Ex-sex worker recalls past without regrets

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John Arenburg grew up in a small town in rural Nova Scotia, the youngest of nine children. His father was an alcoholic.

“Basically all I’ve heard from my father, in my youth, was that I was no good, that I would amount to nothing. I didn’t have friends over because he would take that opportunity to hit me or to show his authority.”

John escaped his hometown and headed to Toronto where he began his adventures as a sex worker. Not because he needed it to survive, but because sex work made him feel wanted.

“There was a club called the Manatee,” he said, recounting his days as a young gay man. “It just blew my mind.”

Four younger guys approached him at the bar, he recalls. “I came to find out they were all workers.”

John started making money by selling his services to clients on the streets of Toronto. He would work at a café in the early morning, work a different job at the Canadian Work and Life Insurance Association and hit the streets until the wee hours to make a couple more dollars.

“I have no regrets, and it has helped me with who I am today,” he said.

Michel Dorais, author of Rent Boys: The World of Male Sex Workers, describes people like John as “liberationists,” men “whose prostitution helps them actualize themselves.”

The boys he had met, Stephen, George, Curtis and Ken, looked after each other and made sure to keep safe.

Some of the young men John had met were dependent on drugs and alcohol, others, like George hoped to break into the modelling world.

“From what I’ve heard, all of the boys died before I was 35,” he said. “Most likely from AIDS.”

John was diagnosed with HIV at 25. He sees this as one of the only downfalls that may have come from his alternative choices.

“I’ve never done intravenous drugs and I’ve never had a blood transfusion. It leaves me one option; it was sexual,” he said.

Between 1979 to 1995, John had his fair share of experiences. He performed sexual acts in drag, was threatened with a straight-razor and thrown in jail for eight days for engaging in prostitution. He was also whisked away to New York by a married lawyer who wanted more of his company.

“He missed one of his son’s swim meets just to be with me,” said John. “I got really pissed off at him because I never had a father when I was a kid – don’t do that, I said.”

Now 53, John lives in Halifax and works at the Mainline Needle Exchange Program, where his expertise on street life and AIDS make him a very valuable asset, according to his employer, Diane Bailey.

John thinks sex work may have lead him to miss a few good opportunities, specifically with his job at the Canadian Work and Life Association, which he left after being yelled at by his boss.

“If I was to say one thing to people who are considering sex work, I would say don’t do it. Get educated instead.”