David Henry Sterry

DAVID HENRY STERRY describes that period in his life — back when he was a 17-year-old living in Hollywood and studying existentialism at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood — as the time when he was “an industrial sex technician.” And it’s that experience — during which Sterry was paid to work mostly with women, but also to verbally and physically humiliate men — that inspired him, years later, to put together and edit his latest book, “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex.”

“This anthology, as it is, could only have happened because I used to be in the Life,” Sterry said in an e-mail. “These are voices it would be virtually impossible to get if you were not … someone who had been in the business. But I was determined to show America the human face of all the people in the sex business, to get people to understand that we are sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandmothers, dads and moms. … And if I hadn’t first done this myself, struggled for years to try to tell my story, then finally to come out of the sex-worker closet, I wouldn’t have been able to help other people do it.”

The collection, which has been praised by The New York Times Book Review (“brutally honest and frequently funny“), Publishers Weekly (“heavy with raw emotions“) and the New York Press (“it’s not just about sex“), runs the gamut from taking pride in the profession (“40 Reasons Why Whores Are My Heroes”) to describing its horrifying moments (“Helping Daddy Pay the Rent”).

There are pieces both from anonymous writers — with titles like “Boys Shouldn’t Kiss Their Father on the Lips” and “Co-Co County Boy” — and established personalities, like porn star and educator Nina Hartley, who proclaims in her entry, “Playing in the Sandbox,” that she “became a sex worker for narcissism, altruism, for voyeurism, for exhibitionism, and as a long-term field study.” If “Boogie Nights” made you cover your eyes, then you should probably pass the book to a stronger-stomached friend.

But for Sterry, “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys” is about more than just the ins-and-outs of the sex industry: It’s a chance for the men and women involved to tell their stories.

Sterry — who has written a number of other books, such as “Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent” and “Unzipped: A True Story of Sex, Drugs, Rollerskates and Murder” — spoke with Express about his idea for the collection, America’s most commonly held misconceptions about the sex industry and whether the book should go in the “entertainment” or the “educational” portion of your bookcase.

David Henry Sterry, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex» EXPRESS: How did you get the idea for “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys,” and how did the book come together?
» STERRY: After my first book “Chicken” came out in 2002, I was recruited by both sides of the whore wars: The abolitionists, and the decriminalizationist. And to both sides, I said yes — [that’s a] good way to get into the sex business in the first place, just say yes.

And I quickly realized there was a sharp divide in the world of prostitution/sex work. And, as with everything else in America, the bottom-line in ho-ing is money … there are people at the very bottom of the food chain who are basically sex slaves, being exploited in the worst ways imaginable by the most vile evil predators. And there are women, men and transsexuals who are over the age of 18, in full command of all their faculties, and are choosing to use their body and their brain to make money in the sex business.

And the crazy thing is, these two sides have a hard time acknowledging the truth of the other. I had no political axe to grind: If you worked in the sex business, and you had a story to tell, and you had the skill to tell it, you were welcome in our book. And because of my strange position in the world, [I] know lots of hos, and I put out the word to all the hos I know, and they spread the word. The writing poured in from everywhere.

As a result, I have writing by 15-year-old girls who were raped, beaten, burned, starved, degraded and exploited by the worst scum of the earth, and I have women who used sex work to pay for their master of fine arts degree at Berkeley — and everything in-between.

» EXPRESS: Which social stigmas and commonly held beliefs about the sex industry do you think the book criticizes and questions the most?
» STERRY: People often assume that if you made your living with sex, you are ignorant, drug-addicted, inarticulate and a slut. I graduated from Reed College in Portland Oregon, I’m not addicted to drugs, and I know lots of big words. OK, I may be a bit of a slut, but that’s not the worst thing a person can be, is it?

» EXPRESS: Did you learn anything surprising or new when conducting the research for and editing the pieces for the book?
» STERRY: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Never assume anything about anyone based on how they look. When “Chicken” first came out, I was doing events in Los Angeles and a great bookstore, Book Soup. I brought my agent with me; she was someone who didn’t know anything about the sex worker world. We knew at the event, there was going to be a woman who was a movie producer, and [a] woman who was [a] former sex worker.

After the event, he saw the two women standing side-by-side. One had her hair piled high, big red lips and painted eyes, in a dress that was slit high up her thigh and had cleavage spilling out the top. The other had no makeup, simple flower summer dress and simple sandals. Guess which one was a former sex worker, and which one was the movie producer?

David Henry Sterry» EXPRESS: In what ways do you think this book can be used? Do you think it can be an educational tool, purely social commentary or of entertainment value?
» STERRY: I think this book can be used in sociology, sexuality and gender classes over the world. It contains so many different points of view — voices that are virtually impossible to get, voices you never hear from because they’re so far underground, so hidden in this dark, shady underworld. And there has been lots of interest from Hollywood in this book. We’re trying to figure out right now exactly how to make that manifest. Movie, television, theater, dance — we’re knee-deep deep in discussion right now with several different people.

» EXPRESS: What have your emotions been in response to the overwhelming positive response heaped on “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys,” and how has the promotional tour for the book been going? What should people expect from your stop at Busboys and Poets?
» STERRY: When this anthology landed on the front page of the Sunday New York Times [B]ook [R]eview, it gave me faith that we may be evolving as a species. The response to this anthology, which no one wanted, which was completely a labor of love on my part, has been so overwhelming and full of joy. Yes, we have been attacked from both the left and the right, but I don’t take that personally.

I’ve been all over the country doing events with contributors from the book, and the response has been incredible. Everywhere we’ve gone, we have had amazing crowds and fantastic shows. We started a reading series called Sex Worker Literati, the first Thursday of every month at a cool bar in Manhattan called, appropriately enough, Happy Ending Lounge, where we have people who are either in, or have been in, the sex business reading their writing, or telling stories. It’s packed every month; it’s a totally unique event.

We’re doing a version of it coming up in the Washington/Baltimore/Richmond area, with me and Shawna Kenney, who is a contributor in the anthology and wrote an amazing book called “I Was a Teenage Dominatrix,” which has been optioned to be made into a TV series. We will be reading from our books, and we will answer any and all questions anyone has about the strange and mysterious thing that happens when money and sex are exchanged.

» EXPRESS: What are your hopes for the book, and what would you like for it to achieve?
» STERRY: I wanted in my own, small way to put a human face to the people who work in this business. I wanted to give people who are badly judged, who are reviled and glorified, spat upon and worshiped, a chance to speak for themselves. And, if nothing else, I hope people will take to heart the words of Georgina Spelvin, star of one of the greatest movies ever made, “The Devil in Miss Jones” — “Do your part. Take a hooker to lunch.”

» Busboys and Poets, 1025 5th St. NW; Tues., Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m.; Free; (202) 789-2227. (Mt. Vernon Square/7th St.-Convention Center)

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photos courtesy David Henry Sterry