The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (A Straight, Rich, White Man)

flickr / Gabi Agu
My sex work is sharing a small piece of my authentic self over dinner. When the plates are cleared, they hand me cash and feel a little less empty.

I n the past few years I’ve probably been on over 100 dates in Portland, many of those with different men. And almost without exception these men were white, straight, cis and wealthy — in part because that’s who can afford to date me. It costs between $200-$800 to take me to dinner, depending on how much extra I need to pay my bills in my basic apartment, in my not super great neighborhood across the river in Vancouver, WA.

I’m not particularly good looking by conventional beauty standards. I’m an Old Navy size 12, my nose is far too big for my face and my nostrils are really crooked. My hair is natural — plain and brown. I chew my nails down to the quick. When I go out, I wear makeup, but I don’t do my hair. I don’t wear dresses or heels. I show up in leggings and a shirt that is too long and loose to be revealing. I’m no bombshell. Saying this isn’t to deny the privileges that come from looking like I do — it’s to paint a picture of who exactly is able to charge money for a date in a city filled with easily offended cis het white men.

Looks-wise, I could really be anybody.

But I’ve got a commodity highly privileged men in this country want so badly, they’ll pay good money to get ahold of it. I’m not talking about sex. Lots of people think what patrons of sex work value has to do with conventional attractiveness or the more elusive “sex appeal.”

And it certainly looks that way in the movies.

But what I have — what these men are so desperate for — is no secret to people of color, women, trans people, sex workers, queer people, the sick or disabled. We watch them steal and commodify it from us all the time, on a grand scale. We watch as phrases once traded only in certain neighborhoods suddenly become the “it” lingo.

We watch vaguely similar (or sometimes exactly the same) designs to the sacred ones we’ve woven and beaded for centuries get turned into underwear for tweens, or flask jackets. We see yoga classes taught by Jenny who wears a microphone. We hear it in pop music. We see it in the movies. In their conditional support of non-proximal non-profits. They just can’t get enough of it — so long as it’s on their terms.

They mine authenticity, connection, and a sense of meaning in life wherever they can get it.

When these men look at me across the table, they sometimes ask about my ancestry. Coyly, I reply, “What do you think?” I’ve been ascribed more ethnicities than I care to remember.

“Actually, I’m Native!” I say with delight. What follows is predictable. “I don’t see it. To me, you really look [insert original assumption].” “Well, then I’m flattered,” I smile. No matter how careful or prepared I am they always manage to strip things from me I hadn’t expected to give in their searching. They are relentless in repackaging me to their liking.

Yet, I’ve made a deal to exchange some of their power for mine, so I don’t lie. I don’t misrepresent myself. I ask disarming questions. I tell the truth. I listen. I reflect back what I’m told with a modest amount of skill. I make them feel heard, seen.

What I do for them can be exemplified by this conversation. I was with a man who had just been telling me about his guilt over buying a $10,000 custom couch. He picked up his PBR and turned a lowball of well whiskey in his hand thoughtfully, a combination he’d ordered after I’d absentmindedly ordered it first. He said, “You know, when I’m with you, I can drink a cheap, shitty beer. When I’m with my friends, I feel like I always have to order a nice wine or something. I don’t even like wine, or at least, I don’t care much about it. It’s more like… like I have to pretend to care. I don’t have to pretend when I’m with you.”

See, the problem with having an identity made up almost entirely out of superiority, is that it lacks substance. For all its power and benefits, these men are chaff — very little is leftover when you separate them from the act of taking from those it costs little to take from.

These shells I date, I feel a sort of pity for. Who are you if all you are is better than everyone else?

These men are relentless in repackaging me to their liking.

Once, I had a date with a man and another sex worker. She showed up in an outfit that to the untrained eye could have been a very nice afternoon tea outfit — white lace, cubic zirconia and box hair dye. Over the course of lunch I discovered she was of the exact same tribe I was, a rare occurrence for me as my tribe is small. When she left, he told me I was the “right” kind of Native — I didn’t try too hard.

In my own personal social experiment, I’ve tried to understand why this phenomenon happens — again and again. I carefully navigate privileged sensibilities until I can look up from my meal and ask the burning question: “You have all these things, why spend time with me?” If I don’t look them right in the eye, if I focus on my wine glass hard enough they tell me, “I just feel…empty.”

They’re starving for what I come by naturally, living as close to the ground as I do — connection, humanity, reciprocity, authenticity. Living on the brink of non-existence tends to give one substance — I know what’s real and important. Since social systems aren’t set up to advantage bottom dwellers like myself, we are interdependent and accountable to one another for our survival.

When you have nothing to fall back on, you learn to live in community. Whiteness is insidiously without identity. Their ability to meet their own human needs atrophies without necessity. They criticize us for what they see as laziness, dependence and self-pity when the irony of it is, we just don’t have whiteness, money, reputation, experience, and sexuality valid in the eyes of capitalism to fall back on.

Who are you if all you are is better than everyone else?

When we’re in need, we are where we “deserve” to be. In that framework, all we have is our authenticity. All we have are our identities and communities.

I am not claiming moral superiority. I mean, look at what I do for rent money. I’m suggesting that lifetime of these trade-offs comes at a price, and because they can afford it, a commodity freely exchanged within our communities becomes sought after. The nagging knowledge that their way of life is unsustainable and dependent upon the exploitation of people is always there — so they try to vacation from it with me. Without the void that oppression creates, they wouldn’t need my company. But as it is, they try and weigh down their unbearable lightness of being by tethering themselves to my substance.

I agree to share a small piece of my authentic self, over dinner, for a little while. And when the plates are cleared and they hand me their cash, they go back to their condo in Goose Hollow, or their mansion in Lake Oswego, or their Tudor style home in Laurelhurst feeling a little less anxious, a little less empty.

I won’t lie. Sometimes when I go home, I feel used — sometimes victorious — but never envious. I’ve seen what that kind of privilege does to a soul, and while I want equity, I reject supremacy as the natural way of life for any people.