How to Quit Being a Hooker
With sex addiction claiming celebrity headlines in recent years, Sex Workers Anonymous addresses the less glamorous topic: addiction to prostitution.
When Konrad Product, a 37-year-old social worker from Los Angeles, first began attending Sex Workers Anonymous meetings in LA in 1996, he was asked to take an inventory of every client he’d had since first becoming a prostitute at the age of 15. The list filled several spiral notebooks. Although he wouldn’t begin attending AA meetings until 2002, Product had always assumed that his problems were drugs and alcohol. But making that list of johns forced him to see that his biggest addiction was not to substances, or even to sex, but to the sex industry itself.
“People will ask if I’m a sex addict, and I’m not,” says Product, who quit sex work in 2005 and has been in and out of sobriety since 2002, but has been clean for the last seven months. “All of my triggers around sex are related to money or some sort of exchange—it wasn’t about the sex itself. And my work in the sex industry manifested in all those ways that they do for addicts: thinking about it obsessively, setting dates to quit and then not quitting. I was literally not able to stop turning tricks.”
But Alexandra Katehakis, the Clinical Director for the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles, says that while there is a distinction between sex addiction and sex industry addiction, she isn't convinced that sex work can truly become addictive. “There’s a neurochemical draw and shutting down of the higher cortical function in sex addiction that you wouldn’t see in an addiction to the sex industry,” she says.
While surely those who believe that sex addiction isn’t real will also doubt the veracity of sex worker addiction, Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a sober doctor who has appeared repeatedly on Good Morning America and specializes in sex addiction among other topics, says that sex industry work can be classified as a “process” addiction. “You can get addicted to the affirmation of being valued by someone for your body, although it’s a very linear form of validating yourself that’s unhealthy and destructive,” he says. “Money can help assign value to a person in a way that’s not terribly different from someone carrying a Louis Vuitton bag. Being able to say ‘I’m worth $300 for 15 minutes’ can be validating for someone with no self-esteem.”
Whatever the experts say, many with firsthand knowledge believe that what they have experienced is all too real. “We suffer from the disease of addiction, and prostitution can be an addictive behavior,” says Brenda Myers-Powell, a former prostitute for 25 years who now runs SWA meetings in the Chicago area. “It’s the addiction to the money, lifestyle, and instant love. Most people in prostitution seem to be seeking something they can’t find themselves.” A former sex worker who now works as a journalist also agrees with this sentiment. “Addiction to sex work is certainly included under the umbrella of sex addiction. It would be like comparing gin addicts to whiskey addicts: they're both alcoholics,” she says. “For me, sex work is a very powerful piece of my multi-pronged sex addiction, which also includes anonymous and group sex.”
Founded in 1987 by a former prostitute named Jody Williams, Sex Workers Anonymous (formerly known as Prostitutes Anonymous) is a 12-step support program for people either looking to leave the sex industry or simply to recover from its effects. The program—which is in over 100 cities in 49 states and four countries internationally—is similar to other 12-step programs in that it has a main text (in this case, it’s called Sold Out and is only available at SWA meetings), sponsors who take people through the steps and regular weekly meetings. All meetings are run by a leader and include opening statements, a main speaker, readings, and sharing. And like AA or NA, Sex Workers Anonymous holds no formal opinion on outside issues—including the sex industry. “We have people who are still actively involved in the sex industry attending our meetings in some cases,” said Myers-Powell. “They feel like it’s a safe environment for them and sometimes the only safe environment they have.”
While a large number of SWA-ers are drug addicts or alcoholics, not all of them became prostitutes after their substance abuse issues began. Many, in fact, tell tales of turning to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for the lifestyle they were leading. “My issues were around prostitution and not drug abuse in the beginning,” says Myers-Powell, who is also the founder and COO of The Dreamcatcher Foundation—which works to prevent sexual exploitation among women. “But I began taking drugs to cover up the abuse I experienced in prostitution. I went into treatment, but it didn’t work because it was only for the drugs. I still felt bad about myself. I never felt that prostitution was a problem, but it was ultimately the foundation for all of my problems.” (Myers-Powell has now been away from all drugs and the sex industry for the last 15 years.)
For Konrad, the mere act of attempting to solicit clients became an addictive behavior that proved difficult to stop. “You’re organizing your day in the same way that an alcoholic organizes their drinking,” he explains. “You’re logging onto a website to check your messages, wondering who you’re going to hit up that day, figuring out where you’ll meet. You’re doing a version of the needle—it’s just with your phone or your computer. But it’s the same ritual compulsive behavior.”
Katehakis nevertheless doesn’t see this type of compulsive behavior as an addiction. “I don’t think addiction is the right word for the act of doing something like checking your e-mail or thinking about your clients,” she says. “That sounds like the fear and desperation that often just comes with running a business. If it’s to the exclusion of everything else where they are forgoing other activities at the expense or isolating themselves to do it, of course, that might be a different issue.”
Of course, a compulsion to make fast money is one of the primary reasons why people get into the sex industry in the first place. That was certainly the case for Melissa Petro, a sober 32-year-old freelance writer and teacher from NYC who began working as a stripper when she was 19 and studying abroad in Mexico. Once stateside, she continued stripping and it didn’t seem like a terribly long journey from there to advertising herself on the now-defunct erotic services section on Craigslist. But Melissa, who has never been in SWA, says that while she began stripping out of economic desperation, she continued in the sex industry as a means of socio-economic opportunity. “I took pleasure from my work more so than other minimum wage jobs,” she says. “I was making $300-500 an hour as a sex worker and there wasn’t another job I could get which would offer the same freedom and flexibility while still paying that well. That being said, I don’t consider my time as a stripper to have been personally harmful. It wasn’t an act of self harm until I begin soliciting on Craigslist.”
After four months in the sex industry, Melissa felt unwilling to take other work opportunities that paid far less. ”I had lost the value of hard work and felt a sense of entitlement that privileged people often feel,” she says. “I had lost the commitment to the hopes and intentions for my life.” And yet while she readily identifies herself as an alcoholic in AA, she is less willing to view her time in the sex industry in similar terms. “I have trouble labeling my continued participation as an addiction,” she says. “The sex industry worked and kept working for me, but what didn’t work was my alcoholism because I was inebriating myself to do it. I certainly abused sex and craved it when I was out of the industry, but it was a craving to be out of myself. AA was my primary program and it’s the only program I work that deals with the issues I have.” Petro removed herself from the sex industry in 2007 and quit drinking a few months afterward but she says it wasn’t until joining the NYC Teaching Fellows program three months into her sobriety that she realized it was possible to find a well-paying career that she loved.
Of course, not all former sex workers are able to find rewarding careers and lacking a formal resume and simply engaging in traditional jobs can present other issues. “It’s hard to go from getting $1,500 to beat someone to making $10 an hour at Starbucks,” Konrad admits. “And you’re now isolated because you’ve lost all your hooker friends, so you have to build that up. Then you realize your social skills have atrophied because you’ve controlled who comes into your life, always knowing they’re going to be giving your money.
Re-entering the workforce outside of the sex industry—and re-entering the real world in general—is one of the key ways that Sex Workers Anonymous assists its members. While the program provides mentoring and life assistance to those who are prepared to leave the sex industry, Myers-Powell says that many are surprised by how difficult the journey is. “You don’t decide to leave the industry on Monday and it’s done on Tuesday,” she explains. “I had to learn how to work again, date again, interact with people out of that lifestyle—and even go to bed with someone without charging. Our literature addresses all of that.”
Simply being able to talk about these realizations and share sex industry experiences in the supportive environment of SWA is of course another benefit for attendees, some of whom have not felt similar support in other 12-step programs. “There’s a lot of shame around male prostitution in the AA rooms,” Konrad says. “I quickly learned not to share that information because I’d be judged and gossiped about.” And yet Melissa had the opposite experience. “I had no boundaries when I got sober,” she admits. “I’m a provocateur by nature and because being rejected was a fear of mine, I would try to provoke a response to see if that would happen. There was also less of a basis to be judged because I wasn’t going to the AA meetings at NYU, where it’s mainly professionals coming straight from work. I would go to the ones on Perry Street where they would be mentally ill. I felt like those were my people.”
Despite finding an open-minded environment where he could share, Konrad dropped out of SWA. “I went to a total of 10 meetings and apart from the times I brought friends, it was often just me and the woman running the meeting in there. It was literally one addict talking to another and I couldn’t just slip in and listen the way I could at an AA meeting,” he says. “She would literally make home visits and bring me food. And at that time, I wasn’t prepared to make the huge life sacrifices she was asking for. I was making deals with myself and saying I won’t do this, but will do that.”
Still, there are other reasons why a former sex worker—even one who believes that sex work is in itself an addiction—might not be open to SWA. “Most sex workers have a history of sexual trauma, so they became detached with their feelings and push these issues away,” says Hokemeyer. “That makes it less likely they’ll trust strangers and share these experiences with them. Addictions are shrouded in shame, so the meetings, where they’ll have to admit out loud what they did and talk about it, can become a terrifying place to go.”
Yet a number of former sex workers are doing what they can to lift the shame associated with their previous profession of choice. Petro has written openly about having been a sex worker and paid the price while Product is currently producing a play based loosely based on his time in the line of work. And Myers-Powell, of course, continues her efforts to help those who wish to leave the sex industry. But while all have been long removed from the sex industry, only Myers-Powell credits SWA with helping her to escape. According to Hokemeyer, it doesn’t matter what meetings a person attends as long as that goal is achieved. “I don’t see SWA and AA or NA as mutually exclusive,” he says. “I see them as complimentary to one another. Full recovery would be enhanced by doing both if there is a drug or alcohol problem as well, but people need to go with where they are most comfortable so they can get better.”
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.