Sex Work Launched My Art Career in 1990 (And Why I’m Telling This Story in 2015)

sex work

By D.L. Alvarez

Recently Homeland Security busted the website Rentboy.com. The attack felt personal, partially (but not only) because I was a “rent boy” myself some 25 years ago.

It was the early ’90s and I’d just started showing art with Jack Hanley Gallery, one of the better San Francisco galleries. Jack was getting my work attention in international art fairs. There was opportunity for me to leap from hobbyist to career artist, but that leap would require an investment of time and money — I didn’t have much of either: I worked retail in a bookstore. (Remember those?).

My parents were both working class, so writing home for money wasn’t an option. I didn’t have the confidence to take on actual sex work — my self-image wasn’t that great, plus it’s not like I had a reputation as an amazing lover. I was skinny, shy, nerdy, and a bit femme — none of which are minuses, but I didn’t know that yet. What I knew was what I saw at the back of the Bay Area Reporter (In those days it was all done through print media). The escort ads were either for “sensual massage” or appealed to johns looking for trade (sex with rough boys). I needed a novelty.

I did have some experience in S&M, and there were only a couple of ads for that, both of them advertising older Daddy/Master types. Maybe I could work the market as a young top, I thought.  Then my self-doubts badgered me again: Who wants a shy, nerdy, fem top? I came across a used security guard uniform at a thrift store called Worn Out West, and pieced my niche together: “SECURITY GUARD FRISKS AND SPANKS YOU!”

I was nervous as hell placing that first ad. After only a couple of customers, however, my confidence went up quickly. Their submissiveness brought out my inner drill sergeant, and I was a natural.

I went to a neighbor and friend, a woman who worked as a professional dominatrix. She taught me more about how to hurt people without actually hurting them. I studied bondage and flogging and invested in more equipment. In short amount of time I developed exactly what I needed: a job I could do for only a few hours in a week and yet still have more than enough cash to supplement the materials and time I needed to make art.

What’s more, I felt proud. I was good at being a Dom, in part because I enjoyed it (and still do, though privately now). I started working out with a trainer, bought nicer clothes, carried myself better, and — somewhat unexpectedly — I also came to know a really nice community: my fellow sex workers.

Some I met when waiting in line at the B.A.R. on the mornings of ad deadline. Through those contacts I met others, and we formed a sex worker check-in group. This was a circle of mostly men, but also a few women.

It was like the water cooler in any office, a place where we could gather and talk about our days. Sex work can be isolating, after all, but in this room there were sympathetic ears. We built a list of johns to look out for, warning each other about men who tried to take advantage of our less than legal profession. We had a phone tree for support, and also in cases where a john might want more than one escort. Or if, say, I got a call for someone looking for something I didn’t do, like massage work, I could recommend someone else with firsthand knowledge; one of the things we would do at our circle was trade massages, a little giving back to each other.

The group’s unofficial maxim was that sex work — in all its manifestations — is healing. So, we were careful to heal each other as well. This meant being there as a presence in each other’s lives, ready to listen, to offer empathy, to give a hug or more if needed. It also informed our politics. I was active with a couple of political groups that advocated for the rights of sex workers, and got to know such local heroes like Carol Leigh (aka Scarlot Harlot). One of the guys from the group even became my roommate and a good friend.

This scenario is ideal, but it illustrates a universal truth about sex work: the people who do it are human beings.

I don’t know what it’s like to work these days, but I would guess some things stay true: 1. sex work is probably still isolating, probably more so, 2. there will always be bad johns, and 3. almost everyone does it because it’s a means of getting by in a tough economy. The way capitalism plays out in the US, without money people are at risk of not having shelter, food, healthcare, or education.

Let me repeat that last one: education. These days I’m a professor at an art university. Art school is extremely expensive and I know some of my students are sex workers. I know it partly because so many of my colleagues back in the early ‘90s were artists and students, but also because every now and then a story surfaces at school. In the case that any of my students are doing this work, I want them to know that they do not need to feel isolated.

It is American branded capitalism that is criminal, not sex workers.

By siccing Homeland Security on the livelihood of so many people, the government is engaging in bad strategy. Many people come to sex work as a way to pay the rent when other jobs or opportunities don’t pan out. Considering that this work is hurting no one, why would our government make a rough situation more desperate?

Putting someone behind bars for running a website that helps working citizens put a meal on the table is backwards and damaging. It reinforces the ancient and hurtful notion that sex workers (and less so, the people who patronize them) are degenerates to be shunned, and encourages crimes against sex workers.

Think back to Giuliani’s infamous clamp down on gay clubs in the late ‘90s. During that time, gay bashing went up considerably. When the government itself sends the message that a certain population is bad, that thinking becomes contagious and green lights the demonizing of that population.

There needs to be organizations like the one I was part of in the early ‘90s, making a safe space for people in all areas of sex work, and allowing for thoughts that frame this work as healing and an actual service. These groups need to be protected by the government, not attacked.

Image: Lettuce/Flickr

D-L Alvarez is known mostly for his visual art, which can be found in such collections as the MoMA in New York. The professional dominatrix he studied under in the early Nineties is currently his best friend and roommate. They live in San Francisco.

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