Remember Jessica Pilot’s “Secrets of a Hipster Hooker” article in Radar a few years ago? There was quite a bit of outrage in the sex worker community over that, in the words of one blogger, “steaming pile of horseshit.” Jenny DeMilo curated quite a few of the reactions in this post.
It’s been nearly three years, and a lot changes for a young woman between 23 and 26. Now it’s time for her entry into the “I’m sorry I wrote something racy” essay canon and Pilot’s got a piece on xojane.com about the repercussions of her public adventure. “I Was A ‘Hipster Hooker’ (And It Sort Of Ruined My Life)” covers the professional and personal tribulations she went through after the publication of her article
It’s mean to shit on the actions of a young woman who couldn’t possibly have known better, and I don’t doubt that the harassment she received was truly nasty. But I’ve always been hesitant to fully trust the veracity of her original article, thanks to the sort of way-off details listed in the above “horseshit” post. What she makes clear in this post is that it didn’t turn out the way she hoped it would; she kept getting approached for sensationalistic pieces instead of being treated like a Serious Woman Journalist.
I couldn’t help comparing Pilot’s experience with the career of writer Sheila McClear, an actual sex worker. McClear worked in the peeps of Times Square and in strip clubs for—imagine!—the money, not as a tourist. She kept her moneymaking sideline to herself while working at Gawker and the New York Post, and was only outed when news of her book deal came to light. No one’s questioned her writing bonafides, her veracity, or her talent, probably in part because she stayed closeted while making a writing name for herself. Which is kind of a bummer because it would almost certainly have been harder for her had she been out, and kind of cool because she didn’t go to it for immediate sensational subject matter.
Melissa Gira Grant wrote about Pilot for Gawker when the story was published, and has, in her own words, “been getting paid to write about sex work now for nearly as long as I did sex work.” I asked her via e-mail what she thought of this debacle.
Do these “so I became a ho!” stories do harm? I’d never say, let’s stop telling stories about the sex trade — no matter how unrealistic, confusing, and wrong they are. Maybe I’d feel differently about their potential for harm if there weren’t talented sex worker journalists like Lily Burana and Sheila McClear also on the beat, and always more of us coming up who can work to complicate whatever sex trade angle is sexy this week….The “I learned my lesson” pose never sits well with me. Maybe because I haven’t learned my own? To me, so far, it’s worth it. Though you need supportive people rallying around you to do it. And to not believe your own heroic hype. It’s a fucking job, you know?
“It’s a fucking job” holds true for escorts and journalists, and neither job is for everyone. And if you’re going to write about sex work as a participant observer, it’s really beneficial to be an actual participant. Not only is your cred set, you actually GOT PAID. And you don’t have to say you’re sorry and write a regretful article about how people treated you. Gira Grant, McClear, Elisabeth Eaves, Lily Burana, Brooke Magnanti, Ruth Fowler, Tracy Quan, Diablo Cody: All of these women have written sex work memoirs, all of them have written about other subjects. Not one of them has come forth with a mea culpa or written about editors making sleazy jokes about their prior jobs. I wonder whether or not an editor or publisher has spoken to any of them like that, and whether their actual sex work experience made them unfuckwithable to the extent that they wouldn’t dare. Any actual sex worker will tell you there’s no better crash course in boundaries and assertiveness. It’s unfortunate that that wasn’t part of Pilot’s experience.