• Steph Shuff

Has Sex, Will Travel

Sometimes, when I wake up in the mornings, my mom will call out absurd headlines to me from the sofa as she scrolls through the news on her phone. I, barely awake enough to make my coffee, will listen from the kitchen as she discusses things that are horrible enough to make her angry at seven in the morning. She is an interesting editor, albeit a predictable one. She rarely gets upset about mass shootings, though I am sure they upset her. She rarely gets upset about immigration detention centers, though I am sure those upset her too. What enrages her the most are much more salient accounts of the kind of people that created a world where these sorts of things happen in the first place. Mostly, mom yells about rich men behaving badly. On most mornings in 2019, that means Jeffrey Epstein. 

In 2004, I was sixteen and working as a hostess in a restaurant in Jupiter, FL. For context, the restaurant was called The Tavern, and it was located less than a half a mile from Orchids of Asia, the Jupiter Day Spa where Robert Kraft and so many men like him went to get no-strings hand jobs from enslaved Chinese women who couldn’t speak English or recognize his face. At the time, the restaurant where I worked drew in the older moneyed crowd you might expect to hang with guys like Robert Kraft. There were always lots of foreign sports cars in the parking lot; lots of diamonds on the women who ate dinner there; as a hostess, it wasn’t unusual for men to slip me $100 bills to get a table faster than what I had promised. I don’t want to sound elitist, but I have been to some beautiful, expensive places in the world since my days at The Tavern. If you are throwing $100 at a sixteen year old hostess to sit in a dimly lit restaurant in Jupiter, FL to eat a steak and drink a scotch, you probably have too much money. 

The owner was an older man, and we rarely saw him. His son was more involved in the regular operation of the restaurant, and he was a youthful-looking forty. I don’t remember his name (was it Jerry?) but I do remember the way he’d stroll into the restaurant wearing light wash bootcut True Religion jeans and untucked collared shirts with pastel paisley patterns on the cuffs. The early 2000s were a weird time in fashion, and this guy was trying. The family owned a bunch of restaurants throughout the Southeast and Jerry carried the kind of smug white male privilege that I only have the words for now but always knew to be cautious of, even at sixteen. He was the kind of guy that would put his hand around your neck or on the small of your back, the kind of guy who leaned in so close that you could smell his breath, the kind of guy who’d saunter and sway around the restaurant like he was a king. 

There was always something subversive about the restaurant - the owners, the clientele, Jerry. The Tavern closed years ago, but I did a search recently to see if the other restaurants they owned had survived. I don’t think they did. My hope is that Jerry’s family fortune went up in flames in the 2008 - 2009 housing crisis. I picture him, still in his light wash True Religion jeans, living like the rest of us do - selling used cars, pushing paper, slinging drinks. It’s unlikely, rich white men have their ways of staying afloat, but the fantasy is a nice one. 

I was working the hostess stand one night when, towards the end of my shift at 10 or 11 o’clock, I answered a call to the restaurant's telephone. A man with a voice steeped in age was on the other line. He claimed to be the owner of the restaurant and asked if I wouldn’t mind making some extra money. He had a friend who was bed-bound, the result of some medical condition or procedure, I don’t remember which. He was lonely and needed a friend. How would I mind talking to him? Just talking. The pay would be handsome. 

I was young, and ambitious, and curious, so I said sure, why not. Beyond that, I thought I had no choice but to talk to his friend, because of his power, my lack thereof, and my responsibility to my job. I gave the strange older man my cell phone - ironically, the same cell phone number I have today - and he said his friend would call fifteen minutes after my shift was over at 11 o’clock. 

At 11:15, on my drive home, my phone rang. Another older voice - this one, higher pitched, more sinister. Over the course of the next 30 - 45 minutes, the man slowly groomed me for the kind of conversation he really wanted. He asked me what I liked to do. When I told him I liked the beach, he said, “Picture you and me laying on a beach together. There’s a bottle of massage oil on the beach towel. I hand it to you. What do you do with it?” 

Allow me to pause here to say that at thirty-one, phone sex is still something that makes me nervous. In fact, even dirty talk is a gray area. Let us not forget that writing has always been and will always be my medium. Don’t get me wrong, I will listen to you dirty talk all day. In fact, it is a real turn on for me. But it has taken a lot of practice for me to be able to say the things I want to say, out loud and unscripted, without feeling foolish or vulnerable or very very naked.

At sixteen, phone sex didn’t just make me nervous. It made me feel absurd. Why would people have it? It was embarrassing and icky and, like, not that fun anyway. 

So I responded in the vein of my awkwardness, telling the old, strange, sinister-sounding man that I would bury the massage oil in the sand. 

Click. The other end of the line went silent. The man never called me again. 

That phone call haunted me for a while, I don’t remember for how long. Months? A year? Eventually, however, it faded, just another vaguely traumatizing memory in a long line of sexual overstepping by so many men in my world. 

It would be another fifteen years before that memory ever surfaced again, when one day, my client, The Young Turks, decided to highlight a news piece published by the Miami Herald detailing the horrible abuses of Jeffrey Epstein, as well as the unbelievable legal protections given to him by the Palm Beach County court system. I read accounts of Epstein’s tactics, how as early as 2002 he started grooming young women in Palm Beach County and New York City. I read about how he'd find them. I saw pictures of what they looked like. I read about how things always started - innocently enough. He just wanted a massage.

Reading this the first time felt odd - familiar somehow, but it didn’t click right away. But this account always came up, over and over and over again. It started with a massage. In New York. In Palm Beach County. Just a harmless massage.

One day, after reading about Epstein yet again, the memory of that phone call resurfaced like a wave out of my subconscious. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I became obsessed with every detail - trying to remember the voice on the other end of the phone, or the area code of the number that called me, wondering if I had ever heard a name. I went through all the what-ifs, what could-have-beens.

My story has a happy ending. I failed whatever test I was being put through on the phone that night and so the possible connection between that call and Epstein will remain a mystery for the rest of my life. But many of Epstein’s victims passed their tests, and their lives will never be the same. It makes me feel dirty, and guilty, and mostly, it makes me feel sad.

It also makes me think about the nature of sex, and power. It makes me think about Epstein dragging these women around the country with him like prisoners. It makes me think about sex work.

Who knows how Epstein got his money. I speculate his riches have less to do with his investing prowess than it does the proclivity of old men to desire young women. What I do know is that there are plenty of women out there who would be happy to massage and grope and fuck Jeffrey Epstein. For the right price, that is.

Despite the illegality of sex work, escort services and prostitution abound. Marriage is still legal, after all, and if you kid yourself into thinking marriage isn’t just legalized sex work wrapped in a delicate bow of morality and romanticism, you’re wrong. More on that later.

For now, we’ll focus on the pre-marriage ritual, because as an unmarried woman, it’s the part of the process of which I can speak with any authority. I’ll start with a few stories of my own.

I met T.S. at a bar when I wasn’t yet 18. We had a long courtship, and an even longer on-and-off that lasted well into my late-twenties. We’re still in touch, and by in touch, I mean, he texts me late at night when he’s drunk, horny, and feeling uninhibited. I don’t answer.

One day, in my early twenties, T.S. called me out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken in months, maybe longer. “What are you doing the week after next?” He said. I was in college at the time, had just turned 21, and was going to school full time at GWU in Washington, D.C.

“Nothing, really,” I responded.

“Come to Vegas with me,” he said.

I had never been to Las Vegas, but those of you who know me know that, particularly at this time in my life, Vegas seemed like a place I would enjoy. Gambling, nightclubs, spectacle, booze, drugs, and sex? Count me in.

But there was just one problem. I was a broke college kid.

“I can’t afford it,” I told him.

A beat. Then.

“Buy your plane ticket. I’ll pay for everything else.”

I did, and he did. He didn’t spare any expense. We stayed at the Bellagio. He ordered bottle service for just the two of us. We ate dinner at Capital Grille. We snorted some of California’s finest cocaine. One night, we stumbled home to the Bellagio from the strip club at six o’clock in the morning. An older couple was just arriving at the hotel as I stumbled, drunk and off-balance, out of T.S.’s BMW SUV. The older woman looked at us as we wandered into the hotel in front of them, arm in arm, laughing and drunk in the bright Las Vegas morning, and all I could hear the older woman say was, “Oh my, it really does happen, doesn’t it?” On another night, he took out thousands of dollars for me to gamble with, which, shockingly, I managed to earn a return on at a very lucky craps table, where the star dice roller kept singing a Brazilian sertaneja song called Ai Si Eu Te Pego that can still transport me back to more than a few moments in my life.

Despite the deep love I had for T.S., there was something very transactional about the arrangement. Sometimes, I felt like he was selling me. Other times, I felt like I was selling him. I played the part well - high heels, short dresses, eyes for him and no one else. Looking back on it, I’m not sure who enjoyed our little game of escort more - me, or T.S.

If our relationship had ended in marriage, this trip would have been called courtship. But it didn’t. T.S. is settled and living with someone else now, and aside from the occasional late night text, we don’t stay in touch. I am no closer to feeling comfortable with marriage than I was at 21.

Fast forward another year or two. I met H.B. through a friend while living in Washington, D.C. He was a successful ad agency man living in New York City, a place to which I had only ever traveled once during a very drunk sorority initiation ritual, where I spent the better part of our time there vomiting in the bathroom of the small New York hotel room that I shared with a dozen other college women.

H.B. was in his mid thirties at the time, successful, funny, and clearly attracted to me. We spent most of his weekend visit in DC flirting.

“I can’t believe you’ve never been to New York. Come visit me,” he told me.

A city filled with art and people and noise and movement and energy? New York would soon become my mecca, my holy land. But I was broke. “I can’t afford it,” I told him.

“I’ll host you,” he said. “Just come.”

So I did. He bought my train ticket. I stayed with him in his huge mid-town apartment. We had expensive dinners and spent one day biking around the better part of Lower Manhattan. I didn’t pay for anything. My favorite memory, other than the biking, was sitting next to Fat Joe one night at a night club in Tribeca, back when Tribeca was Manhattan’s hottest new neighborhood. I shook my head and laughed and wondered, out loud against the music, “What the fuck is my life?”

My courtship with H.B. was over almost as soon as it began. I think, more than anything, he realized that at 22, I wasn’t ready for the kind of courtship he was looking for. He’s married now, with beautiful kids and what I’m sure is a lovely wife. I hope he makes her laugh the way he made me laugh.

I’m older now, and wiser. I don’t get invited on as many all-expenses paid trips, though the occasional invitation does make its way to me every so often. And every so often, I still accept. In my early twenties, I found a new benefactor to pay for so many of my trips and explorations. I call it my career.

The trips aren’t much different. I stay in nice hotels. I see incredible parts of the country and the world. I try to look my best, work hard, be fun, have fun. I don’t have to have sex on these trips, but honestly, that was never really an issue for me. I like sex. In fact, I like sex more than I like some of the things I get paid to do now.

I think a lot about the difference between courtship and prostitution. What is the difference, anyway? In a world where men own 98% of the wealth, control 98% of the world’s businesses, make up 98% of the executive, judicial, and congressional branches of government at all levels, is there a difference? Marriage is legal prostitution, a social necessity in a world where men own everything. In the context of a world dominated by men, marriage says, “As a man, you can access my body, my womb, my loyalty, and I can access your wealth, your stability, your dominance.” It is contractual, long-term prostitution. I understand why so many women want it. For me, getting the government involved in my relationships feels like a step too far. It also feels kind of rebellious not to get married. I don’t want to barter with my body for power in this world. I want the power. After all, sex is just an instrument. I am not afraid to use it. But what if I don’t want to? Or, what if want to use it completely?

And how does this all tie back to Jeffrey Epstein? Don’t worry. We’re getting there.

I have a friend. He lives in New York City. We’ll call him Tom. He likes strong, powerful women. He dates them, loves them, works with them. He respects them. He also likes to dominate them. As part of the BDSM community, Tom is a delightful contradiction. He has respect for women. This is exactly why he wants to tie them up, tease them, torment them, and do otherwise all kinds of sadistic shit to them. All of this is done with full, loving, communicative consent from both parties. Imagine Fifty Shades of Gray, but instead of a weepy, doe-eyed, virginal Dakota Johnson serving as the submissive, which is quite predictable and actually kind of boring, the object of his desire is more reminiscent of a Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. If you haven’t watched the interrogation scene of this movie, I suggest you do so now. Sharon Stone’s character is a woman in full possession of her sexuality. She is completely unafraid, despite being under investigation for murder and locked in a room full of powerful men with guns.

Now, imagine that you could convince a woman this self-possessed to let you tie her up and abuse her. Imagine what it might feel like to have a woman like Sharon Stone begging you to stop, or keep going, crying your name out as you do, well, anything you want to do to her. What might you pay for that kind of power? What might you do to feel that kind of sheer dominance over the kind of woman that might otherwise terrify you?

Sex is just an instrument. The real issue is the power.

Physically, men are superior to women. Some may argue this point with me, but most would agree. In an age where power is no longer about sheer physical dominance, I am afraid that the odds of finding relative superiority are stacked against many men. Socially, intellectually, spiritually, women have many advantages. Many may argue this point with me, but let’s assume for a moment that it is true.

I like the idea of a world ruled by men like Tom: intellectually evolved men who connect with their baser desires to dominate women but do so in a way that fits within the modern world. It centers consent and allows for domination to follow. Men like Tom fulfill this instinct to dominate, which I believe is an inherent instinct for many men, in such a way that it does not cause trauma or lingering psychological pain for those at the other end of their violence. Men like Tom do not physically abuse their wives and girlfriends. They do not attack strangers in the streets. They do not date rape their female friends. They do not target fourteen year olds.

Sadly, we’re not living in a world dominated by men like Tom. Instead, we see that the world is currently dominated by men like Jeffrey Epstein. This is the kind of man who has suppressed his need to dominate women so deeply that he can’t get himself off for anyone older than eighteen. This is the kind of man who is so delusional about his own genetic superiority that he made genuine attempts to seed the population with his offspring. This is the kind of man who would tremble in front of a woman like Sharon Stone, and who would get so angry about the fear she inspires that he would go and rape a fourteen year old, just to feel in charge. A man who rapes fourteen year olds isn’t powerful. A man who rapes fourteen year olds is very, very afraid. Mostly, of his own irrelevance.

I suspect the kind of man who tries to keep sex work illegal is the same kind of man who would rape a fourteen year old girl. These men know the difference between sex and power. And they know that in a modern world, where men’s physical dominance is fading into irrelevancy, where men aren’t allowed to just go around raping and beating everyone, women are in charge. We may not hold all the money, we may not hold all the elected offices, but we hold the power. Sex is just an instrument. The real issue is the power.

You think marriage was a male invention? Please. It was a stop-gap measure, a way for women to access long-term cultural dominance using the only instrument available to us in a world where we had no economic opportunity and no physical advantage. Is it any surprise, then, that using the power of sex via sex work has been outlawed as an economic opportunity for women in 49 states?

If you are part of some bizarre moral argument that believes anti-prostitution laws exist to keep your daughters safe, you're fooling yourself. Your daughters aren't safe. Your daughters are receiving phone calls late at night from strange old men in an attempt to groom them into sex slavery. Your daughters are the victims, not just of powerful men like Epstein, but of the legal systems put in place to protect them, and the judicial systems manipulated to keep them in power long after their crimes have been reported, corroborated, and investigated. Who suffers when men like Epstein are killed while awaiting trial? Certainly not Epstein. I bet he's glad to be dead. No. Your daughters suffer.

Anti-prostitution laws don't exist to keep your daughters safe. They exist to keep men like Epstein in power. The uber wealthy still have access to whatever kind of sex they want, whenever they want it. The women they have sex with don't benefit. Sure, they may get paid, but ask any sex worker what it's like to build wealth. Porn is legal but female porn stars have trouble getting leases, regularly have their bank accounts shut down, and struggle to build wealth that is seen as "legitimate." The power remains concentrated in men's wealthy, white hands.

Epstein killed himself today. Well, “killed himself.” It was too good to be true, I knew months ago, after his arrest in New York, that his end was near. When your misdeeds are tied to princes, lawyers, and the President of the United States, your name rises to the top of every hit list. I’m not surprised he’s dead. I’m not surprised his side of the story will die with him. We can ignore the testimony of young women, because we have convinced ourselves that they are powerless. But we weren't ready to hear the things that a rich white man like Jeffrey Epstein had to say.

So what happens next? I don’t know. Will men like Tom one day rule the world, alongside the powerful women they respect and admire? I don’t know that either. But I think about a world dominated by men like him and the kind of woman he likes to conquer. All men like to dominate. The domination isn't my issue. My issue is the trauma that lingers when the arrangement isn't consensual. Are the consensual fetishes like those practiced by Tom and the women he seduces the cure for the abuses of power we see at every level of our social hierarchy? Maybe they could be.

Is legal sex work the answer to sex slavery? I don’t think so. But perhaps, putting the power to control sex back in the hands of women is a good place to start. The sex is just an instrument, after all. The real issue is the power.

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