Going Gay for Pay
Going Gay for Pay
After I finished writing my first book, I sent it around to a couple of people in my family just to make sure they were at least semi-okay with all the personal shit I was putting in there. And it’s funny, you know, the one thing pretty much everyone agreed I should leave out of my book was the brief time I spent hustling in San Francisco and New York.
Honestly, I’m not sure why the whole prostitution thing, above all the other fucked up shit I did (including stealing money from my seven-year-old brother) was the one thing everyone said I should keep to myself. Was it some kind of latent homophobia? Or maybe they worried that people would look at me like I was dirty or something. But why are people more uptight about prostitution than they are about shooting drugs? Is selling yourself more dirty or embarrassing than all the other dirty, embarrassing drug shit we do? Why?
Because it is.
I mean, I don’t know why, but it is.
It was such a desperate attempt to feel good about myself. But, then again, so was my entire history of drug use.
It’s like being the ultimate punch line to every joke about addiction. I was watching that HBO series The Wire and that’s the running gag through the first season. That detective guy is always like, “Oh, I was out on the street selling my body for crack.” Well, I never sold my body for crack, but the truth is I never really liked crack all that much, anyway. It was the meth that turned me on.
Still, what I think a lot of people don’t understand is that, for me at least, prostitution really wasn’t some desperate last option—where I’d lost all hope and was giving up on life.
Well, it was, and it wasn’t. If that makes any sense.
I mean, I’d always felt so, you know, ugly and weak and pathetic.
I felt sick and defective. I felt like there was something deeply wrong with me.
I hated myself.
I hated having to live with myself.
At first getting high seemed like the only thing that could ever make me feel any different.
But then one day some guy in the Castro offered me money when I was down living on the streets—not even for real sex at first.
And I felt…what? Like maybe I might actually be wanted by somebody. Of course, I’m straight, so I would’ve preferred to be wanted by women for sure. But, hell, I’d take what I could get. And men did seem to like me.
So suddenly, in a world where I felt like I wasn’t worth a goddamn thing, I was able to find value in myself. People wanted to have sex with me for money. And I guess I just started to think that if I let enough people pay me for sex, eventually I would feel good, or beautiful or important or whatever.
It made sense at the time.
And so I sought men out. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I needed the money. But, more than anything else, I wanted to feel beautiful. I could’ve made money in other ways. Prostitution was something I wanted to do. That sounds crazy fucked up, but it’s true. And when I was out there, you know, hustling, I’m telling you, a lot of the kids I met were just like me. They wanted to feel like I wanted to feel. They wanted to feel wanted. Because, after all, there is a certain pride in being owned.
Take a look at the classic French erotic novel The Story of O, written back in 1954. It’s all about a woman hoping to find herself through belonging completely to her lover—being a slave to his every desire and command. In the book, the character, O, believes she will find freedom through this slavery. And so she submits to torture and mutilation and debasement in the name of finding that freedom.
Now, The Story of O is obviously fictitious and surreal. But the idea of finding value in oneself through belonging to another is certainly very present in our culture. The Story of O just takes it 20 steps further. And so does walking into a cheesy gay bar in the West Village and waiting to be approached by someone…anyone. For me, it was such a desperate attempt to feel good about myself. But, then again, so was my entire history of drug use.
Every time I did a shot, I truly felt like it was gonna be the shot that finally fixed everything for me. I thought if I could only do enough of whatever drug it was, I would eventually feel whole—no longer like the alien. Turning tricks was the same way. If I could only get the right trick, or the right amount of money or more than anything else, if someone would come and claim me as their own—as their sexual slave—then I would know a peace I’d been looking for my whole life.
That’s why, to me, getting high and prostitution really was like the same thing for me. They were almost indistinguishable from one another. And that’s why I felt absolutely compelled to include it in my book. Because the truth about me and my addiction was that I truly, deeply hated myself and I was doing everything I knew how to do to try and feel better. I hated myself so much. The only thing that mattered was finding some kind of relief.
So I had to write about that. Because it was all part of it.
And I’m not alone.
The writer Dennis Cooper—whom I totally idolize—has a blog called The Weaklings where he recently posted a bunch of profiles of these boys advertising themselves as sex slaves on the Internet. Cooper’s books have long been a study in exactly what I’m talking about, which is how we, as human beings, have such fucked up ways of trying to come to terms with who we are. Like, some people take a shit load of drugs. Some people sell their bodies. Some people cut themselves or cut other people or let themselves get beat to shit or beat other people to shit. Hell, some people go to football games and get drunk with their friends and watch TV and never talk about any of this stuff at all. Some people can’t stop talking about it.
Some people join a religious organization or a cult or they play the stock market or gamble their life savings away at a casino somewhere.
We’re all trying to figure out who we are and how to live with ourselves.
Throw in some faulty wiring and fucked up brain chemistry and a predisposition to addiction and things gets even more complicated.
Or, at least, the consequences become a whole lot more severe.
Like, for me, I ended up getting beaten so badly that I ended up on life support.
Not to mention destroying all the relationships in my life and losing next to everything I had.
‘Cause, the thing is, whatever it is outside of myself I’m using to try and make me feel valuable, or complete, or whatever, is not ever gonna work. Drugs, sex, work, religion, cults, TV, money—none of those things will ever make me whole. In fact, the more drugs I shot in me, and the more sex for money I had, the more fucking depressed and suicidal and crazy I became. Because it wasn’t working. I knew it wasn’t working. But I kept trying and trying. I didn’t know what else to do.
The more drugs I shot in me, and the more sex for money I had, the more fucking depressed and suicidal and crazy I became.
And so I found myself in way the fuck over my head.
Both with the drugs and the other thing.
It all fell apart.
And I didn’t feel one tiny little fucking bit better about myself.
So what did I do?
I mean, how is it that, today, I actually don’t totally hate myself?
Because, all these years later, things have changed for me. I'm not exactly sure how.
The only thing I can say is that I actually started listening and started doing what those counselors and psychiatrists and people in meetings were telling me to do. Hell, it was no big secret. They’d been prescribing me medication, telling me what outpatient groups to go to, what doctors to see, what steps to take. I just didn’t listen. I didn’t listen and I didn’t believe.
A few weeks ago I spoke at a youth treatment facility in Minnesota to a group of kids ranging from 16 to 25 who were all in the early stages of recovery from substance abuse. And while I think I’m usually a decently entertaining speaker, that night, in front of those kids, I was totally inarticulate. Basically all I wanted to do the whole time was just jam it in these kids’ heads that they had such an incredible opportunity by being there in treatment at such a young age. Hell, that’s how young I’d been when I’d first started trying to get sober. And if I had listened to the counselors and all the people I met back then—well, I wouldn’t have had to go through all the bullshit that followed.
I could’ve gone to college, gotten a steady job, been able to take care of my family.
I mean, I’m married now. That’s what I care about now. I want to provide for the people I love. I want to take care of my dogs and to have kids one day and all that.
And while those things are still possible for me, I know that there are scars on me that will never go away. And nightmares.
But when I wake up my life is better.
And it’s getting better all the time.
Nic Sheff is a columnist for The Fix and the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, the New York Times-bestselling Tweak, and We All Fall Down. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two hound dogs, and a cat and is currently working on a novel about sisters growing up in a Northern California cult.