workers’ stories has helped Ryley develop as a writer, a skill he never knew he had. It also, sadly but importantly, introduced him to the hazards of the life he had chosen.
* * *
The modern-day sex worker activist is a bit like a superhero. Between political rallies, literary events, sex workshops and the actual sex, their lives are sliced and diced into tiny pieces and personas—often compartmentalized with separate names, identities and attitudes to match.
A transgender male at the SWOP-NYC picnic in Central Park last spring requested to be referred to as “Lucien,” his “activist sex worker name.”
Twice a year, Lucien flies from Portland, where he is planning to form a SWOP chapter, to New York for a month of escort work. It’s easier to find clients in New York, since, as he says, “I am a niche.”
He gestures across the pile of blankets and cherry red sun umbrellas—the international symbol of sex worker rights: “Do I look like any of the other women here?”
Lucien, 30, who is awaiting “top surgery” to remove his breasts, works out of a New York apartment that he rents for more than $100 a day.
“In these private spaces, people tell me all their secrets—secrets they don’t even tell their wives,” he says. “We’re not friends, we don’t socialize out of that hour or those two hours together, so for that reason they know they can tell something to me, have that moment of a mirror.”
One client confided to Lucien that his wife was turned off by his “soft” side. Another, a “quintessential New Yorker” who swore that he was straight even as Lucien penetrated his anus, proudly revealed to Lucien two months later that he had found his first boyfriend.
For Lucien, “sex work is the most isolating job, but it’s also the most fulfilling job I’ve ever done.”
Organizations like SWOP, he says, offer an opportunity for valuable bonding but also the chance to learn from others’ experiences and refined safety practices.
“We don’t get to go to a college or take a class to learn how to screen clients,” Lucien notes. “Shit happens—it’s a marginalized group of people. Look at the movies. Who gets killed first? It’s usually the prostitute.”
* * *
Cindy’s loft is airy and contemporary, but it’s in a rough part of Brooklyn, behind heavy black gates and curlicues of barbed wire. The juxtaposition extends beyond real estate to her livelihood: She is a business development consultant—for sex workers.
Cindy makes about $10,000 a month from forty to fifty clients who hire her for branding, web design, client-screening, scheduling and career development services.
“As you can imagine, there are people who prey on those in this industry, simply because they have no rights,” says Cindy, who would only agree to an interview on the condition that her real name be withheld. “It’s a delicate, legally-gray area that I walk.”
Cindy is 38 and has a casual way of speaking, like a barista in a coffee shop—even as she emphasizes how nervous she is to be speaking on the record. She has short platinum blonde hair that tightly hugs the sides of her face, and she’s a proponent of the de-criminalization of prostitution. But Cindy began her career in another realm, working in business development during the dot-com boom of the ‘90s.
Many sex workers, she says, operate under the assumption that since their jobs are illegal, they have no rights and must assume an extraordinary level of risk. “So the least we can do is set up businesses that appear to establish boundaries and your rights,” she adds.
Cindy’s first client was her best friend, an escort who, in 2005, disclosed that she was embarrassingly disorganized.
“I’m kind of a rebel; I’ve never been accustomed to working at a desk,” explains Cindy, who went on to help her friend identify a target market, create website content and respond to voicemails from potential customers. Word of Cindy’s services spread, and so did her offerings. She has since done the same thing for hundreds of other sex workers.
During our meeting at her home several months ago, Cindy reaches over and silences one of a handful of cell phones on her kitchen table. Each phone represents a different sex worker client of hers, and she screens fifty such calls from their prospective customers on a slow week; and two hundred when it’s busy.
“It’s like working for a doctor’s office,” she says. “I believe that if sex workers treat their business like a small business and pay their taxes and are involved in their communities then that makes it harder and harder to point your finger and say they’re doing something wrong.”
Since 2010, Cindy has also taught workshops to about three hundred sex workers—courses like “Biz Dev for Tantricas.” But she refuses clients she thinks are in sex work for the wrong reasons, explaining that she doesn’t want to “participate in the exploitation of someone’s soul.”
“Selling sex,” Cindy says—noting that most of her clients now make twice what they had earned before they began working with her—“is never just about selling tits and ass.”
While some people are skeptical about her line of work, others have come to respect it, or at least understand it. Cindy’s father called her when news of the Long Island prostitute killings broke in 2010. “He just wanted to know that my clients were safe,” she remembers. “He goes, ‘I don’t think I really understood until watching this, but if those women had you as a client they’d still be alive.’”
* * *
The Sex Worker Cabaret has just ended and an escort named Andy Medina (one of his “working names”) is out on the sidewalk, holding a bouquet of blue roses and yellow daisies.
He’s just enraptured the audience with a reading of poems culled from a life that seems stranger, sadder, than fiction: raised in a cult in Ohio, ran away at sixteen into the arms of an older woman, and “been in sex work situations since then.”
Medina’s writing has that beautifully profane quality that can only flourish after heartache, and he’s been rewarded with a scholarship to a university in New York. This is over a year ago, he’s 21, and he’s just begun exploring SWOP, SWANK and the strange and foreign world—to people like him, at least—that is sex worker advocacy. He was inspired to check it out after a sex worker friend went missing.
Medina smiles and nods as fellow sex workers pat him on the back, telling him how refreshing his poetry is. He says he plans to introduce a few of his friends from the “street-based” sex worker community—“where my home definitely is”—to SWOP and SWANK and events like the Cabaret.
“I hope it can mix,” he says cautiously of his two worlds, the first borne out of desperation and hopelessness and the second out of awareness and the luxury of opportunity, of options.
Over the next year, the sex worker advocacy movement will help Medina, now 23 and living in Manhattan, “to frame my own experience politically,” he says, launching him on a mission to help queer minority youth who are often involved in the sex trade—his own peers. Medina turns up at the Backpage rally and at other events, like the Central Park picnic—first in fashionable street clothes, and then, increasingly, in red skinny jeans and a black t-shirt that says “I ♥ Sex Workers.”
Medina is still there, his legs twisted among lounging colleagues’ and friends’, as the April afternoon deep in the heart of the park draws to an end and a slight breeze begins teasing the old oaks. A blanket away, Lucien, the transgender sex worker from Portland, talks about the unlikely pairing of prostitute, toddler play-date and innocent family picnic all on the same beautiful stretch of field.
“The juxtaposition is hilarious,” he says. “I definitely have been thinking about this the whole time. Do they even know we’re a bunch of prostitutes, that we’re a bunch of fucking dirty hookers? And if they did, what would they think?”
He smiles, nods his head.
“They’d probably see that we’re civilized, good people just like they are,” Lucien continues. “We’re human beings. We’re beautiful, we’re intelligent—we eat picnics just like everyone else.”
* * *
Noah Rosenberg is Narratively’s founder, CEO and editor-in-chief. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times, and his writing, photography and documentary film work has also been published by The Wall Street Journal, GQ and New York magazine, among other outlets.
Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City.