When I blogged a couple weeks ago about Sarah Silverman’s hilarious new memoir, I wrote that as the mother of three little kids, I now enjoy activities I used to dread for the private time they provide. Flying solo to New York and back to San Francisco a a couple times this month, I read a lot, including a beautifully written memoir: Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jillian Lauren.
Lauren, a nice Jewish girl from Jersey, drops out of NYU to pursue her dreams of stardom. To pay her New York rent, she supplements her income with stripping and then gets involved in prostitution via an expensive escort service. Eventually, at eighteen years old, she’s invited to travel to Brunei, as a guest of the Sultan, to spice up his parties. No one tells her exactly how much she’ll get paid for her services: “Don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed.”
For those who don’t know (as I didn’t) where or what Brunei is, Lauren writes it’s
a Malay Muslim monarchy located North of Borneo. Independent from England since 1984, Brunei still retains strong cultural and diplomatic ties with the Queen. At that time, the Sultan of Brunei was, thanks to oil and investments, the richest man on the planet.
There’s more than a few memoirs and polemics about sex work out there, but Lauren’s book is unique. In part, just the location makes it fascinating, traveling to a palace in Southeast Asia and meeting the exotic men and women who inhabit it– it’s like The Other Boleyn Girl meets “The Hills” but much better writing than either. (Yes, the “The Hills” is scripted.)
There’s an on-going debate in Third and Fourth wave feminism about sex work, whether it’s empowering or degrading for women. Lauren’s book doesn’t preach or pick a side, just describing her experience in a brutally honest and insightful way. A woman telling the truth about her sexual life like this is rare and revolutionary.
“To those who haven’t profited financially from their sexuality, those of us who have often inspired an extreme range of emotions: Why would we take off our clothes for money? What makes us take the initial plunge? What makes one financially strapped girl into a hooker and another into a Denny’s waitress and another into a med student? You want to connect the dots. You all want reassurance that it won’t be your daughter up there on the pole. Shitty relationship with my father, low self esteem, astrologically inevitable craving for adventure, dreams of stardom, history of depression and anxiety, tendency towards substance abuse- put it all in a cauldron and cook and the ideal sex worked emerges, dripping and gleaming and whole.
Lauren’s writing about her family is also eloquent and excruciating. Before her decision to leave home, she’s rude to her mother, ignoring her when she enters the house. Her mom asks if she’s on drugs and her father flies into a rage, calling her an ungrateful little bitch.
With every punctuation mark, my father pulled me forward by my throat and them slammed my head back again. When he let go, I crumpled to the floor and pulled my knees to my chest. I called it my civil disobedience trick. I closed my eyes and made myself the tiniest ball. I showed no soft bits.
I worried about Jillian reading the book, her crazy parents and her recklessness. But I knew she’d come out of her story okay because she’s so smart.
Here’s my interview with Some Girls author, Jillian Lauren. Her book just hit the New York Times best-seller list.
You flew by private plane with another “party girl” from Brunei to Kauala Lampur to shop. You were driven to malls accompanied by men who carried suitcases of cash so you could clean out Chanel and Armani. As one of the prince’s favorite girls, there was no limit on what you could spend. But you were never allowed to leave your hotel room except with that entourage for that purpose. It seems claustrophobic and suffocating– just being in Stonestown mall in San Francisco can feel oppressive, and you shopped for over twelve hours. Was it fun? Were you thinking I’ll be able to write about his someday?
I was an avid journaller, but I was definitely never thinking of writing anything beyond that. The shopping was a whirlwind. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was an adrenaline rush. I was excited and yet sort of disgusted with myself at the same time.
You were a guest of the Sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri, though one day, “Robin,” as he was called, shared you with his sibling, sending you to the royal yacht where female kitchen workers, wives, and girlfriends were cruel to you before you met the Sultan.
My survival instinct kicked in. I didn’t have any reason to believe that if I was unwanted, was deemed uninteresting and undesirable, I would be thrown off a cliff or stoned to death in public or shoved in the trunk if a car never to be seen again. Yet I was ready to fight with all I had to stay on the tightrope of royal favor. Maybe there didn’t need to be a threat of corporeal danger; maybe the threat of being unlovable was enough.
In your book you call yourself a “feminist sex activist” but your beliefs and feelings seem more complicated than “sex positive” feminism. Can you elaborate?
I really came into the feminist movement with a very particular viewpoint. And in the early nineties, when I was coming of age, there was this sex-positive explosion in the feminist movement. There was Susie Bright and Carol Queen and a bunch of bright, incredible women who were very vocal about being sex positive. Now I’m friends with a lot of these women. I do absolutely consider myself part of that camp. However, Its not simply about, “Sex work is so empowering, hooray.” Because that’s not how I feel anymore, now that I’m out of it and have lived with the consequences for 20 years. Sex work affected my relationship with my body, with my sexuality.It still has a ripple effect in my life. Taking your clothes off for money is a valid choice. For some women, maybe it’s the only choice. Certainly decriminalizing prostitution and having health care available for sex workers would help. But I don’t think it’s the greatest thing women can do for our souls, for the most part.
Did you make any lasting friendships in Brunei? Do you know what happened to those girls? What did they seem to want out of their experience there?
I’m absolutely still friends with some of the girls and they’ve been very supportive of me telling my story. But I can’t speak for them; I can only speak for myself. It’s up to them to assign meaning to their own experiences.
When you went back to Brunei a second time, you describe having sex with Robin again and this time, the intimacy startles you because you’ve been away and you’ve forgotten to click your “off” switch. For a moment, he’s human you’re shocked by the feel of skin and his hair. Were you able to recover from turning yourself off? Is it something you have control over?
It took me many, many years to come back to my body. The end of the book is really only the beginning of the journey. I still struggle with dissociation but I have tools with which to address it now.
You write a lot in your book about your childhood dreams of stardom, wanting to become a performer, a singer, a dancer. You never mention wanting to grow up and be writer yet that’s what you are now. Was becoming a writer something you ever wanted? The second time you went to Brunei, you brought a computer and exchanged short stories with a friend in New York, though you made fun of those writings. Was this the beginning of your writing career?
I never wanted to be a writer, but ironically writing was the thing I was generally doing the most of. I’ve kept journals since I was probably around eight or nine. Brunei was the place where I unknowingly started to develop a daily writing practice and that practice has been the most important thing to my writing career. So in a way, I guess my career did start in Brunei.
What happened in the years after Brunei, before you got married? Did you stay involved in sex work?
I was still involved in sex work for a while on and off until a terrible substance abuse problem pretty much made it impossible for me to do anything else. It wasn’t until I got sober that I met my husband and my life started to resemble the life I have now.
How did you make the transition into married life and motherhood?
I made the transition into marriage and motherhood not by any one big choice but with a series of small daily decisions through which I learned to take better care of myself and the people I love.
Did you know you wanted to marry your husband? What made him different than the other men? Was it the right time?
My husband is that rarest of things…he’s a truly good man. Besides being cute and funny and a great musician and all that other stuff. I knew almost immediately that I was going to marry him.
Your parents do not come off well in the book– your father is abusive and your mother neglectful. What is your relationship like with your parents now?
I don’t think my parents come off badly. I think they come off as complicated. I tried to the best of my ability to treat their portrayal with compassion and love. They’re still very upset about the book but I have faith that we’ll work it out. We’ve been through worse.
What is your new book, Pretty, about?
Pretty is a girl who survived a horrific car accident that killed her boyfriend and is serving out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house, while attempting to complete her last two weeks of vocational-rehab cosmetology school. It’s about trying to find faith in a world of rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails.