By Maggie McNeill
Her Twitter bio describes herself as an “overeducated and unrepentant whore who talks far too much”.
She’s a vociferous blogger, a force of nature, and a vocal advocate for the right to a career of your own choosing.
Her name is Maggie McNeill.
Oh, really, what do you do?” she asked me, expecting nothing shocking, I’m sure.
I’m a whore,” I replied matter-of-factlyIntroduction’ from The Honest Courtesan by Maggie McNeill
I was both apprehensive and excited to meet Maggie, a former stripper and now semi-retired escort. A prolific writer of her “whore’s-eye view” blog ‘The Honest Courtesan’, her writing is articulate, passionate, and whip-smart, and perhaps most interestingly for me as a therapist, (when I’m not trying to compile a magazine) makes a strong argument for comparison between our two professions with which it’s hard to disagree.
As she comes into view and we begin talking, I’m immediately struck by how charming Maggie is, and how quickly I feel at ease with her. She meets me as promised, (or, as she put it, with “fair warning”) early in her morning, wearing a hooded bathrobe. I’m pleased – after all, I want to meet Maggie the person, not ‘work-Maggie’. We soon joke; her about swearing and being an Anglophile, and me about the various ways I’ve sought to remove various sticks from my very British backside.
Reading Maggie’s blog also made something very clear, and it was one of the reasons I so wanted to meet her – she had no time for stereotypes, shaming or anything less than absolute, matter-of-fact ownership of her chosen profession. She speaks exactly as she writes; an enticing cocktail of youthful honesty and rebellion, and a kind of directness which feels like it could only come with weary experience of justifying something she clearly feels doesn’t need to be justified. I began by asking Maggie to tell me a little about herself.
Maggie: … like a capsule biography kind of thing?
Well, I was raised Catholic in South Louisiana. In the 1960s, South Louisiana was still pretty backward – picture English country in the 1950s, that was the cultural milieu. I went to school in New Orleans and then, when I went to college, my parents were only willing to pay for my education if I lived in one of the dorms. Eventually, I had to leave and when I moved to an apartment I had to raise the money for that, so I did that with sex work. I didn’t advertise, I didn’t work for an escort service or anything like that, it was just word of mouth. I only did it for a couple of years before stopping, getting my degree, and getting married. I was a librarian. But then my husband left me with a gigantic shit-ton of bills.
The Frame: How long were you together?
Maggie: Seven and a half years. It took a lot to recover from. I don’t form bonds that easily, and when I do form them they’re very hard for me to let go of. Back then, I definitely had a tendency for co-dependency, and it took me quite a while to recover from his leaving me. When I did, I decided to start stripping.
Three years later, I started escorting and had my own agency for a few years before I married my favourite client. When we broke up a decade or so later, it was very amicable. We divorced but we also stayed in contact, and I don’t think the causes of our breakup were particularly sex work-related. He was texting me yesterday because I’ve had the flu. We’re still close. I bought a farm in 2017, and moved there at the start of the pandemic. I (semi) retired at the beginning of 2021.
The Frame: Do you miss it?
Maggie: The escorting? I’m semi-retired. I still see guys, but I only see existing clients. I don’t see new clients anymore. I don’t do things halfway. I do them full throttle. I wanted to analyse why people burn out and I came to realise it was the shit you didn’t like, not the shit you do. For me, that was being on call and not knowing my schedule. I began by cutting out same-day appointments. I was like, ‘No. I’m not going to friggin’ jump up and be ready for you when I thought I was going to be having a nice dinner at home tonight.’ With changes in the law which made advertising much, much harder, and the fact that I’m getting older – I’m closing in on 60 – I reached a point where I felt I couldn’t adapt my methods any more. It’s not just about seeing clients in the room anymore. You better do porn, and you have to have social media. You have to advertise in clever ways. That’s not me. I can walk into a room, look a guy in the eye and go “hi there” and have him think I’m the greatest thing in the world. I create an experience, and then I leave. That’s what I’m good at.
The Frame: But you still have your website. You don’t take on any new clients?
Maggie: No, no new clients. There was one exception – I was in Seattle and a good friend of mine who’s also an escort had promised a client a duo and the other girl had flaked. She called me up and said “Maggie, Maggie, do you want to make ‘x’ thousand dollars?’ and all I had to do was show up and be pleasant. She’d already done the screening and everything so it didn’t really matter that I didn’t know the guy. I trusted her judgement. I don’t want to have to ‘screen’ new people any more.
The Frame: Is that also the performance part? Not the sexual performance, but the ‘getting to know you’?
Maggie: Yeah. I’m not good at that stuff. Yeah, that’s the part I dislike. All the “come into my parlour…. Aren’t I hot? Look at this picture of me against a tree.” I can’t do that. If I had been good at that, I would have fucking moved to New York and joined an ad agency.
The Frame: Or you could have become a therapist.
Maggie: I am, in a way. In fact, I do have guys that will contact me to do phone consultations. They’ll have relationship issues and things like that. I had a guy contact me just a few months ago. He was travelling a lot and having a relationship with a woman in another country. He was fine with the financial dimension of the relationship, but his kids were freaking out. He was asking me for advice on how to explain to his kids that he was older than they were and he was perfectly fine with this woman having a financial motive. I have lots of those sorts of conversations.
The Frame: It’s such a skill set, to be adaptable to all these different people
Maggie: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
The Frame: Reading your blog, you’re very clear in that you have a very positive attitude towards sex work. I’m really conscious that I don’t want this to become some horrible ‘tell me why men come and see you’ cliché.
Maggie: I wish more people understood the similarities between therapy and sex work. I have a friend in the United States, he’s a Sex Therapist, and one of the reasons he and I got to be friends online is that he gets exactly that point. He’s written a lot condemning the myth of sex addiction, things like that. Unfortunately, there’s a big segment of the therapy community which is very ignorant about sex. How can you know so little about human sexuality when you have a psychology degree? I think a lot of these folks get their sociology degree or their psychology degree and they go into therapy, and in their personal life they’ve had three partners. One in high school, one in college and the one they married. How could they understand somebody whose sexual experience is so much broader than theirs?
The Frame: You mentioned the things you didn’t like about your work, what did you enjoy?
Maggie: The two things I liked the most are, I’m afraid, the two major responses sex workers give in every damn study I’ve ever seen, which is time and money. The money is very good. We make as much money as I’d say… lawyers, when they start out. And the other is complete control over your own time. Which is vital, so vital. When I had the escort service, a lot of the girls who worked for me were single mothers. They needed their own time and to be able to say “I’ll work while my kids are in school.” One springs to mind that would take her kids to school in the morning, she’d sign in, and then she’d sign out when it was time to pick them up in the afternoon.
In New Orleans – New Orleans is a 24-hour city – we had clients who would call in at 5, 6, 7 o’clock in the morning. I’m not about to be disturbed from sleeping for that shit, but we had one girl who was a morning person and her mother lived next door. Those clients worked for her. She’d sign off around 10 in the morning, and her mother would have got her kids up and given them breakfast, and she got the rest of the day to be with them. Women with health issues of some sort or another. Sometimes you wake up and you’re not able to work. What regular square job is going to accept over and over, maybe once a week or once every couple of weeks, an employee calling in and saying, “I’m sorry, I just can’t come into work today.” But when you’re an escort, you have that flexibility and control. You can say “I want to work this much and no more.” My friend Mistress Matisse once said-, and I think this is a really good quote, “I look upon my sex work less as a career and more as a means of subsidising my lifestyle.” Yeah, I can see that. Right. It’s like, this is how I pay the bills.
The Frame: Your career was the best part of 25 years?
Maggie: In January of 1985 I did my very first call so we’re talking about closing in on 40 years now. But full-time escorting started in January 2000. So, 20-something years. If you count the stripping, a little more. Let’s just say most of my adult life.
Aren’t I hot? Look at this picture of me against a tree.” I can’t do that. If I had been good at that, I would have fucking moved to New York and joined an ad agency
The Frame: Why did you gravitate that way in the first place? Why was it stripping and not working in a movie theatre or something?
Maggie: The reason I chose it is the same as the reasons I left it. I have, as you observed yourself, a very dynamic, forceful personality. I couldn’t count the number of jobs I’ve walked out on because a boss was acting unreasonably to me. Can’t give me the schedule I want? Okay, find somebody else then. One boss I remember gave me a huge dressing down over some problem that had nothing to do with me and when he finally got done, I just said “No”, handed him his key, and walked out the door. It don’t play well with others as they say, and I don’t want to run anybody else’s life, either. I don’t want to be the boss and I don’t want to be bossed. And so I looked at stripping as a way to make money without being bossed. I quickly found, of course, that strip club owners and managers still think they can boss you. And that’s why I quit that and started escorting. Had the same problem with the first escort service I worked for, so I immediately turned around and started my own escort service. That solved that problem.
The Frame: It’s interesting to hear about the importance of control and the ownership of your own time. I think the general picture of someone who does sex work is that they’re being pimped out and exploited. That doesn’t sound like that was your experience.
Maggie: Every methodologically sound study that I’ve ever seen – not the bogus studies out there from prohibitionists or paid for by the government – even studies from so-called hot beds like India and Cambodia show that for domestic adult sex workers, the coercion rate is roughly 2%. For migrant sex workers, the coercion rate is something like 5% to 8%. For minors, it’s usually about 10%. But we’re still not talking about vast numbers here. 10% is not even remotely like you’d be led to think. This is one of my pet peeves. I write often about how that 2% figure also happens to be roughly the fraction of women in the general population who report having a coercive or abusive boyfriend or husband. Why do we view these as different? They’re victims of domestic violence. Have you ever seen the movie ‘Baby Face’ with Barbara Stanwyck?
The Frame: I’ve seen it. But I can’t-,
Maggie: It’s a pre-Code movie so they were able to speak more frankly about things. Barbara Stanwyck’s dad owns a bar and he’s pimping her. Even in 1933, they recognized that the majority of the so-called pimps are somebody with power over the girl like a parent or a boyfriend, not just some random dude who abducted her off the street or something. Somebody that she has a bond of affection and loyalty to, and that’s what’s controlling them. It’s not beatings or magical potions, it’s the innate machinery that we all have as humans to form bonds being misused, same as other kinds of abuse.
Do you remember that little girl JonBenet Ramsey who was abducted and murdered? [a notorious unsolved case in the United States of a six-year-old beauty queen] I was talking to a friend of mine about how the little girl was involved in all these weird pageants and stuff. My friend said, “That child could vamp better than I can.” It’s a peculiarly Anglo-American thing where you have this cultural idea that it’s okay to exploit your kids in every way, as long as it’s not directly sexual. You can think about it, but you can’t do it. And of course, this is bizarre because this is not how human behaviour works but in the US there’s a whole purity cult that’s developed, and it’s a very artificial line that’s being drawn around age, sex and exploitation; that all adolescent sexuality is somehow pathological.
These people think that no teenager has sexual impulses unless they’re implanted by some outside party or by TV commercials, or the internet or a bad boyfriend. Otherwise they’d be happy, sexless cherubs until the stroke of midnight on their 18th birthday at which point they suddenly become fully realised sexual adults. It’s nonsense but you can’t talk about it. There’s some places in which if
you say words like adolescent sexual development, you’re immediately branded a paedophile. It’s like saying if I study forensics, this means I’m a serial killer.
The Frame: Were you always in charge of your own destiny in that way?
Maggie: Oh, yeah. I developed an aversion to being bossed around at a pretty young age. I didn’t like it when I was a child and I still didn’t like it as a teenager. I don’t think adolescent rebellion is pathological. I think adolescents rebel because we often treat biological adults as though they were children. I didn’t like being treated like a child when I was a child, much less when I was a young adult. You can say ‘we’ve decided that this thing is better for this young person’. That’s not the same as saying ‘Oh, this thing is perfectly safe and has no consequences’. When you treat young people like children, they’re going to rebel. Some faux witty people might suggest that I’m still an adolescent, but my issues with authority are extremely deep-rooted. A psychologist would have a field day with me. My mother might say ‘don’t move a muscle’ and I would flicker my eyebrow. Or she’d say ‘I don’t want to hear a peep out of you’ and I’d go ‘peep’. These are memories of being 6 or 7. I’m just not wired to be compliant.
The Frame: That adolescent rebellious streak that still exists in you; the thing which I felt in your writing and gives you so much of your fire, is that about your mum? Are you still rebelling?
Maggie: I don’t think it’s that directly causative. My mother was 22 years old from South Louisiana with a high school education, and she was given me as her first child. She had no idea how to cope. My mom was always a good girl, my mom did what she was told and she expected her children to be the same as she was. And when she got this little fireball, she did not expect that. She didn’t know how to cope with that so our relationship was always best when she leaned on the side of benign neglect. Unfortunately, she tried to manage it more often than she should have. But I do think that my choice of career derives from the
problems with my mother – the refusal to be managed. I can do authority when I choose to. A lawyer or a doctor I chose? That doctor has the ability to cure whatever is wrong with me. I’m paying her to tell me this so damn straight I’m gonna listen. But I chose her. To me that’s very different from “hi, I’m your boss and you do what I say.” Yeah, fuck you. No. Sorry.
The Frame: I’m really interested in the relationship with your mother and how that was.
Maggie: When I started stripping in September 1997, my mom immediately started arguing with me about it. I still remember to this day one of the things she said to me which was ‘I just don’t want you hanging around with women like that. And I said, ‘mom, I’m women like that’.
She didn’t understand about women trying to make a living in a world that doesn’t want them to and when after we argued, she disinvited me from Thanksgiving. About six months later sent me a letter and said something like, ‘I’m not going to change my mind,’ blah, blah, blah, and we haven’t spoken since. When I moved, I sent her my address. When I got married for the second time, I let her know. When I got divorced, I let her know again. No response. One of my sisters is still in contact with me, so if my mom expresses a desire to see me on her deathbed or something, I’ll go and be there without causing a scene. I’m smart enough to look at my mom’s relationship with her mother and see that there’s unresolved issues there too.
The Frame: I mentioned cliches before, and one of the cliches about sex workers is that they’re ‘damaged’ in some way. I’d like to hear your take on it. I’d be interested to know about any times you felt as though your work affected you.
Maggie: I do think it’s true that there’s a higher percentage of mental health issues among sex workers than among the general population, but they have the arrow of causation wrong. The problems don’t cause the sex work, the sex work is a solution to managing the problems. I have a
friend whose mental health is extremely poor. She was able to manage herself as a sex worker for 20 years because when she was in one of her stay in bed, not able to go anywhere or see anybody days, she could just cancel her appointments. You can’t do that if you work at the grocery store. I have another friend who always has health problem. Again, she does sex work, she can manage her schedule. There’s a vast difference psychologically between making myself pleasant and functional to one person for one hour, versus making myself pleasant and functional for eight hours among dozens of people in somebody else’s environment, that I have to commute an hour to get to. The other thing is that sex work never had any negative for me.
There was a time when I was still doing same-day appointments, and I was texting some friends, feeling pretty depressed, pretty down. I got an email from a guy who had an unusual name, so I was easily able to see that he was the dean of a large university. I could see his picture, no issue with safety there. He’d paid for a 90-minute session but 30 minutes later he was totally worn out and said ‘Maggie, I’m just gonna go to bed, you can go’. And I said, ‘oh, you okay?’ He said ‘absolutely, You keep the money, I just need to go to bed.’ So, I get back into the group text with my friends. I say, “There’s very little more therapeutic than being paid $600 for 30 minutes work.” I felt dramatically better. I mean, having that kind of positive reinforcement, being told you’re beautiful, and being wanted and desired. That does a lot for your ego. That isn’t to say I haven’t had bad experiences. But they weren’t existential crises. They were just bad experiences with guys that were assholes. Next.
The Frame: Do you think it ever negatively affected you in other areas of your life?
Maggie: How do you define negative? You could say sex work has enabled me to entrench myself in my refusal to submit to authority. For people who think that every individual has to knuckle and comply, for those folks, yeah, sex work has affected me negatively because it has given me the
ability to circumvent that. But for individualists, I don’t think-
The Frame: I’m thinking more about identity. In my mind, there’s ‘going to the supermarket Maggie’ and then there’s ‘work Maggie’
Maggie: I used to maintain a façade; I maintained a façade in high school but I reached a point where maintaining a façade was too much work. The only difference between work Maggie and supermarket Maggie is the degree to which I let those I’m in contact with see my negative traits. So, the positive parts of supermarket Maggie and work Maggie are exactly the same, but work Maggie downplays her depression, her anxiety, things like that. ‘Work Maggie’ holds her tongue if she thinks a guy is a dick. As the years have gone by, I’ve had fewer and fewer and fewer boundaries between the two. These days it’s more… this is something I do. Several of my really good clients know my legal name. They know where I live. I don’t need to keep those artificial boundaries anymore because I feel comfortable. I don’t feel like I have to create a separate persona. People accept me as I am, or they don’t. I know I’m a good person. I know where I am is healthy.
The Frame: Did attitudes about what you do or towards you change as online porn grew in popularity?
Maggie: When I started working as an escort, only one of the roughly seven escort services in New Orleans had a website. The others were in the phonebook. Since porn has become more ubiquitous, especially with the arrival of sites like OnlyFans, sex workers are expected to do porn too, not necessarily full-on porn, but they’re supposed to come up with new pictures every month, or every week. And that’s too much like a job for me. When I sat down with the photographer who did the pictures for my very first escort website at the beginning of 2000, I told him the aesthetic I was looking for – I said ‘Playboy, not Hustler.’ You will look in vain on the internet for pictures of my genitalia, you will not find them. Tits a plenty and legs, waist, butt, but
no crotch. I just think it’s vulgar. I think it’s déclassé. I look at the classical nudes, and do I ever see Aphrodite with her legs spread apart? I do not. And those are the aesthetic sensibilities I absorbed in my classical education. And so, that’s where I’ve always been. When porn started becoming a big thing my answer was no – don’t have to do that, don’t want to do that. Take me or leave me as I am. This isn’t a judgement about women who do, because if you’re coming into escorting now, you need to do that to compete. I made my brand 20 years ago; I don’t have to do that anymore. And I won’t. And again, that’s my obstinacy.
The Frame: Just before we sign off then Maggie, the last question is one that’s been rolling around my head – what would be your advice for someone else looking to get into sex work? Would you advise anyone else to go into it?
Maggie: It depends on the person. I never had children of my own but there were these two young girls I remember, and they both looked at me a bit like a mother. In college, one of them went into sex work for a little while and the other one didn’t. I would have tried to dissuade the one who didn’t if she had decided she wanted to do it – her personality wasn’t conducive to it. The other one was more suited. It’s not right for every person – if you’re not comfortable with your sexuality, if you’re not comfortable running your own business, if you’re not able to keep a schedule and manage your time, if you’re not able to handle the social censure, or if you’re not able to navigate the familial issues that can arise, this is not the career for you. But how is this different from anything else? If some young scatterbrain who couldn’t focus on anything for more than an hour told me that he was going to law school, I would say good luck to ya fella, but I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere. When it’s any other career, society doesn’t judge the type of people suited to that career. But with sex work, our society wants to say that because some people aren’t good at it, or unhappy in it, or because some people are downright miserable at it, that we should judge the entire profession. We’re the only ones where negative experience is used to condemn the entire
profession. If a doctor has a heart attack due to stress nobody says ‘we should ban medical science’, but they do with sex workers.
The Frame: To end, I thought it might be an idea to give a sign-off or a piece of advice you might want to share. Not from the perspective of being a sex worker, but from the perspective of being a woman who’s run her own business and her own life for a long time.
Maggie: Yes – it’s nearly always wrong to judge someone by what they do, rather than by who they are. I’m an incredible nerd. I have two walls full of science fiction DVDs over here. I have played Dungeons and Dragons since I was 14 years old. What people choose to do for money is not the totality of their being.
As we sign off, I get the tantalising feeling Maggie is letting me in a little more. She shows me the book she’s reading – a horror novel – and I’m intrigued about her playing Dungeons and Dragons. I think she’s trying to tell me she’s still a bit of that rebellious kid at heart.
Our call ends and I’m immediately taken by how strong the urge is to message Maggie and to tell her how much I enjoyed her company. A part of me wants to talk to her more, get to know her better.
Maybe that’s the skill Maggie has above all others, though. Always leave them wanting a little more…
Maggie can be found at her blog ‘The Honest Courtesan’ at www.maggiemcneill.com or on Twitter @maggie_mcneill