Hannah Sward’s new memoir details her journey with addiction, her life experiences, and her time as a sex worker. Join us as Gabe speaks with Hannah about her former occupation, her views on the sex industry, and whether sex work is a positive or negative experience.
Hannah Sward’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary journals, including Arts & Letters, Yemassee (University of South Carolina), Halcyone (Black Mountain Press), Red Wheelbarrow, Porter Gulch Review, Other Voices (Canada), Anthology of The Mad Ones, Milk, Alimentum, Anthology of Women Writers, Hypertext, Pig Iron Malt, Pindeldboz, Nerve Cowboy, Afternoon, Wimpole Street Writers, and Word Riot. She has been a regular contributor at Erotic Review since 2015 and was Editor and Columnist at Third Street Villager Los Angeles and a contributor at The Fix and YourTango. Hannah is on the board at Right To Write Press, a nonprofit that supports emerging writers who are incarcerated. She lives in Los Angeles. Find out more at hannahsward.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Greetings, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Hannah Sward. Hannah is on the board at Right to Write Press, a nonprofit that supports emerging writers who are incarcerated. Her new memoir, “Strip,” which is about her life, includes her time in the sex industry and her struggle with addiction. Hannah, welcome to the show.
Hannah Sward: Thank you, Gabe. Such an honor to be here.
Gabe Howard: It’s an honor to have you. And there’s so much to cover when we talk about sex work. I want to let our listeners know that this is not a salacious show. And in fact, in doing research for this show, I found as many pro sex worker groups as I found anti sex worker groups. And it was really a lot to try to explore as somebody who has not been in the sex industry. I did a lot of reading on COYOTE’s website, which is Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, a pro sex worker rights group. And I did a lot of reading that, talked about a lot of the desperation and people being taken advantage of. Now, I know this story is about your lived experience and your personal struggles and your personal opinions, but it was fascinating to me to learn just how involved sex work is and how everybody’s experience differs so much. I’m glad that you covered this in your book, and I’m glad that you’re here to speak about this.
Hannah Sward: Well, thank you for highlighting that, Gabe. I appreciate that.
Gabe Howard: Now, Hannah, as we talk about your story, as I read your book, it seemed to indicate that you got into sex work out of desperation. What did you mean by that?
Hannah Sward: Really what I mean, both internally and externally. I was going to college, I was 19 years old, and I needed to make some money for tuition, rent, and I. I would say desperate in the sense that I think it was more internal, even though the external circumstances required that I needed some money. There are women and men who obviously resort to other, you know, waiting tables, working at the gym, any any of those things. But the way I was raised, I had a sense of desperation within myself. And I don’t know if if it had been different, if I would have chosen different. It felt like a quick way to make money, which it was. And that first time I did it for three months. Three months at the age of 19.
Gabe Howard: On one hand, I think about jobs that I personally have held that I didn’t want to have. You know, I took a job at a fast-food restaurant when I was in my thirties because it was the only place hiring and I needed quick money. So I could describe that as I took that job out of desperation and it would be accurate. But when we’re talking about sex work and somebody says that they took a job out of desperation, it seems to have a little more umph to it, a little more negativity. When when I use my example, people are like, hey, you did what you had to do. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Be proud of yourself, Gabe. You supported you and your family. But when I read your book, it, it seemed like you weren’t proud of yourself for meeting your needs, eating and taking care of yourself. There just seemed to be a lot more negativity. And this is my word. It seemed almost like you were ashamed of it.
Hannah Sward: Absolutely I was. And I have worked through that shame over the years. There is still some of that in me, depending on where I’m at within myself and who I’m talking to. It was a deep shame. In fact, my best girlfriend, who I was living with in Chicago at the time, I lied to her about what I was doing. And she’s the most non-judgmental person. That is an example of the shame that I felt.
Gabe Howard: But you returned to it over and over again. What attracted you to it?
Hannah Sward: The quick money. The quick money. And really. It was like you said. I mean, many people and I’ve had many, many jobs, countless jobs from the age of when I was nine years old, I started working. So saying it was out of desperation is what you said is kind of interesting because people do a lot of jobs out of desperation. And certainly, I have as well, in terms of cleaning houses to working at a dog food store. I don’t mean that as a desperate thing, but just that a very young age started working and. I was I had just moved to L.A. I was 24 and I had no money and I needed a car and to pay my rent. And, you know, there was no resources in my family to to provide the help, which is the case with many people. Right? I don’t like to use that as an excuse because I know a lot of people who also didn’t have that and they did not go into the sex industry. So it was the quick money. It’s part of being embarrassed to say that, but that is the honest truth. And with that, I could uncover. Well, what? Why? Why that? Well, I do think that childhood with certain with with abuse, with sexual predators lends itself to that. With throwing myself away, not caring about myself. Had I had some sense of of self-worth within myself, I don’t think I would have done that. And it also fed that. It fed the unworthiness in the shame.
Gabe Howard: On the back cover of your book. It reads, quote, Hannah grew up to be a stripper and a prostitute with a taste for crystal meth, which seemed like a surefire way to lose weight with stops along the way for silent gurus, sugar daddies and drinking in the CVS bathroom, unquote. Now, I read that, and at first I’m like, all right, this is going to be an interesting book. This is pretty awesome. I want to read this. But now that you’re here, now that we’re together, now that I’m talking to you and I realize this is about a person, it goes from being this tantalizing, salacious and risqué story to, Oh, my God, you poor thing.
Hannah Sward: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: This this sounds scary and horrible. I have this urge to want to protect you and hug you and care for you after the fact. How was all of this for you?
Hannah Sward: Working in the sex industry?
Gabe Howard: Yes. Yes. Working. Working in the sex industry.
Hannah Sward: Yeah, I, I would say there was a time, like, for example, when I, when early in early sobriety, I, you know, I was told that we will learn to not regret the past. And I did regret the past. And I never thought there would be a time where I didn’t. And I can say now, all these years later, I don’t regret it because I have been able to share my experience. And I’ve had women that have spoken to me that have opened up because of me sharing my story. Right. And that’s really helped not regret the past. And in terms of my feelings about the industry, that has not changed. For me, it was not a healthy choice. It seems like an obvious thing, but I do also realize that a lot of people felt we were talking before the show about how some people have felt empowered doing it. That was not my experience. I had no sense of feeling empowered. I was not good at it and I wasn’t savvy with the money part of it. And I remember when I first came to L.A. and I met with Madame Eva, who’s in the book at Silver Spoon in Santa Monica Boulevard, this Russian woman. And she said, you know, I won’t try to do the accent. I’m not good at that. But she said, you know, many of my girls, you know, they save money and they buy the houses in the hills. And I knew when she was saying that that that would not be the case for me. I wasn’t going to be doing it long enough and working men in that way. My goal was get a car, get a couple of months rent ahead.
Gabe Howard: When I think of sex work, I think of two very unique types of sex work. And when I think about it, I think of legal versus illegal. Now, I don’t I don’t know where you were, but stripping is legal. Whereas
Hannah Sward: Right.
Gabe Howard: Whereas, you know, being a sex worker, you know, prostitution is illegal. Did that factor into any of your feelings or concerns? Were you worried about the illegal aspect of prostitution?
Hannah Sward: There was one point when I was in Chicago with a couple men that I just had this sense that, Oh, I could actually be busted for this. Beyond that? No, in L.A., I didn’t. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the clients were a little more high-end, I felt more protected in the Beverly Hills Hotel, for example, or the Peninsula. But those are for people who don’t live in Los Angeles. Those are more upscale hotels. And so, no, it really didn’t.
Gabe Howard: It’s super interesting that you say that because your sentiments echo what I’ve read about online. It seems like if your clients are high-end people, you’re more insulated, you’re more protected. And that’s very curious to me because it’s astounding to me that if your clients are men of standing, people of means that you’re protected. But if your clients are meeting you on a corner or on a stroll and paying significantly less money, well suddenly there’s law enforcement action. There’s police involvement because it’s the identical act. It’s the identical issue. I’m just curious about your feelings towards that, because there’s always this discussion of privilege. And it seems like even in the illegal sex industry, privilege exists.
Hannah Sward: Yes. I don’t think it’s right, even though I was involved in that, I that disturbs me. That money protects even that. And. Yeah, it’s protected. I’m being at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I did not feel the sense that the police were going to come raiding in. Money is a form of protection.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with author Hannah Sward discussing her new memoir, “Strip.” We’ve sort of touched on your clients a little bit, but overall, how did you feel about them?
Hannah Sward: I. Most. For the most part, I don’t feel like I judge them if I felt like they were as sound strange, but a good person, which I felt like I could sense. Some of them were less savory than others. I remember one specific young man in Chicago, and he was aiming for what you could tell it at night. A lovely young man, very out of the box. In the book I describe, he had Walt Whitman books set around and flowers and I t’s not the typical thing of what we think of as someone who’s hiring a call girl, a prostitute, or whatever it is you want to call it. And he was a very soft spoken, gentle man and respectful as well, if that makes sense. However, there were also men that that weren’t in the book. I described one man at the Peninsula Hotel, and he he was not a good character. A character is not something it’s made up in the book, but not a man that I thought was a man of substance with something that took place in the hotel room. Yeah. And in the book I later I described. Well, I’ll leave that. I saw him at the Oscars, which was very, very weird. But that’s a whole other thing.
Gabe Howard: So it sounds like some of your clients were also famous. They. I mean, if you see them at the Oscars, were they a seat filler or
Hannah Sward: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: Did they win an Oscar?
Hannah Sward: I don’t know about. I wouldn’t say famous, but. But I do remember one particular man taking an award, an Oscar, for something that he had done. And I am not the biggest TV watcher, so I’m also not the best person with that even back then. I remember just sitting at home and watching it and be like, Oh my God, that’s that man. And I felt really my stomach turned. Not because he was winning well, not because he was on TV, but because he was not one of the. He was less than savory.
Gabe Howard: I think that some people, when they think about sex work, they think that every single client is a really evil bad character. I mean, that’s how they’re portrayed on TV. But you’ve sort of described it as a little bit of a mix.
Hannah Sward: I mean, a number of my clients were really nice men. I again, in the book I describe, I think it was might have been my first one when in my first week I thought, I can share this on this show, that he wanted me to talk dirty to him. And I was very inexperienced. Like I said, it was my first week. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I was not very like I said, it was not very good at what I was doing. And he was like, okay, well, instead we went out for donuts. Like, you don’t see that in a show. We went out to his favorite donut place instead, and he didn’t call for me again. But he was a very, you know, a nice man. We had donut rings in his car and he gave me the money and I left. So, I wish they would. They were portrayed more as, you know, just like the regular men. You’re not saying some of them weren’t like the man in the from the Oscars. And then also later on when I call it Sugar Daddy work. When I got into it for the third time, however, that is still prostitution in the way that I was doing it and putting an ad on Craigslist at the time. And there was one man that I was only had sex with once and I was with him for almost two years and he was a gentleman and he was lonely. He was a lonely. A lonely man that wanted company, and we did get along. However, I didn’t have those same those same feelings for him.
Gabe Howard: When you reached recovery, did the sex work stop?
Hannah Sward: Yes. But let me say, I for me, I need to be to change everything. The when I first got sober, which was 12 years ago, I had two sugar daddies and one was just. Both were nice men, one Iranian man and one Jewish Orthodox man. And. I was having sex or I had sex with them both. However, once I got sober, I knew that I couldn’t have sex again without going back to the drink or the drug. And I made that choice that I my recovery was too important. So for me, I it’s that thing is that taking me closer to a drink or away from. And so I did not end up seeing one of them anymore. But I did continue seeing the Iranian man who was a complete gentleman. And once I got sober, we never had sex again. But we kept seeing each other. And he would take me to dinner and take me to Trader Joe’s. I know that sounds strange, but Trader Joe’s do a bit grocery shopping, which meant a lot to me at the time because I couldn’t really afford groceries. I was used to making money in a certain way and next thing I know I have a minimum wage job. So he that that that went on for about a year after and until it came time for me to let that go. And that was very scary. However, I knew that it was the right thing to do, and my sobriety was most important.
Gabe Howard: I know that you’ve described a lot of regret and shame with going into sex work. But in your opinion, as somebody who’s been there, do you think that it it can be a good choice for people? The Internet has two very distinct sides on this. That it’s very empowering to women or it’s very, very bad for women. And I’m I’m not sure how to close the gap on that, except to ask you your experience, Do you think that there are women or men who can have a good experience in this, or is it all bad all the time?
Hannah Sward: I don’t think it’s all bad all the time. I mean, when we describe sex work, I mean, does that also include stripping or specifically prostitution?
Gabe Howard: That is a very fair point. Sex work has sort of become this catch-all phrase. Let’s look at this from the perspective of having sex for money. Do you feel that people can experience that in a positive way or do you feel that it is always negative?
Hannah Sward: I don’t think that it. I don’t come from it, a black-and-white place, especially for other people. I think everyone has their own experience with it, and I wouldn’t want to say it’s all bad or all good. I have met women and men who have not, at least from what they’ve shared with me, been a negative experience and has been exactly what you said empowering. That was just not the case for me. So I can only speak to myself. I speak for myself. I think. Yeah, I don’t. I don’t. I don’t I really don’t like to look at it from the black-and-white standard because I don’t think it’s all good or all bad. It’s hard not to think that at some point it has an effect on someone. But I also, again, can only speak for myself, Right?
Gabe Howard: I know that’s a difficult question and I really appreciate you answering it so honestly. Again, I, I know how difficult it was for me to do research on this show because there were these almost warring factions and both sides were very entrenched. There was the it’s completely empowering. It’s just a job and it’s very positive all the way to it’s very shameful. It’s very negative. And everybody in the industry is a victim. And I wanted to ask you good questions. I wanted to understand your book and I wanted to understand what you went through. And I wanted to stay in the middle. But with all of this bias and all of these entrenched opinions, it became very, very difficult because it really, really seems like nobody wants to discuss that. There’s nuance to the sex worker debate, that there are good and there are bad aspects to being a sex worker.
Hannah Sward: I appreciate the research you did because that’s also been my experience.
Gabe Howard: Hannah, I know that your book “Strip” is available on Amazon or wherever books are sold, but where can folks find you online?
Hannah Sward: They can find me at HannahSward.com.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
Hannah Sward: Well, I appreciate it. It’s such an honor. And you’re just clearly just so wonderful with what you do. And I’ve done a number of these. And this has been definitely one of the tops that I’ve enjoyed. And so, thank you.
Gabe Howard: You are so very welcome. And to all of our listeners, a giant thank you. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And hey, do me a favor. Tell your friends, family, colleagues all about this show. Referring the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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