The H-Word presents first-person stories from current and former sex workers across the US. TRIGGER WARNING: The following story includes a description of a sexual assault. You can bypass this scene by skipping the paragraph following the pink box. Here's Emma, a former Craigslist call girl:
I lost about a hundred pounds my sophomore, junior year of college. I came back from summer a lot thinner, and I was getting attention from men I had never gotten before. When I lost that weight, it felt like an opportunity to run amok.
I was nineteen or twenty. I was dating a lot. I was away from home. I had come from the Midwest and went to a school in the big city. It was an expensive school. I compared myself to the other kids at my college. They were all loaded and their parents took care of everything, whereas I'd always had to work. I had never gotten an allowance. I can't blame where I went on needing money but I definitely grew very resentful. It started with money. This world that I was looking at, I didn't understand how you got into that. I had bought the lie that you got that just by being smart and good. I worked an unpaid internship and the other girls I worked with had so much that I didn't.
People are not nice to fat people. I didn't realize it until I lost the weight. I was not prepared to deal with male attention. I didn't know how to meet people so I started online dating, which pretty much meant that I would go out and meet these guys at a bar and get really drunk and sleep with them, and that was like dating at the time. I was just having fun. I had been with a guy when I'd started college and we'd broken up when I lost all the weight. He had been super possessive and jealous. That guy had totally destroyed my self esteem. I had just come out of this relationship, I didn't want to be in another one. I just wanted to have fun.
I graduated to "casual encounters" because that was pretty much what I wanted, and that was exciting to me. I billed myself as a young college girl. I liked older, married men. I found myself attracted to the men who would be most attracted to me. Men who would be grateful. It took me a very long time to realize that many guys just want to have sex with women—that their interest in me said nothing about me or whether I was attractive or what. At the time, I got a thrill at each interaction. Now I realize it doesn't, but at the time I thought it really proved something.
At some point I got it in my head that if I was doing it anyway, why not move over a section and get paid for it? It was also sexually exciting. Anything that seemed degrading has always been very hot to me. Still is. I'm a feminist and I was working at a women's nonprofit at the time and I totally believed—and still do—in a woman's right to do whatever she wanted with her body. In my head, it was like "I'm in charge of this, and if I want to do this, I can." I felt empowered sexually. For a lot of girls, they just want to make money, and do as little as possible. For me, I was very aroused by the fantasy. My fantasy was pleasing men. I was trying to make it more than a transaction.
Once I started charging, it became addictive for me. I could definitely spend eight hours just sitting there, posting ads, responding to ads, chatting to people. It put me in a trance. It might take all day to find the right guy. In my head, I was finding out enough information to know this guy's not going to kill me. In reality, what are five emails going to tell you about that? In my mind, I felt like I was getting a sense of the person, and I could tell if they were crazy or not.
Once, I met this guy. I went out to Brooklyn—now I live there but at the time I didn't go to Brooklyn. I went to his place and we're sitting there and he gives me a speech about how I didn't have to do anything, all he wanted to do was talk. Then, as we're talking he says, "You know what I would really like to try that blow job out, if you don't mind." Of course I didn't mind, that's what I'd come to do, but the way he had started out by telling me I could have the money without having to "do anything," as if he was a saint. I remember we used a condom for the oral, which I rarely did. I knew that hookers were supposed to use condoms for everything but I hated the taste. And I hated the guy. That was a terrible experience.
Sex for money was totally different than just having casual sex. The dynamic shifts. It's not about you anymore. You become their employee. The money was a turn-on. Sometimes it was very sexy and sometimes I was attracted to the person and sometimes I had great sex. And sometimes I was just going through the motions and it was neither good nor bad. And sometimes it was really unpleasant and I just got through it.
I was raped, once. I went over to this guy's place, and he was definitely a give-you-orders type, which was hot at first. I had gotten used to a sort of date-like atmosphere as a precursor to sex, but this guy, when I first arrived—I was smoking a cigarette and he pulled me onto his lap, pushed up my shirt and started rubbing my tits. I'm like, "Oh, I guess we're getting right to it." It started out alright. He was a little bit rough, but I liked that. The thing was that he had wanted anal, and I had said no way. That wasn't really something I did on dates. I had said no, in emails, when he asked me for that. And he just sort of went for it anyway. I said no, and he forced it on me. At one point, he was kissing me from behind and saying "sssh!" as if he was comforting me. And another point he put his belt around my neck and he was, like, choking me with the belt. I thought I was going to die. Honestly, I thought, "This is how hookers die."
When it was done I just took the money and left. He acted like it was nothing, and I acted like it was nothing. I played along with him that nothing had just happened. I felt like I had a choice in that moment, and I just left.
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with having sex for money. But spiritually, it took me to a bad place. I didn't know how to take care of myself then. I started drinking more and more. When I stopped having sex for money, I started using coke. Physically, I started feeling like I was looking used up. I lost track of who I was. At some point in my life I think I got the message that sexual attraction was love. Intellectually I know that doesn't make sense, but it's still there. I was not honest with myself about how prostitution was affecting me and I didn't realize it until I stopped. It did have a negative effect on me and I completely denied that. Early in life I must've gotten really good at blocking out my feelings. I really didn't see how all the other problems in my life were connected to the pain I was causing myself by having sex for money. I'm by no means cured of this thinking but I can see it now. I still value my sexuality, but I had blown it out of proportion. At some point, I had made it the only thing about me that was important.
It's been seven years. I still do it sometimes, if I need the money. Today what's important? I'm just figuring that out.