In mid-September 2011, when the 99 percent occupied Wall Street, I worked as a hand-job whore in a spacious, hip loft we called the Chapel, which was hidden behind a dirty hillside on the outskirts of Echo Park in L.A. The Chapel had three floors with impossibly tall ceilings and luminescent skylights, but the bedrooms were small and dark with gray sliding doors that separated us from each other as well as the clients we jacked off by the hour. To get inside, you had to whisper a password. If you had it, you walked in and took off your shoes. Past a skinny hallway, our shoes lined up against a wall of the main kitchen that smelled like the inner sanctum of an Indian Temple. Nag Champa filled the air along with coconuts, raw carrots and kale. For good reason, too: We juiced with them while screening clients on a communal iPad.
My first day on the job, I asked how one acquires clients; the Chapel was covert and hard to find. “Manifest,” my co-worker said. She crammed more beets into a pricey, silver blender and leaned over the kitchen sink with her yoga instructor body, toned abs and extra straight posture. Soft pink quartz beads glowed around her neck before disappearing behind a complicated haircut. Feather earrings kissed her bare shoulders. They vibrated when she moved. She turned on the blender, which was as loud as a chainsaw. I had no idea what she meant by “Manifest.” It reminded me of posts I saw online that made fun of The Secret for portraying white privilege as a happy accident.
And so, once the blender stopped, I asked her. She said something about “calling in clients.” Then she poured us ugly purple juice. Her eyes were the color of Humboldt moss, and she told me about her main client, the owner of a famous yoga clothing line. She tossed me a lavender tennis skirt with the tags still on it from a pile of gifts from him. Her gestures and voice contained the birdsong that many young sex workers have when they believe that there’s no end to the money, which they don’t realize can vanish as abruptly as it fluttered into their lives.
I, on the other hand, was already 40. A veteran. As such, I thought I knew the difference between praying and jerking off dudes, but here at the Chapel, those lines blurred. I was well out of grad school with a dead mother and a book no one wanted to publish. I’d been arrested for prostitution a few months earlier for offering an undercover cop a “Hollywood handshake” (a hand job, in sex-worker lingo) in the lobby of a Koreatown motel. Like Robert Kraft, I was offered diversion: a program designed to indoctrinate sex workers and our clients into believing and admitting guilt, instead of accepting a blazing “M” for misdemeanor. Unlike Kraft, I took it.
Google “Kraft Arrest,” and you will see a wind-blown, pink-cheeked middle-aged man driving a creme Bentley with the Florida sun in his smile and a sign reading “The Orchids of Asia Day Spa” behind him. Kraft was taped and arrested for what happened inside the “day spa,” then pleaded innocent. The accusations of sex trafficking, however, all disappeared because they found no proof on the security tapes that the women were being coerced. So far, the media coverage has focused on the violation of the Fourth Amendment (right to privacy) and attempts to humiliate Kraft for paying a woman for a sensual massage. What you don’t see is the glaring sex work issue itself: Trump and his cronies are the bread-and-butter of the sex trade. They keep the lights on. I should know, I’ve laundered their oily sheets.
Unlike the “Orchids of Asia Day Spa,” The Chapel was disguised as a church even though it was a place where consenting adults exchanged sex acts for money. It certainly felt as safe as a church. Well, safer than finding randos on Craigslist who wanted me to wrap old red rubber bands around their balls (what if I cut off their circulation?); safer than posting on sites that were combed by cops (what if I got arrested again?); safer than an angry man bending over in a motel closet and reaching for what I imagined was a gun (what if I got killed?).
Also, the Chapel was more lucrative and calm than the aggressive music and blatant wage theft I’d experienced in local strip clubs that were being shuttered one by one due to conservative zoning laws and stigma (one, of course, informed by the other). Either way, I needed this gig. So, I manifested. I prayed. I drank kale, beet and carrot juice. Then I cleaned the iPad with a wet wipe, as instructed.
I agreed to be trained and named by Trinka, the woman who ran the place, and according to the Manifestor, who also owned a chain of chapels like this one up and down the coast — basically, there were opportunities to work and travel, if I wanted to. Trinka was in her mid-50s, making her the only hand-jobber at the Chapel who was older than me. She was blonde, with a freckled vintage boob job that bulged beneath a tasteful floral scarf. Her long, strong fingers flashed with lots of silver, turquoise jewelry as she tapped away on her laptop, crossed-legged on a futon. She put on her reading glasses and showed me how to label the envelopes where I was to put the money — her cut of my money. Trinka wanted $80 off the top of every sensual massage. So if I charged $200 for the basic happy ending sensual massage, I gave Trinka 40 percent cash and wrote the client’s name and type of massage on the outside of the envelope, which I stuck in a locked box in a supply closet where mops, brooms and toilet paper were stocked in ample supply.
That was the deal. That was her cut.
The longer, more expensive tantric massages cost me more, closer to 45 to 50 percent of my earnings. The money taken from us was supposed to pay rent at the Chapel and other things we used — things like sheets, soap, towels, laundry detergent, shampoo, sponges and so on. That’s what I was told, at least. The only person who had the key to the locked box was Trinka.
I was named “Athena Bliss,” like the Athena bottled water delivered around town with the cobalt blue panels that glittered from the sides of white trucks. Trinka took my picture for the website and told me I would shadow her during an appointment with a client later that night. I followed her into one of the dinky rooms, and she prepped and talked in Chapel lingo that was the same wordplay on the website to sell our spiritual hand jobs — gentle words (e.g., “chakras,” “eye-gazing,” “spiritual connection” and “bliss”) designed to convince our patrons that their orgasm contained elements of enlightenment. In one corner of the room, Trinka warmed a Crock-Pot with water and lavender oils. In the other, she arranged large eagle feathers and different kinds of crystals near a Tibetan singing bowl and a wooden striker.
Meanwhile, I folded and unfolded towels. I swept pubes from the corners of the room and tried not to slip on the remnants of oil that leaked out and stuck to the floors, sheets, washcloths and my body (hands, face, hair, fingers and feet). After the room was dimmed, she played quiet space-age music and lit more incense to mask the signature sex work smell of cum and Comet. She told me to wait outside in the hallway while she greeted her client and told him about her plan to allow me to shadow her. The sound of the shower signaled the beginning of their session. Mumbling voices carried. A few minutes later, she waved me inside.
Trinka’s client was on his stomach on a sheet in the dark, face down. That’s when she climbed on top of the massage table and waved her arms around wildly. She hummed and made a constant “Swoooosh!” sound as she brushed the big feathers on his back, legs, shoulders and arms. She shook a Balinese rain stick. She hummed louder and breathed in a quick, excited way. She directed me to place certain crystals in his palms. She stared at me hard. She grabbed my arms. At first, I jerked away, scared of her Shaman moves. Then she smiled reassuringly. She tugged at my elbows, so my hands shot up in the air with every furious exhale. I followed her lead, echoed her quick breaths and arm movements until I felt as though I might pass out.
Then she tapped the clients’ hands and told him to turn over. I don’t remember much about him, but he was an ordinary middle-aged white guy with a tan and dark hair. When he flopped over, she kept up the “Swooosh!” and “Mmmmmm” noises. She rubbed oil on him limb to limb and eventually jerked him off. A timer from her phone chimed: 55 minutes. Afterward, he quietly returned to the bathroom. I whispered, “That’s the most interesting orgasm he’s ever had.” I don’t know if he felt closer to God after our double session, but I definitely did.
And thus, I was baptized as Athena Bliss, Hand-Job Whore of Echo Park.
After that shadow session, clients booked appointments with me, which is to say, they booked hand jobs that involved extended eye-gazing and hot oil, fire breath, crystals and jizz. I learned how to give a decent massage with coconut oil, but I preferred to avoid protracted eye contact because it made me laugh. Overall, though, the Chapel methods invited a type of “Goddess-y worship” client, and that preference helped keep me safe where other scenarios forced me to focus on whether or not a rude, aggressive or drunk client grabbed my pussy, bit my ass or kept me in a chokehold. Besides, most of my time on the day shift at the Chapel was spent on my laptop, reading rejection emails from agents and publishers between hot showers, scrubbing off coconut oil, and licking and labeling envelopes for Trinka.
Mainly, I discovered that the hand-jobbing racket is a grubby, lucrative, labor-intensive service job similar to that of car washers, maids, dog walkers, bartenders, waiters, barbers, strippers and drivers. I jerked off businessmen, well-known actors, musicians and widows. I jerked off dudes who are a lot like Robert Kraft: golfers, Republicans, Trump lovers, accountants and lawyers. I learned that I hate performing barefoot. I much prefer tall, glittering shoes, pole dancing and costumes. Not to mention, I’d rather sweep up tips from stage than sweeping up pubes. But I also learned that people from every class, race and profession ache to be touched in a sensual, sexual, affectionate way.
My Chapel year was a kind of personal oil spill I slipped into for physical safety. Sensual massage was less risky than going at it solo. I was with other providers in a contained indoor space where we screened clients extensively. We also talked about clients and easily shared important information about them, primarily focused on our safety and financial security. I needed that, too, because after my arrest, I had panic attacks when I entered a hotel for any reason. I jumped when someone was behind me on the street. I paid more than $500 to the City of L.A. in order to take the diversion class that was like traffic school for dummies: a workbook skewed toward women who were victims of domestic violence. I was slippery wet but never fully clean. I stopped doing outcall and in-call alike, and I have Trinka at the Chapel to thank for that.
But like the strip clubs where I’ve worked for over 26 years, jerking off guys and pretending to heal them is still a business where management takes full advantage of women made weak or vulnerable by their poverty. In many ways, Trinka found herself on both sides of this equation — exploiting us, while also being exploited. To wit, the way I learned that Trinka was older than me was when a client wanted to book her and she passed them to me because the client was younger than her oldest son. She was a mom supporting her family with a sensual massage business.
As for the providers at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, I wonder if they, too, are working for a greedy business owner who is taking a fat cut of their pay because the job is difficult, not because anyone was forced or trafficked — just due to extortion and racketeering: hallmarks of organized crime and (usually) the sex industry.
Because it’s difficult to demand better when a woman is used to being stolen from and criminalized. It’s hard to “Manifest” when she’s barely getting by.