There are a million codified ways to describe my job. I say, "professional companion." Others say, "escort," "service provider," or "professional boyfriend/girlfriend." Some say, "hooker." Decriminalization activists say, "sex worker," which I appreciate. People who don't understand us say, "prostitute," which is a derogatory term.
This work has sustained the queer community -- especially those who are most marginalized, like HIV-positive transgender, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming people of color -- for decades. I am an HIV-positive, white, cisgender gay man, so I don't have the same experience in this work that many people of color have. I have benefited all my life from white privilege and have never relied on escorting to eat or for shelter. This work has kept me from missing rent, helped pay for health costs, and given me the ability to do other work -- including writing -- with greater comfort. I also believe it's helped my clients in profound ways. And it's helped me.
I was a person living with HIV before I was a sex worker. The day in 2013 when I tested positive for HIV, my doctor armed me with websites and articles clearly written for HIV-negative people explaining how little danger I posed to them. My boyfriend at the time insisted on monogamy. Because I was the one with HIV, which I felt was a sign of my own promiscuity and poor decision-making, I thought I was in no position to argue. I loved him and didn't want him to leave me. When he said we needed to use condoms, I didn't protest.
One year later, a friend and I flew to San Francisco for my first visit to the Folsom Street Fair, the world's largest outdoor leather event. I rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a group of femmes in full rubber -- hoods and body suits -- dragging nude men through the crowd on chain collars. Someone was tied to a pole and getting whipped. As the crowd got denser, I stumbled over someone on their knees who, I realized, was drinking piss from the person standing over them.
Standing there in shock, I saw a guy in the crowd with brown hair and blue-green eyes looking at me. We somehow got to the topic of fisting, something I told him I had been interested in for a long time. I had been privately watching fisting porn for years, a fact my boyfriend didn't know. We exchanged numbers, then he untied the red bandana around his wrist and tied it around mine.
"This will tell guys you're looking to get fisted," he said. "Say you're new and have never done it before. This is the place to do that."
Later that evening, I texted him and learned that he lived only a few blocks from where I was staying. When he opened the door and invited me into his apartment, I panicked.
"Do you want something to drink?" he asked me.
"I'm HIV positive." This was it, I thought -- the fantasy ended.
I didn't know what to say. He poured a drink for me, and we got naked. We started kissing and moved to his bed.
"I want to fuck you," he said. I told him I had a condom.
"Do you want to use it?" he said. "I'm good."
I told him I didn't want to use it, then felt silly for bringing it up. All of this was wrong. None of this was how sex was supposed to go. I didn't tell him I was on meds or undetectable, and he didn't ask.
Later, I remember thinking, "People must not care about HIV in San Francisco," which I now understand was only halfway true. The fact is, kinky, sex-positive people who attend events like the Folsom Street Fair are sex-educated and sex-positive. They are more likely to know the modern realities of living with HIV. The kink community, I would learn, has been a welcoming haven for HIV-positive folks since the outbreak of AIDS.
After the slutty weekend, I flew back to Georgia.
I don't know when it clicked that my relationship with my boyfriend was over, but at some point we both felt it coming. I started complaining about condoms. He started feeling threatened by my flirtatiousness and my resistance to monogamy. I moved to San Francisco some months later, in 2014, and began escorting.
The decision came very naturally to me. I moved there with the same friend who took me to my first Folsom. He was a successful fetish escort, and he taught me many things, including the fact that fetish escorts -- those willing to indulge clients' kinky fantasies -- can charge much higher rates than those who do not. There are greater safety risks when you involve bondage, gear, and BDSM, and more thorough communication is required. Those risks and that communication come with a higher price tag.
Escorting made me feel desirable again and showed me that my body wasn't untouchable or frightening. It was beautiful and powerful. I could make money from it. I could show it off.
Like many gay male sex workers, I primarily use websites and apps to find clients. On every profile, I explicitly write, "HIV positive and undetectable," and I will usually ask if clients have read my profile in full before arranging a meeting. It took me a few years before I was willing to educate clients about what "undetectable" means. At first, I treated clients the same way I treated casual hookups. If they had any HIV ignorance or any problem with my status, any fear or nervousness, the answer was no.
That is no longer the case. Most of my clients are older men. Many of them are discovering sex between men for the first time. For many, I am their first foray into fisting and BDSM.
Many were previously married or had long-term partners who are no longer in the picture. Many only remember the horror stories and news headlines of AIDS. Maybe they were focused on putting their kids through school or focused on their marriages and were oblivious to the advent of antiretroviral therapy or, later, the advent of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). I am, for many of them, the first sign that the story of AIDS in America got better.
I moved to New York City in 2017. In the city, I have a client who is starting his journey into bondage. He is a senior, so we are careful and take necessary precautions. The first time we met, I asked about his life. He told me he was married to a woman for many years.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I'd rather not talk about that," he said. He looked up at me, tied down to my bed, and there was pain in his eyes. I haven't asked about his ex-wife since.
He didn't know what "undetectable" meant and needed some education. But once he understood, he said, "It's amazing that we're here. I remember when people were dying. And look at you, you look so healthy."
"I am healthy. And I will live just as long as anyone else. And I can't infect anyone."
He said, "It's a miracle."
It's not a miracle -- it's the work of black, transgender, HIV-positive sex workers. It's the work of countless protesters and activists who did not live to see this day. I told him that his generation is the one I have to thank for where we are now. "I don't know how comfortable you are with this idea," I said, "but you're one of us. This is your heritage, too."
That message -- that things got better, and that medicines have made HIV a livable illness -- is emotional labor that not every sex worker chooses to do. It's certainly not what we're required to do. HIV-positive people are not responsible for demystifying our illness to clueless, hateful masses. I choose to do this for clients as a way of saying thanks to those who came before me. I bring pleasure and healing to the ones who survived.