When I worked security for a brothel in upstate New York

By Guest Contributor: Kathryn Clemensts

A moment of indecision can have life-altering consequences. I already knew that and I knew I had to act when I heard the growl and muffled whimpering. 

I was fed up hearing about the girls taking punches. Few of them used the alarm buttons because they were afraid of losing trade, id est of being told to leave and don’t come back. Accusations of violence were a matter of a hooker’s word against a punter’s. Guys can be clever enough to not leave visible marks. The internal marks of degradation are harder to bandage up and their cumulative effect can be devastating. 

Why is it then, that when a john has gotten what he wanted, he feels the need to assert superiority by striking the woman who took his money? By beating her he punishes her for an act that took two to carry out. It’s his way of letting her know “You shouldn’t have done that but I’ll be back in a couple days to get more, if not with you then with someone else.” Picture a backwater town in upstate New York kept alive by traffic on the way to a state-maintained castle, a popular spot with tourists. There are seasonal highs and lows. 

What keeps people going during the lows? Well, if you’re not an agrarian or connected to that, there are two other options open to you: sex or drugs. Take your pick; they’re not mutually exclusive. 

What keeps people going during the lows? Well, if you’re not an agrarian or connected to that, there are two other options open to you: sex or drugs. Take your pick; they’re not mutually exclusive. 

While some people might imagine these maligned livelihoods would isolate those who partook from the rest of the community, that’s almost never the case. The demand for them is often complicitly supported by neighborhood outlets who stock the items necessary for using and producing drugs. Business aside, small towns are just microcosms of America, filled with average Joes who try to turn a blind eye to something that’s hard to categorize. Sure, most of them profess they want other people to be working and not sitting around on their asses but they’re too buttoned-up to say publicly that sex work isn’t exactly what they have in mind. 

[All the quotes in this piece have been gathered recently but the names of the girls are pseudonyms, in place to protect their identities.] 

JESSIE: “For me, sex at work is a purely physical experience. I’m not involved with it. I might take something to distract me from what’s going on—to keep me uninvolved.”

CASS: “If a person is going to offer me a way out of working, y’know guarantee my security until I can relocate and do something else, that person can judge me. They can judge my choices. Anyone else, any other opinionated but passive bystander can’t say much—until they’ve walked in my shoes as long as I have.”  

My journey into working security at a brothel was the kind of life-tangent that can only come about from an ego-trip, at least in my case. Ultimately, it wasn’t a one-way ticket, and for that, I count myself lucky. 

When I first arrived in the US as a teenager, my adoptive parents encouraged me to make Asian American friends. They thought it would help me to adjust and to find a sense of belonging. Previously, we’d lived in various European capitals and I hadn’t really seen myself as different. The fact was that I’d often wowed my peers when changing schools with my (well-rehearsed) cosmopolitanism. In America, I felt I was labeled and boxed in; impinged when it came to my self-worth. So, initially I sought safety in numbers with other Asian Americans but I didn’t feel free.

I eventually went my own way and was excited to get my own place in NYC, dreaming big. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I felt I could do anything there. The Big Apple rewarded my initiative by giving me a couple of experiences that were fundamentally transformative.

By chance, I joined a Shaolin academy and learned kung-fu. Discovering I had a natural talent was a huge confidence boost (as though it’s latent in my genes) and it probably was what made me so dedicated. It still gives me a thrill to recall how I had impressed a visiting grandmaster when he learned I could already perform jumping spinning kicks after only five months of training. 

It was also in New York that I met my first true love. I wasn’t hers though. In hindsight, I don’t think Dolores was capable of truly loving other people. She was too hooked on her own ambition as an actress and the drugs that her high-society indulged in. Meeting her was important though because her lifestyle contrasted so dazzlingly against my own.  I ground shifts at a liquor store and trained every other available moment, which left little room for play. But, through ever more adventurous forays into Dolores’ dizzying world, I began to make contacts and consider new life-paths. 

What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that there would be just as many drugs attached to my new world as the one I was leaving behind.

Around the same time I figured out I was languishing in her unhealthy shadow, I was offered the gig to work security at a brothel upstate. What seemed like a promising adventure and a quadruple increase to my income helped me break away from my holding pattern. What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that there would be just as many drugs attached to my new world as the one I was leaving behind. Still, I wasn’t having any of them; I had an important job to do and dangers to face.

The muffled whimpering coming from behind the door was coming from my colleague (my ward) in obvious pain and probably danger. The combat training I’d undergone provided me with new impulses when it came to facing fear. We all have natural instincts to avoid threats but sometimes that’s not the best option. Shaolin kung-fu taught me to override what seems sensible and move towards threats when it’s the best plan of action. I knew I had to do that immediately but the space between what my brain told me to do and what my body wanted to do seemed like an almighty chasm. Somehow, I managed to clear it. 

I burst into that room expecting the worst, and I found it. A huge guy had one of the older girls pinned to the wall with an elbow in her throat. She was literally turning blue and I knew I’d been almost too late. I’d seen the guy earlier and was intimidated by him then, when he was just flicking through pictures in the lounge and sipping a drink. His body movements were controlled–that spoke of the military to me. Then his shirt was off, and I could tell from experience that his rippling musculature was not just for show. 

He turned and glared like he caught me trespassing on his private property and I felt whatever strength I had drain out of me like someone had pulled a plug from under my feet. Two years at the Shaolin academy did not prepare me to trade blows with a monster. The discipline of my training had honed my body – far beyond what I had thought my limitations were. I had learned how to use momentum against strength but those lessons suddenly felt far from adequate. It was one thing to fight untrained thugs and another to go up against a soldier–especially one who may be familiar with death. It took all of a split second for me to realize that even though I was like a ballet dancer with weapons for extremities, I was no match for this beast of a man. I was a chimpanzee facing down a silverback gorilla. But I couldn’t back down either.

Rarely, and most girls will corroborate this, would a full-on physical assault occur at a brothel. These days, when a client is unsatisfied, he will just complain until he gets his money back. Guys kick off every now and again, but usually in a house, a gaggle of girls can evict them without much issue. Many people may not realize that the whole structure of a brothel – with a receptionist, security and support staff – provides a sense of institution, and with it, safety in numbers. Crucially this reduces the frequency and the level of violence. 

Sex workers who are forced to work on the open streets, go to private homes (which are sometimes drug dens) or meet clients in abandoned buildings report higher numbers of attacks per person in almost every category of assault. This includes attempted kidnapping. The only type of assault or attempted assault that is more likely for girls in houses is anal rape by customers who have explicitly been told it’s off limits.1  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC26557/

On the whole, houses are safer – one reason why I usually felt I could handle my role. But – as nasty as it now sounds to me – I also had another purpose: I was mainly there to keep the girls inside. 

My title was security, but I was more of a jailer.

CRYSTAL: “Working from 6pm to 7am is exhausting when you’re having a busy night. It’s excruciating when you don’t get selected. Not only because you might need two, possibly three clients just to pay your rent but the fact that you’ve spent all your energy on talking them up and acting sexy with no result is just so demoralizing. But you’ve gotta pick yourself up and stay on the horse, or you don’t get to eat.”

SAM: “Sometimes Kathryn and I had words. Don’t get me wrong, she was more of a friend than the other girls because we weren’t competing for trade but she couldn’t empathize with the sense of claustrophobia; the cabin fever that I sometimes got. That always happened the nights the boss insisted on showing hard-core porn flicks. I just couldn’t escape that shit, no matter how many cig breaks I took. I just knew some asshole would ask for what they saw in the videos too. It was inevitable.”   

My title was security, but I was more of a jailer.

Yeah, you might’ve guessed security is there to protect the staff. Not only. I was always first to arrive and last to leave and I was there to make the girls feel safe. That jived with my self-esteem; I felt useful, responsible. I liked going home to sleep with the knowledge that I’d made a difference when a shift went smoothly. I had wages to earn, though, and they were dependent on the house making money. Most often, the house loses money when customers outnumber staff, which happens when unselected girls get demotivated and leave, thinking they can do better on the street. 

The boss doesn’t like that – for her, these girls stole business. That’s where I came in, the human fence. I reminded girls as gently as possible that turning up for a shift meant staying for a full shift, whether it was going their way or not. Smooth talking them made me feel shitty on the inside because I knew that I was talking some girls into an unfair deal: the younger hotties and the newbies (fresh meat) were the real magnets; the other girls were just picking up the scraps. Also, girls doing well got to perform in the nicest rooms, furthest from the lounge while the mediocre players were relegated to box rooms in the basement. That made losing out a vicious circle – one that I was well-paid to keep people in.My other duties included attempting to ration drug use so the girls didn’t get too wasted (good luck with that!) and breaking up fights at motivational team meetings when rivalry or blaming escalated into catfights.          

The guy yelled something at me. I froze but my brain kept working on hyper speed. I recognized that he spoke Turkish but I didn’t understand any of it. The man behind his eyes was … gone, leaving him unseeing, with some motion picture playing in his head in place of reality. For a second I wondered if it was one of those PTSD episodes that combat-experienced veterans get. 

To quell troubles in the vicinity of the house I sometimes (but rarely) flashed the piece I carried in a neat little belt under my jacket. My moment of hesitation cost me the time it would have taken to pull my gun out of its holster. 

The guy towered over me and his foot struck me in the chest. I flew backwards and knew before I hit the ground that the wind was getting knocked out of me. When I did hit the ground I felt my shoulder give too. The girl working the bar said I shrieked. 

Two prospective customers were in the basement lounge, relaxing at the bar when I flew out of the box room and landed hard in front of them. I recognized them, they’d always come in together, calling themselves “male lesbians”. That’s corny but they were friendly.

They jumped up when they saw I was in trouble, and circled the big guy, trying to tackle him. Our opponent didn’t waste a second to release a fucking humungous knife from his boot. Suddenly it was Tarzan (sweating profusely) versus two wimps from The Big Bang Theory. That knife seemed to freeze time–every single particle in the room–until the Turkish guy grinned like he was enjoying thoughts of what he was going to do with it. 

My would-be heroes paled and ran for their lives. The madman chased them right out into the street. Whether it was PTSD or something else, that Turk was relentless, and pursued the “male lesbians” out of sight. I know because I tried to follow them, and failed miserably to keep up. I persisted only because I needed to make sure he wasn’t coming back. Thankfully, the night claimed him. 

I got out of that job soon after that, the thin veneer of combat-confidence I’d clad myself in had completely shattered, to say nothing of my esteem in the eyes of most of the girls I was supposed to protect. My shoulder injury persists. Perhaps I wouldn’t be alive to tell this if I hadn’t left. I know some of the girls aren’t. 

While the money was a tidal draw, whatever else I had hoped to find up North never materialized. There were highs, banter, camaraderie but no sense of belonging. That’s because as lucrative as sex work can be and as much as I tried to justify my role, I knew I was not really in the girls’ corner. I was like the boxing coach who sends a fighter back into the ring knowing the odds are rigged in favor of the bookmakers. The fighter will get a share but never the cream … and the fighter’s the one doing all the hard work. 

Ironically, when it was my turn to face the champ I tasted canvas. That was my awakening from the living dream I had been wandering in. A rude awakening perhaps, but definitely a fortunate one.    

Kathryn Clemensts

I am an adopted child. I don’t know my biological parents but I know I am from Yunnan Province in China, near Vietnam. I lived in Europe until 2019; Austria, Sweden and the UK. I used to be roadie for Johnny Cash’s son-in-law, personally in charge of a guitar worth thirty-eight thousand dollars.

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