The Gift by E.B. Cotenord

Trigger Warning: sexual themes and abuse

In my career as a sex worker, I accept gifts with poise and grace. It’s an odd twist in the
minds of other people. That the woman I am now, in the illegal sex trade, exists on her own
terms and lives a life where gifts are abundant. But as a young and eager aspiring fashion model
pursuing a respectable career, I was kept hungry and sexually indebted to a man who wouldn’t
let me leave.

When I was nineteen, a photographer invited me to stay with him so he could mentor me.
While I was there, he gave me one gift. It was a piece of advice about receiving gifts. He told me
if a gift is given to me, then the giver wants me to have it. I deserve it. I should accept it
graciously and without question. To reject the gift is to reject the gift giver. I couldn’t use his
advice back then, but it was a gift, so I kept it. He gave me nothing else. In fact, he took from
me. And it was whatever he wanted, including my body.

He forced me to be his sex slave in his Montana home.

The woman I am now is the woman who needs that advice. It’s a gem I hold dear. It’s the
only gift he gave me. And now I receive gifts regularly. Big gifts, small gifts. I have a shoe
collection that is so valuable it could constitute a down payment on a house.

And yet, the commonly held belief about my life is that I am a victim. As a sex worker,
I’m not doing my job willingly, without coercion, because no one would choose to be a sex
worker. But I do.

When I look back, the hardest part of being held captive by this man was how people
couldn’t understand that a young, hungry, and eager aspiring model, given the chance to work
under the wing of a retired Vogue photographer, was unwilling, that I was coerced. But I was.

When I log onto my laptop, I watch arguments play out online, on social media, and in
the news. These conversations do not include voices of sex workers. People debate about
whether or not my job is dehumanizing, whether my work is work. And whether I’m a captive, a
slave, or a woman desperately in need of rescuing.

When I was nineteen, I was.

It’s different now. It’s different from all of that. My life is nothing like it was in Montana.

The joke in my industry is that clients don’t pay us for sex, they pay us to leave.
But there’s a truth to that. I sell passionate lustful affairs. I sell an experience. I sell safety, a
space to explore their curiosities. And when our time is up, I disappear from their lives until they
ask me to return. I’m paid not to allow our affair to destroy their lives when our time together is
done. But the part of the “joke” that sticks with me is that, unlike with the photographer, I’m
both allowed and expected to leave. I’m not allowed to stay. I have to go home.

When I was nineteen, the photographer, who was more than three times my age, withheld
my plane ticket. As well as my ID and my money. I couldn’t leave until he let me. He controlled
who I talked to, how many grapes I could eat in a week, the way my pubic hair was groomed,
and how many laxatives I had to take every day. I couldn’t say no to sex. I wasn’t allowed to
wear clothes if he didn’t let me. I had to be ready and available and excited for him to do
whatever he wanted to do to me whenever he decided he wanted to do it. And if I decided to stop
having sex with him, he told me that was fine, but he would have to drop me at the airport
without my belongings. And I could figure out my own way back to Chicago.


When I was finally allowed to leave, he charged me for room and board, for the cost of
film and photos, and a little extra for his expertise and training. None of this was what I thought I
was getting myself into when I accepted his invitation to work with him. None of it was a gift.
Because I believed it was, I tried to be grateful.

I don’t deny that I still end up in dangerous situations. But these are rare. It’s an
unfortunate reality for sex workers that danger cannot be completely avoided. Being alone with
men can be dangerous. And since my entire job entails being alone with men, bad things


It’s 10 pm. I get a text from Nik. I remember Nik. I saw him a few years ago. That was
before I had my assistant to help me screen clients for my safety. Nik wants to know if I can
come by for a few hours tonight. He had fun last time and wants to do it again. He’s sorry it’s
been so long.

It’s been so long because I’ve been ignoring his calls and texts for years. I’ve been
ignoring him for the same reason he’s in my phone as Nik the ass rapist. Nik was fine the last
time I saw him. Until he wasn’t. When it was time for me to leave, he refused to let me put on
my clothes. He forced himself inside me while I tried to get dressed. He wouldn’t let me leave.
He blocked the door while my then-husband was calling my phone repeatedly. After a struggle, I
managed to grab my phone and answer it. My husband began threatening to come to Nik’s house
if he didn’t let me leave. He did. And I’ve refused to see him ever since.

I block Nik’s number, a move I should have made two years ago.


I receive a text message from my assistant.

“Are you available from nine to midnight tonight? David would like to see you again.”

I can’t remember who David is, and I’m groggy and a little grumpy about the thought of
staying up until midnight again. But I charge $1600 for three hours, so I tell her I’ll take the

My assistant handles all my appointments. She answers my emails. She screens my
clients for safety. She checks in on me when it’s time to arrive at an appointment, and makes
sure I’m out at the end of the session.

“So she’s your pimp?” asked Jen, a woman I was dating in my personal life after I
separated from my husband. She was trying to understand my job, but couldn’t let go of her
biases or shake the stigma of how I earned my living.

“She’s not my pimp, she’s my assistant. She works for me, not the other way around. I
control my business, and I pay her to help me manage it.”

“So, a pimp.” Jen refused to believe I was the one running my own show.

“She’s not a pimp.”

“I don’t see the difference.”

Jen shared her expectations on our next date. That, at some point, I was going to have to
quit my job. It’s entirely too dangerous, she insisted. “If you got hurt, I wouldn’t be able
to take it.” She sniffled and tears welled up in her eyes.

I explained bluntly that I was going to get hurt. That I’d been hurt in the past. There’s no
avoiding it. I can minimize the risk, and that’s a huge part of why I have an assistant. But it’s
going to happen. That’s the reality every time I go to work. But I still go. Because it’s my job.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if I were an ER doctor.”

“But you’re not a doctor. You’re a prostitute.” She rolled her eyes.

“Sex worker,” I corrected her.

She waved me off and slowed the pace of her speech, making it clear that she thought I
was too dumb to understand that she was trying to tell me that men can be violent. She continued
to try to educate me, despite my insistence that I understood quite well, and that I understood it
from experience. I asked her to stop being condescending. She told me to stop being naïve.

No workplace is safe from all dangers all the time.

But I know my work well. And I know that people come to me for pleasure. To enjoy
themselves. To feel good. And almost all of them need to feel like I’m having even more fun
than they are. They want to be exceptional lovers. They want me to like them. They want to feel
like I crave their touch.

What Jen, and people like her, fail to understand is that I don’t sell my body to men to be
abused. I sell a sensual fantasy. That’s what men come to me for. They’re seeking pleasure,
attention, and affirmation.

And while Jen might point to the fact that Nik hurt me, and use it as proof that my job is
too violent for me to be there willingly, the truth is that I have full control over who I see and
who I don’t. I can turn down an appointment for any reason. And I can cancel right up until the
moment I walk in the door. I choose to take risks. Overwhelmingly, those risks are rewarded.

She wasn’t interested in understanding. She was interested in being right.

Things didn’t work out between us. And my assistant is still with me.

I’m lying next to Jay on the bed in the guest room of his rental house. It’s not the home
he raised his kids in. And it’s not the room he sleeps next to his wife in. It’s the room that only
guests stay in. And I’m the only guest these days.

When he first contacted me two months earlier, he had very specific intentions. Our affair
would be six months long and no more. He was retiring and moving out of the state. And he did.
But before his move, we made the most of our time together. We joked, shared secrets, shared
experiences. We built a friendship. A perfect affair.

We’ve been seeing each other several times a week for almost two months. He tells me
he has a surprise for me and pulls his iPad out from next to the bed.

“We’re going shoe shopping.” He tells me.

Shoe shopping? I’m confused. It’s 9:30 pm. Stores are closed. He opens the cover of his
iPad to reveal the Christian Louboutin website. We’re going shoe shopping online, and this is the
first time anyone has offered to drop over $1000 on a single pair of shoes for me. I want to tell
him no, that it’s too much.

But I remembered the photographer’s words. If Jay wants me to have the shoes, I need to
accept his gift. It seems excessive. But it isn’t to Jay. He sees it as a token of appreciation for the
time we spend together. For taking care of him. For making him feel loved. He wants me to feel
special in the way that I make him feel special. And I let him, realizing that my accepting this
gift means as much to him as receiving it means to me.

He leaves town on time, as his new house is ready. His retirement party is over. His
office is empty. We say our goodbyes in a small restaurant near my house one weekday
afternoon in February. On his way out of state. Our affair was over. But the shoes remained. And
a couple of times a year, another pair finds its way to me from him.

The kindness. The humanity. The friendship. The love. I like to think they’re imbued in
the red soles of my Louboutins. And that I leave a little bit of them behind in each red mark I
leave on the ground as I walk the earth in the beautiful gifts given to me in exchange for the
beautiful gifts I gave to him.

It’s not just Jay.

There are more men like Jay. There are men who are simply kind to me. Men who show
their appreciation with an extra $100 in my envelope. A thank you email. A longer date next

There are the ones who share dinners. Like Andrew, who knows my order at every
restaurant we go to. Or the politician, who picks my brain about policy while he eats fish and I
eat steak. Or Andy, who before COVID, was committed to taking me to all the best steakhouses
in Chicago, and still is.

Sometimes, I’m thanked with more shoes. There’s Timothy, who wants to be the one
who has bought me more shoes than any of my clients. He wants me to know that he’s the one
who appreciates me most. He’s competitive.

And sometimes it’s just a look of gratitude or a smile, as I kiss them goodbye, hoping to
see them again soon.

I accept these gifts. I deserve them. I got that advice from someone who gave me things I
didn’t deserve. Not one of them was a gift.

Today, I’m where I want to be. I feel human. I feel loved. I feel appreciated. I’m also solvent. I can support my family with the money I make.

And yes, there are days when work is a drag. I don’t want to be there. Work is work. And
sex work is work. There are bad days, and my bad days at work can be horrifically violent. My
bad days don’t outweigh the great ones. And the great ones outnumber the bad ones a

Once, decades ago, I needed to be saved from a man who dehumanized me. Who
objectified me. Who stole my body from me and stole me from my life. But today, I am fully
humanized. My body is my own. And my life is mine to live. That’s my gift to me, and one I am
obligated to accept. Because I believe that if it’s given to me, I deserve it.

Chicago-based professional dream girl, E.B. Cotenord, is a sex worker, writer and the host of The eXXXistential Podcast. Her creative endeavors serve as explorations into her experiences navigating society as a current sex worker and recovering addict. E.B is a single mother raising a 15 year old boy and 12 year old non-binary child as well as 4 mischievous rabbits. She seeks to help humanize marginalized communities by writing about her life as an adult entertainer and suburban mom in recovery. She can be found on Twitter @ebcotenord.

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