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Working the streets at 15 A memoir

BY YASUKO THANH
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY JORGE AMIGO

I throw all of my money onto Jesse Diamond’s lap, his Hugo Boss
pants. It’s called “a trap,” this wad of cash shaped like the ball
of my foot and damp from hiding in my shoe, under my right
insole. His skin smells of sandalwood. He leans over my legs and
pushes open the passenger door, my pimp-boyfriend, in the IROCZ
sports car I bought him.

 

One night, a girl, who’s now dead — some said she overdosed, others said her man killed her — she and I picked up the pennies like shrapnel from the sidewalk, our painted fingernails scraping red. We waited for those men in a big gold Lincoln to come back around the block. When they were near, we flung the pennies and hailstormed the car. Then we ran and hid in the middle of a group of girls because we’d chipped the paint and those men were out for blood.
Pennies were nothing, curses were nothing. Only Jesse Diamond had the power to hurt me. Other men were nothing, and nothing can’t hurt you.
Still, it bothered me that street nurses handed me condoms with pity in their eyes on nights when the rain was blowing sideways past umbrellas, getting clothes wet. It bothered me that tricks asked why I was on the street and told me what I should be doing instead: studying for college or finding a good husband, even as they were watching me undress. It bothered me to lie to people who might have become my friends, those who didn’t know I “worked,” and say I was studying business administration by correspondence.
To tell them I was a prostitute would mean that look, the one I couldn’t control and that had nothing to do with me. Some prostitute from the movies, maybe: The Self-Loathing Prostitute, Heart-of-Gold Prostitute, Hard, Soulless Prostitute, Downtrodden Poverty-Motivated Prostitute, The Junkie or The Slut.
A decade later, a philosophy paper spreads in front of me.
I write on the topic of paternalism for a university class. In attempting a balanced approach, I include the opinion of the moral majority, which goes something like this: prostitution is an exploitive business, licentious. It is reprehensible, for the harm it causes to the community and for how it degrades human dignity. These are not morally neutral workers, many feel, providing morally neutral services. Perhaps they’re right.
I worked the streets for six years. I started at 15. Fifteen years, seven months and a handful of days. I knew I was going to turn a trick that night, but not really.
It was more just something to do, to stand out there in a pair of red boots in front of the doorway of a closed-down flower shop, walking back and forth. Word was that last week a Vancouver working girl had her breast cut off and thrown into the Fraser River by a trick with feathered blond hair that picked her up in a brown Camaro. But I was not thinking of this. I was walking back and forth in those red pigskin boots with five-inch heels, not thinking about what could happen except maybe how long I could sport this footwear before getting blisters.
Power pushed away the fears. This 15-year-old runaway would start to take care of herself: pay for a motel room, buy icecream at 24-hour gas station while the meter of a taxi climbed. She didn’t have to worry about the cost. After work she could take two bites from the dessert and leave the rest to melt decadently on the bathroom counter for the maids to clean up. This welfare-kid runaway, this private school-scholarship dropout, this social-service case file could take care of herself.

cream at 24-hour gas station while the meter of a taxi climbed. She didn’t have to worry about the cost. After work she could take two bites from the dessert and leave the rest to melt decadently on the bathroom counter for the maids to clean up. This welfare-kid runaway, this private school-scholarship dropout, this social-service case file could take care of herself.
Various studies have looked at why adolescents start selling sex. When I was working, I often felt that social services and the legal system had driven me to it. I had been denied Independent Living — welfare for youth under eighteen. I had also been jailed for shoplifting and could no longer maintain my career as a “booster”—my stint making money by selling stolen property wasn’t overly lucrative, but it still paid the bills. I had seen friends arrested and forced by police to violently choke up whatever drugs — acid or hash — they had stashed in their mouths.
The sex workers I saw wore fur coats and red pig skin boots. Dina, a 28-year-old prostitute, was paying her son’s way through a Shawnigan Lake boarding school. Dina, in those boots, always walked as if she knew exactly where she was going. She bought me my fist pair of stilettos with a $50 bill and said of the currency, “Honey, you’ll be seeing lots more.” She wasn’t lying.
Money is the trade-off for the conflicts you experience with the law, abusive customers and pimps. A common refrain among sex workers is “I’ll square-up when I’ve banked something, as soon as I get ahead.” The possibility of earning $1000 in one shift makes every night an opportunity to get ahead, but there’s some truth in the saying that honest money lasts longer.

Easy come, easy go; fast money burns. I only knew one pimp who ever saved his money. I knew more who got shot.
Girls, I felt, whether we gave our money to pimps or not, held the true power. Without us, the pimps were nothing. And the tricks, well, they’d always be around. I held the deep conviction that when the world ended, like cockroaches, us girls would survive.
I spent much of my career in the sex trade in Vancouver, a city that has been criticized for using a crime-control model of prevention. Toronto uses more of a social safety net model. Studies show that youth become entrenched in a lifestyle they might not otherwise have chosen when they pick up skills and attitudes in student-teacher type relationships, like the one I had with Dina and her red boots.
Researchers in the department of sociology at the Universities of Victoria and Toronto looked at 390 youth (34 per cent female) living in shelters, hostels and on the street. The researchers found that criminalizing young prostitutes is often more effective at making them feel like criminals than changing the social structures that made the sex trade a logical means of survival. The same study found that the Vancouver grouphad spent more time on the streets than youth in Toronto and, therefore, have more time to become “embedded” in street life.

Living the 21st floor of the Century Plaza Hotel in downtown Vancouver. I was about sixteen. Yasuko Thanh

I could have told them that. If I spent less time on the streets, I would have had less opportunity to become engaged in street life. Had I received Independent Living and had I been able to find an apartment with the help of a social worker, I often wonder, what direction would I have gone? Would I have gone back to school? The street, with its freedom, might have lost some of its lustre.
Subcultures — especially those of the street — provide a haven for youth who can, within the subculture, ca vanquish their rebellious behaviour. It requires less energy to rebel in these cultures, so more energy can be spent on the development of a mature identity. The trick is to not get so caught up in the web that you can’t get out. I think Independent Living would have given me the sense of autonomy that I needed and eventually found on the street.
Survival sex is defined as selling sex to “meet subsistence needs.” Runaway adolescents sometimes resort this when they need to support themselves; running away is a powerful risk factor that pushes adolescent females into the sex trade. Resourcefulness is doing what you have to in order to survive.
Studies have shown that children who run away need to recover quickly after the experience in order to be deterred from entering into the street trade. The question is: what is the best way to help them recover? A crime-control-oriented model?
A study on sexually exploited youth in British Columbia by the McCreary Centre Society found that 80 per cent of the youth who had been involved in prostitution in British Columbia had also been involved in government care.

I wanted a stable support system, but not one that forced me back into a life that I knew could no longer be mine. What may have started as “survival sex” turned into many other things for me, not the least of which was a way to make a prosperous living and stay out of a group home with all of its accompanying rules. I was free to do as I pleased at a time when my peers were complaining about Grade 10 calculus and curfews.
One night I caught a double with the Dina, the woman with the red boots. I was looking for lessons and likened myself to Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha on some kind of a search.
He drove a rusted work truck. It smelled like oil, not wisdom.
“Does anyone have a Kleenex?” I remember Dina asking. It had begun to rain and her mascara was running.
The man pulled a roll of toilet paper out of his back pocket. It was smeared with grease fingerprints.
“You never know when you might need this in the bush.” He was silent as we stared at him blankly. He looked down, suddenly sheepish. Dina put her hand on his thigh. She laughed for him until his shoulders relaxed. She was an expert at making people feel at ease.
“You know what girls, I better go have a shower first,” he said suddenly.
We convinced him instead to take a shower at the trick hotel. He smoked on the way, flicking the ashes of his cigarette into the front pocket of his shirt instead of an ashtray. I looked out the window. At night, the whole city of Vancouver looked printed on Xerox paper: grainy, flat, insubstantial.

My first condo, age 17, Fairview Slopes, Vancouver. Yasuko Thanh

into the front pocket of his shirt instead of an ashtray. I looked out the window. At night, the whole city of Vancouver looked printed on Xerox paper: grainy, flat, insubstantial.
“What did you girls do before you started up in this business?” I remember him asking.
“Worked at White Spot,” Dina answered.
“White Spot’s a nice restaurant,” he said. “The wife and I had our wedding reception there.” We asked questions as if we didn’t hate him and, deep down, I sensed, even then, that all men weren’t the true enemy. We couldn’t see him as completely human though, not if we wanted to rob him blind at the first chance we got.
We got to the hotel and ascended the stairs past graffiti, fist holes in the walls and two poinsettias.
“Welcome to the Hastings Hilton,” Dina said. “The room isn’t great, but we’re the main attraction.”
Excusing ourselves to the washroom, we put the $240 he had given us under the insoles of our shoes. There was a sink and a shower. Fresh towels and washcloths hung on the rod. As dirty as this place was, it always had clean linens. We grabbed a washcloth and Dina wrapped a cake of soap in it, ran it under the tap until it got frothy.
“I’ve got rent to pay.” Soapsuds dripped out from between Dina’s fingers. Her fingers were thin, dark, like ebony chopsticks. She turned off the water. “I want to make six tonight.”
“Me too,” I lied. “I’m gonna try and make seven.” Truth was, Jesse Diamond had never yet set a quota for me. My job performance had everything to do with pride and a personal work ethic. Sleeping with other men was as ordinary as peeling potatoes. I liked to do it well, not because Jesse Diamond demanded it, but because if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right.
“If you spend more, you can get more,” Dina informed the date when we were back in the room. He sat naked on the bed, had flipped on the TV. She switched it off. “We’ll explain to you your options. Like a menu at a restaurant. And the sooner we can take care of finances, the sooner we can have fun.”
He finally gave us each another hundred dollars, after hemming and hawing and calling us “mercenaries” under his breath as he dug through his wallet.
We folded our shirts up toward our chin until our bras were exposed. We pulled out our breasts and Dina sort of took off her spandex pants — just one leg, not the other. What she peeled off one leg, she wrapped around the opposite knee, making it into what looked like a legwarmer. I hiked up my miniskirt to my waist. We kept our shoes on. Rarely did we ever completely remove our clothing. Sometimes not even our coats.
Dina had covered his penis with soapsuds, only touching it through the washcloth, and was mechanically putting a condom on his half-erection.
“Don’t light a cigarette,” she ordered him, kneeling back on her heels, semi-naked, her thighs open, breathing heavily through a wrinkled nose. “Listen. It’s your money,” I remember her saying. “If you want to spend your time smoking.”
He looked at her, puzzled. “But I just gave you another—”
“—oh, come on. That gets you ten minutes. Now chop-chop.” Dina swayed like a spinning top, trying to plant her lips on his cock. “Lie back.” She bobbed up and down.
Chop-chop? I raised my eyebrows. Dina was drunk.
“C’mon, Michelle, let’s go. He’s not even trying.” She never used my real name around a client. Dina was swerving on the edge of the bed, pulling her spandex back on, her eyes hazily focused on the door. I waited for the man’s inevitable explosion.
Earlier, I had watched Dina down five white wines she ordered take-out in cardboard coffee cups from the Korner Kitchen. Now, she was drunk, dangerous as a junkyard dog.
I tried to calm him down, telling him to feel sorry for Dina. “She just lost a baby, miscarried last week,” I whispered.
I appeased him by saying little things about how unloved we, as prostitutes, felt in general and how when a man seemed neither interested or stimulated it became even worse. Lies. My tactic in these situations was always the same: talk fast and keep talking. Pump their egos. Make it so walking away will make them feel big, bigger than killing you.
The truth was Dina was still pregnant, three months, and since she’d found out, she’d been drinking at work. She told me in the cab back to the track that she’d had five abortions; she couldn’t have another one. She puckered her lips. “I know,” I sighed.
Dina sighed, too, and patted her belly. For the moment she appeared content. I told her I was going home.

Getting ready to go out for the night. My new leather couch, age 17 or 18. Yasuko Thanh

“That’s right,” Dina smirked. “It’s past one. What will my brother think?”
Despite her disrespectful tone, I took it for the compliment it was. Jesse Diamond let me go home early if I wanted, even before the bar rush, any night of the week.
“Sunday dinner?” I asked her.
“Not this week. Buzz’s car payment.”
I often think back to the day I was released from a juvenile detention facility after a four-month stint. I’d been working just a few months before getting arrested. When I got out it was April. The seagulls were screeching and the grass was so moist I rolled in it. I looked ridiculous in satin, the clothes I’d been busted in: all I had to my name. I walked down the street with my stiletto heels swinging from my fingertips and the sidewalk cooling the soles of my feet. The world was mine. My legs, I said, had the power to move me here or there, any fences are only in my mind. I still believe it.
I believe in prostitution as a legitimate career choice. When I paid for Coffee Crisps with $50 bills, I was sure it was not society’s place to determine what I chose to do, though now I wonder if what is freely chosen rests in bad judgement. I could see the real estate guides on the magazine rack by the pantyhose display, advertising undeveloped property. I’d never enquired about any of them at a Century 21 or Realty World, though I’d earned the money to buy some of these properties five times over. Fern-moist places with names like Slocan, the Kettle Valley or New Denver. West Vancouver was where most prostitutes I knew wanted to end up — West Van, the British Properties or Shaughnessy. Yet few girls retired; most just ended up somewhere — married to a trick maybe, or in retail, or behind an insurance desk.
I didn’t want to settle down though. I imagined adventure: travelling the world—sleeping my way around it; or the pioneer life; or buying a 30-foot sailboat suitable for offshore cruising. All three were the same to me. I could choose a different one every day.
More concerning for me than youth in the trade is the stigma around the trade. Data I found from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics indicates that 86 prostitutes were murdered in Canada from 1992 through 1998.
In his study, “Violence and the Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution in Canada,” Simon Fraser University professor John Lowman constructs a profile of sex worker murders in British Columbia and argues that what the media and grassroots groups did in the 1980s to get rid of prostitutes contributed to a sharp increase in their murders. He describes how campaigns to remove street prostitution from certain areas of the city contributed to a social milieu in which violence against prostitutes could flourish.
During the mid-’80s, right when I was entering the sex trade, working in both Victoria and Vancouver, I remember being chased from sidewalks with a garden hose while nearby men and women marched with placards. I hid behind dumpsters and waited for the mobs to clear. I was overwhelmed by a profound feeling of puzzlement. How could people be so sure about the merits of what I did without knowing anything about me?

As a result of their campaigns, many prostitutes were forced to ply their trade in more dangerous and secluded areas of the city. Lowman’s study concludes that the stigmatization of prostitutes is one of the main obstacles to creating safer working conditions for them. The stigma creates the kind of environment in which 60 women can go missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and no one blinks an eye.
It’s not possible for someone at a dinner party to say “I am a prostitute” in the same way they can say “I am a librarian” or “I am a philosopher.” Most of my friends, especially the closest, still have no idea about my past. A variety of religious and moral values, coupled with beliefs about human sexuality, have helped to construct our response to sex workers. At its core, the taboo of prostitution represents a debate about sexual rights and freedoms: who should be having it, under what circumstances and why?
It’s a continuing taboo that impacts the development of identity and ego among youth in the sex trade. I have thought a great deal about what it means to be selling your body at a time when your beliefs about what it is to be good and what it is to moral are still forming.
As far as social services went, a religious group from a denomination I don’t remember offered free meals after they sang the song “Satan Loves Tattoos.” And then there were the Streetlight Ministry workers with their matching blue jackets and thermoses of hot chocolate. Young sex workers need services that empower them without the undertones of a moral crusade orchestrated to save them.
I expected people were basically good at heart, and they were, but on their own terms. The prejudice broke my heart. Something in people’s eyes — sometimes it took the form of hate. More often, it was pity.
Youth involved in the sex trade will often perceive themselves to be in a position of power over their customers and pimps — in a sort of game to gain control. Typically, I can say that I felt in control. Part of me is still aghast when feminist ideology casts me in the role of the victim. I try to believe that moral reactions to the sex trade reveal more about a society’s morality than the morality of a sex worker. Or maybe, part of me is still not ready to look at the full picture.
It was a seductive society, when I was inside. We were in control. We had our own culture. We had our own nightclubs, owned by people like us. Square people went to them too, but they were our clubs. We had our own restaurants, where the owner knew your man was a somebody and made a point of coming to the table and personally welcoming you.—saying “hello.” The rules were different. We had our own after-hours clubs, like The Mansion in Vancouver’s upper crust West End—and I felt pride when we pulled up in Jesse Diamond’s black IROC-Z, alongside the Jaguars and Mercedes and Porches that were already in the stone driveway. I saw working girls in their evening gowns (we never wore our work clothes there) and I looked at the neighbourhood and knew we were surrounded by doctors and lawyers and publishers. When I saw them peeking out of their windows, I got this feeling, like pride or power, that I was witness to and part of all this—pride in the fact that we belonged to something that set us apart.

 

 

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