Loading…
0:00
13:03

I have an every-Tuesday man who brings me gifts in the strip club where I still dance topless. Never jewelry or Gucci bags — things most strippers want so we can flip them for cash to pay rent and bills — but paintings with heavy frames and, on a different week, a large Ziploc full of matches. The matches are keepsakes from fancy cafés he visited while on vacation in Greece and Paris. These are the same places he talks about during our half-hour private lap dances in VIP, where I tilt my head and pretend to listen in a red lace bra and G-string, as if I can bridge the impossible distance between his loneliness and our routine embrace.

Truth is, I like my Tuesday man. His dirty blond surfer curls that drift to his collarbone, and the way he likes me to pull them. The way his palms sweat and his wet lips quiver at my slightest touch. The way he gasps when I shoot my leg up to the ceiling, foot pointed like a red rhinestone arrow. His daughter’s name, Sylvia, is tattooed across his tanned left shoulder.

Sometimes my Tuesday man sneaks a wet tongue inside my bra or licks my neck, and I have to remember to splash my chest with cold water afterward and dry off with a scratchy paper towel. In the year that he’s been my regular, we’ve never spoken on the phone or stepped outside this grubby strip club — not even to bask in sunlight inside the smoking patio cage. He doesn’t talk about Sylvia or his wife much, even when I ask. He steps into our half-hour routine carnival ride, and then he pays me, hugs me way too tight. He says, “See you next Tuesday.” He leaves.

Single-serving intimacy is one of the benefits of being a sex worker, because it’s emotionally safe and contained. It never breaks its promise of cash-for-touch. It’s reliable, honest, and guaranteed money, and it’s the one job where I can show up unannounced with zero dollars and leave with several hundred. It can be emotionally complicated: Sex work is the place where I thrive and feel valued, but my dating life has been a failure and shitshow of broken engagements and nasty breakups. So, recently I decided to try something new.

I’ve been a celibate sex worker for several months now. Cultists abstain from sex to demonstrate their devotion and prove their religious conviction, but I’m not celibate for religious reasons. I don’t have a guru. In the past, I’ve often found it useful to quit things in order to see them clearly — to reboot and begin anew. I’ve quit many things for long periods of time (or, in some cases, forever): meth, alcohol, sugar, cigarettes, coffee, men, lying, bulimia, birth control, speaking to one or both parents, stealing, biting my nails, contacting my exes, shopping. Whenever I quit something for a while, I can see what it’s doing for me, and most important, what it’s doing to me. As for meth, it nearly killed me — stole my teeth, sleep, and every single person who was important to me — and my tendency to chase a reticent partner or choose lovers who shot heroin kept me alone. My intimate relationships have always fallen short of sex work and the unconditional positive regard I get while climbing a pole in a lace thong. So I have surrendered.

Photo by Jennifer Alicia Grant

Being a slut was frowned upon in the small town where I grew up — unless you were a man; then you got away with it. I attended a private Catholic school for the first six years of my education, and I wasn’t a spectacularly promiscuous teenager. I was a cheerleader with early ’80s New Wave hair and a bisexual Mormon boyfriend who was usually on acid and looked like an effeminate James Dean. When my parents divorced, my dad got a tan and a new silver-and-blue 280ZX Nissan convertible. He screwed around while my mother started smoking Moore Menthols and stopped eating. When another man wanted to date my pretty paralegal mom, she took me along to his house as a buffer. Together, we sat in our bathing suits in her gentleman caller’s hot tub while she drank chardonnay and chain-smoked. The man had a handlebar mustache that reminded me of a walrus, and I could tell he wanted to bone my mom by the way he held his cigar and his mustache twitched. His eyes twinkled. And I could tell Mom didn’t want to. She glanced at her watch and bolted upright, said something about it being a school night, handed me a towel, and we dried off. The man kissed her, and she drove us home. She kept him in her back pocket as a lifelong friend to whom she turned when she needed a favor or a hot tub.

Ten years later, I moved to San Francisco to experience the glory of gutter-whoredom. I learned how to fuck like I make my mom’s Crock-Pot chili — by heart. I came of age in the queer ’90s scene where, along with drugs, sex was my friends’ biggest priority. Fisting parties happened in secret behind a curtain at a scuzzy bar in SoMa with a huge, melting white candle that dripped off the edge of the bar. Men sucked each other off in the bathroom with broken doors. It was normal to look up and see a naked man dangling from meat hooks fastened to beams at a massive warehouse party on Folsom Street. I remember the day my roommate came home and said, “I got fisted!” like she’d climbed a mountain.

Playing the “beautiful whore” for more than 25 years has a powerful vibration, and it can become addictive like anything else. In the lap-dancing clubs of San Francisco, it was practically unconscious: the zone I dipped into after a long shift as a house girl, clocked in for booty duty. Knowing how to make men notice my ass was basic math. As was purposely wearing a bra too small so my nipples popped out and I could murmur, “My nipples have a mind of their own.” I smiled as my knees ground into the bare, wooden stage, then bruised while I snatched dollar bills after my three-song set.

Photo courtesy of author

To this day, I could never pull off the standoffish regal stripper act. I’m pleasant and talkative. I calculate the moment to approach a guy; the second his eyes adjust to the dark-red light from the blazing sun outside. Getting the timing right is math, science, and religion. Knowing when it’s correct to graze a knee, squeeze a thigh — to seal the deal. Grinning through blistered toes and dancing on insane heels, no matter what is going on in my life.

I didn’t plan to become a celibate sex worker.

About a year and a half ago, a woman I’d never met emailed to tell me my long-term live-in boyfriend had cheated on me. A close friend had just died from breast cancer only 10 days earlier. Shock and confusion rattled me. I didn’t sleep for weeks. After the funeral, my boyfriend moved out, which crazy-glued death to sex for me in a visceral way that I am still trying to untangle. While recovering from both losses, I got busy going to therapy and took breath-work classes and stripped the whole time. I figured that, in a few months, I’d be dating online like everyone else.

But that’s not what happened.

The emotional safety net of sex work was comfortable, because it had always supported my life. Romantic love and dating had destroyed it.

I’m a Tinder virgin. I’ve never used a dating app, or site, or any video-dating program. I’ve also never hooked up with or dated anyone I’ve met online unless it paid. Terrified of Bumble, Tinder, and intimacy in general, I’ve listened to podcasts where millennials talk about fucking, hooking up, and dating, and their conversations have often echoed familiar disappointments, insecurities, and rejections. What I’ve gleaned: The only thing dating apps provide is the ability to meet quickly and have sex, but they don’t change the feelings and cultural expectations surrounding sex. Guys still ghost. Girls want closure.

Before I became celibate, I tinkered with a profile. I deleted it. I listened to my female friends who lamented dating fiascos. I decided if I was going to have any sexual relationship, paid or not, I had to trust myself to make sound choices. But I lacked a blueprint for that.

So I vowed to be extremely discerning in the area of sex. I set some bottom lines — lines I would not cross. For instance, I would not date civilians for 90 days or more. I would not meet clients outside the strip club who I did not like or trust, and I would set strong parameters around what I would and would not do. I would not flirt with men socially if my motives were purely professional. I began to notice when I didn’t want to be touched, and I jumped back when strangers grabbed my arms and said, “I love your tattoos!” I extended a hand to shake when folks tried to hug me.

I wanted to harness my sexual energy and use it more deliberately. In this time before celibacy, I was filled with so much rage. I was frightened. I didn’t trust anyone. So I made another decision: I did not want to use people as sexual vending machines or allow myself to be used as such. This temporary distance from sex and dating in my personal life felt like a loving reprieve instead of punishment or a defense against pain.

Photo by Jennifer Alicia Grant

To make all this work for me, I had to change my patterns. In the past, when I was hurt by a breakup or got rejected by someone I loved, I often put myself in risky situations. Like the man I met at a motel, who looked like he was reaching for a gun when he suddenly bent over. Or the way I sprinted to the strip club and sought comfort and cash immediately after a relationship ended. Nothing tickles a boner like a sad stripper, and men found my sorrow intoxicating. My ego always got stroked and my bank account always fattened up. It’s as if these men sensed the rumble of heartache beneath my black stockings and wanted to help me, even if they were skittering away from the pain of their own failed relationships: a daughter who refused to speak to them, an ex-wife who hated them.

Once celibate, I still took my sorrow to the strip club, but now it was among friends and I knew the sadness would pass. I began to run every day. I spent more time with close personal friends. I meditated. I set a timer for five minutes, and then 10. I showed up to work and stripped until I was tired. Then I went home, put on fuzzy zombie pajamas, and went to sleep alone.

Recently, my best friend asked me to speak at her wedding. Since my track record has been iffy in the area of love, I didn’t know what I could offer. So I asked some people who were in relationships to tell me about love. I asked a gay rabbi and his husband of 20 years. I asked two women who had each been married to men previously, had gotten divorced, and were now dating fearlessly.

At the wedding reception, I tapped my champagne glass with a butter knife, stood up, and met the eyes of all the couples. I said love is unbreakable, like Gumby. It bends and twists and is all green and gets dirty. It can almost be destroyed — maybe it needs to almost be destroyed — before it can bounce back to its original form: perfect in design, with the ability to stretch beyond the limits of past hurts with a goofy, crooked smile.