One of the last times I saw a client in person, before New York City’s now-hardened shelter-in-place order, we met in an oddly decorated hotel room in downtown Brooklyn. It was our second meeting, but I had the keen sense that he would become a regular. This, because following our first meeting, we had begun the complicated dance of declaring our feelings—our “connection”—as being out of the ordinary for the transactional circumstances that brought us together. And this was true, to a degree, for me. At our first meeting, I’d earnestly wanted him, something I had never felt with a client prior. He was young and tattooed, a former anarchist punk. He still went to shows sometimes, he said; based on his description of a new DIY space, it seemed like we had attended the same benefit a couple months back. (My boyfriend had been convinced that the bottle of tequila he passed around that show, a bottle that, unimaginably now, twenty people must have sipped from, was ground zero for the flu we all caught in December—the one everyone retroactively seems to think was Covid, despite the improbability.) I liked the idea that someone I could have met as me—a me without the pretense of a different, more appealing me—was paying me, and I liked tracing the skulls and knives on his chest with my fingers, and I liked his implied antipathy toward authority, even if it seemed like he was probably aging into a quieter liberalism.
When we met for the second time, early in March, it was pouring in Brooklyn. I arrived late and disheveled, having jumped out of a cab stuck at a standstill to run the last three blocks in the rain. As we warmed to one another again, he remarked on the room’s decor. I hadn’t yet noticed it. The walls were Breakfast At Tiffany’s–themed, papered in kitschy drawings and scrawled script reading, over and over, “By Truman Capote.” My client found this eerie: “I just read In Cold Blood for the first time,” he said. “How did they know?” I asked if he liked the book and he had, but the short distance between us suddenly felt impassable, expanded immeasurably by his implicit mention of murder, done by unstable men. (Alone in the room, we both try to forget that popular understanding of our arrangement makes savior types fear for my life and judge his. He tries to forget that he could murder me because he wants to forget that he hired me; I try to forget that he could murder me because, otherwise, I cannot get through the appointment.) “Like, I know my phone is recording everything I say and read and do, but the front desk knowing what room to put me in?” He trailed off.
“No, totally!” I worked to bring us back on equal footing, to re-establish us as lovers in a secret meeting place, having an affair, even if it was ultimately a pre-paid one. I asked if he ever read 1984. I rambled about the frightening scene toward the end, in which Winston and Julia, the protagonist outlaws, think they’re alone in their rented room and repeat to one another, in acknowledgement of their inevitable capture by Big Brother, “We are the dead.” They’re not alone, though, and a voice repeats it back to them—“You are the dead”—revealing the telescreen that was hidden behind a painting all along. I said that I feel like Winston and Julia in the room every time my phone advertises me something I’ve only spoken about—like the walls are repeating the fact of my total and inescapable surveillance back to me. My story worked twofold, making us, also, Winston and Julia in the room, our enemy not each other but a common one: the state. We moved back toward one another. He kissed me, and I pretended we were them, doomed but happy, at least, to steal our last moments away from the Thought Police.
I overstayed our appointment by an hour. We texted all weekend, planning to meet again the following week. His girlfriend was away and he offered to have me over. He asked if I would sleep over—in their bed—and I said no. I pretended to say no because I felt too complicated about the circumstances, but it wasn’t exactly that. I wanted to maintain a sense of unrequitedness, to delay the extinguishing of either of our desires—but also, he just wasn’t paying me enough.
As our date neared, the city grew more concerned about the virus by the day. Rumors swirled: the city would shut down on Friday; no, on Sunday. From three different people I heard the phrase, “No one in, no one out”; some suggested bridges to and from Manhattan would be blocked, and police checkpoints installed on the roads. That Tuesday, a different client—a real estate developer I’d met once before, who’d spent half our first meeting on the phone with his lawyer—asked me to meet him, last-minute, at his office. As I rode the elevator to the thirtieth floor, my friend, a therapist, texted me: “omg someone in my clinic has it.” I swallowed dryly. A Jesus pamphlet stuck in the elevator’s metal bannister stared at me: HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’RE SAVED? I posted a photo of the pamphlet to my Instagram story, typing “lol who knows bitch!” above it. When the doors opened I rang the bell outside of his office, entered, and left a mere ten minutes later with seven hundred dollars more to my name. I texted my friend, “do u know the person who has it? Are they ok? This is getting so crazy!!!” I got on the bus home, trying, more than usual, not to breathe on anyone, or let anyone breathe on me.
On the morning of the third meeting with my new client—the one who seemed to want to be my boyfriend, the one whose girlfriend was away—I sat on my roommate’s bed and debated cancelling. It had become clear the virus was overwhelming the city, and that an order to shelter-in-place was inevitable. I wanted to go meet him, and my roommate wanted me to stay. What would be the difference, I wondered, if I saw him one more time, and made a little more money, to provide a little more peace of mind, financially, in the ensuing chaos? “I mean, are you going to work tomorrow?” I asked of her after-school teaching gig. She said she didn’t know. She hesitated, and then she said it: that my work is different, that it’s impossible to take distancing precautions when you’re swapping bodily fluids, and that it is, inherently, more dangerous with respect to the spread of a sickness. My face got hot and my voice broke a little. “But I need to make money,” I said. “I know,” she said. I didn’t go.
Last July, a client booked me for six hours one night. He, too, was young, and wanted a date for a rave of sorts. I met him in the room first, where we had sex with the television on in the background, tuned to some kind of sports recap. I wore ugly combat boots I bought secondhand years ago, and stuffed the wads of cash he paid me between the zipper and my fibula—I didn’t want to leave the envelope in the room, nor carry it at the party in my tiny purse. We danced and kissed under the strobe lights, bobbing to the relentless music. I went to the bathroom and texted my boyfriend a photo of the drone cameras circling the venue, gathering promotional footage for future events. He wrote back that he could see the lights of the warehouse from the roof where he was drinking with friends, less than a neighborhood away.
Eventually we took a cab back to the hotel, stumbling into the room. We had sex again. He finished, pulled out, and told me the condom had broken. I took another cab back to my boyfriend’s house. When I got there, I told him what had happened.
HIV won’t show up on a test until a month following exposure. “We could use condoms this month,” I suggested halfheartedly. He laughed. “I mean, we’re just not going to do that,” he said flatly. He was right, and I felt grateful for his framing of our refusal as mutual—something neither of us would do. It’s easier to care for someone else’s life than your own; risking his health worries me far more than risking mine.
I can’t explain why we wouldn’t use condoms that month, other than the fact that our desire to feel good and close outweighed our averseness to risk. Ezra and Noah Benus—two halves of Brothers Sick, an artistic collaboration on illness, disability, and care—write, “To be scared of the sick is to be scared of [the] living.” It’s important to me that my boyfriend isn’t scared of me. I think it’s important to him, too, and so he chooses not to be. Arguably we should be more fearful, but to take on risk with a partner—to alleviate the loneliness of their anxiety by making it both of yours—is an act of dumb love. Thinking about that month now, I feel stupid, and lucky, which is how I feel about a lot of things I’ve done.
On April 1, a client emailed me: “I am a nurse who will be traveling to NYC to help with the Covid Crisis. I was wondering if you were doing physical visits? I have been social distancing for weeks. I was looking to meet before I started working because after I step foot in that hospital I will be knee deep in quarantine.” I wrote back, saying how grateful I was for his line of work, and how unfortunate that I was no longer doing in-person sessions. Seeing him wasn’t worth the risk, for me, now criminalized two-fold: in the usual ways, plus the added $500 fine, which the NYPD was newly empowered to mete out to anyone they encountered breaking social-distancing guidelines. You can’t fuck six feet apart.
Some of us already did virtual sex work, pre-pandemic; some of us are now doing it for the first time. I’ve been texting one guy elaborate, forced-bi fantasies every other day for $300 a week, and someone else sent me $1,000 seemingly out of the kindness of his heart. Alongside selfies with bandanas over their mouths and videos of their pets, my friends post to their private social media updates about their generous and ungenerous online clients, and questions about which cash transfer apps are the most reliable. Prior to Covid, a financial submissive offered to send me money for text humiliation. I instructed him to use GiftRocket but was promptly kicked off the app, receiving the following message: “GiftRocket’s Compliance Team identified your account as having sent or received gifts associated with a prohibited use case. We encourage you to find another payments provider as we cannot process future transactions for you. Going forward, any gifts sent to or from your email address will be automatically canceled.” GiftRocket addressed me as Princess, the moniker my sub had used.
I don’t know how the Compliance Team knew I was a hooker, but I know from Twitter that in the previous weeks they had done sweeps, banning sex workers from their payment processor. Since, I’ve found nothing as anonymous. Now I try to calculate, based mostly on blind intuition, who is safe to give what information through which platforms, like an absentee parent choosing presents for children he doesn’t really know: this gentle old man who loves poetry gets access to my full legal name via PayPal; this young banker to the list of contacts I can’t figure out how to hide on Venmo; this demanding philanthropist to my real iPhone number, through ApplePay.
These concerns are minor. I am so lucky. Many people are still working in person and outside. How is anyone to turn down work, to stay inside, if they have no savings, no access to financial relief, or no home? In an essay for Tits and Sass called “Coronavirus and the Predictable Unpredictability of Survival Sex Work,” Laura Lemoon writes, “I hear other workers complaining about the low ball offers they are now getting from clients and I think to myself that I’ve never had the luxury of setting a target fee and turning away anyone who won’t meet it . . . I still can’t say with certainty what my HIV or STI status is because all of my clients wanted bareback and I was too scared they wouldn’t want to see me if I made them wear a condom.” To prioritize one’s own health in the sex industry is a luxury many workers can’t afford. This is true of workers in every industry. Uniquely though, sex workers—particularly those who use drugs or work on the street—are always already seen as vectors of disease, and blamed for any affliction they contract.
A New York Post headline declares, “Sex workers feared to be spreading coronavirus in Tokyo’s red-light district,” reporting: “The intimacy involved makes the spread almost inevitable—and almost impossible to trace, with the sex workers refusing to cooperate about whom they have been in contact with.” Good, I think. No one’s snitching. In an article titled, tellingly, “Coronavirus Super-Spreaders,” the BBC argues, “Some just come into contact with far more people—either because of their job or where they live—and that means they can spread more of the disease, whether or not they themselves have symptoms.”
Stigma masquerades as concern. Online and restless, I Google different combinations of words, curious about the tone of every article on the topic: “sex work”; “prostitution”; “coronavirus”; “Covid-19”; “disease”; “infection.” One such search, a few pages in, turns up an academic paper on the Contagious Diseases Act, passed by British Parliament in 1864. The Act was an attempt to eradicate the spread of venereal disease in the military through widespread arrest and forced vaginal examination of women suspected to be prostitutes in port towns. If infected, the women were incarcerated for up to three months. Parliament conceived of prostitution as a threat to the military both materially and morally: the prostitute was both sick and responsible, the otherwise moral soldier merely a victim of temptation. Amended two years later, the legislation sought to regulate prostitution among the civilian population, too, and extended the length of incarceration for the sick prostitute by up to a year.
An escort I follow on Twitter announced she tested positive for Covid-19 and attempted to shift public health responsibility to clients, admonishing them for continuing to seek out sexual services under pandemic conditions. She implored clients—the majority of whom are older men with preexisting conditions—to take their health more seriously.
Other workers I follow gloat about their strict adherence to social-distancing mandates, while simultaneously shaming others for continuing in-person work. This has become yet another class signifier on what amounts to a client-facing advertising platform—those who could afford it stopped working immediately, announcing indefinite hiatuses. Many outside the luxury class did not.
On April 6, Governor Cuomo doubled the fine for failure to socially distance; it is now $1,000. Such a fine punishes those who cannot afford to pay it: those who cannot afford to not be on the street. Access to indoor and online work is classed, gendered, and racialized. The inability to protect one’s own health and the health of one’s clients is not the product of individual moral failing but of state-sanctioned violence: the criminalization of harm reduction, of poverty, of Blackness, of non-normative gender expression. Nonetheless, it is the sick prostitute who will be punished, rounded up in a vice raid by the armed and moralizing police.
In another room, about a year ago, I thought I was going to get busted. I was waiting for a client whom I had screened only by verifying his place of work, rather than my preferred method of checking a reference. I was renting a room by the minute through a now-defunct app, one that advertised itself as a way for businesspeople, traveling in foreign cities, to book the amenities of a hotel without staying the night—to get a room for a couple of hours in order to take naps and refresh themselves between meetings. I was sure the app was only ever used by whores, until a friend told me a guy she met on Tinder used it to book them a room to hook up in, so I suppose it was used, occasionally, for unpaid dalliances as well.
I checked in fifteen minutes before our meeting time, attempting to cut down overhead costs as much as possible. My client texted that he was nearby. As I frantically changed from loose jeans into obvious red lingerie and a silk skirt, someone knocked on the door. I didn’t answer. He knocked again: “Hotel security.” I stared at the contents of my bag, strewn on the comforter before me: lipstick and eyeliner, thigh-high stockings I had yet to clip to my garter, a pack of gum, a pack of condoms. He knocked again, and again. “Open the door please!” I threw my skirt off and my jeans back on, stuffing the rest of the items into my plain Jansport backpack. I contemplated throwing the condoms out the window, knowing they could be used as evidence against me, but decided doing so would pose a greater risk. What would I use during the appointment, then?
When I opened the door I was overwhelmed by the smell of pot. The security guard, realizing immediately it wasn’t coming from my room, apologized and began knocking on the room next door. I closed the door and started to change again, but paused, shaken. I called my boyfriend and whispered to him what had happened. “Is there any way this could be a set-up,” I hissed, “or is it just a weird coincidence? Can I let my client up?” He sighed, and said he thought it was fine. “Just call me after,” he said. He was right, and I did.
Afterward, I got on the train home from midtown, traversing a station I’m rarely in, but in which I see, every time I pass through it, militarized police. I thought about how they could seize my cash from me, and I’d never see it again. No recourse to recover unclean money. I looked in their direction and tried to communicate with my eyes: I hate you. I am a criminal, and I hate you!
Whore is an orientation. Not a sexual one; a political one. Miguel James writes: “My entire Oeuvre is against the police.” As is mine.
I had a video call with a client for the first time the other day. I’ve never cammed before, but the financial reality of social distancing had started to set in. I wasn’t wearing my glasses or my contacts, so when I held my phone far away from my face for a close up of what he had paid to see, I had no idea what I was actually showing him. The thought crossed my mind that he could be screen-recording me, but I didn’t care very much. I thought about the likelihood that my faux-masturbation performance would end up on PornHub or XVideos, and it seemed truly fifty-fifty. I would feel violated, certainly. I would ask the company to take it down. They probably wouldn’t do anything about it. I wouldn’t involve the law. I would move on with my life.
I periodically ask my boyfriend to promise to avenge my death, should it ever occur at the hands of a client. “Don’t involve the police,” I say, every time, as he waves me away: he never would. “But kill him!” I say, and again, he waves me away: of course he would.
A week ago, I took a walk in Prospect Park, feeling bereft. I was flooded with memories of moving through the world without physical paranoia: this tree branch I swung on without washing my hands after; this path I pushed the child I was babysitting down in his stroller, handing him a juice box without disinfecting the straw. I walked with my boyfriend—the only person I’ve touched in weeks—and we spoke about the things we missed.
But of course the world had felt structured by a certain amount of physical paranoia for a long time. We exited on the south side, and I remembered a time years ago, when I took the subway to that neighborhood to see my friend and her client in her new apartment, which the client was subsidizing. He was my first client by way of her, and though it wasn’t our first meeting, it was our first in that place: a large, one-room studio. She took a polaroid photo of us, I forget why, and I laughed about it later—how young I looked, swallowed up in a hug by his voluminous figure. I remember the day as a warm one, but I might be misremembering, transposing in my mind the feeling of free movement into warm, easy air. In reality, it could have been raining. A week or two after our meeting, my friend called to tell me she had Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection. She said it wasn’t a big deal—easily remedied by antibiotics—but encouraged me to get tested, so I did. I explained the circumstances to my doctor, leaving out any mention of money. (I’ve only ever told the truth about my income stream to one doctor—a psychiatrist—and in our next session, she said she would be remiss if she didn’t circle back to the profound alarm she felt at my desire to engage in such highly risk-taking behavior—meaning, escorting.)
I tested negative. My friend texted me again a few days later, asking if I had heard from her client, which I hadn’t. “I told him I had it and since then, radio silence,” she texted. “I’m kind of freaking out though, like that’s my whole income??” I told her I was sure he would get back in touch, even though I wasn’t. He was married, and I could imagine that the suddenly immanent threat of disease transmission destabilized whatever tale he’d been telling himself to make his infidelity acceptable. Their arrangement was a relatively standard sugar-dating setup: discreet meetings a few times a month in exchange for a monthly payment. He was generous and indefensibly wealthy, but he couldn’t allow himself to think of his romance as her job. An STI for him would signify, simply, that the affair had run its course. He would see no need for sick pay or severance, and she couldn’t very well file for unemployment.
In quarantine, I’m tiring of my new, nearly regular client—the one who wants to be my boyfriend, in spite of his girlfriend. Pre-virus, I made a calculated decision to test the waters of treating him as more than a client—someone I could enter into a kind of financial arrangement with, one where I’d accept less money for more time on the condition that I’d see him more frequently. He’s not very rich, is the thing, so he can’t afford to see me often at my usual rates. I told myself I was using this situation as practice for the future: honing my ability to lure and maintain regular clients. Next time I hoped it would happen with someone wealthier. But now he continues to text me, though he sends me little money, if any. Declarations of a desire to see one another soon are losing their meaning, as isolation stretches ahead. I’m not sure what will become of us.
In late March the Philadelphia Police Department announced they would delay the arrests and detainments of people caught for nonviolent offenses, including prostitution. Amid increased risk for many workers, the virus also makes plain what we’ve already known, already dreamed up: the police could simply stop arresting people. They’re not going to, of course—at least not for any sustained period—but they could.
I read an interview Fran Lebowitz gave to Aperture in 1994, in which she described her friend, the artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. Asked if he was political, Lebowitz answered, “Very. Very. Although not always in a direct way . . . But his basic take on things was an adversarial relationship between him and institutions, or himself and authority, and that’s a totally political way to look at life. You know, he hated cops. Not this cop, or that cop. Cops.” The interviewer clarifies, “Because of what they represented?” and Lebowitz answers, “Because they’re cops.”
Wojnarowicz sold sex as a teenager to survive. He raged against a state that had the blood of his loved ones on its hands, a state that would soon have his blood, as well. After his diagnosis, he told us, with everything he made, “fags and dykes and junkies are expendable in this country.” Fags and dykes and junkies and whores—criminals, each and every one of us.
I think often about what brought me here. There are plenty of other things I could do to make money, and plenty of practical and impractical reasons I’ve chosen sex work: lower time commitment than a straight job; insatiable curiosity about the sexual proclivities of others; inherited neuroses I have yet to work out in therapy. Lately, though, I’ve started to think I became a whore because I wanted to align myself with criminality, and in doing so, to solidify my societal position as a materially anti-state one.
I say “align myself with criminality” and not “become a criminal” because one cannot become a criminal, one can only be labeled a criminal by the state. And it is exceedingly unlikely that I will ever be labeled a criminal, because of my white womanhood and relative wealth and privilege. When police see me, they see innocence. They have historically committed, after all, their most heinous acts in the name of protecting women who look like me. Nonetheless, I disalign myself with them. I want decriminalization, but I never, ever want police on our side.
The focus on decriminalization within the mainstream sex workers’ rights movement necessitates positioning the work as a job like any other—necessitates a struggle for workers’ rights, as bequeathed by a legislative body. Workers in this country are treated like shit, a reality that grows more starkly evident every day unemployment climbs and rent is not forgiven. It’s not that I don’t stand with the working class—of course I do—but that I don’t view assimilation into state-sanctioned professionalism as our end goal. M.E. O’Brien writes, “When refusing their imposed disposability and isolation through revolutionary activity, junkies and their friends move towards a communism not based on the dignity of work, but on the unconditional value of our lives.” I want the same to be true of whores and our friends. What would it look like to move on from the project of demanding that sex work is work? To move on to a politics of crime? I don’t want to relinquish our criminal potential. I want underworld bonds, and co-conspirators, and money hidden in shoeboxes, to be redistributed to enemies of the state—the ones who will never receive a stimulus check, because they’ve got nothing on the books to begin with.
My boyfriend and I are anarchists. I suppose it’s obvious by now. When I was little, I pored over an edition of Robin Hood with hand-painted illustrations, reading and re-reading the page on which he married Maid Marian. Theirs was an outlaw wedding in the woods, with only animals as witnesses.
I live in this room now, with my boyfriend and his cat, and I think about crime. I make a spreadsheet listing every client I’ve received money from since February, in person or through the internet, and I calculate amounts I can give to bail funds, and to sex worker mutual aid funds, without feeling acute anxiety for my own financial future. I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to full service work. I suppose we will meet strangers freely again some time, but it’s hard to imagine now. Nothing between now and then will be as lucrative.
I don’t know if a criminal kind of class traitorship is valuable, or even possible. But I know whose side I want to be on if and when the world ends, and it’s not the one that’s blue-uniformed, pristine and cashless, fearful of the sick and the dead, holding on, with some vain hope, that the law and its enforcement have any meaning at all beyond this world. I want to be on the side of covert phone calls, and no paper trails, and networks of care, populated by those of us who would rather die than tell—on the side that has already been blamed, and already been sick, and already been masked.