Why I Chose to Have a Pimp
Downstairs, in the back office, is a man. He’s around 50 years old; we’ll call him “Bryan.” Bryan is counting out stacks of twenties and dividing them between plastic wallets. Some of the money is going to the bank to pay the rent on the building or to pay the wages of the reception staff. Lots of it is going to him or his business partner. I don’t know much about his business partner. I know it’s another middle-aged man. I don’t really need to know much more.
I’m not sure how much Bryan earns. I don’t know how much the rent or bills are in this place, only that a few years ago, the cops seized nearly $60,000 in a raid, which seems like a lot of money to have lying around. Considering that the receptionists earn minimum wage and we have to pay a flat fee just to get on the schedule (never mind the cut we pay them from each client), I have to assume it’s a lot, though Bryan frequently complains about the cost of bills and tries to ration things like showers.
I don’t see Bryan often. I tend to work only 12 days a month, and he’s not here every day. When he does come in, however, he pokes his head around the door of the girls’ room and watches us all for a few moments, each of us in various states of undress, curled up in our single beds, standing at the counter doing our makeup, or sitting at the little table eating a meal. He doesn’t say much, perhaps a quick hello, just lets his eyes drift over us one by one. He’s checking on us; not checking in to see how we’re doing, no, but checking on us in the detached way a business owner might glance over a factory floor or a stockroom — making sure everything looks in order.
Bryan’s peep into the chaos of the girls’ room isn’t predatory, though it startled me at first. When he took over the business, he came in one night while I was the only girl working and made me hot chocolate and asked me about the future. We talked about my history degree. If you catch him on the way in, before he has his business head on, he will stop for a chat. He likes to dole out advice, all of it terrible but well intended. I’m not sure why he’s running a brothel, really, but then he isn’t particularly involved unless he’s firing someone.
Legally, Bryan is my pimp. Under his instruction, men are sent into the vinyl room he provides for me, and I have sex with them. He takes a chunk of the proceeds. I resent him for this, particularly considering the poor attempts he and the other staff make at advertising us, which is theoretically what I am paying them for. From a moral viewpoint, I hate him. It enrages me how little work he does, how much he earns by charging other men for access to my body. The mere concept of a boss extracting surplus value for my sexual labor infuriates me. The fact that I am met with the blanket statement of “you chose to work here” whenever I express concern about a rule change makes me livid. But still, I hope business is good enough for me to work here indefinitely.
Sex work abolitionists, hold onto your pearls: I like my pimp.
I wouldn’t go to dinner with him or talk to him longer than necessary, in the same way I wouldn’t spend time with any man I have so little in common with. But as a person, I feel a strange, guilty affection for him, just like I’ve felt for any boss I’ve ever had.
Most of my sex worker friends are independent. They make critical comments about the idea of handing over half my earnings to some man who has never had to endure what we do or about the number of clients I have to see on a busy shift without being able to tap out. Occasionally they are incredulous: I’m a smart girl, they say, why don’t I pick the independent option? I could make so much more money and see fewer clients.
To understand why I work in a run-down brothel, we have to go back to when I was 11 years old. My best friend was Anna from down the road. I scored super high on my year-six exams, and I was about to begin dealing with a downward health spiral that still affects me today.
During the first week of the summer holidays, my mum took us to the cinema — a big treat. During the movie, I felt sick and began sweating, unable to concentrate. In the car on the way back, my head lolled, and I couldn’t support it anymore. Then, all I felt was heat and pain and nausea and the days began rolling into one another. I was diagnosed with swine flu and was horribly sick all that summer, and it turned out that the dirty cinema lobby was the last time I ever felt real.
Sometimes, clinicians refer to myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) as post-viral fatigue syndrome (PVFS). You have a virus, and you never really recover. It’s like having the flu, but it doesn’t end. It took six years for me to be diagnosed. Nobody thinks “tired” is a legitimate health concern.
They diagnosed me with myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic pain — something I hadn’t even realized I had. I thought everybody felt this awful all the time.
ME isn’t just feeling tired. I had two episodes where I woke up and everything from the waist down was on fire, like I had been dipped in acid, almost unable to walk. My hands started shaking at random times. I would sleep for hours when I got home from school, waking up just to eat and do homework. The cognitive symptoms were the slowest to creep up on me: a gradual drop in academic performance, the inability to recall basic facts. Sometimes, people would ask me a simple question and I would stare at them.
But my decline was getting more and more rapid.
Halfway through year 12 of school, I crashed. I was attending only about seven hours of classes a week. I could barely stay conscious. Doctors couldn’t deny that something was wrong. I had test after test after test. They cycled through autoimmune conditions but found nothing that really fit. Finally, they diagnosed me with ME and chronic pain — something I didn’t even realize I had. I thought everybody felt this awful all the time. I still remember the rheumatologist pressing his fingers into my skin and explaining to me that, normally, people don’t wince at that.
The most infuriating part of my illness was that I couldn’t think like I used to, couldn’t string together sentences easily or see patterns or understand things, and it was like I wasn’t myself.
In my first year of university, I slept 16 hours a day. I couldn’t find a job that I was well enough for. I didn’t qualify for anything but the lowest possible amount of student finance. I dipped in and out of sex work but hit barriers everywhere I turned. I couldn’t reliably book clients in advance because my health was so unpredictable. Messages would go unanswered in my inbox because I was too ill to reply. I saw clients, but they were few and far between.
By second term of my second year, things had taken a positive turn. I was getting better. It can happen with ME patients; symptoms and the progress of the illness is so unpredictable. I was sleeping only 12 or so hours a day. As long as I didn’t push my limits, I could generally manage my life. Even my cognitive symptoms improved. In return for this ability to stay conscious and think clearly, however, my pain increased in severity. Sometimes I would be walking to class and find myself doubled over in pain. I was still poor and still sick, but I was just about well enough to do something about it.
A few months into this shaky half-recovery, I found the brothel on the internet and called. I had a shift within days.
Sex work is hard. I won’t sugarcoat it. In my brothel, we work 13 hours on, 11 hours off. During the day, I am free to sleep downstairs while waiting for clients. I stumble upstairs when the bell rings, pulling on my heels on the way. In the final year of my degree, I was surrounded by books, tapping out my dissertation between bouts of anonymous sex. I do not enjoy my job, but I will always be thankful. When I found out I was graduating with a first-class degree, I collapsed on the stairs. Despite my hatred for Brian and my situation, working for him gave me the space to put my life back together after being so ill.
I don’t want to glorify my pimp. I don’t want to exonerate him.
Brothel work is different from independent work in many ways. Our brothel has never advertised us as “high-class companions” or “highly educated courtesans” with long lists of talents. My clients are almost all working class — builders, laborers, shop workers — and they don’t expect anything more from me than a willingness to get naked. There is something a lot easier about stepping into a room with a man and letting him fuck you without all the bullshit pantomime, the constant playing to their egos, the seduction, the facade that he is a suitor and I want to be there. I greatly admire the escorts I know who perform this erotic and emotional labor, and perhaps one day I will have the energy to return to it. But for now, earning $25 for a 15-minute blow job is better than not earning anything at all.
I don’t want to glorify my pimp. I don’t want to exonerate him. I don’t want to pretend that sex work is fun for me or that I haven’t been raped at work or that I enjoy handing over a chunk of money to a man who has done nothing to earn it. But I also don’t want to pretend that my situation is a unique horror under capitalism or that my experiences of sexual violence have been isolated to the sex industry or that my boss is doing anything different from what bosses all over the world do when they ignore the working conditions of their employees.
I’ve been unraveling my own situation and my feelings toward it, letting go of the anger I hold so close to me. I understand exactly where I am and why I am here, and I know it’s not my fault. What are any of us doing but making the best of the absolutely brutal situation we’ve been put in?
Once, a woman I admire very much asked me how I could possibly justify the existence of pimps and brothel owners. I want to answer this as honestly as I can, but it’s difficult. As a leftist and a feminist, I dislike their existence. But as a disabled sex worker, my opinion on their role in my life doesn’t change my material circumstances. I don’t have to justify having a pimp when it’s the reality of my survival. At this point, I just have to survive.