IN A historic library in New York, a crowd has gathered to hear an articulate, attractive young graduate launch her eye-popping memoir - Modern Whore.
Former escort Andrea Werhun, 28, says she was determined to destigmatise sex work, and show that it is a job like any other.
The Canadian writer recounts sleeping with obese, unattractive and foul-smelling clients, taking part in a threesome and being raped on the job, but insists she loved the experience. She even says she actively enjoyed having sex with an 80-year-old man.
"It's a reasonable option for a certain kind of person, especially if you have strong boundaries," she tells news.com.au of her former profession after the launch. "You have to want to have sex for money. If you're just desperate for the money, it could eat you alive."
Werhun, whose book contains a practical "how-to" guide for would-be escorts, says she thought it was "important to show the full picture" and recount her worst encounters as well as the best.
"I'm not here to glamorise prostitution. It's a job with good sides and down sides," she says. "I have no personal regrets.
"I enjoyed connecting with strangers on a deep level, having a relationship that in a way seems surreal. I was using a fake name, presenting a different side of myself. I was getting paid for presenting the sexiest side of myself.
"I could connect deeply with a person, perhaps on the deepest level - sex - and then exit their lives."
'THE SMELLIER CLIENTS WERE NOT PLEASURABLE'
The young escort, who went by the name Mary Ann because "it sounded so wholesome", says that unlike some of her co-workers, she had no compunction about having sex with 80-year-old Albert. "I was fascinated by how people's bodies worked, what they did," she says. "Granted, the smellier clients were not pleasurable. But the 80-year-old, I find nothing wrong with his body."
Werhun initially wanted to be a stripper, until a friend's mother suggested escorting could be more profitable. The then 21-year-old had been interested in selling sex since working as a barista and realising she made better tips when she wore a low-cut top and flirted. "Why not get straight to the point?" she asks.
She began working as an escort while at university, and quit around the age of 25 after her mother requested it.
Werhun sees her former role as being to "accept people for who they are" and suggests her clients were "paying to not be rejected".
She says she loved "learning about people and sexuality" and found the job "compelling".
The ex-escort hopes her book will demystify the enriching, funny and sad elements of the job, in a book her MC describes as a "variety show" of sex work.
In one tongue-in-cheek section, she prints reviews of herself that anonymous "johns" posted online, and follows them with her own, candid reviews of them. The reviews are littered with acronyms such as DFK (deep French kissing) and MPOS (multiple positions).
"I'm naturally unjudgmental, open-minded, interested in people," she says. "I take the job seriously. My role is to accept people for who they are."
Werhun says her years as an escort taught her "about people and sexuality" in ways she wanted to share with others.
"It elevates the escort as not just someone who allows their body to be violated but loves that person, for a moment."
'EVEN RAPE DIDN'T STOP ME'
Her book recounts the heartache of "coming out" to her Catholic mother. "I told her that being honest had extinguished the fire inside that threatened to burn me alive," writes the former sex worker in her book. "'Well,' she said morosely, 'You just lit me on fire.' I cried the whole way home."
Now, Werhun says, her immediate family have gone through a journey to become more accepting - although many of her extended family are horrified.
Perhaps the most confronting part of the book is a letter she wrote to a client after a "terrifying" sexual encounter. "You put your full weight on my body, looked me dead in the eyes without any words," she wrote.
He refused to put on a condom, rubbing against her despite her protestations, until she simply went limp. "I hope you'll consider the way you make other escorts feel in the future and take their wellbeing into consideration when paying them for sex," she said.
He never replied.
But she says it didn't put her off the profession. "As a woman, these things are going to happen to me anyways," she said. "These things happened to me at a job I liked. Even rape didn't stop me doing it. I had so many positive experiences."
She says the best way to protect sex workers is to decriminalise the job and treat it like any other. "Criminal law makes it nearly impossible for sex workers to come forward with their experience of abuse and rape," she says.
The #MeToo movement makes this a perfect time to talk about what being a sex worker really means, the author believes. "Sex workers aren't immediately included in stories of women coming forward about unwanted sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace," she says. "Society doesn't see sex work as work, or sex workers as people who can experience abuse on the job.
"We're not considered legitimate speakers. Our experiences should be taken as seriously."
SEX WORK AND THE #METOO MOVEMENT
Werhun says she accepts she is privileged as a white, middle-class woman, and that her experiences may not reflect those of sex workers who are less educated or wealthy, women of colour, or those dealing with mental health issues or abuse.
"All these things make people more vulnerable to the law - that wasn't something I ever had to deal with directly," she says. "There are so many angles to sex workers' experiences that I can't really touch because that's not my experience."
Her book, complete with a wide array of photos taken by her friend and videographer Nicole Bazuin, allows her to "transform" into different roles held by sex workers and women, she says.
"We play with representation. It's not strictly glamorised or demonised. The stories and photos show the full humanity of the job."
Werhun says she isn't ashamed of having sex for money. It's only society that projects its shame onto her.
"I wanted to show my human, relatable, funny and at times gut-wrenching experiences. And they're not necessarily exclusive to a sex worker.
"What two consenting adults do on their own time is up to them. We're not hurting anybody and we don't deserve to be hurt."
The young woman is in the same long-term relationship she's been in since she worked in escorting, and says her partner is "supportive".
She simply wants to show people what it's really like to be a sex worker in the modern world.
EXTRACT: Daylighting - From Modern Whore by Andrea Werhun
If hookin's taught me anything, it's that there's no such thing as "the one".
Not one soulmate, nor one perfect client, but a world of ones waiting to be found. Albert was one of my many ones.
Smart, funny, and remarkably old fashioned, whenever my madam answered his call on her car speakerphone, we'd giggle as he'd say, "Hello there, this is Albert McArthur calling," with his classy baritone, as my madam, ever chipper, would respond, "Hello Al!" with a smirk and slight rolling of her eyes. What a ham! A gentleman ham.
An appointment with Albert was a thrill, due in part to the location of his condominium: he lived a block south from my new "daylight" workplace.
While I was moonlighting as a hooker, I was daylighting as a receptionist at a downtown comedy school. I both delighted and panicked at the risk of someone seeing me step out of the SUV in a skimpy outfit and a full face of make-up, waltzing into the lobby of Albert's swanky condo. Delight in my own beauty - panic for anyone bearing witness.
I had a ritual for night shifts at the office. With my whore gear safely stuffed into my purse, thigh-highs worn as long socks under my pants, and heels sported conspicuously as office flare, I would lock up shop and take a quick stroll to the hotel across the street. There, in the ladies public washroom, I would glam up as I awaited my ride.
Albert was a Bay Street banker and bachelor. He'd been married, had kids, and even had grandchildren. When I entered his unit, I'd kick off my shoes and he'd offer a toke from his metal convenience store pipe with weed sprinkled in from a large, overstuffed heart-shaped box. We'd smoke weed and talk politics. I was the pinko, he was the stinko. We fundamentally disagreed on matters of economy, social justice and the environment, but we always heard each other out. "Oh, Mary Ann," he'd lament, "we'll never agree on anything - except, of course, sex," to which we'd both laugh. The only things we bonded over despite our differences were our shared sense of humour, appetite for discourse, and our lusty, lusty flesh.
We'd continue laughing to his dimly lit bedroom, undressing on either side of the bed, climbing under the covers giddy like teenagers. I caressed the sagging skin of Albert's 80-year-old flesh with curiosity and joy, because the man himself was alive. He had energy - undeniably youthful energy. I closed my eyes to the old man under the soft lights and the smokescreen of marijuana and felt myself making love to a man my age. A man in his early twenties, as if I were on a secret rendezvous with a lover. With him, I learned getting old
was a choice. Albert made me happy to be alive.
I thought about him often in my spare time. I spoke about him to friends, family, and even to my boyfriend, who once asked, as though reprimanding me, "Are you sure you don't want to date him?"
My opinion of Albert, however, was not shared by my fellow whores.
I listened to girls in the car discuss him with disgust. "Eww, Albert's a dinosaur," they said. I attempted to defend him, but the girls grossed out by his age were louder. I'd f***ed far grosser people half his age, people far less attractive or intellectually stimulating or funny. He was so much more than his body.
One evening, having reflected on the intensity of my feelings, it seemed he'd reflected on his own as well. He asked after sex if he could make a personal request: would I take a bath with him next time? For some reason, the invitation struck me as dangerously intimate. I didn't have a straight answer. I said, "Maybe," trailing off. Suddenly, he imparted a story.
"When I was in college," he said, "I was going steady with a beautiful girl named Mary Ann who happened to look an awful lot like you. She started avoiding me for no reason and I never knew why. Turned out she was seeing a guy on the football team. I bumped into her one day on the street and asked her, 'Mary Ann, what happened?' and she said, 'Al, I found someone new. I'm leaving you.' And that was it. Mary Ann broke my heart."
There was an uncomfortable pause. I wasn't sure what surprised me more: that I was a surrogate Mary Ann or that he was still hurt about a love lost 60 years ago. Doesn't time heal all wounds?
He never called for me again. I, Mary Ann the Second, scorned on the other side of the street in the light of day, asking, "Al, what happened?" never to hear the answer.
Modern Whore by Andrea Werhun is available to buy now at ModernWhore.com.
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