Going Gay for Pay

By Nic Sheff 12/03/11

To fuel his meth addiction, a straight guy sold himself to other men. But it wasn’t just money he was after.

Getting hooked Photo via

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. 

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Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.