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Author | Photos Nicole Bazuin

Modern Whore: Inside the Life of a Sex Worker

If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in a soul-sucking, low-level job, the idea of becoming an escort – and getting paid big bucks to fuck – can certainly appeal.

Andrea Werhun‘s new book, Modern Whore: A Memoir, is a fascinating glimpse into what sex work is really like for one Toronto twenty-something. Through personal anecdotes, gorgeous photos and near-mythical prose, we are invited to see johns from her perspective – a refreshing break from the usual narrative of prostitute as victim/villain.

Christened “Mary Ann” (due to her resemblance to the Gilligan’s Island girl), Werhun dives headlong into Toronto’s sexual underworld. From jet-setting executives to washed up man-children living in their parents’ basements, her clients are recounted and are at times scary, infuriating and funny. All the while, Werhun maintains her sense of humour and a sharp eye on the complex dynamics of sex and power. It’s not a cautionary tale; she loves the work aspect, but it’s keeping her profession hidden from “regular” society that eventually gets to her.

We spoke with Andrea on the phone this week.

 It was me indeed, but someone and something greater. A new friend, companion, and partner-in-crime smiled back at me and her name was Mary Ann. She wore short skirts, thigh-highs and high heels, loving each and every moment she fucked and got paid. Each man his own world, I embarked on a voyage of new bodies, new lives, and new ways of touching the other. ~Precipice, Modern Whore

SDTC: What was a bigger decision – to work as a prostitute, or publish a book about the experience?

AW: I think the buildup to working as a sex worker was actually a more harrowing experience. I’ve always considered myself a writer, so the telling of my story was not as scary as jumping into an industry where I have no way to contextualize, no way to understand – except by just doing it.

The agency’s cut of a typical call was $100, where you would get $160. Did you ever consider working as a freelancer?

I did, but the truth is, it’s a lot of work managing advertising, establishing a solid clientele, a screening process, a driver, working the phones, managing my time. I never felt that the agency cut was that steep considering all I had to do was get picked up by a driver, dropped off in a hotel room, collect my money and leave. I didn’t have any obligations to speak to clients outside the time I was getting paid for it. As an independent, those lines are blurred.

What does it feel like to have people pay you good money to sleep with you?

It feels pretty sweet! I like sex, and I like money, so marrying the two makes perfect sense. Combined with the flexibility of the work and hiring potential, it’s a dream job in a lot of ways. It’s not the job I want to do for the rest of my life, but most people don’t always do jobs that they want to do for the rest of their lives; they need to make money to survive. Sex work is just such a great option for someone like me. I detest a 9 to 5, salaried, locked-at-a-desk position; that’s my nightmare. It’s pretty awesome to be pleasured and to be paid for it. 

Any experiences that you loved? Loathed?

Well, multi-hour appointments with men that can’t get their dick up. Or sleeping, and getting paid to sleep, or travelling, and getting paid to travel. That was pretty amazing. Also the relationships I had with the sensitive and intellectual clientele and the conversations that we’d have, the growth that it inspired in me. I was able to engage with such maturity that I (as a twenty-one year old) wasn’t accustomed to. 

As far as shitty things, it’s an incredibly tiring job. It takes a big toll physically. It’s emotional and physical labour and I found that those two in conjunction created a level of fatigue I hadn’t felt before or since. I felt so tired at the end of the night. I never felt like I got enough sleep. 

I really enjoyed the section where you post clever rebuttals to online escorting reviews (written by “hobbyist” johns) that you received. Was that a motivating factor to publish this book?

Reading a detailed description of one’s performance in bed, and knowing that I could not respond in the same forum because the boards are not for me to respond (these are all potential clients, and if you jump in like that, it’s not going to look good on you), it’s almost deliberately silencing.

In order for me to respond, I’d have to establish a new form to do that. The book was the perfect place to do that. Being able to tell my version of events – after reading a version I didn’t feel was very accurate – was a big motivating factor for me to tell my own story, for sure.

What do you want people to know about what sex work is really like?

For one thing, it’s a job. Not everybody likes their job. You may derive some meaning from your work, but at the end of the day, you’re doing it for money. And that, at a very basic level, we’re human beings. By hearing the stories of sex workers from people who have real lived experience in sex work is an important step in supporting our fight towards getting full human rights.

Recognize that we are all the same, and we all feel the same things. To relate to us is to recognize our common humanity and need for dignity and respect. To me that’s the most important thing: to recognize the humanity. Because without recognizing our common humanity, it’s easy to just sweep our experiences under the rug and not change anything.

What is one aspect of sex work that would surprise most people?

How easy it is. I think there’s a lot of fear – you’re scared about how risky it is. But for me, when I did that first appointment, I realized it was very easy for me as someone who likes to connect to people. And gets off on pleasuring others and is happy to be pleasured. It was great work for me. It felt easy. As opposed to working in a café, and getting to know how everything works, and pretending to take it really seriously – that’s kinda hard, in a way. I love jobs where I’m not being watched by a boss over my shoulder. I’m trusted to do what I need to do in private. 

What does the emotional labour in sex work look like? Feel like?

I think anyone who has experience in the service industry is familiar with “service with a smile” and the emotional burden that comes with that. In the job, one’s role is basically to make the client feel like they are the only person in the room. Of course, often they are. But to give them your full attention; not to look at your phone or get distracted. They’re there to feel appreciated, cared for, loved, even.

I found early on that men are pretty simple. They wanted to be listened to. They wanted their jokes to be laughed at. They just wanted to feel that they mattered. And that was my emotional labour. For the most part, I don’t find that terribly difficult unless somebody is being a total asshole to me. We are known as untrained therapists, we play the role of psychologist often. We have a lot loaded onto us, and that can be quite intense. We still need enough energy at the end of the night to be able to return to ourselves and not take any of that baggage with us. Therapists are trained to do that; sex workers aren’t. It’s self-learned. Of course, there are coping mechanisms to deal with that that are both positive and negative.

How would you deal with that emotional burden? 

I would just come home, sit on a big chair, count my money, and go to sleep…very cleansing! [laughs] For me, the most important thing has always been feeling free enough, at least with one person, to tell them how my night went and the things that happened, whether they were good or bad or mediocre.

I was blessed, and continue to be blessed, with a partner that saw my work as work, so he’d often be at home in bed waiting for me to come home. He never would judge me about the work. He’d ask me how my night went and I’d be able to tell him about it. That was a huge relief; having support systems in an industry where you literally can’t tell anybody because the stigma and the shame is related to it. Most people don’t understand what goes into this kind of work.

You recall some disturbing encounters where you were attacked or boundaries were crossed. Why do you think some men prey on sex workers (aside from the whole “behind closed doors” aspect)?

I think it has to do with the entitlement of impunity, legally. Having power over women, generally speaking. And knowing that, because of the criminalized nature of the law, if they did choose to lash out at a sex worker, she’s not going to go to the cops. It’s the law that breeds this predatorial playground. Sex workers cannot report these crimes because there’s a really good chance that if they do, they (and not their attacker) will end up in jail.

Did you come out of this experience seeing sex (in general) in a more positive or negative light?

I think immediately to the fact that the majority of my clients are married. Sex plays into power dynamics. The entitlement that a married man feels to have sex with an escort plays to the fact that he has this privileged membership in our society that makes him feel like he can do it, and it’s not cheating. It’s a business transaction. He’s not emotionally involved, so there’s no harm in what he’s doing. But if that were truly the case, he’d be open to his wife about it. And he’s not.

I had one client tell me, “I could tell my wife, and I think she would understand and be okay with it. Or I tell her, and she leaves with fifty per cent.” Men have a lot at stake by being honest about their sexuality, and what they actually want, and what the purpose of a marriage is, or what the purpose of a whore is.

I really think that wives and whores have a lot in common and traditionally hate each other because we fight over men. It’s so stupid. It’s easy to blame the wife in a patriarchal society (he has to stray because she’s not having sex with him), and that’s just not the case. The man feels entitled. And feels he can do whatever he wants outside that marriage. And she can’t. We don’t have the structure in place for women’s pleasure and women’s sexuality. As we talk about sex work, I think it needs to be concurrent with the institution of marriage. I think those two fundamentally work together in a way we haven’t confronted yet.

Money and flexibility aside, what was the biggest perk of this job?

As a writer, what I love is getting to meet new characters. Everyone has a story, a perspective. Even if their outward lives are bland and mediocre, I find the reasons that they’re seeing someone like me interesting. There’s always something I can talk about with them. I always go for the topics of politics and religion – I want to get to the core of people. Just having a variety of people to act with. What I also found striking was that I felt like I was interacting with levels of power I wouldn’t normally have access to, and not only that, I was having sex with them. There was something very empowering about that, in a funny way. 

Why did you feel you needed to get out of the business?

I had that sort of ultimatum – well, not an ultimatum, but a contract I signed with my mom a year into my foray. I was starting to feel the weight of having to hide myself all the time, and the shame, and starting to feel I was losing myself a little. Not because of the work itself – I loved the work – but because I had to make up stories to people I didn’t really know about how I made money. I had to continuously hide. And I’m not good at hiding. I’m a very much an expressive, free person. I’m aware of any chains being placed on me.

My mom said, “When are you going to quit?” I thought, Okay, a year. I figured a year would give me enough time to make as much money as I could, write down as many details as I could, and get as much out of the experience as I could. Then I could start a new, potentially more conventional life. But it didn’t quite work out that way. I tried to be normal afterward but I was surrounded by internal demons that I needed to just leave behind.

So then you went to work on a farm. How did that shape how you framed your experience as a sex worker?

I think there’s something to be said about working with one’s hands in a natural environment. It’s metaphorically rich, to be able to watch these plants grow from seedlings, and take care of them, and cultivate them, and feed people. It felt like I was coming back to some fundamental, essential part of myself. To be doing this work outside, and working with the earth. And working hard. I think that was a big thing for me because there’s so much stigma around sex work as not actually being “work.” You feel like you don’t deserve the money you’re making, that somehow you’re conning people. You internalize this stigma. It’s not true. But something about going in the opposite direction, and working for twelve hours a day for $2 an hour – it felt compensating. It gave me time to reflect on all my experiences and heal. It was a healing experience, after feeling like I lost myself.

You can order Modern Whore: A Memoir here or meet the author yourself (and get a discount on pre-purchased books) at the book release party on December 6th at Super Wonder Gallery (584 College St). Get tix here.

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