I was living in Austin, TX during my early 20s tending bar in the club scene filthy with cheap ecstasy, awesome DJs, and beautiful people. The debauchery was relentless and fairly harmless.
I shared a little house in the barrio just east of I35 with a handsome Latino named Mark (names have been changed for no real reason as my friend would love to see his name in print). We dated briefly before realizing that wasn’t such a great idea. We had settled into being buddies by the time we became roomies.
Mark dated a lot. But Mark often dated guys that didn’t match up with his recreational interests. I also noticed that Mark had a separate phone line in his room.
One day I was teasing Mark about a nice man in his 50s who liked to take him to Dallas and New York from time to time. After a bit too much gentle ribbing about sugar daddies and kept boys, Mark took me into his room, had me sit on the edge of his bed, and played his phone messages for me.
I wasn’t totally shocked. I did, however, have to stifle the urge to bust out laughing. Some of the guys leaving messages were nervous. Some tried to be clever, some urbane. They did have one thing in common. They were all looking for Mario, a hot Italian callboy who advertised in the local fag-rag and billed himself as, “versatile, hung, and available 24-7 for in or out.”
As I listened to the messages one after another, the light bulb started to glow. That’s why Mark often left in the middle of night without explanation. That’s why the guys he hooked up with in the bar were so different than the guys he “dated.” And that explained the separate phone line in his room, the phone that would forever after be called the Bat Phone.
I lived vicariously through Mark for the next few months. He’d let me listen to the Bat Phone messages with him. He’d tell me all the details of his dates: the good, the bad, and the ugly. He even spilled it when one of the guys I worked with called Mario. They recognized each other at the initial meeting and both were so embarrassed they decided to skip the whole thing.
Mark was not a typical callboy, if there is such a thing. More precisely, Mark was not what the average suburbanite thinks is a typical callboy. Mark had never been kicked out of his house. He had never spent time on the street or suffered abuse. He was from a middle class family who lived in a small town outside of San Antonio. He had a supportive Mom and a wacky sister both of whom he was close to.
Mark was articulate with impeccable taste. He was a drama jock at the University of Texas. He could sing and act and dance. He loathed the mundane and detested the sloppy. He was gorgeous and he could have landed any number of part-time jobs to put himself through school.
The fact is, Mark liked selling his body. He was smart and tried to be as safe as possible. He developed a regular clientele and he made a lot of money. He didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. In fact, he felt he provided an important service for people in need (albeit at a significant price). Most importantly, Mark was not a victim.
I know Mark’s experience is not the norm. The vast majority of sex workers don’t enjoy their work. Most are forced into the trade by circumstances beyond their control and many are exploited and brutalized. But those stories, all too common all over the world, are not at all like Mark’s.
I left Austin to go live in Mexico for a while with a trust-fund buddy who’d rented a house for a year in San Miguel. When I got back to Austin, Mark and his Bat Phone were finishing up at the university and our paths just didn’t cross much anymore. I think Mark went off to Chicago or New York to become a star. I haven’t seen him for years.
Mark left an indelible impression on me. I had never considered that someone might actually enjoy getting paid for having sex. He fundamentally changed the way I think about sex workers and the sex industry. He showed me that under the right circumstances, it can work out well for everybody involved.
However, the image of the abused, drug addicted, and powerless sex worker serves sexually repressed America well. Though we don’t mind dropping our 7th grader off at the cineplex and letting them watch the latest PG shoot-em up and we’ll let them murder and maim via computer on Sunday afternoons in the basement, don’t dry to teach them comprehensive sex education in a formal classroom with a professional educator or we’ll be standing in line with bullhorns at the next school board meeting.
This is America where gender and sexual orientation are binary systems. This is America where a perfect marriage means you never even desire another person. This is America where enjoying sex within marriage was suspect until the 1960s and we are addicted to either/or propositions. Thus, people who sell sex must be inherently flawed or abject victims.
Since those heady days living hard and fast in Austin with my entrepreneurial roommate, I’ve often sought out hookers, strippers, and hustlers because they’re interesting and I like to hear their stories. I’ve chatted up intrepid trannies working Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I’ve hung out with stripper chicks in Las Vegas and low-rent hustler boys in Mexico City. I spent a splendid afternoon in London drinking beer and listening to a blue-eyed Polish angel telling stories about doughy Londoners with lots of money and little self control. Not all the stories are pleasant to hear, but many are. I think hookers are cool, at least the ones who enjoy their work.
I wish I knew where Mark was today because I’d invite him to come with me to Let’s Do It! A night of sex worker made media. For all I know, he may be in the show.