Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Roles of clients

Clients are mysterious men who have the potential of serving numerous different roles in the lives of sex workers. They usually start as strangers who are looking for sex (obviously). It’s amazing how random their initial selection of a sexual partner is considering how significant some of these relationships become. Some of these men become regulars, who the women call “client-husbands,” while some become actual boyfriends. In fact, most of the sex workers’ steady romantic partners are ex-clients. Some of these relationships become serious, long-term partnerships that include children. As I mentioned in my previous post, my friend V. met her partner nine years ago working on the streets. They’ve been living together as “husband and wife” ever since (it’s not official by law). Although they don’t have children together they have created a blended family with both of their children from previous relationships.

Some women have clients who fall hopelessly in love with them and as such, provide them with tremendous support—both emotional and economical. One of my friends, A. says she’s thankful for her client, B. who is 30 years her senior and who desperately wants to marry her. She has repeatedly told him she’s not interested, but she willingly accepts his constant gifts and financial hand-outs. He pays her bills every month and buys all the newest toys for her three children. Even though she doesn’t enjoy sex with him, or even his company, she’s happy to accept the attention he showers upon her. Obviously she treats him with respect and kindness because she depends on his support. It’s interesting that he remains so devoted to her despite her constant rejections of marriage. A. has manipulated the situation so that she charges him three or four times as much as other clients because she knows he’ll pay any price. She says she charges him $100 to spend the night at his house, which he often requests because she’d rather be at home with her children.

However, these relationships are very precarious and are constantly shifting. Perhaps B. will in fact get impatient with A.’s constant rejection and move on. In that situation she would have to work extra hard on the streets. It would drastically change her life, for the worse. Many women seem to maintain fluid relationships with different men that straddle the line between lovers-boyfriends-friends-financial supporters. I know many women who call different clients, or ex-clients who are now just friends, to ask them to pay the electric or phone bill. They know certain men have a “fondness” for them and are willing to help them out. These men don’t always remain clients, but rather remain friends. It always surprises me that the sex workers often become quasi-therapists for some of these men, in which sex is not longer involved. The men complain and vent about their wives /girlfriends and ask their sex worker friend for advice. The same happens with the women—they often turn to ex-clients as friends who can help provide insight into their problems.

In fact, the sex workers seem to maintain positive relationships with most of their clients. They seem to recognize the potential these men can have in their lives, in all capacities. I was once at V.’s house and an ex-client dropped by with two huge bags filled with used clothes for her and her children. He brought her dozens of pairs of shoes for the kids. All he wanted was to say hello, drink a cup of coffee and then he was on his way. Even though V. receives a stable income from her boyfriend, she appreciates (and genuinely needs) these spontaneous gifts of charity. She obviously does not tell her partner about the ex-clients that pop up in her life once in a while. All the women seem to realize that these other relationships should remain clandestine, even if they aren’t actually sleeping with these ex-clients. I get the feeling that their partners would get more jealous of these ex-clients who continually offer financial assistance than the random clients the women sleep with all day. Indeed, most of sex workers service clients who they will never see again so their partners don’t have much reason to get jealous. Perhaps part of their partners’ jealousy stems from the financial support they receive, as it might threaten their role as the household’s breadwinner.

Obviously not all clients are positive influences on the sex workers. There are just as many examples of abusive, stalker-types. Sex work is obviously a huge risk given that most of these men are total strangers. At the actual moment of sexual exchange anything could happen—and indeed sex workers often become victims of homicide during their encounters. Perhaps their development of supportive relationships with clients are less common but those are the stories I’m most exposed to—they don’t share their bad experiences as often with me. But regardless of the bad experiences, these women have a remarkable skill to get what they need out of men, through seduction, manipulation, or perhaps just simple honest friendship. More often than not, when V. calls up an ex-client to pay the phone bill she grins and winks at me and says something like, “Ha, he did it again!”

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