True confession writing is nearly as old as the world’s oldest profession. Whereas tales of the flesh trade used to be written as fiction, biography or in as-told-to form, today’s memoirs—written by the sex workers themselves—bask in the spotlight of bestseller lists and are featured on such prestigious outlets as NPR, CNN and “The View,” far from the dusty shelves of the dirty bookstore of yore.
Xaviera Hollander paved the way for modern sex-worker scribes with her 1971 breakout hit, “The Happy Hooker.” The story of her transition from Dutch Consulate secretary to high-paid New York prostitute sold 20 million copies, was translated into 15 languages, and inspired several film adaptations. No doubt the subject matter explains some of this success, but her knack for scene and a charmingly sex-positive voice separated her work from the anonymous and hackneyed sex narratives of the day.
While this genre of creative nonfiction may be nothing new, mainstream media’s attention to it is a relatively new development. Back in 2001, writer Alex Kuczynski noticed a spate of mass-market titles revealing the inner lives of strippers and prostitutes, and crowned my contemporaries the “sex worker literati” in her New York Times article of the same name. David Henry Sterry, author of “Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent,” ran with the term in ringmaster fashion, producing Sex Worker Literati events at bookstores and bars across the country. He credits Hollander as a huge influence on his work, along with Jim Carroll’s “The Basketball Diaries” and Jerry Stahl’s “Permanent Midnight,” all of which “contain a sense of urgency and drama” and all of which he admires as “beautifully written literature.” Melissa Febos, author of the memoir “Whip Smart,” found her formative literary sex-work models in fiction: Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Zola’s Nana, Kerouac’s Tristessa and Colette’s Léa de Lonval. She did read Robin Shamburg’s “Mistress Ruby Ties It Together: A Dominatrix Takes On Sex, Power and the Secret Lives of Upstanding Citizens” as research for her own foray into the sex industry, but her actual writing style was more influenced by literary lions, including James Baldwin, J.D. Salinger, Anaïs Nin and Margaret Atwood.
As much as sex sells, savvy readers also want a well-written narrative. Today’s sex work memoirs are not rote accounts but carefully crafted, first-person stories that explore material well beyond the implied bounds of their dust jacket category. Sterry’s “Chicken,” which recounts his survival of sexual assault and subsequent development of a “Midnight Cowboy”-style persona, is a classic example of Vivian Gornick’s “situation and story.” Febos’ memoir is as much an unflinchingly honest assessment of addiction as it is about her job as a professional dominatrix in New York. Lily Burana’s “Strip City: A Stripper’s Farewell Journey Across America” is a Kerouacian romp hailed as “a joy ride of a first book” by Library Journal. “Rent Girl,” an illustrated memoir written by Michelle Tea and drawn by Laurenn McCubbin, tells the story of a lesbian having sex with men for money, with a gorgeously rendered ’90s-era San Francisco queer culture as backdrop, while Jillian Lauren’s New York Times bestseller, “Some Girls: My Life in a Harem,” ultimately wrestles with issues of adoption and identity. The ability to turn a phrase, craft a scene and incorporate research transformed all of the above from hustlers to word-slingers (though one could argue they are one and the same), earning each the sort of accolades every writer craves.
Many of today’s sex work memoirists seem to have the literary legs for longevity. Sterry has also written about baseball, soccer, art and publishing—not to mention that his memoir has been translated into 10 languages, made into a one-man-show, and optioned for film. He also co-edited an anthology entitled “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys,” an experience he describes as eye-opening: “I met so many different kinds of people who had worked in the sex business, from street junkies and $25 hustlers to college professors with Ph.D.s.”
Febos’ debut led her to writing for The New York Times, salon.com, The Chronicle of Higher Education and numerous other publications on a myriad of subjects; she also serves on the English faculty at Utica College of Syracuse University.
The Lambda Literary Award-winning Tea has always been a prolific writer. She is also currently curator of the Sister Spit spoken word tour, headlined this year by National Book Award finalist Dorothy Allison. Lauren, who holds an MFA in creative nonfiction, followed up “Some Girls” with the well received novel “Pretty,” produced her own one-woman show entitled “Mother Tongue,” and co-hosts “Eat My Podcast.” Since “The Happy Hooker,” Hollander has written 25 books, and her iconic memoir’s next stop may be Broadway, as “The Happy Hooker Musical.”
Burana followed ”Strip City” with a novel, “Try,” and another highly publicized memoir, “I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War and Other Battles.” She comments, “I found that editors really didn’t care about what I’d already written, but I knew going in that I was going to have to come up with bushels of non-stripping-related story ideas if I wanted to make sure I wasn’t typecasting myself. I really do believe it falls to the writer to write their way out of the pigeonhole”; then she adds a caveat scriptor: “Your writing may diversify, but your profile as a sex worker may follow you around for quite a while.” Burana was uninvited from a book-signing appearance at the West Point campus bookstore for “I Love a Man in Uniform” due to her former line of work. “Mind you, I’d quit stripping 15 years before and had published extensively on military family issues since then, and had gotten support and interest in my work from military brass like General Petraeus,” she points out. The academy’s department heads later invited her to speak on campus, but she warns that “the whole incident speaks to the power [of the] sex work stigma; it is insidious and far-reaching, no matter how ‘legit’ you may present yourself in other ways. Anyone thinking of diving into this line of endeavor would be naive to think that the prejudice won’t affect them, perhaps when they least expect it. The stigma lives on, and the Google trail is forever.”
Still, Sterry insists: “[F]or every negative thing that has resulted from writing a sex worker memoir, there have been 100 phenomenal things, e-mails from people all over the world, thanking me for speaking my truth, telling me that it helps them to speak their truth.”
Writers’ reasons for writing a sex memoir and for revelations made along the way are as complex as those in any genre, but perhaps the extremely intimate subject matter shared in an honest voice helps humanize an often-scorned segment of society. “I could write a whole book about the socio-cultural dynamics I observed while being a sex-worker memoirist,” says Febos. “It’s fascinating. I do look forward to publishing a book that won’t prompt people to ask me what it felt like to tie people up or if I regretted my past. I regret nothing and have a lot to be grateful for. I’m proud to be a member of this niche—we tend to be deep, funny, big-hearted people.”
FOR FURTHER READING
MEMOIRS OF A COURTESAN IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY PARIS (1854, republished in 1858 and 2001)
The New York Times Book Review said the latest edition of this historic self-portrait offers “the complexity of truth—the kind of complex truth we often look for in modern fiction.”
Mineko Iwasaki and Rande Brown
GEISHA: A LIFE (2003)
Iwasaki was the primary source for Arthur Golden’s fictional “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Her memoir was published with less fanfare than the 1997 novel but reads as a more authentic account by one of Japan’s most loved “women of art.”
BIG SEX, LITTLE DEATH: A MEMOIR (2011)
Bright details her transformation from Irish Catholic girl to teenage activist, through cofounding On Our Backs (the first erotic magazine written by lesbians for lesbians) to joining academia as a sex-positive feminist.
Tera Patrick and Carrie Borzillo
SINNER TAKES ALL: A MEMOIR OF MODERN LOVE AND PORN (2009)
Award-winning porn star Tera Patrick bares all on the page, revealing a likeable narrator who always manages to come out on top.
R.J. Martin, Jr. and David Henry Sterry, Editors
HOS, HOOKERS, CALL GIRLS AND RENT BOYS: PROFESSIONALS WRITING ON LIFE, LOVE, MONEY AND SEX (2009)
This anthology of essays from phone girls, massage parlor workers, private dancers and everything in between made the cover of The New York Times Book Review, which called it “an eye-opening, occasionally astonishing, brutally honest and frequently funny collection.” [Full disclosure: I am among its contributors.]
Linda Lovelace and Mike McGrady
ORDEAL: THE TRUTH BEHIND DEEP THROAT (1980)
Numerous books have been written about Linda Lovelace, the troubled star of the ’70s hardcore porn film “Deep Throat,” who later became an anti-porn activist. This is the third with her billed as a co-author but the only one told truly from her first-person point of view (the others used quote excerpts sprinkled throughout the narration).