A Lesson On How Sex Work has Gone Literary and Middle-class

Playboy Bunny
Playboy Bunny

Nola squints in the sunlight that has just spilled over the rooftops and illuminated Williamsburg’s McCarren Park in all its dewy spring splendor. Slipping her Chanel sunglasses down over her eyes, she sips her latte and makes a sweeping gesture toward the jogger-strewn park, its busy dog run, and the new high-rise condos that have sprung up along its borders.

“There is no way I’d be living here without my nurse hat, if you know what I mean. This place is going to look like Park Slope in a few years. They might dress like hipsters, but they’re just yuppies with vintage wardrobes.”

Nola is actually “Nurse Nola,” a dominatrix specializing in medical role-play. Like me, she used to work at an upscale “dungeon” in midtown Manhattan, giving and receiving enemas and spankings three days a week. Raised in a suburb of Boston, Nola is the daughter of a college professor and an elementary school teacher, and has been working in the sex industry for nearly 15 years.

Nola started stripping while she was still in college at the University of Massachusetts. She tells me, “After I graduated, I had no illusions about what kind of money I could make with a liberal arts degree in art history, so I went to Seattle and did the peep-show thing for a little while.” As a diehard East Coast girl, however, she was back in New York within a year, doing a webcam phone-sex gig. “That was easy,” She recalls. “I just had to wear a “college girl” outfit for about 30 seconds, and then lie around and touch myself for a few hours. I could even read while I did it.”

“After that,” she continues, “I started domming, which I did for a long time, but have never liked much. I’m not really into being mean. I always liked submissive sessions better. It was at the house I’m with now that I found my niche, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.”

Over the hiss of her espresso machine, Nola explains that her whole family knows about her work. “I guess no parent would choose for their child to use that pricey college degree to take off their clothes. They’d rather me be a professional doctor than play doctor professionally, but they’ve accepted it.” Only half-jokingly, she likens a career in sex work these days to being gay 20 years ago: “It’s fine, as long as you’re in New York and your parents are liberals.”

Is this true? It appears to be for Nola; she is as far from the strung-out, stiletto-heeled streetwalker stereotype in my mind as could be. She’s well-spoken, educated, and comfortable in her body. On her bookshelves (alphabetized) are Simone de Beauvoir, Chekhov, Marquis de Sade, David Sedaris, and a slew of glossy art books. With a generous income, but no health insurance, she could just as easily be one of the copious freelance web designers, yoga teachers, and writers that make up a large chunk of Williamsburg’s demographic. Nola isn’t looking for another job; this is her career. She predicts that within the next 10 to 15 years she’ll have socked away enough of a retirement fund (and made enough off of investments advised by her clients) to quit the business and move somewhere warm.

For some, it appears, sex work has become a legitimate career path, just another option for middle-class white women who aren’t interested in law or medical school or a job with a nonprofit. Nola, my friends from the dungeon, and the other women interviewed for this essay, are college-educated; they are not drug addicts, few lead secret lives, and all of them consider their work a worthy endeavor, a decision that they would make again if the choice were theirs to have over.

We all know the story by now: In 1963, Gloria Steinem went on an undercover reporting assignment, working as a Bunny in Hugh Hefner’s New York Playboy Club. The resulting exposé launched her career, was adapted into a television movie in 1984, and is still reprinted today. That Steinem’s expose has outlived all the Playboy Clubs both in the U.S. and abroad is a testament that there was, and continues to be, a keen public interest in the true nature of sex-industry jobs.

Painstakingly modeled strippers and prostitutes now populate the fictitious cities of popular video games like Grand Theft Auto, while dominatrices peddle beer and play tic-tac-toe on a man’s back with whips atop Diesel Jeans billboards. “You’re wasting my oxygen,” growls a leather-clad Amazon to the man tied to a chair in her basement in a recent commercial for Heineken. When her cell phone vibrates, she answers it with the high-pitched coo of a valley girl, “No, I miss you more!” The overdub explains, “Heineken Special Dark: it’s dark, but not that dark.”

Our fundamental human interest in the taboo and erotic has prompted big business to bank on the appeal of these images, and as they are commodified and fed to us on an increasingly national scale, they move further into the mainstream. In a time when burgeoning cultural trends are swiftly commodified, the lifespan and quality of subcultures are both altered and truncated; nothing with even an inchoate potential for profitability remains underground for long. Folks raised on MTV, zines, and the internet have become ad execs who now have corporate resources to fund their cultural savvy for ferreting out the next happening social niche. The same phenomenon that once brought the glue-spiked hair and studded belts of a working-class music movement (punk) to chain stores in the malls of every wealthy American suburb now has Upper West Side hausfraus shelling out generous sums to enroll in striptease aerobics classes at Crunch.

But for sex work to achieve its current naughty-hip frisson, the public has had to be slowly weaned from a concept of sex workers as desperate and exploited: After all, nobody wants to buy beer or designer denim hocked by a crack-addicted street hooker from the Bronx with bruised legs and five kids, to whom the most available public service is being routinely corralled by street cops to spend the night in jail. In order to make sex work shillable, it had to be liberated from its most ignoble circumstances, transformed from a festering wound on the public conscience to a bright, smiley slice of transgressive sex appeal.

Gloria Steinem’s coworkers at the Playboy Club were exploited, yes, with low-wages, long hours, undignified (and uncomfortable) uniforms, and stringent rules demanding affability in the face of constant advances and demoralization by the club’s patrons. But they were also, in societal parlance, normal: white, middle-class college girls looking to make a decent living—perhaps the first “girls next door.” There was an innocence to them, as revealed in Steinem’s Esquire essay, that began to re-characterize an image of the American sex worker that was not so at odds with our ideas of what a young woman should be: pretty, with a healthy combination of innocence and ambition, a hard worker, and highly concerned with pleasing men and eventually landing a husband.

In 1977, Playboy Magazine debuted its first-ever “college girl issue” with a spread entitled “Girls of the Big 10.” Voluptuous coeds from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin Universities revealed all, in cheerleader skirts or with pencils tucked behind their ears. The Playboy website claims today that “these beautiful, brainy women paved the way for hundreds of other college girls to bare all, and we can’t thank them enough!” Indeed. If not for these beautiful, brainy women, would we have Girls Gone Wild? Or all the college-girl porn websites and “amateur” videos? What about the often free-of-charge “dorm” webcam sites?

When I asked Nola if she’d ever participated, or considered participating in such venues, she scoffed. “I don’t do this because I like to show off my tits, or [because] my daddy didn’t love me enough or something. This is my business. It’s a trade. Not everyone can give a nine-quart Bardex enema to 300 lb. man with a smile, and in stilettos.” And despite whatever cultural factors may affect the middle-class girl’s decision to go into sex work, it is also about the money—and the real money isn’t in flashing your boobs on spring break.

Two years after Playboy’s first college-girl issue, Sydney Biddle Barrows went into business. The “Mayflower Madam”’s high-end Manhattan escort agency prospered from 1979 to 1984, when it was closed down by the NYPD. A self-proclaimed descendent of the Mayflower pilgrims, Barrows enjoyed the subsequent worldwide media attention, and in 1986 published a memoir that was eventually translated into seven languages and is currently in its 14th printing; the made-for-TV movie it inspired can still be caught today on cable. She went on to publish a second book, Just Between Us Girls: Secrets About Men from the Madam who Knows, in 1990, an erotic version of The Rules that divulged all the tricks that she required of “her girls” at the agency; an A&E Biography on her premiered in 1996. If there were no previous examples of sex workers who made a successful career out of it, who enjoyed not only financial security but a generous dose of celebrity and even a grudging respect (the NYPD are said to have conceded publicly that Barrow’s was the most honest and professional house of ill repute in the city’s history) there now were. A public figure, Barrows confidently connected unforseen dots between ancestral social prestige, the sex industry, and that most lustrous of American dreams: fame. Barrows, along with successors like Heidi Fleiss and Jenna Jameson, armed sex work with bourgeois status markers and brought it out of the closet, where the cameras were waiting.

“My favorite movies as a kid? Let me think.” Camille tilts her head back and taps her manicured fingertips against her lips. “Oh! Dirty Dancing, definitely, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Flashdance….Pretty Woman! Oh my God, how could I have forgotten that one? I wanted to be Julia Roberts.” She snorts, “Well I guess I kind of did, didn’t I? Get that wish, I mean. Well, not the Richard Gere part, but close.”
Camille’s never hooked on the streets of L.A., but she has been an escort in Manhattan for three years, and a stripper before that. And she does have a Richard Gere, although his name is Louis, and he’s not in the habit of climbing fire escapes with long-stemmed roses. Instead, he hands her an envelope every month with enough cash inside to pay the rent on her Upper West Side one-bedroom, her cell-phone bill, and her weekly mani-pedis. She also gets full use of his car service.

“Yeah, Louis is definitely my #1. I know he loves me, but we have a business relationship first. I am a small business, and he knows that.”

With her degree from N.Y.U., Camille could likely have started a small business offering any number of legitimate services, the sort a bank would consider offering a loan for. But she didn’t need a loan to start selling her body. “All I needed was one nice dress, some red lipstick, and”—she grabs a breast in each hand—“these.” In 1986, Lizzie Borden’s documentary Working Girls portrayed a tightly knit group of New York prostitutes—one a Yale grad, another an aspiring lawyer, and another an entrepreneur. In depicting the actual day-to-day work of whoring and the fear and loathing with which these women approached it the film was groundbreaking in the way it likened sex work to any other working-class gig: what you had to do to get where you really wanted to be. In 1991, Ken Russell’s gritty, documentary-style film Whore similarly took an inside look at a profession that was far less an aspiration than a means to a more dignified end.

But for every Working Girls, there was a Flashdance, in which a comely lass supports herself in the flesh trade (in this case, working as an exotic dancer while hoping to gain entry to a high-toned dance school), leaving it behind for a better place (and a hunky man) in the end. Millions more saw Pretty Woman than Whore. And these were the visions of the sex industry that girls of my generation grew up with. The Hollywood version of sex workers were, like their typing-pool sisters in shoulder pads and perms, working woman portrayed as independent, practical, upwardly-mobile, and on the lookout for the right man. We watched Julia Roberts play the quirky streetwalker whom Richard Gere’s lonely, dashing, and wealthy patron rescues from the life, and gives a crash course in fine-dining etiquette, proper dress, and true love. Like past filmic hookers with hearts of gold, we understood that Vivian wouldn’t be hooking if she didn’t have to, but nothing too terrible ever happened to her. She was certainly not a bad person, she wasn’t stupid, and when anyone dared to treat her like, well, a whore, we were meant to be outraged.

“I always wanted to be a hooker,” Camille confides. “[But] I also used to play teacher, and imagine being the sexy trial lawyer that would leave everyone speechless with my closing argument and my tight little suit. It was always this fantasy of being everything at once: sexy and desired, but also intimidating and smart. I never felt like I had to choose.”

While the heroines of Pretty Woman and Flashdance were nice, working-class girls who, in a hard-up situation, simply did what they had to, the decision to go into sex work has since taken on a more sociologically investigative bent. A year after Flashdance enticed little girls everywhere to slice up their sweatshirts,Lauri Lewin published her memoir Naked is the Best Disguise: My Life as a Stripper, an account of how she made her way through college in Boston by stripping. She has since gone on to become a regularly published academic in the field of women’s studies. Almost a decade later, Heidi Mattson recalled in her memoir Ivy League Stripper how she paid for her Brown education by taking off her clothes. Robin Shamburg: dominatrix, New York Press columnist, and author of Mistress Ruby Ties it Together: A Dominatrix Takes On Sex, Power, and the Secret Lives of Upstanding Citizens (2001); Shawna Kenney, the college girl who penned I Was A Teenage Dominatrix: A Memoir (2002); and Jeanette Angell, author of the memoir Call Girl: Confessions of an Ivy League Lady of Pleasure (2005), all delved into the subterrain of sex work with as much anthropological curiosity as economic desperation Rather than the shameful, secret life they hid, these women’s sex-industry jobs became their claim to sensational life experiences of the sort that could exoticize the otherwise prosaic and unmemoirworthy middle-class variety.

I doubt that my love for Pretty Woman and Flashdance as a little girl would have been influence enough alone to prompt me to take the leap into actual sex work, though without their edifying portrayals, I doubt that the memoirs above would have followed with such frequency. It was the aforementioned Robin Shamburg, in fact, who convinced me to jump into sex work. Lent to me by a friend of a friend—a law student moonlighting as a dominatrix—her wry and eloquent account of life in a dungeon was crowned with the penultimate claim that

“My fellow citizens—freaks and weirdos, absolutely, every last one of them—speak their secret desires in a language only I can intuit. I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to disclose the nature of these revelations, but I assure you, they are all totally twisted, eminently bizarre—and gloriously human.”

This was the sort of insight that made a great writer, not just a great dominatrix, and it was armed with this proof that one could have a successful writing career and an intellectual perspective on an anthropologically fascinating occupation while making scads of money for playing dress-up and spanking some bankers that I answered an ad in The Village Voice.

“I would never have gone into the business if I hadn’t known other girls that did.” Camille agrees. “I had friends in college who had stripped, or even been dommes. I tried those jobs too, but once I realized how much better the money was in escorting…I mean, I’d never go back.” After a moment, she adds, “I’ve always wanted to be a good girl who does bad things. I guess I wanted to prove that I could do what I do and still be who I am, and not have to be damaged goods. I mean, I had a happy childhood.” She flashes a disarming smile that I imagine is reserved mainly for her patrons. “And now I’m having a happy adulthood.”

As these middle-class sex-workers are paving the road for younger women to further infiltrate the industry, popular media has enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon, with approving commercial images of strippers, prostitutes, porn stars, and BDSM practitioners increasing exponentially. Retail sales for Playboy’s fashion and consumer products, for instance, are estimated at well over $350 million yearly, and the brand is enjoying new partnerships with mass-appeal labels like Sean John clothing and M.A.C. cosmetics. Retail establishments moved more than $150 million in G-string panties from 2002 to 2003, according to market- research firm NPD Group, and Time reported that in 2003, girls between the ages of 13 and 17 spent $152 million on them.

On television, images of sex workers targeting a middle-class audience abound. HBO sometimes seems entirely devoted to chronicling the lives of sex workers, with documentary series on from the porn industry (“Pornucopia: Going Down in the Valley”) to stripping (“G-String Divas”) to prostitution (“Cathouse”). Chingy‘s hit “I’m in Love with a Stripper” can be heard pulsing from the windows of teen-piloted SUV’s from Manhattan to middle America, and the film rights to former escort Tracy Quan’s engaging, chick lit–style novels Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl and Diary of a Married Call Girl have recently been bought by the producer of Sex and the City. If middle-class American adolescents didn’t know what a dominatrix was, or what went on behind the scenes at the AFA (Adult Film Awards) ceremony 10 or 20 years ago, all they need to do now is turn on the tube.

Saturated as our magazines, movie theaters, televisions, and Amazon wishlists have become with defanged images of sex workers, there remains a vast distance between what we see in a Heineken commercial and actual sex work. Strip clubs make for thrilling mise-en-scene in HBO series like The Sopranos and critically acclaimed films like Closer, but these homogenized representations are not actually bringing the experiential reality of the sex industry out of the closet, or socially legitimizing a trade whose practitioners have been harassed, scorned, and ostracized for centuries. This new proliferation of images serves mainly to further the struggle of corporate media conglomerates to fatten their wallets, and not that of these actual sex workers for social acknowledgement and legal resources. The projection of only these marketable images of middle-class, or wholesome working-class sex-workers onto a national big screen, in the end, simply glorifies and glamorizes a narrow concept of this complex reality in its commercial exploitation.
It’s safe to say, for instance, that far more people will thrill to the hooker hijinks of Quan’s Diary of a Married Call Girl than will pick up Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City, a 2005 report from the Sex Worker’s Project at New York’s Urban Justice Center (UJC), which examines the quality of life issues, as well as the impact of law enforcement approaches, on NYC’s population of sex-workers. The study includes interviews with the employees of brothels, escort agencies, dungeons, and private clubs. Unlike the middle-class women authoring memoirs and selling movie rights, these workers were ethnically diverse, and include transgender persons and men. Some are getting by well enough financially, although 67% of respondents are members of the working poor who turned to sex work because they couldn’t earn a living wage anywhere else. 46% of these workers had experienced violence in the course of their work, and 42% had been threatened or beaten for being a sex worker. 40% of the interviewees are illegal immigrants, and 8% had been forcibly trafficked into the country for prostitution. This survey did not even include the statistics of streetwalkers, of whom 84% are victims of aggravated assault, and are raped on average of 49 times per year.

Truly, these statistics are far, far less seductive a read than Quan’s Sex in the City knockoffs, whose impeccably groomed escorts trot back and forth from The Waldorf to their Upper East Side apartments, with an occasional stop into Barney’s or Bloomingdale’s. Perhaps if these new bourgeois sex-workers took further advantage of the spotlight, and chose to shine it on the reality of the vast majority of their industry colleagues, or chose to endorse the sex-worker activist, or even arts movement, rather than name brand designers and media magnates, a broader concept of sex-work’s reality might begin to grow in the public consciousness.

I’m the first to say I’m part of the problem. My memoir is honest, yes, but it is more personal narrative than any kind of political statement. I offer an inside look at the demographic I worked with, which was exactly the sort of sex workers who boast college degrees and middle-class backgrounds. And though the fact that for four years I earned my living in what has long been the province of a working-class (if not poverty stricken) demographic isn’t destructive in itself, responsibility for how that shift affects the lives of its original inhabitants must fall somewhere. Debunking the airbrushed version of sex work that so seductively contributes to the decision of middle-class girls’ to enter it is a bare beginning on a bigger truth. I do not know how to convince our nation’s public to choose a bitter truth over a sweet concoction—especially when the sweet has the big bucks of commerce to float it—any more than I know how to convince a person to toss out their television in favor of the (struggling!) novel. But I do know that honesty rings pretty loud in a crowd of half-truths.

I am happy to see how this public attention has paved the way for a more honest, and intellectual genre of sex-work writing, and as Bookslut reported in 2008:

“Seal Press has led the charge with books like Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping by Elisabeth Eaves, Sarah Katherine Lewis’s memoir Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire, and Audacia Ray’s Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration (Seal is also the publisher of Working Sex). Elsewhere, Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore edited Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients. 2004 saw the publication of Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin’s gorgeous, intense Rent Girl, and there’s been a reliable stream of academic treatments like Elizabeth Bernstein’s recent Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex. There’s even a quarterly publication, the increasingly great three-year-old $pread magazine.”

That said, there isn’t always money in truth-telling. It is easy to refuse responsibility, when it is not only yours to assume, but to ignore a cultural movement of which you are a part, whether as a mover, a spectator, or a consumer, is to endorse it. Like those yuppies in vintage wardrobes that have poured into formerly dicey neighborhoods, the middle-class colonization of the indoor sex industry is just another case of gentrification: making the neighborhood safer for commerce by pushing the danger further into the fringes, including those most victimized by it. The gap between economic classes within the sex industry, thanks in part to the influence of commercial media, is in tidy accordance with our country’s economic character, with the money and social clout on one side, and the working-class on the other. If repairing this divide is a concern of middle-class sex workers, they should not mistake their individual success within the industry as synonymous with that of such greater goals. The media representation—culled from such isolated personal success stories—of only this narrow, privileged version of sex work in this country fuels a distorted public conception and is a complacent rather than progressive role for middle-class sex-workers. However, the question remains of whether it is actually a concern of theirs. The heroine of Tracy Quan’s books isn’t particularly concerned with sex work activism; she is interested in making money, looking good, and astutely fulfilling her housewifely duties. In my own memoir, I am more interested in the personal, intellectual, and feminist questions of the job, than the effect of my role in it on anyone else. If the goals of those white, middle-class, educated women who grew up idolizing the plucky heroines of Pretty Woman and Flashdance are along similar lines, than little stands in their way. If, however, they are interested in exercising the power that the current cultural atmosphere and its subsequent media attention could afford them, they will need to talk about more than sex tips and brand names; they will have to be more than—in Camille’s words, good girls who like to do bad things.

WHIP SMART Trailer from Quailhead on Vimeo.

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