The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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The World’s Oldest Hustle
I know it’s dangerous, but I had to survive

Last year was one of the worst years of my life, and this one hasn’t been much better. Last year, I was 24, three years out of foster care, and working slowly toward my associate’s degree while trying to support myself. In June, I lost my job cleaning an office in Manhattan and started receiving unemployment benefits. I got $59 a week from unemployment. My rent was lowered from $83 to $74. My rent is set at 30% of my income because I live in public housing, but I have to show income (which can come from unemployment benefits or public assistance if you don’t have a job) in order to keep my apartment.

I walked into stores and restaurants looking for a job and I also searched Craigslist. I couldn’t find a full-time or a part-time job. My unemployment benefits ran out in December.

On December 18, I applied for public assistance (PA) in an office full of kids and adults. Babies were crying and the TV blared infomercials about receiving child support, quitting smoking, and getting a job. When I finally met with a worker, she explained that I’d get 45 days to prove that I sincerely wanted to work. I’d have to attend their Back to Work (B2W) program and bring them proof that I was applying for jobs.

I started to get the public assistance money in February of this year: $66.70 every two weeks. Who can survive in New York on $133 a month!? I stretched the money the best I could. Then my benefits rose to $91.50 every two weeks, which was still hard to live on.

I started the B2W program in early January. I went to an office in downtown Brooklyn every day from 9 to 5 and looked for a job on their computer. I also worked on my résumé and wrote cover letters to potential employers. Sometimes I would go out on interviews around downtown Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, always bringing back signed letters from the people who didn’t hire me to show B2W.

Then, in late January, my college classes started back up. First the PA office told me that my college counted as a training program, which meant I didn’t have to go to B2W anymore. But two months later, they told me that a degree in liberal arts didn’t count as a training program. So I had no excuse to miss B2W appointments, and I ended up missing a lot of tests and falling behind in my classes. To keep from messing up my GPA, I withdrew from all my classes in late March. It hurt to quit school. I wanted to get my degree so badly and I only needed 10 more credits to earn my associate’s degree.

My PA check did not cover all my monthly bills, and I couldn’t always pay the rent on time. The housing assistant threatened me with notices on my door, which was embarrassing. I was stressed trying to make sure that my two dogs and I had a place to live and enough to eat. So I took up the oldest hustle: I started to mess around with men for money.

Customer Service Rep

A few roommates of mine from foster care group homes had made a ton of money selling sex, and that gave me the idea. I go to the casino a lot and play the penny slot machine games and roulette. That’s where I hooked my first customer. He bought me shots of Hennessy. We had some conversation, and then he asked, “What are you doing tonight?”

“Nothing.” I said it in a way to let him know I was open to suggestion.

He said, “I want to have sex with you, and I know that you’re going to like it.”

I laughed to myself at him spitting game and at his assumption that I’d like an encounter we hadn’t started. I said, “OK, but you gotta pay me $100.” He agreed; I didn’t know it would be so easy. I felt like a customer service rep discussing a product.

He gave me the money right then. I made sure he had a condom and we went to a hotel. I felt powerful because I didn’t have any feelings for him and wasn’t attracted to him and I was getting money. I was hoping it would be over quickly.

Afterwards, he said he wanted to see me again. He said I was a good sex partner. I put his number in my phone but I never called and eventually deleted his number.

There were five more men after him, over a period of eight months. I met them all at the casino. I saw some of them repeatedly: I saw one man for two months, and he paid me a total of $700 for some dates and three sexual encounters.

I knew what would catch a man’s attention in the casino. I would look at the roulette wheel and sometimes suggest numbers to play. I always had my hair done and had on a nice outfit—sweater, tank top, and leggings. Sometimes I wore makeup.

Most of the guys started conversations with me. Conversation led to a drink or sometimes they would let me play with their money at the casino. They were all old enough to be my father. Most of them were West Indian. I didn’t pick men who were too flashy or talked too much. I prefer low-key men and those were the ones I chose. I trusted my intuition about who to ask for money.

image by YC-Art Dept

A Prayer for Safety

They never came to my house since I didn’t want people in the building knowing my business. So we went to either a hotel or the guy’s house. I know it’s dangerous, but I had to survive. Nobody was calling me in for a job interview. I always said a prayer before and after I had sex, and I always used a condom.

During our encounters we’d talk about life, future goals, and relationships. I told them that I wasn’t ready for a relationship, but they would still tell me their problems and secrets. I felt like a therapist. I didn’t have any feelings for these men. I just wanted money. I was straightforward—they had to use protection and the price was $100, though sometimes they talked me down to $80. I left in the morning on a few occasions, but usually right after the sex.

I generally would keep seeing a man until he spoke disrespectfully to me. Some men thought they could talk to me any type of way, which led to me ditching them. The last guy’s disrespect and rude behavior made me stop altogether. He had drunk too much and was arguing, and I said, “I don’t want anything to do with you.” He then grabbed my right wrist. I cursed and yelled at him; I was drunk too. I wanted to attack him for grabbing my wrist but then I walked away. He kept bothering me after that and I threatened him with a restraining order if he didn’t stop. He stopped.

Altogether I made a little over $1,500. I used most of it to pay rent. I used some for laundry and carfare. I also treated myself to a computer monitor, chair, computer table, and a keyboard—I still need the mouse and the tower. Having that extra money gave me a glimpse of being able to have things I want.

Emotions and Power

Soon after that I met a nice guy through my neighbor. We are currently in a relationship and I have love for him. We can talk about anything. In a conversation about each other’s pasts, I told him that I’d had sex for money. He said, “That’s the past. You did what you had to do in order to survive. The most important judge is yourself so if others judge you, you shouldn’t care.” My boyfriend said he respected me for being honest, which made me feel better. I don’t judge him for his past, either, which includes dealing drugs and doing jail time. Right now he’s a foreman in a construction company.

He’s older than me, but he treats me with respect. Sex with my boyfriend is way more pleasurable than having sex with strange men. Without a relationship, sex feels empty.

It helped that my boyfriend didn’t judge me for prostituting, but I still never want to do it again. I felt power saying “pay up,” but I also felt devalued and lonely.

A few times I told my customers, “I may mess around with you for a couple of dollars but it doesn’t define me. I may have a pretty face but I’m very intelligent and I have dignity, so don’t ever try to disrespect me.” But a lot of them did disrespect me, and that’s when I’d cut them off.

More important than how it made men treat me was how it made me feel about myself. The experience taught me that regardless of how many guys you mess with and even if you feel fearless and numb, there are always emotions there. I felt that void of not having a real relationship with a man who was having sex with me. I wanted a man’s company. The power to get money for sex doesn’t outweigh that need for company.

I Don’t Judge Anymore

When I was 21, I made a list of “jobs I would never do.” Selling my body was on the list, but so was working at a fast food restaurant and I did that. Becoming a stripper or acting in porn films was also on the list. I didn’t want to do any kind of sex work because I had seen men at strip clubs talking to the strippers in a degrading manner. The men didn’t respect them as women doing their job. They looked down on sex workers as people they’d never marry or have children with.

But I have learned not to judge women for being strippers, porn actresses, or prostitutes. I learned that I too could be driven to such things by being broke. I feel lucky I didn’t get arrested—that was my biggest fear. I’m also lucky I never got hurt.

It’s nice to have a boyfriend who respects me and has my back, but I still need money badly. I feel like a loser not going to school or work. To make my food stamps last, I eat only one or two meals a day. Instead of going to the laundromat, I hand-wash clothes and sheets. I walk places instead of taking a bus or a train. I cook instead of going out to eat.

But it’s still hard to make ends meet, and it’s depressing that my life is not what I’d hoped or imagined. Four years ago I was working and going to school and since then, my life has drifted off its course. In the next few months I will start training to become a home health aide. That’s another job I never wanted to do. It’s caring for others, which is good, but as someone who grew up in care, I’ve spent a lot of time doing for other people. Home health aide doesn’t feel like a career choice, but I hope to learn how to adjust to things we all have to face, like death and sickness, by working in the nursing field.

I’m young and I don’t want to stick to one 9-to-5 job. I’m interested in a lot of different things, and I think I’d be happier having at least two jobs. I’d like to be a Jane of all trades—except the sex-for-money trade. I want to keep my emotions in that area for my boyfriend.

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