Hooking ain't easy

A 23-year-old "aspiring journalist" writes about the history of hooking -- and tries turning a trick.

Published August 20, 2008 9:00PM (EDT)

I know plenty of young, female journalists who talk about having to pimp themselves out just to get a byline -- but I'm fairly sure none of them mean it literally. There's an article in the September issue of Radar, however, that has some people kidding that, well, maybe hooking is the key to getting published.

Jessica Pilot, a 23-year-old self-described "aspiring journalist," set out to chronicle New York City's history of prostitution by talking to high-end "hipster hookers." Except she took a gonzo turn at one point during the year she spent reporting the piece. In the article, Pilot tells it like so: While interviewing a madam, she is told that she is attractive enough to make calls and is instructed to strip down to her panties; she does. The madam prices her at $950 an hour. She writes: "I feel a bit queasy but don't protest. I am curious and honestly flattered that she is recruiting me." That night, the madam text-messages her to ask whether she has a condom on her. She considers that she is "crossing both personal and journalistic boundaries," but agrees to meet a client at the Palace Hotel for a two-hour rendezvous.

This all comes at the beginning of the article, before it takes a detour, introducing us to the article's supporting cast: actual prostitutes. For the climax, the article returns to Pilot's story: She arrives at the john's hotel room and is embraced in the arms of a pudgy, hairy man. She spies the bed's covers pulled back and a bottle of champagne and then decides she cannot go through with it, so she leaves. Pilot writes: "I quickly turn and walk out while the john sputters a few words of protest. I switch off my phone, get a cab, go home, and run a bath." The end -- no more hooking for her.

On Tuesday, Jezebel's Jessica Grose responded to the piece by teasing, "Stop the presses! Yet another upper middle class white girl explores sex work for big fun and big profit!" Then she got serious: "What is most annoying is that this is often the kind of sexy feature attractive young women are paid to/encouraged to write, a point Courtney E. Martin made earlier this year in the Huffington Post. 'Courtney pitches a story on immigrant women; the editors at a major magazine want a graphic expose on sex trafficking, hopefully first person.'"

Indeed. I got e-mails from other female writers frustrated by the Radar piece; one had the subject line, "Do you have to resort to hooking to get published in this town?"

That is certainly where my mind went when I first read the piece. But when I wrote a personal essay for Salon about my experience with casual sex, some readers suggested that I was exploiting myself or being exploited by my editors, and that could not be further from the reality of my experience writing and publishing the piece. So while I consider electing to write publicly about one's personal life to be wholly different from turning tricks to benefit one's reporting on sex work, I tried to maintain an open mind, and simply gave Pilot a call to ask the questions circulating in certain media circles: Was she pressured into it? Did she feel exploited by her editors?

Absolutely not, she says. When Pilot started writing the piece, she had no intention of going undercover as a call girl, but then turning a trick occurred to her as a way to "better understand the girls." Pilot says she "couldn't fathom how they were not affected" by their work -- and what better way to find out than to do it herself? She paints it as a personal and professional exploration. "I don't regret it," she says, adding, "But I would never do it again."

She wrote the piece before shopping it around to a number of publications, so her editors did not pressure her into taking a first-person angle. That's not to say she doesn't have a keen sense of what makes editors' ears perk up: "Sex sells and my being young and female -- of course people eat it up." Pilot says, "The last thing I want is to be limited to just writing about sex," and yet just recently she had an editor suggest that she go "undercover" to report on the swinging scene.

People have different personal and professional boundaries, and I'm not interested in criticizing Pilot's decision to take her clothes off in front of the madam and show up at the john's hotel room if it was borne of personal (and perhaps professional) curiosity. (In fairness, plenty of male gonzo journalists have engaged in illegal activities to benefit their writing.) But it's a pity that Pilot's article breezes over the experience of having a dollar amount placed on her body, while she also says the truth is that "it was very intense" and "not something that I was proud of."

Now that contradiction -- that she was flattered and yet disgusted by the madam's appraisal of her body, interested in turning a trick and yet also ashamed -- might be unsexy and interfere with some readers' sex work fantasies, but it's something I'd like to read about. As Susannah Breslin writes on the Frisky, "It's become increasingly hip to trumpet the 'empowering' virtues of sex work, but the fact of the matter is that the realities of sex work are far too hardcore for most aspiring 'hipster hookers' to handle." If anyone or anything is being exploited in this piece, I'd argue it isn't Pilot but, rather, her experience, which was far more emotionally complex than the article reveals.

UPDATE: In response to an e-mail I sent to a Radar editor about the article, the magazine made the following statement, "It's a first-person piece, so obviously, Jessica's decisions and experiences are part of the fabric of the story. She felt that she was getting drawn into a world that she had planned to explore only from a distance, and then ended up writing about how that happened and where it took her. It's hard to see where she (or Radar) could be accused of crossing ethical lines."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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