(Interview by Marie Mundaca.)
In her book There Are A Millions Stories in the Naked City When You’re A Girl Who Gets Naked in the Naked City, writer Fiona Helmsley explores the tricky terrain of female friendship amid a real sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll lifestyle. Her tough vulnerability and lucid style may remind some of 1990s ‘zine writing. It’s conversational and friendly, and this is how she draws readers into her autobiographical stories about working at a “jack shack” — a seedy gentleman’s club -- and her disappointment with her well-endowed but impotent boyfriend. In the titular story, Helmsley writes about the manipulative and destructive Renee, a drug user who loses her job at a New York City rock club. After Helmsley recommends her for a job at the jack shack, Renee turns on her by stealing clients and starting fights. Throughout it all, Helmsley struggles to maintain her friendships and her clients. In the tradition of Michelle Tea and Lisa Carver, Helmsley’s stories about life on the fringes doesn’t titillate, but certainly illuminates. Her writing is naked in every way possible — these stories are storms of bare emotions and bad sex.
Were you familiar with fringe writers who were sex workers before you started doing it? I was wondering if you had anyone in particular that inspired you?
I came from a punk rock background and at the time that I started working, in the mid-nineties, a lot of the female artists in that community were very open about their experiences doing sex work and were actually incorporating those experiences into their art and identities as artists. I think I had this idea of the sex industry as a sort of boot camp to becoming a better artist because it was something that so many of the women I admired had in common, women like Lydia Lunch, Courtney Love, Miranda July and Kathleen Hanna. I think part of me was seeking out whatever it was they had experienced in the hope that it would translate to making my own work better down the line. As for specific writings about sex work, I know at that time I had read Lisa Crystal Carver’s essay about being a prostitute in Rollerderby and Cookie Mueller’s story about go-go dancing in Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black.
What was it that brought you to a place where you were looking to do sex work? It’s not a choice for most women.
There were a lot of reasons. I had just moved to NYC and was going to college, so in a practical sense, the work paid the most amount of money while taking up the least amount of my time. I could also do my schoolwork in the downtime between sessions. I did use drugs, but it wasn’t my drug use that led me to seek out the work -- though because I was making so much money, my drug use did increase and I developed my first serious heroin habit while working at the place I call LUV in my book.
But mostly it was my own sexual curiosity and lack of confidence that inspired me to look through the job listings in the back of the Village Voice. I came from a background where sex and the expression of sexual desire were considered bad, shameful things. I didn’t know how to process my own sexual desires because I viewed them through the filter of that shame. The first sexual fantasy I remember having involved Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees essentially raping me on the beach after we had played volleyball together. I mention in the book how my primary sexual fantasy to this day involve force -- and that’s connected to the shame I felt as a young girl first experiencing sexual desire. If someone’s forcing you, you are not culpable for what’s happening. If I’m not culpable, I’m not to blame and I’m still a good girl.
I had also just come out of physically awkward stage that had stretched from most of my adolescence into early adulthood. I was not a classically pretty girl, but I was smart and funny and those two qualities got me guys, but it was never instantaneous. For so long, the men in my life had related to me as the smart, funny friend and then, all of a sudden they were seeking me out as this actually desirable sexual partner based on my physicality, not my personality. It fucked with my definitions about myself. Why did all of these hot guys suddenly want to fuck me? Was I really sexually desirable? I think part of my motivation for seeking out sex work was to find out how complete strangers would react to me as some kind of reassurance that I had actually made the switch from not to hot. And would these strangers want me so badly they would be willing to pay? It’s really fucked up, but I think I was seeking out some kind of validation through retail value.
Later, I would come to realize that success in the sex industry really has nothing to do with your physicality. Of course men have their physical preferences, but financial success at a place like LUV had the most to do with your ability to project confidence and make a client feel comfortable with his own sexual desires. If that Jennifer Love Hewitt movie “The Client List” got anything right, it was that. Over and over, I saw women who were not conventional attractive make money because they could do those two things.
I remember seeing those ads in the Village Voice that you mention in your book, about just being “your fun, playful self.” Once you called them, how was the job described to you?
I met with Allison, who was the phone girl in one of the session rooms for an interview. She had told me nothing over the phone. She had me fill a little card of my job-related experience and checked my ID. I think I said I’d been a stripper, I hadn’t -- but I had gone with a friend when she had interviewed for a job dancing so I knew what it was like in case she asked. She didn’t. She was very cryptic as to what the job actually involved, but she had to be, in case I was a cop. She did say there would be dirty talk and some light S&M. I found out about the wank part when I did my first session with another girl -- but I wasn’t naïve. I knew for almost $300 an hour there had to be more than dirty talk going on.
How much pressure was put on you to do more?
Girls really set their own limits, though I can say for sure the majority of the girls there did not have sex, they was a camaraderie and we did talk. The girls who were having sex had their own clients who did not see other girls and never met with us in the meeting room. There were two girls working there while I was there who made their own hours and only came in to work when they had clients to see, then left when they were done--unlike the rest of us who had to stay and work full eight hour shifts. We were really sort of segregated, based on the freedom they enjoyed that we didn’t. We all knew they were fucking their clients, but it was sort of hush-hush and you really got this vibe you weren’t supposed to talk about it. It was some sort of arrangement those girls had made with the owner, who owned in-house escort services in other parts of the boroughs.
There were clients who got off on testing girls limits and one time in particular is forever engrained in my mind because the client was a well known, bald Italian artist who had been good friends with Andy Warhol. He came to LUV all the time-meaning he knew what to expect and what to expect was not blowjobs. The girl was new and foreign and he somehow managed to stick his dick in her mouth. He slunk out mid- session, got into the elevator and left. A few minutes later, the girl came out of the session room hysterical. The owner came down and gave her a few hundred dollars and she never came back. The artist was supposedly banned but he was back booking sessions a few weeks later.
Now that you’ve worked straight jobs and non-straight jobs, do you see a difference between them?
Working straight jobs you have much more job security and protection. Like I just mentioned, the artist was allowed back after what he had done. In the sex industry, the owner’s profit is usually much more important than you are as a person and empathy and understanding tends to be non existent in the owner/worker relationship. In the straight world, you also tend to make some sort of hourly wage on top of any commission or tips you might make. At LUV, if you didn’t book a session you were given five dollars at the end of the shift and that five dollars was an anomaly for the industry. As pathetic as five dollars for working eight hours is, LUV was the only place I’ve ever heard of giving out anything besides what you made yourself.
The sex industry is a place where you can make incredible amounts of money one night and jack shit the next. It really is in industry that demands fiscal responsibility if you are to survive because you can never predict when and even if the next payday will come. Many girls worked eight-hour shifts and ended up with only that five-dollar bill at the end of the night.
We also had to constantly be on alert for the police. The way you were supposed to get around that was by asking the client to ‘get comfortable’ in the session room- ‘get comfortable’ meaning ‘remove your pants’. There was this idea that if the client were a cop, he would be resistant to taking his pants off. But I have heard plenty of stories were the client had gotten more than comfortable, then busted the girl anyway, so it was by no means a foul-proof system.
Did the managers foster competition? Was there anyone who was particularly nurturing? I just always think there’s going to be a house mom who’s really nice and brings cookies, but I’m probably delusional.
The phone girls were in charge when out boss wasn’t there, which was most of the time. Allison had been an escort, gotten busted and became a phone girl--which is sort of a strange move to make because its the phone person who gets in the most trouble when a bust occurs, so she was actually putting herself in a more precarious position. Maybe she felt she could control the likelihood of a bust happening because she was the one now screening the clients. She did play favorites and some girls would kiss up to her, but there really wasn’t much she could do in the way of punishing or rewarding you financially, because most clients met all the girls on staff in the meeting room and then made their own decision as to who to do a session with. So whether Allison liked you or not you could still make money. The other phone girl was a young African American girl named Veronica who also did sessions with clients. There were times the door buzzer would go off and no client would come into the meeting room. We knew that that meant Veronica had taken the session herself. When that happened, if the phone rang, she would have to run out of session to answer it -- which meant when she did sessions, sometimes the phone didn’t get answered at all, meaning we all lost money because she wasn’t booking clients.
You make a point of getting along with everybody and your friend ruins it for you. After she left were you able to get back to where you were?
I always try to get along with everybody, in spite of what some people may think. I’ve always been more curious about people than suspicious of them, even when I was doing drugs. I like characters, so as much as Renee drove me insane, I did enjoy certain aspects of being around her, if only to see what she would do or say next. She was one of those people who are immensely fun to talk about but very hard to be around. It’s very easy for me to detach around people I do not like-but some people will not allow that, they demand that you react to them and will keep upping the ante until you do. It may be how they remind themselves they are alive. Renee was one of those people. But after she left, I was fine. Things went back to normal, as normal as they can be in a place where you are put into very intimate situations with complete strangers (I’m counting co-workers, too) within moments of meeting them--but a human can adapt very quickly. I’m almost reassured that I was able to do the work, because I view it as a skill that I will always have. I know that if I am ever in a dire financial jam, I have a skill I can utilize that will bring me money quickly. Sex industry work is almost like a ripcord I can pull.
You write about it in such a matter of fact way. You don’t romanticize it or demonize it -- it’s just a job. Was it like you thought it would be?
Going into it, I really had no expectations, only hopes. I hoped I would be able to handle the work and I hoped the clients would want my companionship. It takes a lot to freak me out and like I said, I’m very curious. If a man wants me to sit on the make shift toilet he totes with him to LUV every Wednesday and pee on his face, fine because if he and I end up with a rapport, I’m going to ask him why he wants me to piss on him and I’m going to get paid as I ask my questions. That was one of the great things about doing the work, getting to ask questions, it was like doing investigative work in the field of human behavior while wearing a tight spandex dress and garter belts and stockings. (The man with the portable toilet had been held down and peed on by a female friend when he was nine years old and had his first real orgasm as it happened, forever linking the two events in his mind.)
There are some aspects of the industry that I do miss. There’s an almost refreshing honesty to sex work. Here’s what I want, here’s what I’m willing to give you to get it. The financial aspects of those relationships tend to negate the manipulations you find in non-paid, casual sexual relationships. Because money is exchanging hands, people are less likely to engage in douchebaggery and play games.
In retrospect, how do you think about your time there?
I met some nice guys and I met some uber assholes. I feel that I definitely gained insight into the male psyche. Men no longer intimidate me--it’s hard to explain, but I feel much more comfortable in a group of strange men than I do a group of strange females. And that’s because male manipulation tends to be sex-based, to come from the groin. Female manipulation, on the other hand, is a whole other can of unknowable worms.
(Marie Mundaca is a literary critic and book designer living in New York City.)