When an escort first starts working, certain clients try to groom her. They ask if she can lower her rate, they try getting through an appointment without wearing a condom, they argue about what time they walked through the door and weasel out an extra ten minutes for free. They wear her down until either she submits, or ditches them altogether.
When I first started escorting, I thought I had to submit. It’s not like women are taught that their bodies or time have worth. A new client convinced me otherwise. The hard way.
In college, I hooked up with everyone. A boyfriend with a belly like Jell-O, a non-binary femme poet, my Mrs. Robinson-type boss. I have a Mary Gaitskill appetite for sex and kink and the newness of bodies. So after college, unable to find a job in my field and struggling to pay rent in a big city, I decided to become an escort. My friends, when I came out to them, were not surprised by my choice — they supported me.
The client’s name was John. When he arrived, he walked into my hotel room without saying hello.
“Beautiful,” he said, then kissed me with an open mouth. He slipped his hand under my skirt and into my underwear.
Aggressive greetings are part of the job, and I often enjoy them. The problem with John was that he didn’t stop for a breath, or to ask me about my weekend; I had never met him, and we didn’t have a repertoire that allowed for consensual non-consensual domination. He simply led me to the bed as he began unbuckling his belt.
I noted his eagerness, and grinned under his kiss. I was trying to slow the pace. I thought, this feels familiar.
When I was a freshman in high school, I took construction class to prove a girl could survive in it.
“You’re sure you want to take shop?” the guidance counselor asked, and lifted an eyebrow. “What about drama club?”
I shook my head and insisted on my own choice. I was the only girl in the class, but I wanted to make a point. I wanted to bring equality to a space occupied only by men, but the boys didn’t like that. One boy threw gum in my hair as I read about drill bits, one sat next to me and slid his hand up my shorts. I didn’t know how to tell him to stop. When I asked to transfer, the guidance counselor told me it was too late in the semester to do so.
“Didn’t you want to take this class?” she asked. I didn’t know how to reply. How does one say, he touched my thigh and it felt like war? How does one define the first battle?
There is an etiquette to hiring escorts. A good client places an envelope with your donation somewhere in clear sight, brings champagne or a new stack of books, and asks about your latest essay. A good client books at least two hours and takes his time.
John booked me for an hour. He walked in without an envelope. These things should have been a red flag, but I was new. As a sex worker, I didn’t know I was allowed to say “no.”
Finally, I spoke up.
“Do you have something for me?” I asked sweetly. I kissed his collarbone through his t-shirt. He stiffened.
“Excuse me?” he said. His eyes went glassy. “If anyone else asked me that, I’d walk right out the door.”
I waited for him to smile, to lighten his comment, but he was serious. His words were a threat.
What he really meant was that law enforcement often asks the same question to frame clients before an arrest. He made no move for an envelope, or even a wad of cash from his pocket. He wanted the service before he presented payment — but no one had ever made me do that.
He told me to take off my blouse and skirt and lay on the bed. I did. He put his hands on my thighs and spread them apart, leaned down to kiss me. I turned my head and he kissed my neck as if it were the same thing.
“Do you like it rough?” he said. I nodded and felt my throat tighten. His fingers could have passed through my phantom body and I wouldn’t have felt it. I was disappearing.
He took off my underwear and spread my legs wider, ducking his head to slick his tongue over my clitoris. I laid an arm over my eyes so I wouldn’t have to watch, and when he made me come faster than anyone ever had, I tried to ignore my body’s betrayal in the form of pleasure.
What if he didn’t pay me? What if I said “no” and he ignored me? As he rolled a condom on and slid into me, my eyes watered. He finished. I wiped off streaks of mascara from below my eyes. I tried to stop crying.
John moved silently as he pulled up his pants, then sat bed-side to tie his shoes.
I apologized for crying, as if I had no real reason to do so. It’s not like he had raped me. I had said yes. If a service is rendered using your body, and payment is offered for the service, does your body forfeit consent? If my body is a business, does it reserve the right to turn away customers? Is my body an individual, or a corporation, and which has more autonomy?
He finished tying his shoes.
“Can I give you some advice?” he said, then looked at me over his glasses. “Don’t do this forever.”
He shuffled around in his pants pockets, pulled out a roll of bills, and placed them on the dresser.
“Have a good weekend,” he said, then left.
Silence rung in the room like someone had boxed my ears. I couldn’t decide how I was allowed to feel.
I reached for my phone and sent a group text to high school friends, who I still keep in touch with.
“Do you guys remember when we were freshmen and I took shop?” I wrote. “There was a guy who felt me up during class.”
The overwhelming consensus was that they remembered me ditching that class every day for the library. But the boy himself was not remembered.
“I don’t think you told us about that part,” one wrote back. The others agreed.
Perhaps my memory of the situation is that I wanted to tell someone, tried to, but then never did. Perhaps I felt there was nothing to tell. After all, so much of assault is contextual; a boy’s hand on my thigh is not rape. A graze of a hand is not a verdict of guilt in a court of law. When wars begin, we pick arbitrary markers to define things we can’t see- did World War I start because Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, or because an indescribable tension rose between nations? Did Ferdinand’s body matter, or was it simply a catalyst for power?
I know how it sounds. For the last ten years I’ve thought about how the conversation might have gone had I been able to speak p.
“What if I told you I’d been assaulted in class?” I would say.
“What happened?” the guidance counselor would ask.
“A boy touched my thigh and ran his hand up my shorts.”
“Did you ask him to stop?”
I would shake my head.
“Well honey, how is he supposed to know unless you tell him?”
After John, I started to say no more often. No, you can’t negotiate my rate. No, I don’t book half hour dates. No, we can’t continue without a deposit. I have never been good at saying “no,” and while I am an introvert, I believe such a weakness is mostly a condition of being a woman. I have had to memorize that two-letter word, to spit it out and repeat it, but it never gets easy. I am at no more risk of being assaulted now as a sex worker than I was as a civilian, but I no longer believe that my job always requires a “yes.“ I no longer believe being a woman always requires a yes.
“No” has rewarded me; the more I use it, the more I can say yes. Yes, my time and body have incredible value. Yes, I have been assaulted. Yes, it counts. Yes, the words “me too“ can belong to me.
Top photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Jason Trbovich
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Emily Smith's work has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Bustle, Brevity, Ploughshares, and others. Yo can follow her on Twitter at @ESmithWrites.