Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Was (Almost) a Prostitute, Part 1

Yes, this is a blatant teaser of a title, but it’s relevant, and, if you’ll hang with me until the end of this two-part series, you’ll find it’s even (kind of) true.

Recently I read an article at XO Jane that stayed with me, so much so that I decided I had to write about my reactions. It’s called “I Was a Hipster Hooker (And It Sort of Ruined My Life).” I recommend you read the column and the original article that led to a young woman’s ruination, but for those of you who don’t have time right now, I’ll give a brief summary.

When freelance writer Jessica Pilot was a dewy-eyed 22 year-old journalist, she published an article about upscale prostitution in New York City in the September 2008 issue of Radar Magazine. The story was based on interviews with women who felt empowered by their lucrative work. As part of her investigation, Pilot met with a madam who quickly evaluated her potential as a working woman ($950 market value because although she had a hot "look" her breasts were small) and suggested she go out on a call later that evening. Caught up in the momentum of her journalistic research and encouraged by an “on-again, off-again boyfriend,” Pilot agreed and went to the Plaza Hotel to meet a client. The hotel room door was opened by a pudgy, hirsute man with short arms. Pilot found herself unable to go through with the appointment for reasons she did not fully articulate (more on that below) and was forced by the very angry madam to pay up the $2000 she would have earned. Flash forward to the XO Jane story of the aftermath and all the abuse and humiliation that Pilot suffered for her byline from her family, vicious strangers on Gawker and others, including sexual harassment by an editor who, three years after the story was published, started an interview with “Well, Ms. Pilot. I can’t offer you $950 an hour,” then laughed at his own joke, oblivious of her discomfort.

As I mentioned above, my reactions to this article were quite strong and complex--and surprisingly personal. I also write about sex in a way that often celebrates its empowering aspects for women, and I’ve also suffered consequences, some very unpleasant and significant, some just “thoughtless” jokes and comments that might seem harmless but add up. (Even the apparently innocent remark, “you don’t look like an erotica writer” wears on me, but maybe I need to explore that further in another post). I found myself wanting to talk about the article, the column about the article and all the assumptions about sex, sex work and success that were not articulated in either.

Thank you for reading and “talking” with me.

First point--Pilot was accused of writing the article to get attention for herself, although no article is published in a for-profit magazine without the editor and/or publisher evaluating its worth in terms of drawing readership so they deserve credit, plus I’d guess few journalists write in order to be modest and self-effacing. There’s an old saying that a lady’s name appears in the papers three times—when she’s born, when she marries and when she dies. Any other time would involve a scandal because of course a lady would never write something for the newspaper. That would draw attention to herself, a grievous sin of vanity which is apparently still a fresh insult today. What also annoys me here is that all the people who criticized her for this either read the article because they were titillated by the title or didn’t read it but said mean things about her based only on the topic. Both are hypocritical and represent to me a very common way of dealing with personal discomfort about sex—project it out on to other “sinners.”

Many commentators also failed to take in the fact that Pilot never actually had sex for money, rather she ended up paying the angry madam twice what she would have earned in order to get out of the situation. Whether or not Pilot remained “a good girl” by bailing before she “went too far” is not my point right now. What struck me is that a woman doesn’t have to actually step over that line to merit hysterical criticism for unladylike behavior. All she has to do is think about improper behavior and of course write about it. I believe that the author’s curiosity as well as a certain glamorization of high-paying sex work in her article is what drove a certain segment of critics to shame her. And indeed, in my opinion, this fall from grace was at the heart of the editor’s sexual harassment three years later. By writing that article, Pilot was no longer due the respect he would have to show to a woman who had avoided controversial sexual topics or had written a disapproving expose of the perils of selling your body.

Obviously the double standard is alive and well. This disappointing truth was also driven home in another book I’ve been reading, Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality by Deborah Tolman. When I was a teen some thirty years ago, I hoped and believed women would become the equals of men in work, school and the bedroom by the twenty-first century. But Tolman’s interviews with teenage girls show that sex is still seen as a dangerous for girls. They are allowed to be objects of desire—a pretty creature for the right nice man to fall in love with--but not desiring subjects who can express curiosity, pursue pleasure or own their erotic power. The prostitutes Pilot interviewed seemed to be “getting away with something” by flouting these ancient rules. Perhaps Pilot was taking some of the flack intended for them?

While I am truly saddened by the reaction to this article, and the unfair stigmatization of a talented journalist, I have to admit I had some issues with the content of the article. Much of it was probably unintentional and certainly represents broader cultural stereotypes, as journalism often does. While googling the Radar issue, I found this very insightful response at BitchBuzz called “Love, Sex & the Internet: Hipster Hooker with a Heart of Gold” by Esmerelda Smith. In case you don’t have time to read it right now, I’ll summarize some of the pertinent points that also caught my attention.

First, Pilot’s article is presented by Radar as some kind of cutting edge expose about a new trend among our loveliest young females, but in fact our culture’s fascination with high-end call girls and their wealthy, powerful clients is timeless. The entire article is peppered with references to how cool, stylish and sexy the players are, investment bankers, musicians, CFOs and of course ladies lovely enough to charge thousands for an hour of their time. How different is this from our hunger to learn about the latest sexual misdeeds of celebrities?  Like Smith, I also feel like I’ve seen dozens of made for TV movies on this “forbidden” subject.

Next, while supposedly providing us with a glimpse into a forbidden world, an aspect of the article confused me. Why would two women who had a list of trusted clients and were making six figures sign up with a madam who would take half their fee, not to mention handing their clients’ information over to a third party? I assumed Heather, Olivia and Kelly kept their private clients and just took on new ones through the madam, but Smith’s critique pointed out that Pilot’s story did not jive with the experiences of other articulate sex workers and emphasized the glamour over an in-depth study of how these things really work.

Last but not least, Pilot’s article supposedly offers a view of the new prostitution as something much like “legitimate service industries.” Yet, the double standard and old stereotypes of women as vaginas and men as wallets shine through as subtext throughout. Nowhere is this more obvious than the “climax” of the article when Pilot finds herself unable to go through with the trick. As I mentioned above, she doesn’t really explain why, so we are left to assume one of two things: the client was too short, fat and hairy and didn’t live up to the informants’ romanticized descriptions of “classy" gentlemen with whom any woman would sleep for free anyway OR Pilot was a good girl at heart and these scruples won out over her dangerous, but temporary, intoxication with the contemporary demimonde. There is, admittedly, something soothing about this ending in that it mirrors the reader’s experience. By consuming this article we get to be voyeurs.  We can go to the brink of sin and get a little turned on by the idea either of being adored and spoiled by older, rich men or in the case of a man, perhaps being rich and successful enough to pay a beautiful woman for sex with no more effort than a phone call. But then, of course, being “good” people, we can step back at the hotel room door, return to our ordinary, non-New-York-glamour lives, and do it for love instead of money. We can have our fantasy prostitute's cake and eat it, too.

But somehow, that feels a little sleazy to me. Perhaps this forced complicity is why I feel the need to go deeper into the assumptions and myths hovering about and hiding within this article. There’s more to say about how sex is presented (yes, as kinky and dirty) and how the clients are portrayed. I also think this story could be seen as a critique of “success” in our society. Oh, and as promised I will talk about my own unwitting foray into prostitution, a nice girl caught up in New York City's sinful ways. But that is for next time.  After all, good capitalist consumers always have to sit tight for the story at eleven.

To be continued in Part 2!


Naomi said...

Fascinating! I haven't followed this story so appreciated both your summation & analysis. I couldn't help but think nothing's changed since George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver ended up ruining her life for running off with her friend's intended, even though she had a change of heart & came back the very next day, presumably still a virgin.

Craig Sorensen said...

Excellent post. A lot to consume and consider here.

The double standard certainly is alive and well, just changing form a bit. I look forward to part 2.

Donna said...

Hey Naomi, sadly, I think you are right we still have much in common with The Mill on the Floss age. This episode really shows how all of us are still kept in line, in Pilot's case, she has to struggle to be taken seriously as a journalist and her personal life was affected as it probably wouldn't have been by an article on bed bugs among the rich or something (a real article, lol). She says she's more "modest." That's SO sad, and I'm really sorry she didn't have more support from family, friends and colleagues.

Thanks for reading, Craig! Thing is, the double standard harms men, too, if only we could see that. But really, a "respectable" woman isn't allowed to write about sex or she is branded as a cheap attention hog. What is the solution here? Obviously more intelligent people writing intelligently about sex!

Erobintica said...

Oh! I wish I had time to read this post, but I'm rushing to get out the door to go to the Obsessed book release party in NYC! :) I will definitely read this tomorrow. Maybe after I read your story. ;)