I cannot tell a lie

What happens when a hooker confesses to her parents.

Published October 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When I became a prostitute, my mother was the last person I wanted to tell. I knew that prostitutes weren't "people like us," and I wasn't ready to violate her sense of what was normal. I had many reasons for lying to Mom -- all of them good and, I now think, essentially healthy. How could I announce my new occupation when I was still so inexperienced and unsure of myself, sexually and otherwise? As a teenager experimenting with escort agencies and hotel bars, I was in danger of being arrested, assaulted or worse -- and I had barely figured out how to wear makeup. I knew that any difficulty I encountered would be proof to most mothers, mine included, that I had no business being a hooker. Eager to make my mark in the demimonde, I persisted in my silence for years, keeping my job a secret from my father, my two stepparents and, most significantly, my mother.

I discovered that having a sexual secret was the key to really separating from Mom. It was not always easy to have secrets in my mother's progressive household. When I told my mother I wanted to go on the Pill, she sent me to the family doctor. An eminently sane response on her part, it was also a source of tension. I didn't really want to share this big moment with my mom and I resented her for knowing too much about my sex life. I regretted my initial candor and wished I could "do it all over again" -- go to an anonymous clinic, keep my first sexual relationship a secret and experience this rite of passage in private. In a way, turning my first trick allowed me to do that -- there was never any danger that I would tell Mom about this rite of passage, and I now had a sexual identity that was none of her business.

Finally, in my mid-20s, I decided to tell my parents about my profession. By then, I was well-established in my call-girl career, sure of my choice and -- the clincher -- I could truthfully say I was not taking serious risks. My clients were known to me, I had my own business and the police were not a threat anymore. In telling my parents, I flouted a convention of my profession. Very few of the prostitutes I worked with could tell their parents -- and I was regarded as something of a weirdo for telling my own.

Revealing my secret profession did not really change my relationship with my mother -- it brought us back to square one. Her first question was not about sexual morality or the threat of arrest. It was about hygiene. Raised to be a clean-freak, I found myself assuring her that, yes, I was washing everyone and everything on a regular basis. Here I was -- a New York call girl, routinely bedding CEOs, foreign nobles and entertainment moguls in the city's five-star hotels -- justifying my washing habits to my mother. It was a bizarre regression to pre-kindergarten days -- when Mom was herself a 20-something clean-freak raising kids -- and a reminder that, no matter how many beds I climbed into, I would never climb out of my mother's hygienic, middle-class reality.

My parents have been divorced for many years, so I told them separately. Dad, a computer programmer, wondered where I had acquired a taste for business. So did my mother. Both concluded that I must have inherited this from an entrepreneurial grandfather. "It skips a generation," said my mother, a part-time editor. "Your grandfather would be proud of you," my father remarked, though I suspect my long-dead grandfather would have been horrified. In the end, they seemed barely aware of the sexual content of my job. My materialism, however, set me apart from them.

When I told a client that my parents knew what I did for a living, he looked at me as though I had two heads. After that, I kept my openness with my parents a secret from my customers. A call girl's appeal depends, in part, upon her conventional exterior. It's generally assumed that the only parents who know what we do for a living are those too disadvantaged or trashy to care. While my family is free of most sexual hang-ups, I have inherited my share of class hang-ups, and anything that might give clients a trashy impression of my parentage is anathema to me. If girls from "good homes" were expected to protect their parents from the truth, I preferred to have my clients think of me as a "closet case" hooker.

When I ask other prostitutes why they never consider telling their parents, their answers aren't about legality or physical safety. Instead they talk about prudish, neurotic mothers who are so out of the loop sexually that they could never acknowledge any hint of a daughter's sex life -- much less prostitution. "I'm telling you," said one call girl, recalling her mother's approach to sex education: "Not one word about menstruation. Ever."

Amanda, who is a member of PONY (Prostitutes of New York), told me, "I'm proud of my work, and I might even make a good spokesperson -- if I didn't have such a Victorian mother." When she worked for the Mayflower Madam in the 1980s, Amanda kept it a secret. "If my mother found out, it would wreck the family." Her current policy -- "Don't tell this woman anything because she doesn't want to know" -- was firmly in place by the time she had her first period: "I had seen the educational film, I knew menstruation was normal -- but I didn't tell her because I didn't trust her."

She traces her mute animosity to an earlier discovery: "When I was about 7, two little girls showed me a drawing in a book that belonged to their parents. I remember being very excited when I came home: 'Mommy, I found out where babies come from!' She told me, 'No, that's not true,' and made sure I never played with those children again. Later, of course, I learned that she had lied." Hiding her profession was a no-brainer.

Amanda assumes that, if she were a PONY spokeswoman, she would have to come out to her family. But many hookers with high profiles in the prostitutes' rights movement have never told their parents that they themselves are sex workers. Sue Metzenrath of the Scarlet Alliance is a rising star in the Australian prostitutes movement, a media-savvy political animal who makes no secret of being a prostitute. At first, I assumed that her ability to go public had everything to do with Australia's increasingly liberal prostitution laws. In fact, says Metzenrath: "My parents both died before finding out. My mother was a church-praying Catholic and would have totally freaked out." Her mother's death is still a painful subject for her, "but it was a relief in terms of sex work," she says. "In some ways our relationship wasn't that great. We were too different."

Losing her mother at 23 made it possible for Metzenrath to come out as a prostitute. Earlier, in 1993, she had appeared on TV as a spokeswoman for a Canberra organization, Workers in Sex Employment. "When my father saw me," she recalls, "he called to congratulate me." She nervously wondered if it was time to have a sticky conversation with her father. "But he assumed my activism was altruistic -- and I still couldn't tell him that I was a whore."

Another activist told me that after working for five years as a "window prostitute" in Amsterdam's red-light district she still can't tell her mom that she has been a prostitute. "My little sister is very proud of me," says Wendy, "but I've never had to say, 'Don't tell Mom' because we have a reciprocal understanding: If my mother found out, it would be horrible." I asked how she can flaunt her hooker-cred so brazenly in racy anthologies and trendy academic journals if she's serious about keeping it a secret from Mom. Wendy counts on her mother's bland reading habits -- "Catherine Cookson novels and historical romances" -- to protect the secret.

Sometimes, in the most dire scenarios, a prostitute has no choice but to tell or is told on. Former call girl Xaviera Hollander had to give up control of her secret life when she became entangled in a police corruption scandal. "A so-called friend of the family called my mother very early one morning to tell her she should have a good look at the front page of her morning paper. She was in absolute shock and could not believe it, until she called and found the phones disconnected." Xaviera's mother flew from Amsterdam to New York and "did a lot of crying," asking, "Where did I go wrong? We gave you a good education!" Her wayward daughter parlayed the disaster into a bestselling book, "The Happy Hooker." "My mom certainly was not happy with it," she recalls. "For her, I refused to get the book translated into Dutch." The embargo lasted about 10 years.

Four years ago, Julian, a part-time prostitute, felt compelled to tell his parents that someone was trying to blackmail him. "They were threatening to send copies of my escort ads to my parents, my former employer and my thesis advisor," he says. Julian's father insisted on knowing the details. "I finally explained that I was putting myself through grad school by working as an escort. He asked me not to tell my mother because it would upset her needlessly." He adds that telling his father "destroyed whatever relationship we had. I still feel uncomfortable talking to him, and I don't know what would have happened with my mother but I don't think I would want to find out."

Stephanie's experience went both ways. At 17, she left her home in Manchester, England, to live "in a Bayswater hotel" in London. She was returning to the hotel from a weekend job when her parents paid an unexpected visit. "I pulled up in a classic British car with a much older man, dressed in quite flashy clothes with an Oh-my-God-what-do-I-say-about-this smile pasted across my face. I told them he was the father in one of the families I worked for as a nanny but I knew not to insult their intelligence for too long." While her father never acknowledged or talked about the incident -- "He could never accept me as an adult sexual being in any circumstances, never mind these!" -- her mother was more open. Stephanie sometimes discusses her nine-year stint as a London hooker with her mother: "It sort of rolled into our conversation -- only after I had left the business, though."

Some, like Xaviera, Julian and Stephanie, survive what we call "the ultimate hooker nightmare." They aren't disowned and their lives aren't destroyed by the explosion of a basic taboo. Cheryl grew up in a family of Australian union activists -- and she sees this particular taboo as "a class thing." While working in a Melbourne brothel, she felt no pressure to lie to her parents. "If I turned up regularly, looking healthy, and they knew who my friends were, nothing felt wrong to them. Working-class people don't use people's jobs as an indicator of how well they're doing. It's: 'Are your children well-dressed? Do you go to the dentist?'"

For every hooker who has been disowned or stigmatized, there are probably 20 others who get their parents to look the other way. Sometimes, as in my friend Laura's case, the family hooker happens to be the favorite child: "When my father found out I was dancing topless," Laura recalls, "he cried. I told him I was sorry that it hurt him but I wasn't going to stop." Later, when Laura segued into hooking, she didn't spell it out to her parents -- "They think I have rich boyfriends. They deal with it by not seeing it as a job." Although she's been in the profession for 15 years, Laura's parents have been encouraged to think of her as the daughter with the least-stable job.

Amy, who grew up in the suburbs of Boston, says she has never been broke: "If I wanted to go someplace for a vacation, I went. If I needed new clothes for a function, I'd come wearing a new dress, with the shoes and the bag to match." In Amy's family, "If you don't have a legit job, and you're not suffering or asking for help, clearly something is up." Amy, however, is the quintessential good daughter who celebrates every Jewish holiday chez Mom. "I'm an excellent daughter," she says. "Not only that, I'm a good child to her, even now, as an adult. If I'm not feeling well, I call and say, 'I don't feel so good.' When she tells me what to take, I let her know I've been following her advice -- even if I haven't been. Because I give her a reason to mother me, she really has no reason to question me."

Win Smith has never tried very hard to conceal his sex work from his parents. "They know I do 'bodywork' and they can infer whatever they want from that. My mother thinks I do massage but has never asked whether I have a degree or a certificate -- and my father acts as though he thinks 'bodywork' is 'body-building.'" Win's parents, active Presbyterians, "don't see things that they don't want to see. It's not about approval or disapproval, it's about will. If you do not will it into existence, you don't have to deal with it, so you don't comment on it -- this is what it means to be a WASP."

A lot of parents are openly at peace with their kids' being gay, but not with prostitution. Wendy's parents belong to the Christian Reformed Church and have "come a long way," she says, by accepting her lesbianism. They've learned to deal with Wendy having a long-term girlfriend "because there's a gay and lesbian group at their local church. If you fall in love and settle down, gayness is acceptable to them -- we have God's stamp of approval." At this point, however, divine acceptance of her prostitution is unthinkable.

Hooking isn't what my parents had in mind for me when I was growing up -- far from it. But when I finally told my mother about my job, it didn't "shatter her maternal illusions," as one of my working friends predicted. Soon after my revelation, Mother sent me the first of many newspaper clippings with a scribbled note: "Is that really what it's like?" An article about the movie "Working Girls" followed, along with other hooker tidbits.

Most people assume, because I told her, that my mother and I are uninhibited buddies or that she's a wild libertine. Wrong on both counts. My mother was a virgin when she married my father. As for being buddies, we correspond regularly but don't see each other more than once a year. When my mother is around, I sometimes feel like a teenager -- marking out my territory, fending her off. She's definitely a parent, not a pal. Telling her about my job has simplified my life, but it didn't open any floodgates. I still have some secrets, which she is happy for me to keep.

By Tracy Quan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Sex Work