Out of the harem, into the fire

My relationship with my parents didn't end because of my sex work -- it ended because I wrote about it

Topics: Salon -- After Dark, Sex, Prostitution, My Sex Work Coming Out,

Out of the harem, into the fireJillian Lauren
This article is the first in a series of oral histories by current and former sex workers, in which they describe the moment they came out to their families about their work. As told to Thomas Rogers.

Two years ago, I published a book about my life working in a harem in Brunei. Afterward, everything happened that I was afraid was going to happen. The very first piece of press came out and my mother couldn’t handle it. She called me and said she needed some space. I guess she needed a lot of space because she and my father stopped talking to me entirely.

My parents are a pretty conservative middle-class Jewish family. I was always open-minded about sex, but that’s not where my decision to work in the sex industry came from. I think that had more to do with a lack of boundaries, and from having inappropriate relationships. (I had a relationship with a much older man when I was 12 years old — the kind of thing that imprints young women who often wind up being strippers.)

When I was 16, I went to college a year early in New York and promptly dropped out. My friend said to me, “Why don’t you come and work at the club where I work? They won’t care that you’re a terrible waitress.” So I started off as a stripper, and then I moved into doing escort work, and it was through a friend that I knew from doing the latter that I got the job working supposedly to entertain rich businessmen in Singapore. Then I wound up being a guest of the Prince of Brunei and essentially becoming a member of his harem. This was about 18 years ago. (I haven’t done sex work for the past 15 years.) I was in Brunei for about a year and a half on and off. We parted ways amicably and I went home and never went back.

I was open about it to my friends but not to my parents. I told my parents I was in Brunei, then that I was shooting a movie in Singapore, then that I had gotten a job, and then, as my trip kept getting longer and longer, I told them I had met the royal family of Brunei and that I was working for them as a personal assistant and that I was having a relationship with my employer. My father later told me he knew this was bogus; he said to me, “Look, we didn’t think you were a diplomat.”

Six months before the book came out, I sat down with my parents. I hired a mediator who read the book — because I really wanted an objective point of view — and then I told my parents point by point everything that was going to be in it. I was trying to be very specific and prepare them for what it was going to be like for this to come out, but I don’t think they got it.

It wasn’t the revelation that I was in the sex industry that alienated my parents from me; it was the fact that I was public about it, that I told that story to a larger public that also included their friends. It was not about what I did, it was about what the neighbors thought of them. My parents come from this culture where your merits are judged by your children’s accomplishments in the world: “My daughter’s a lawyer, how’s your daughter?” “My daughter’s a best-selling author, she has a book about being a prostitute.”

I think the heart of the problem is that I didn’t fulfill my parents’ dreams for me. I didn’t even come close. Even though I am very happy with who I am today and very grateful for my life, it still bothers me to this day that I’ve been such a disappointment. I would have liked to have been the person who fulfilled those dreams, that just wasn’t who I was.

We go into the parenting process many times expecting our children to validate our dreams and existence on this planet. Maybe my experience is going to make this a lot easier for me to realize that my son’s journey is his. There are all kinds of things he could do that would shame me. He could be a criminal. He could be mean, a bully. He could go door to door to raise funds for Newt Gingrich. But him being a porn star wouldn’t shame me. It might sadden me if I didn’t feel like it was coming from a place of great self-love, but it wouldn’t shame me.

I do hold out hope that the gap between my parents and me will be bridged sometime — and I hope it’s not when a giant tragedy happens. They were great grandparents during my son’s first year being here (my son’s adopted) and having to explain where they’ve gone has been challenging. So, for my son’s sake I hope we’re able to forge a relationship. I think we will. It’s just a matter of when.

I always tell people who are writing memoirs like this that if you’re not going to run the manuscript by people, you have to be prepared to lose them. I ultimately decided that this story was bigger than just me and that it was important for me to tell it.

Jillian Lauren is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir “Some Girls: My Life in a Harem,” which has since been translated into 14 languages. She is, most recently, the author of “Pretty,” a novel.

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