May 2009

Juliet November

Hooking Without Crooking

Prostitution is nice work if you can get it decriminalized

Hooking Without Crooking, The Walrus, May 2009

I'm buzzed into the storefront, which is marked only by a street number, and walk through the empty lounge to a garish pink staff room, where about eight women sit around chatting in a cloud of smoke and hairspray. There's Genevieve, the fortyish French-Greek siren with cascading waves of black hair; and a twenty-year-old Australian farm girl, Anna, who clomps around in her high heels and trades her corset for a Led Zeppelin T-shirt the second she's off shift. I set myself up at the long, mirrored vanity beside someone I haven't seen here before, a short woman with flawless black skin and enormous eyes. My ears perk up at her accent. I ask her where she's from. "Toronto, Canada." "Me, too!" I squeal, and we spend the rest of the night bonding over quirky Australian expressions. (Fair dinkum? Seriously, what is that?) It's my second month working in this Sydney brothel, and I'm learning that the biggest pleasures are often the most unexpected.

Rewind to a few years ago. I'm sipping a gin and tonic at a College Street bar with colleagues from the feminist organization where I work, and the subject of prostitution comes up. One woman shakes her head and recites the familiar argument about the shameful exploitation of prostitutes. Another disagrees, saying she loved working as a professional dominant/submissive in a dungeon. I nod, silently regretting that I can only guess what that was like. Then I say something that surprises even me: "I think I may have missed my calling as a prostitute."

Of all my sexual adventures, I'd always found the power of giving pleasure on my own terms especially intoxicating. But by the time it finally clicked that prostitution could be a sensible, if highly stigmatized, way for me to make a living, I assumed it was too late. In Hollywood — my only source of information about the oldest profession — prostitutes are all hot young blondes, and I was by then a thirty-one-year-old, size twelve brunette with a gap-toothed smile. But after my revelation, I got involved in sex work activism and met ordinary women of all ages who simply knew how to work the magic of a push-up bra and some lip gloss. Finally, one night, heart racing, I placed an ad on Craigslist: "Lip Service, 28, out-call." And two hours later, I began my side career as a happy hooker.

And, of course, there is the money. I was making $1,000 a night on weekends — until the financial crisis. Now we might wait an hour or more, watching bad sitcoms, before anyone even rings the doorbell. I told a friend who works in television about my money troubles, and she asked me if I'd have to get a "real job." As if! Slum it at a predictable nine-to-fiver? I've simply moved into a cheaper apartment, and now work six nights a month instead of four. If things get worse, I'd rather move back to Canada and work illegally again.

It's both a blessing and a curse to know how much better things could be back home. One result of the Pickton serial murders is that groups like Vancouver's Pivot and the Toronto-based Sex Professionals of Canada have begun challenging the constitutionality of prostitution laws that risk workers' safety. While the former group's case was thrown out last December because none of its members were active sex workers facing a prostitution charge, the latter's is still wending its way through the courts. I daydream about setting up my own little brothel back in Toronto — maybe just a few of us sharing the cost of a three-bedroom apartment, offering services geared to disabled folks, employing a friend to answer the phone and provide security. Heartbreakingly, my little reverie always ends in terror as I imagine being arrested. But tasting a bit of freedom is quickly turning this happy hooker into a defiant whore.

– Juliet November is a feminist community organizer and former sex columnist.

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Created: May 28, 2009
Last modified: July 19, 2009
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