Coming Out: Lilly Muse

by Lilly Muse on February 2, 2012 · 11 comments

in This Time, It's Personal

a shocked musical theatre aficionado. photo by CarbonNYC on flickr

A couple of months ago I was at auditions for a musical at my community theater, and during the interminable waiting period I found myself chatting with a group of middle-aged women (why not the shy 20-year-old hottie in flannel? Sigh). Easy conversation bumped along, from “what are you singing?” to “I’m such a horrible dancer” to “yes, I am the kind of mom who plunks her kid in front of the TV so I can pee in peace.” Eventually, we were bound to land on work/money, which is a subject I stay pretty quiet about as long as I can, what with being a dirty whore and all.

The women were discussing a man, a local theater staple, who had to move out of town due to financial hardship. They agreed that times are indeed tough, especially in our city, “unless you want to do something somewhat soul-crushing,” one of them said. My ears always perk up at the term “soul-crushing,” yet without missing a beat, the rest of the group groaned aloud in agreement, as if they’d had this exact conversation the day before. “I did that for a while,” the woman continued carefully. The murky reference awarded no response from the others, so I chimed in, “what, like waitressing?”

“Haha!” she laughed. “Yeah … ” she trailed off playfully, not wanting to say it. But I wanted her to say it, because considering how easily she’d offered up this information, I still wasn’t sure slinging things like peanut butter burgers and ass-slappin’ good chicken wings wasn’t the soul-crushing work she was referring to. Sounds pretty awful to me. She did eventually admit, even quieter, “no … like dancing. Stripping.”

“Oh, cool,” I said, giving a friendly nod, hopefully assuring her I thought her soul seemed fine, but really wanting to jump up and down with excitement. She smiled weakly, probably surprised at my genuinely supportive reaction. I was relieved that this woman, this stranger, would come out—however timidly—with her past in a highly stigmatized industry. But before I could find out any more, our audition numbers were called and the mood spiraled into a fresh wave of bumbling small talk and last ditch efforts to center our inner Broadway divas.

Like a champagne bottle in danger of bubbling over, I started leaking the truth about my job to my family, little by little, a few months ago, though I think they’ve sort of “known” ever since I started a few years ago. It was at a family reunion last summer when my two sisters and I were having some drinks (okay, a lot of drinks), and they began probing the shroud of mystery surrounding the “intimacy counseling” sessions I’d told them I offered, the details of which I’d always just swept under the rug. Of course they knew there was some missing element considering the exorbitant rent on my new house and my impressive collection of six-inch stilettos. Well, at this time I had just begun having sex with clients and was excited about the new direction, so with my judgment adequately impaired I confidently admitted this fact to them (I wanted to anyway, drunk or not). And suddenly—WHAM—there it was, the basic truth that their little baby sister was a prostitute. They were fascinated but floundered semi-awkwardly. I’ve always been the boundary-crossing grey sheep of the family, so they couldn’t have been too surprised. There’s something so primal about telling people you deal in sex (shit gets real, real fast), a sensation probably shared by the likes of radical environmentalists who blow up dams on the weekends. Their moral compasses completely thrown off, people aren’t totally sure what they’re supposed to think, which is perhaps more unsettling to them than the reality of the behavior itself.

The subject didn’t come up again until Thanksgiving, when just my oldest sister was visiting. She is a generally freethinking professional artist (and a gay one at that, so I figured she could relate to the whole “coming out” thing), but she’s also nearly 15 years older than me and has always filled the sister-mom role to us younger girls. One night (again, over drinks), conversation burrowed its way into our work lives. Cautiously, she inquired further about what I do, quickly noticing I referenced myself and others as “sex workers,” a broad term she couldn’t ground her comprehension in. She pedaled politely through the conversation, but when I used words she could gauge—escort, and (really pushing it now) even prostitute—her face betrayed her with the most subtle of cringes. Conversation eventually found more neutral topics.

I also have two friends who know my secret, and they are supportive as can be, even going so far as to regularly ask me how work is going (something my sisters probably can’t routinely confront). It is an emotional necessity to have a small support system when I absolutely need it, but at the same time, having people I care about know I am now a salacious salesman of sex galvanizes the reality of my own self-judgments, a reality which is fairly easy to otherwise shelve (like the old “if a tree falls in the forest and no one sees it … ” thing). The truth still hangs in the air when we’re together, and feelings of guilt and shame more readily rear their ugly heads (why can’t I just be a writer or barista or a damn party planner?).

Perhaps this is not a bad thing. Not only does having an outlet prevent me from unnecessarily spilling the beans to strangers (it’s not nearly as liberating and fun as I’d anticipated) or overly divulging personal information to clients, but it’s shown me where my emotional vulnerabilities lie. The reaction I get from exposing my dirty little secret to people is directly related to how I’m seeing myself at the time (it was obvious from the get-go that Belle de Jour didn’t really believe a prostitute could maintain a “real” relationship, hence her continual romantic failures). Of course I cannot necessarily make people see me how I see myself, and all the pregnant silences they won’t fill with questions I’d wish they’d ask make me nervous: What are they really thinking? Are they disappointed in me?

I’ve learned that coming out as a sex worker should be done carefully yet confidently. If you have children or another high-profile job, take extra care to ensure sensitive information isn’t leaked all over the place (scorned lovers and friends can be loose cannons). Though in many cases, civilians deserve more credit than they’re given. Oftentimes awkward and sometimes painful, yes, but not necessarily a deal-breaker if you don’t make it into one. Just beware of all the shit people are bound to say to you!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Matthew February 2, 2012 at 11:22 am

Yeah, well you’re also quite a talented writer! Great read, Lily, and congratulations 🙂


Belle de Jour February 2, 2012 at 12:31 pm

(it was obvious from the get-go that Belle de Jour didn’t really believe a prostitute could maintain a “real” relationship, hence her continual romantic failures)

I’m married, actually. And you can fuck off.


Lilly Muse February 3, 2012 at 2:52 am

Oh dear. Well perhaps it’s even more terrible, but I was actually referencing the character of “Belle de Jour” from the television series, whose professional/personal/romantic conflict was a central element to the drama of the show. Upon submitting this piece to editing I originally had the name of “Belle de Jour” in quotes, implying characterization, but that was lost in translation. I suppose it was irresponsible of me to make that unclear, and I apologize for any personal offense you took from it.

But honestly, for that to be the one phrase upon which you judge this entire essay is perhaps more insulting to me than to you. xo


Belle de Jour February 3, 2012 at 5:36 am

Well then do your homework. The series is not called “Belle de Jour” in the UK, US, or any other market. No one on the series is called “Belle de Jour”. Billie Piper plays a woman named Hannah Baxter whose working name is Belle Sinclair. Belle de Jour is either me, or the character Joseph Kessel wrote so elegantly played on film by Catherine Deneuve.

If you’re going to reference classic hos, at least make the basic effort to get it right.

I judged you on that one phrase because throwing in a backhand insult to me at the end of a “aren’t I great and brave about coming out and other people coming out” piece is about two years too late, and an unwelcome find at a site I used to like reading. Pro-to-pro tip: When people talk about you as if you are a concept rather than a human being, and even manage to get THAT wrong, you’ll know your coming out process has reached full saturation.


mumtaza February 3, 2012 at 1:26 am

@Belle de Jour. “*The reaction I get from exposing my dirty little secret to people is directly related to how I’m seeing myself at the time* (it was obvious from the get-go that Belle de Jour didn’t really believe a prostitute could maintain a “real” relationship, hence her continual romantic failures).” The way I understood this was that the writer was saying, “You get the reaction from people that you expect within yourself to get from them”, as in your own attitude toward your work is projected onto how you portray it to people and effects their attitude toward it; people live up to your expectations of them. Thusly if Belle de Jour thought a prostitute can maintain a real relationship, she would have succeeded romantically.


Bubbles February 3, 2012 at 2:11 am

Yes, it is my understanding that Lilly was only referring to the events—related by Belle herself—in her blog and books, and not her subsequent or current relationship status.


Belle de Jour February 3, 2012 at 5:49 am

“I wasn’t offended so you shouldn’t be!” Yup, got that message, loud and clear. Cheers girls.


Miss Dior Dandridge February 3, 2012 at 3:13 am



Lilly Muse February 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Belle, I hear your frustration, and I regret that my words have evoked such a fiercely negative response in you. One’s name is a very important piece of her/him, and I should like to be more judicious when using them. Of course upon going back and checking my facts, you are right that the TV character is not known as “Belle de Jour,” but rather just “Belle,” and only one time, as far as I can tell, was there ever made mention of her last name being “Sinclair.” But even that is a questionable moment for the viewer, as this occurs early on in the series (season 1, episode 2), at a time when Belle’s character is herself playing a character, that of her client’s girlfriend. Are we expected to believe without a doubt that Belle always employs the name of Sinclair? My point is: I think most viewers understand that Belle is based on Belle de Jour, and I see it as naive to assume the audience feels as strongly as you seem to about the distinction between them. Perhaps you should have discussed that more thoroughly with the production team at the time.

Again, I admit the trouble in using your name erroneously; in illustrating my point it would have been more accurate to use “Hannah” rather than “Belle,” though again we run into this central theme here, not only for you but for many sex workers: where does one persona end and the other begin? Where do we draw the line between our personal and professional identities? In fact your response begs the question: who does Belle de Jour speak for here? Belle, the renowned prostitute, or Brooke Magnanti, the married PhD? These sorts of questions and observations are my reason for contributing to this site, not to offend any one person(a) and subsequently beat myself up if I’ve rocked the boat. If you believe the subject of my article is trite and passé, then that’s certainly your opinion, but I find it very rude that you would try to knock me or anyone else in this business down for sharing our personal insights and emotional experiences, a means of support in our isolated and stigmatized world.

It seems that this might be a good opportunity for a calm and intellectual dialogue on the subject, and that you would be inclined to direct me toward your books and blogs, rather than so rudely write me and/or this entire site off for a bit of misinformation. This is a place for educating, sharing, learning, and supporting, not so carelessly throwing around shame.


Violet February 5, 2012 at 9:34 pm

I find it very rude that you would try to knock me or anyone else in this business down for sharing our personal insights and emotional experiences, a means of support in our isolated and stigmatized world.

Well fucking said.

Lilly, I’m sorry that this otherwise heartfelt & honest piece got derailed over one casual aside. This is an important topic that weighs on everyone who does this work, and I can’t tell you how much I loved reading about your experiences.


Olivia February 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Perfectly adult response to a really childish bit of snarking. Though the defensiveness of “I’m married, actually… fuck off” pretty much speaks to the heart of your article.

And this “Pro-to-pro tip: When people talk about you as if you are a concept rather than a human being, and even manage to get THAT wrong, you’ll know your coming out process has reached full saturation.”

All sex workers are discussed as “concepts”– not just the one whose blog namesake became a character on a TV show (no, not under the same name, but when the show is described as “based on ‘the popular diary of the anonymous sex worker known only as Belle de Jour'” it’s pretty understandable to mistakenly call the character Belle de Jour)– and that’s why coming out is tricky territory. To people not in the biz, stripper is a stereotyped concept, dominatrix is a stereotyped concept, escort is a stereotyped concept. To claim that you’re the only one who’s experienced being turned into a concept/character based on false assumptions just because you’re famous for your work does a pretty big disservice to the rest of us who experience the same but don’t have a platform to dispel the false assumptions– besides on blogs like this.

As much as it irritates me that someone being willfully mean has taken over the comments, I think her reaction to your piece has a lot to do with exactly what you talked about in it. I just wish she wasn’t clearly trying to make you feel like shit in the process.


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