Abstract

“Reflections” are short essays by sex work activists, scholars, and advocates about their personal experiences with a “troubling term” of their choice. They are exemplary of a methodological approach that never takes for granted the histories, legacies, and effects of linguistic choices.

In 1978, I moved to San Francisco with my young daughter, Jessie; began classes at San Francisco State University (SFSU); and got a job working two days a week at the downtown massage parlor that boasted bustling O’Farrell Street’s biggest sign.

The women I worked with were mostly immigrants. Lili, the mother of an eight-year-old boy, was married to a GI she’d met in war-torn Vietnam. Lili had stunning confidence in her own opinions and was a philosopher of luck. She claimed to be able to “turn bad luck good” by rubbing coins together and warned me that “greed counters luck.” Kim, the on-site manager who worked alongside the rest of us, was paying off debt to the parlor owner, who’d brought Kim and her husband, two children, and mother-in-law over from Korea. Kim worked double shifts and hoped to send her mother-in-law back with enough money to build a house in her home village. Suzy, the major support of her family in Mexico, hoped for one big haul so that she could quit, go to school, and find out what else she might do with her young life. A tragic junkie and I were the only native English speakers.

I’d recently left a bad marriage and had many financial and personal worries that kept me up at night, but I spent an inordinate amount of time grappling with the word for what I was doing. One night, I awakened from sleep in a panic and peered at myself in the dresser mirror. “You’re a prostitute,” I whispered accusingly. The word evoked an image of something vile, monstrous. What I’d mistaken for a viable means to stay on in San Francisco was in fact something irrevocable and unforgivable, I thought. I’d crossed some awful threshold, beyond normal life and into something sickening. Is this me? I wondered. Is this my life? What had I become?

Indeed, prostitute is an unusual word, odd sounding enough that it rhymes with only three other English words: destitute, electrocute, and reconstitute. Furthermore, the word is an epithet, a hurled insult meant to devastate. The feelings that I sometimes suffered then centered in surprisingly large part on the word’s demeaned associations, which I would later come to understand more fully. I didn’t know yet about stigma and the unique power of the word prostitute to evoke feelings of shame and fear.

Beyond complaining about cheap clients, we didn’t talk much about work at the parlor. The women were proud of supporting their families, which earned them status among their relatives. Suzy talked about returning home, “only for a visit, but driving a red convertible.” And Lili often bragged that her husband did “whatever I tell him to do,” and laughed. “He says, ‘I’m afraid of you, Lili!’”

One day, a talk show featuring wives whose husbands hired prostitutes came on the TV and we all gathered around to watch. Kim asserted, with unusual vehemence, that “married men should only see prostitutes for sex. That way wives won’t have to worry that the woman will chase after her husband.” She made it sound like girlfriends were cheap tramps and we were high-minded professionals. Lili said that it was a known fact that men who saw prostitutes treated their wives better. And Suzy, the unmarried one among us, pointed out, “Hey, you guys are wives and mothers too!”

I loved hanging out with the women in the living room, and the men were mostly deferential, so I was mostly pretty happy at work. But when I was away from the parlor, difficult emotions sometimes emerged.

For instance, after much balking, I revealed my secret to a friend, another single mom, who wondered how a woman who called herself a feminist could work as a prostitute. “You sound almost friendly toward them. Doesn’t it bother you that you’re a plaything to them, someone to be bought?”

“So what if I am a plaything, a sex object, to them? They’re money objects to me. And I’m still here,” I said. “I’ve got every body part I started out with.” I lifted my arms to show off my intact torso.

Taking a breath, I said that I’d been afraid to tell her and that I didn’t want my work to come between us or make it hard for our daughters, who were best friends. I think she didn’t want those things either, so from then on we just didn’t talk about it anymore.

Though pained by silence and isolation, being at odds with the world was energizing, too. I felt some pride that I was living a life different than the one that had been laid out for me. I relished my fellow workers’ lively company. And I enjoyed being exposed to a broader cross section of ages, social classes, ethnicities, personalities, and male bodies than I’d experienced when I’d screwed around before, when I was in college—but had essentially just screwed the same standard-issue college boy over and over.

Like the women I worked alongside, I was proud to be supporting my small family, and I was passing my classes at SFSU.

Was I a real prostitute or a pretend one? I sometimes felt like a person portraying a prostitute. The word, so weighted with powerful archetypes and stereotypes, from literature (the Bible!) and the movies (Sweet Charity!), that I sometimes wondered: Was I up to the task?

At school, I found myself thinking: this is a prostitute walking into Spanish class or this is a prostitute waiting at the bus stop. No more was I just a parent, ex-wife, student, or daughter. I had a private, newly realized self, apart from those other things that defined me. I became interesting to myself as I delved into my new persona and was interested in the effects on me of the double life I led.

After a while, I started going to rap groups at the south of Market Street office of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), the first-ever group to advocate for decriminalizing prostitution. COYOTE’s Folsom Street office was on the second floor of an industrial loft, in a neighborhood home to light manufacturing and machine shops during the day and crowded at night with men in leather and hardware at the music-blasting Folsom Street Barracks, The Brig, and other clubs.

The cement floors of COYOTE’s second-story office were covered by faded oriental carpets, and its walls were hung with massive velvet banners, one with a stalking coyote and the phrase “My Ass Is Mine,” the other embroidered with the words “Victoria Woodhull Society.”

Under a web of heating ducts, women lounged and warmed themselves with cigarettes and tea. A cigarette burned in the ashtray balanced on the thigh of a tall woman, younger than me, with a creamy complexion and hair aflame with henna. In a sweet voice, she cooed, “I’m Carol Leigh and I’m an artist and a call girl.”

Carol pulled a dictionary from her leopard-skin handbag. Pressing a pearlescent nail into her jutting lower lip, she smoothed out a turned-down page and read to the group, “Prostitution: soliciting money for sexual acts or . . . ” Her blue eyes, magnified by the glasses, assumed startling proportions and her incongruously childlike voice soared: “‘Offering one’s talents to an unworthy cause.’ Outrageous!”

Carol went on to coin the term sex work and become an icon of the sex workers’ rights movement.

After our meeting at COYOTE, Carol often came to my house at suppertime. She and I were excited by what we were doing and what it might mean. We talked endlessly about prostitution and prostitutes and sex and fantasies and men and decriminalization, and we mostly supported each other’s freewheeling speculations. Our lives and our thoughts had significance, we felt.

Carol was an energetic genius, a force that swept up ideas and brought them together in new combinations. She was reading Robin Lakoff, a feminist linguistics scholar, which got Carol thinking about prostitution and language. “So many slang words, but none describe hooking as a job,” she griped.

In a self-recording made June 30, 1982, I mentioned Carol’s recent invention of the phrase sex work and how the word prostitution was problematic because of its association with selling out one’s values.

Thanks to Carol, I can talk about my work as an occupation and without invoking associations of sin and crime.