THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 
 
MANHATTAN CHRONICLES STORY
By JILL DI DONATO
January 2010
 
Sole Searching
Dalliances in New York’s Underground Fetish Scene

 

“Size seven?”

It wasn’t so much a question as it was an appraisal.

My interviewer was soft-spoken and polite, well dressed, and had the type of chiseled bone structure that suggested a life of impressive stories. He spoke openly about his own foot fetish, the impetus behind his lucrative enterprise in Hells’ Kitchen, The Foot Worship Palace.

“Your feet are perfectly symmetrical. Did you know that?”

I didn’t, or hadn’t noticed.

“Women have surgery performed on their toes so they can line up in exact descending order like yours.”

I didn’t know whether to be flattered or horrified.

After a few moments, Jason, my interviewer, released my foot and watched as I fastened my red platform sandal and returned to a cross-legged position. Leaning back in his executive ergonomic chair, it was straight to business. He pulled a checklist from a credenza and handed it to me. “If you want to make a lot of money, follow these rules.” Some of the rules were simple, and what one would expect out of any interpersonal vocation: make eye contact with the client; speak in a friendly, unassuming tone; let him know you’re thinking about him and that your mind isn’t elsewhere. Others fell more in line with my preconceived notions of sex work: Act like you’re turned on, even if you’re not. And finally, I was told that each foot worshipping session ends with a footjob.

“Footjob?”

Nervous the lilt in my voice signaled a vanilla sexual aesthetic, I regained my composure.

“That’s not a problem, is it?”

*

This all started as research for this novel I was writing – the story of a New York artist’s transformation from sculptor to call girl. The artist part came pretty easy to me. I could relate to her aspirations, even though I work in language, not plaster of Paris. But I could envision how a sculptor would conceive of the world, her appreciation for spatial awareness. As for the call girl, would she too see the world in terms of spatial awareness? Body on body, or did it go deeper than that?

The call girl. She’s had quite a literary history. But it wasn’t fiction I was concerned with. On the topic of sex work, I read as much as I could, from theoretical to ethnographical studies. In less academic endeavors, I chatted up the go-go dancer at a local bar. I checked out Jane Fonda in Klute. I went to Amsterdam, followed the “Oudes” all the way to the Red Light District where I talked with a prostitute named Selma who wore white zip away pants and glasses. She told me dismissively, “There are male prostitutes too, but you have to call them. They’re not on display like the women are. But in Amsterdam, it’s easier for a woman to get laid, harder for men. You’re an American; I’ve been to New York. The bars and clubs all have long velvet curtains like you’re hiding. ” Here I was, on the outside, looking in. The whole thing seemed so corny and clich├ęd.

A thing about writers: they must know their characters inside and out. “Research” suddenly seemed terribly exploitative. Sure, I’ve eavesdropped and “taken note” before. But for the first time in my writerly existence, I felt a wrench of guilt. Somehow, co-opting the call girl’s gestures, her stories, and most intimate reasoning of the world, all for my character felt like a violation. 

And so, I’d arrived at a theoretical impasse: How does one write about hookers without feeling like a pimp?

*

The classified on Craigslist was pithy and intriguing: “Pretty girls with pretty feet wanted. Foot worship: For girls who want to make a lot of money.”

Hardly new terrain, the entwinement of morality and the corruption of wage labor have been around ever since the collapse of feudalism. Throw sexual politics into the pot, and you’ve got a bouillabaisse of social dilemma as rich as any deeply felt anthropological concern. The topic of sex work brings with it a dynamic history with many interests attached, some as global as human rights, some provincially related to legislation, and still others that exist in that vague, ethereal cosmos that seem to govern how Americans confront sexuality.

If I responded to the ad – email address, snapshot of bare feet, and recent headshot notwithstanding – I’d have to create an alternate persona. But people do that all the time in normal life; it’d be impossible not to, especially in a place like New York where the exchange of desires is seemingly infinite.

*

Within a day of my response, a receptionist from The Foot Worship Palace had called to schedule an interview. Along with instructions on how to get to the office, a fourth-floor walk-up, across the street from a row of Indonesian take-out restaurants on Eighth Avenue, I was told to wear open-toed shoes.

The locale of the “palace” immediately dispelled any glamorous notions I had of foot worship, while confirming the seedy preconceptions I had of New York’s fetish scene. But on the website, the girls employed by The Foot Worship Palace were sexy and beautiful. The site also advertised foot worship parties held at swank clubs and posh hotel suites. Exactly what kind of a world was I about to enter?

In an effort of full disclosure, I told Jason I was a writer. He told me to remove my sandal. In that moment, I was a girl who wanted to make a lot of money.

“Size seven?”

*

In the course of our discussion, I learned that all sessions involved role-playing with the client, and took place in a bedroom suite just down the hallway from Jason’s office. The pay was $100 for a one-hour session, 40% of the $250 fee paid by the client to the Palace. I’d have to perform a mock session for either himself or another of his employees before he booked me. He suggested I show up to one of the parties first to get a feel for things.

“The parties are a good place to get acquainted with what our clients like.”

I asked, “What would I have to do?”

“For one, dress sexy. You’ll work the room; greet our clients. They pay a $75 cover fee. All girls charge $20 for a ten-minute session. And whatever you make you keep.”

Not bad. I could earn $120 an hour for partying with podophiles. Of course I’d have to set boundaries. Charging cash to receive a foot massage is one thing – who doesn’t like a foot rub? But anything more was simply not hygienic.

“I’d like to attend the next party.” 

“Fantastic,” said Jason. “Our photographer is down the hall. He’ll take your picture right now.”

“Now? I’m not prepared.”

 Jason explained that the photographer only came once a month. As he tried to persuade me into having my picture taken, little warning bells went off deep in my psyche. A common question that is asked of sex workers is how did you get there? There being “where you want to go if you want to be that kind of girl.” Read: the type of girl who poses for strange men and the whole wide web, advertising her feet to turn guys on. The girls on the Foot Worship Palace website wore sleazy leather and lace straight out of Frederick’s of Hollywood. In their testimonials, they raved about the fun they had entertaining foot-loving executives.  I was wearing a cotton spaghetti-strapped sundress and red platform sandals, vintage. But, as I’d been reminded of already, today I was a girl who wanted to make a lot of money.

The receptionist had joined us in the hall to seal the deal. “Go ahead and get your picture taken,” she said. “You’ll love the parties. All the guys are really nice and not creepy at all.” 

I decided what the hell, I’d have my picture taken. All in the name of research, right? The photographer was a friendly man in his late-forties with long dreadlocks and a West Indian accent. He pointed to a handle of Bacardi Silver and a stack of red plastic cups. “Want a drink?”

              I had this horrible premonition of the cheap rum being laced with barbiturates and waking up chained to a bathtub.

              “No thanks,” I said.

As I struck awkward, come-hither poses for the man behind the camera, I experienced the dilemma at the heart of the feminist debate over sex work: is this an act that empowers or objectifies women?

Click, click, click.

The answer, I figured, wasn’t simple, and wouldn’t be the same for everyone. Carol Queen, a former choice-based prostitute who holds a doctorate in sexology and runs the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, explains. “Feminists,” she says, “let prostitution symbolize something that’s sometimes a stretch, and sometimes spot on.”

I never did attend one of Jason’s Foot Worship parties, despite the numerous calls his receptionist left on my voice mail about the next event. Turns out, I could never perform a footjob for hire. What stopped me was the thought of something happening that would spiral out of my control. The dangers of sex work, and true, these are dangers that women face in “normal life” as well – violence, disease, derogation – are serious prices to pay for the right to conduct an explicit sexual relationship for profit.

*

Three years later, I find out The Foot Worship Palace has been permanently shut down. When I return to the website, I am surprised by a portal full of dead links that advertised personals, online dating, and a lingerie shop. I discover numerous online musings as to what the heck happened to Jason’s former Palace of podiatric debauchery. A former employee writes on her blog that she and the other girls were given no notice; they had to figure out on their own that the Palace was no more. Another online post describes disconnected phone lines and a user message that read: UNDER INVESTIGATION. Rampant is the suspicion that something “bad had gone down.” Jason has apparently “vanished,” and it is unlikely that his parties will start up again. All I could think was how I’d dodged a bullet.

 The New York sexual underground is as old as the city itself, and reflects many things about how New Yorkers organize their lives. At the turn of the century, the underground sex scene ranged from fashionable Fifth Avenue mansions, where wealthy men kept their mistresses, to Canal Street cigar stores catering to sailors. Still, the New York call girl is as mythical and ubiquitous as ever, and I no closer to entangling my fascination with sex work and how our culture portrays it. “In a culture like ours,” says Dr. Queen, “you as a writer writing about prostitution run up against presenting the prostitute as representing the good girl or bad girl. But in what terms does she have sexuality? How much of an individual do you let her be? Part of the thing that makes prostitutes feel unserved by their commentators is when the character of the prostitute serves as some metaphor.  In life, she carries social and emotional issues – she can’t be a one-dimensional carrier of them. You have to give her space, just as you’d give space to a real life person, don’t cut the edges off. I also think it’s useful for you to unpack your reasons for writing about her.”

The truth was I’d chosen to write about a prostitute because she holds this target for people to project some fantasy of sexuality. My own dalliances with sex work, even though I couldn’t go all the way, only confirmed this. At my interview, I became another person. I became a girl who wanted to make money by selling her sexuality. But that girl and me, aren’t we also one and the same?
 
                                                                     Jill Di Donato is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.