The Seminarian and the Sex Worker

I am a Christian minister who once spent the night with a sex worker named Adam.

Although, to be technical about it, I was a first-year seminarian – not yet a card-carrying minister – when I spent the night with this sex worker.

And since we’re being technical, I didn’t actually spend the night with him, so much as an hour. Just under seventy minutes, to get downright anal about the whole thing; that’s how long I spent in the sex worker’s nicely appointed two-story apartment. But he only charged me for an hour. Adam was a real sweetheart like that.

Though, now that we’re taking time to parse technicalities, I can’t say for sure if Adam was his real name or just a pseudonym he used in his personal ad, which ran in 1997 on the penultimate page of Atlanta’s now-defunct LGBT newspaper. Either way, it’s clearly the perfect name for a sex worker who is hired by a seminarian, and I told him as much mere seconds into our first phone conversation.

“I love your name,” I said, all nerves and giggles. “Adam, like the first man.”

Real smooth, seminarian.

“Oh, you mean like Adam and Eve?” He had a delicious bit of gravel at the bottom of his voice. “‘Cuz that shoe definitely fits. I’m one helluva sinner!” He let out a mischievous chuckle.

“Actually, that whole Garden of Eden story has been so misinterpreted.” I could feel an anxious babble coming but was powerless to stop it. “Some theologians in the early Church said it was a story about humans maturing. You know, like, coming into their own, searching for wisdom, that sort of thing. Not about some ‘original sin.’”

Geeze, seminarian, get it together.

“Really? That’s fascinating,” he said. “I never heard that one before.” I couldn’t tell if he was just being polite, but it didn’t matter. There was something about his voice that soothed my nerves, relaxed my shoulders, slowed my breath.

“Humans maturing, huh?” he said from his gravelly depths. “Is that why you called me? You lookin’ for an opportunity to mature?”

In the twenty-four years since it happened, I’ve told this story exactly twice. Once to the man who is now my husband, which was a safe choice since he’s not the type to be scandalized, especially in matters pertaining to me. And once to my best friend at the time it happened. I was drunk when I told her, and it turns out she was the type to be scandalized, so we never spoke of it again. This is not the kind of story you publicly confess, especially when you’re a Christian minister. It’s the kind of story that has scandal written all over it. The kind that elicits judgment. That stirs up stereotypes.

So, let me dissuade you from some stereotypes right up front: I wasn’t desperate for affection or socially debilitated. I wasn’t in a dead-end marriage or pining for a relationship. I was in decent shape, slim, and my skin had the enviable elasticity that comes from being a twenty-two-year-old. I was in my right mind, sober, and I’d never so much as been within smelling distance of an illicit drug. I wasn’t bored. Or rich. Or bored and rich. I was a barely employed seminarian. Coming up with Adam’s hourly fee of sixty bucks – the going rate in those classified ads – was no small feat, especially when you add the thirteen dollar tip I scraped together. My mother raised me to tip well.

And if you’re thinking mine is the much-travelled tale of a disgraced minister who gives in to temptation and hires a hooker, then you’re wrong on that count too. This is not a Ted Haggard – “I am guilty of sexual immorality” – drama, so there will be no tearful apology in Act Three. That would be an easier story to tell, since there’s already a script for that. But I don’t regret my time with the sex worker, which, to be clear, was spent having straight-up sex. In fact, sex with a sex worker gave me the very thing I was looking for, the thing I couldn’t get by myself: freedom.

This is a story about how I, an ordained minister, took my body back from God.

Like most everyone in the hinterlands of Arkansas where I grew up, I was a conservative Christian who was brainwashed to distrust my body and its desires. When I had my first crush on a guy – Skip, the bad boy of West Junior High – I had already learned, in lessons both overt and subtle, that homosexuality was, as one of my preachers put it, “the sin God hates the most.” It was so bad it even warranted a special category: abomination before the Lord. This was the only self-understanding available to me as I made my way through adolescence, so I believed it – hook, line, and self-loathing sinker.

By the time I was thirteen, I was a full-fledged insomniac, offering up prayers in lieu of sleep, desperate for God to fix me. Every time I slipped up with a masturbatory fantasy, I would be overcome by post-ejaculation guilt, sometimes strong enough to make me retch. I’d stare at my reflection in the mirror, lacerating myself with homophobic judgments, sure I was bound for hell. And since mine was the sin “that dare not speak its name,” I waged this war with myself in abject isolation.

But during my senior year of high school, I finally found someone who understood. I became friends with a classmate named Heath who, like me, had some swish in his step. One night in his grandparents’ basement, we confessed our shameful secret. We also gave each other blowjobs. Or to be more precise, Heath gave me a blowjob. I gave him half of one, at which point I had a guilt attack. Nothing kills the mood faster than an “Oh, God! We’re going to hell!” speech, so… blowjob interruptus.

Teenage hormones are formidable, however, and over the ensuing months, I kept going back to drink from Heath’s well. He was the only person I’d ever found who got me. He also had very nice lips. We carried on a secret blowjob-laden love affair for a year, but I was constantly consumed with shame, and I would regularly break things off as a result. Then came the inevitable catastrophe: a couple of people from my church found out about us. They put the kibosh on our tortured romance. They also made me come out to my parents, who thought it would be a good idea for me to see a “Christian Counselor” for my “homosexual problem.” This quack, Brother Oakley, told me I was cursed by “homosexual demons.” And since I’d been primed from birth to accept such a diagnosis, I believed him. I – an honor roll graduate who scored a not-too-shabby 29 on the ACT – believed I was cursed. By demons.

That’s some shit that’ll stick with you.

When you’re nauseated by – and you believe God is nauseated by – your every erection, jerk-off session, and “cursed” desire (not to mention all those blowjobs), you’re not in possession of your own body. In a very real sense, I was colonized by the god who had been imprinted on my psyche, and his means of control were both intellectual and psychosomatic.

My intellectual freedom came in college. I met trustworthy people – professors and campus ministers – who introduced me to liberating theologies. After years of reeducation, I was able to see the fundamentalism of my childhood for what it really was: a house of cards. I snatched up every cognitive tool I could find for this deconstruction project, majoring in Religion and Philosophy and eventually going to seminary.

In my classes, we talked about human sexuality as the gift of a gracious God. Assigned readings had chapters like “Listening to Marginalized Voices,” “Reclaiming Eros and Passion,” and “Dismantling Sexism and Heterosexism.” I’d never even heard the term “heterosexism.” And a God who delights in human sexuality not to mention the whole “reclaiming eros” bit – was enough to blow my mind all the way open. I became a ravenous information junkie, chasing that sweet theological dragon.

But my psychosomatic captivity lingered. Though I had the occasional romp as an undergraduate, sex still elicited that familiar, post-coital surge of self-hatred. And, since this was mid-90s Arkansas, all the guys I hooked up with were likewise mired in shame. Most of us relied on copious amounts of alcohol to disarm our inhibitions, which didn’t help the sex any (just ask the poor guy I fell asleep on). We were also in the closet, further diminishing our self-worth. Some of my paramours even had girlfriends for public outings, and they teased me for being too faggy to pass like they did. One of the smarmiest ones – a fraternity president – once massaged my bulging blue jeans as I sat on one side of him while at the same time he was kissing his drunk, oblivious girlfriend who sat on the other. It didn’t occur to me that I (or he… or his girlfriend) might deserve better. Why would it? Regardless of what my head was telling me, I still felt ashamed. Dirty. Judged.

Even if I no longer made mental assent to a god who was sickened by me, that god was still in my gut. And he made it impossible for me to enjoy sex.

So, in seminary, I set out to rewire my mind-body connection. A very short-term boyfriend had given me a queer-affirming book called Just As I Am, written by a gay Episcopal priest named Robert Williams. This book, which was nothing short of a revelation, not only sung the praises of “reclaiming eros,” but praised gay sex in particular. It was filled with affirmations designed to help queer readers claim their sacred worth, which I recited daily in the mirror, supplanting the invectives I’d hurled at myself throughout adolescence.

I am made in the image of God: I love myself exactly as I am.

I am made in the image of God: I am worthwhile and worthy of being loved.

I am made in the image of God: I have a body designed to give and receive pleasure.

The book also had quite the “Suggested Reading” list, including resources to help people love themselves (in both the straightforward and euphemistic ways). By the end of my second semester, I had made quite a bit of progress. I had even stopped feeling guilty when I masturbated. For the first time in my life, I was starting to feel like my body was mine, and I was enjoying it in new ways (getting my first dildo was a memorable milestone). Even more to the point, I was starting to feel like I was my body. I no longer felt driven to escape it. And I was learning – slowly – to love it.

But I could get only so far solo.

I hadn’t pursued a sexual relationship since I’d begun my retraining program, choosing to do my own work first. Now, in this last leg to freedom, it was time to ask for help. I knew that if I ever wanted to short-circuit my homophobic wiring and claim full autonomy over my own body, then I had to have sex. To have it in defiance of the god who demanded my self-hatred and shame. To have it on my own terms, not fueled by alcohol or strangled by fear. To have it for the pure pleasure of it, without apology.

These were the days before iPhones and dating apps. Hell, the internet was barely up and running. If you were a gay man who wanted to just have sex with somebody, your options were limited. I was not yet comfortable enough in my skin to go to a bar and try to pick someone up. Plus, I was ready to do this thing, like now, and I didn’t want to waste time with any strike-outs. So my best option was to go to the ink-blotted precursor of Grindr: the classified ads.

I’d never before imagined hiring a prostitute – or “escort,” as advertised in those ads – but something about the idea of paying someone made me feel less inhibited. I could ask for exactly what I wanted without worrying about trying to impress a potential Mr. Right. I also wanted a teacher. Someone who could guide my newly reclaimed body in the mechanics of sex. Though I’d given and received countless blowjobs at that point, I’d had anal sex only once. It was with the smarmy fraternity president, and it was bad on every level – sloppy, unsafe, and unschooled. To be truly sex-positive, I needed to know how to do the deed safely and in a way that maximized pleasure for me and my future partner(s). But in that world-wide-webless era, manuals weren’t readily available.

I’ve always preferred mentors, anyway.

I wondered if I had the capacity to be so bold, so… transgressive. From a cognitive standpoint, I no longer believed in a god who would condemn someone for hiring, or being, a prostitute. But talk about putting your beliefs to the test!

Adam’s ad seemed welcoming and far less intimidating than some others. I wasn’t yet ready to be “plowed,” “wrecked,” or treated with a “stern hand,” and I wasn’t interested in doing any of those things to someone else. Adam advertised his height, (5’9”), his weight (165 lbs.), his build (swimmer’s), his conversational skills (great), his sexual position (versatile), and his attitude toward life (open). He also claimed that he and his “7.5 inch tool” would “guarantee complete satisfaction,” which certainly inspired confidence. Plus, after going through the old newspapers I’d kept, I discovered that his ad had run twice per month for the past three months. I figured that if he were a serial killer, he would have been caught by that point.

My logic was admittedly shaky, but I was right. He wasn’t a serial killer, and he was just as advertised. Not only was he a great conversationalist, but he had the kind of gregariousness that made me feel like I’d known him forever. I felt at ease on the phone with him, asking him to mentor me. I felt at ease in his apartment just north of downtown. I felt at ease on his living room floor, on his carpeted staircase, on his king-size bed.

He was calm and commanding, touching base with me every step of the way as I’d asked: You just need a little lube; you’ll never guess how wet it’ll make you… Did you feel that? You just let me in… This doesn’t hurt, does it? It’s important that it feels good.

I adored his body (which did bear a striking resemblance to Greg Louganis’), and I also adored giving him mine. I felt bound to him, connected – two humans sharing a fundamentally human experience. The sex was amazing, electric, fireworks going off, the perfect triple axel. It was nearly transcendental.

But decidedly not out-of-body.

Indeed, the experience was as incarnational as I had hoped. I felt free to bring my entire self to the moment, to connect body-to-body with another man, to relish the pleasure I gave and received. And to do it all without fear of condemnation.

Afterward, Adam told me what he liked about the experience, what he wanted to do to me next time, told me I was “hot.” I felt valued, even though I knew he was priming me for repeat business. But there wouldn’t be a next time. I had already gotten what I needed.

“I really appreciate everything,” I said, sitting on his living room rug, tying my shoes. “Like, you have no idea how much. The way you guided me. And treated me.” I looked up at him and sighed. “I had some real hang-ups I was trying to work through, and I… couldn’t do it alone.”

“Oh, we’ve all got hang-ups,” he said, dimples emerging on either side of that confident grin. He reached out his hand to help me up, then held it for a moment, as he looked me in the eyes. I could feel them welling up, overcome with gratitude for this experience. For this man. For his ministry. “Hey. You’re okay,” he said, giving my hand a squeeze. “You’re okay.”

As I left Adam’s apartment, I kept monitoring myself.

Did I feel guilty?

No. Not on the drive home. Not as I walked the stairs to my gothic dorm. Not as I crept into the bathroom I shared with my suitemate. Not as I stood in the shower, caressing my awakened flesh. I felt energized. Happy with my gay self. Most importantly, I felt in complete possession of my body. I had transgressed the bounds of the god who’d tortured me for so long, and I was finally out of his reach. Now I was free to give myself – body and soul – to a new God, one who desires our wholeness and flourishing, and who isn’t interested in policing the sex lives of consenting adults, so long as what we do is not abusive, deceitful, nor coercive.

There are those who argue that it’s impossible for someone to freely choose prostitution as an empowering career choice, though a Twitter search will yield many first-person testimonials to the contrary. It’s an emotional and complex issue. On one side, there are thoughtful and well-intentioned people who want to liberate sex workers – a disproportionate number of whom represent the most socially vulnerable populations – from a risky profession that has deep roots in the patriarchy. On the other side, a sizable contingent of sex workers (representing all genders) want their labor valued and don’t feel the need to be liberated from it. They’ve taken on the slogan, “Sex Work Is Work,” claiming there’s nothing inherently misogynistic nor demeaning about their profession. And it shouldn’t be conflated with human trafficking – which is more prevalent in “legitimate” U.S. industries – for the sake of an easy moral argument.

But I’m not making an argument.

I’m telling a story.

I realize now that I’ve done Adam a disservice by not telling it sooner. I’ve been afraid of scandalizing, hesitant to open my queer self up to further judgment. Plus, there are few churches, even in my progressive denomination, that will hire an out gay pastor, much less one who proudly claims his seventy minutes with a sex worker. So, out of fear, I’ve failed to give Adam the one priceless thing I’ve had to offer him: dignity. My story could have dignified his work and, by extension, the work of others in his profession who have offered healing to the theologically traumatized. In telling it, I could have honored such work for the ministry it can be. Perhaps I could have also honored myself and people like me who have sought liberation, and found it, in peculiar places.

Which is why I’m telling it now, however late.

I am a Christian minister, and it was a sex worker named Adam who took me by the hand and ushered me to freedom.

 

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