An Interview with David Henry Sterry
Why did you write this book?
Ever since I was 17, I had a black cloud hanging over my life. I lost my house, lost my wife, I was miserable, no matter how much success I had, and I was mean to anyone who got close to me. Keeping this misery inside was killing me. So I wrote my story, always trying to answer the question: How did a nice boy like me, from a nice family, with a good education, end up in this strange, savage, and abusive world, as a young man for rent?
Did you come from a bad neighborhood, or an abusive family?
Not at all. I grew up in nice neighborhoods where kids played ball in front yards, the Tooth Fairy left a quarter under your pillow, we had corn on the cob and merry-go-rounds, and PTA meetings. My parents are from England, they came America with very little, and after years of working their butts off, they were divorced, on the verge of going bankrupt, and both in therapy. Kind of the new American Dream.
Did writing this book change your life?
It was very difficult to write this book. There were times when I would get ripping headaches, like my head was in a vice being tightened by a speed freak. And I would put on movies while I wrote, like Gone With the Wind. I watched that a lot. And when Scarlet's dad dies, and she has no money, and she doesn't know what to do, and she starts crying, I would bawl my eyes out. But once I finished this book and mailed it off, my black cloud lifted and the sun began to shine on me again.
People seem confused by what to call the work you did: hustler, gigolo, prostitute, escort - what do you call it?
I prefer the term Industrial Sex Technician: can't you just see a factory full of highly trained technicians just churning out the sex round the clock.
Do you think there are a lot of people like you out there?
When I read my story for the first time to a class of graduate students in San Francisco, where I live, five different people came up to me afterwards and said they'd been through a similar experience. Normal looking people. People you would never pick out of a crowd and say, "There's an Industrial Sex Technician." There are people all over the world who've been through the world of sex for money, or are going through it even as we speak.
So under-age sex workers are prevalent today?
Go look on the internet. There are about 7,000,000 Lolita sites out there. A recent University of Pennsylvania study estimated that in the United States there are 325,000 children, 17 or under, who have fallen victim to commercial sexual exploitation. I think because of the shadowy and fluid nature of the business, there are probably many more than that.
What would you tell a kid who's in trouble?
The biggest mistake I made was that I didn't ask for help. If you're in trouble ask for help. Even if you feel like a dweeb or a moron, ask for help.
Did you enjoy doing this work?
There were a couple of jobs that were fun, but mostly it was soul sucking. No pun intended. After a job I would always feel dirty and nasty. I felt like beating somebody up. Then I would be ravenously hungry. I used to go to Ralph's -- a grocery store in LA, and buy these day old birthday cakes with the thick lard sugar icing, and a big tub of ice cream and just eat until I passed out. Something died inside me each time I worked. In the words of Hank Williams, "My bucket had a hole in it." And every job I did made the hole a little bigger.
Then why did you do it?
Well, first there was the money. I could make as much in an hour as I could in 2 weeks of my straight $3.25 an hour job. Plus I felt worthless. But if people were willing to pay $100 for me, at least I was worth that. In real life I felt so small, powerless, and impotent, but when I worked I felt large and in charge, the cock of the walk. In order to work I unconsciously invented a character I called the Loverstudguy, a Mission Impossible Movie Star - a hundred dollar an hour sixty minute man. Only after awhile when I was working, I wasn't playing a character, I was the character.
And you were in college at that time?
All the while I was going to a college run by nuns. I studied poetry, theater, and philosophy. I had a very sweet girlfriend. And of course no one knew about my secret identity. Having this double life seemed exciting, but really it was killing me 1 trick at a time, and I didn't even know it.
How did you get into the business?
A: I decided to skip my last year of high school and go to college in Hollywood where I was going to live with my mother, because my parents just split up. But my mom made other plans, and when I got to college I found out they didn't have dorms, and there was no place for me to stay. So I wandered down onto Hollywood Blvd, feeling so low and alone and thrown away, a hole in my heart, hungry as a flea on an anorexic greyhound. I met a very nice man on Hollywood Blvd. He asked me if I wanted a steak dinner. We went back to his place and he made me a steak. After I ate my steak I was so tired. He asked me if I wanted to crash and I just passed out. Next thing I knew was pain. I have never felt pain like that before or since. I tried to yank away but he had me pinned on the bed. I swung my elbow up and caught him square in the Adam's apple. Knocked the breath clean out of him. Grabbed my clothes, whipped 'em on, and dashed out onto Hollywood Blvd. I escaped. I often wonder if I would have been dead if I hadn't.
As I wandered around in a daze, I felt this wet between my legs. I was bleeding. Then I realized he'd stolen all my money, too. And I was so hungry. Next thing I knew I was in a dumpster rummaging for food. At that exact moment, I felt someone staring at me. It was a man who would change my life forever. He rescued me from the dumpster, and like some kind of twisted Henry Higgins, he transformed me into a highly respected, well-paid teen-aged sex worker. A chicken.
Here are the rules he taught me:
Did you work on the streets?
I never worked on the streets. My mentor/pimp turned me onto a company called the Hollywood Employment Agency, they had a big office on Sunset right next to a huge billboard of the Marlborough Man roping cattle and getting lung cancer. They gave me a pager. When they paged me, I'd call them right back and they give me the specs for the job. Usually I'd get a hundred dollars, but that was 1974 money, so double it. These jobs were mostly with wealthy Hollywood women from 30 to God knows how old.
What did the women have in common?
They all had money, and most had that vacant look of an abuse survivor. Apart from that, nothing. They were housewives, executives from out of town, an old hippy, and even a grandmother.
What did they want?
About half the women who hired me didn't even want sex. They would have me take my clothes off, then just talk to me: about their dismissive, mean, pain-in-the-ass-bastard husbands, about their dreams and fantasies, and the women I'd been with. Interestingly, five years later, I was hired as a marriage counselor, doing the same work, only fully clothed, and being paid much less money.
How did you get out?
I was so full of rage. I just used to go off. Like one time I lost my keys. I went berserk, and detonated my room looking for them. Eventually I was able to channel my rage into working. I specialized in abusing and humiliating clients. A male dominatrix. These clients broke down into two categories: men of immense power (a judge in diapers); and effeminate rich guys (a mustachioed man in a black boustier) It was much easier than sex with women, I just roughed them up 'til they were done. These were $500 jobs. I wanted to quit so many times. But I felt so indebted to my mentor/pimp. He rescued me. Taught me skills. Fed me. Let me stay at his place. He was smart, wise, funny, silly, a great business man. He was so much nicer to me than my parents were at this time. But of course he was making money off me every time I worked. But I wanted out so bad that eventually I did something so horrible it jettisoned me out of that world forever.
Did you learn anything from all this?
You'd certainly hope so, wouldn't you? Yes. Instead of running away from your misery inside you, embrace it. Tell your story. And if you can't figure out how to make some money off if, you're doing something wrong, because this is the American way. And as I said before, ask for help. I never asked for help. If I had, I honestly believe that this never would have happened to me.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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