IHTM: I Did a Sexy Pictorial for Penthouse

Had you asked me a year ago if I would have considered writing for Penthouse, let alone taking pictures, I would have feigned insult.

Dec 22, 2011 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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Had you asked me a year ago if I would have considered writing for Penthouse, let alone taking pictures, I would have feigned insult. Like the offer that came from High Society -- 60K to pose fully nude -- I wouldn’t have considered it.

At that time, I was still trying to save my career, let alone my reputation. The truth is, a year ago, I had considered High Society’s offer. Having never heard of it, I looked the publication up online, disappointed to discover it was not nearly as classy as it sounded. If only it had been Playboy, I remember thinking at the time. Hell, even if it had it had been Penthouse -- even then, with so much at stake -- I might have been tempted.

I’m not a Penthouse Pet. I’m not a celebrity. I’m a freelance writer, best known (if at all) as the “Hooker Teacher.”

September of last year, I lost my job as a public school teacher after authoring a scandalous article for The Huffington Post. Prior to becoming a teacher, the article admitted, I had worked as a call girl. Of this past, I wrote, I had no regrets -- and I should not be made to feel ashamed. My former employer didn’t share my politics, however, especially after they me on the cover of The New York Post.

Since resigning from public school teaching, I’ve spent the last six months working to establish myself as a writer, and while I’ve pitched articles on every subject, there is just one subject editors seem interested in hearing from me: sex -- sex work in particular.

Having penned so many pieces on the subject of stigma and discrimination through the lens of lived experience -- fighting the idea that once a hooker, always a whore -- it’s ironic that, as a writer, I find myself in a similar conundrum -- what some have called the women writer’s “pink ghetto.”

When a woman writes about sex, xoJane's own Emily argued in a piece she wrote for Bust Magazine, it’s received differently than from when a man does. Because women are defined largely by our sexuality, women who write about sex confirm certain expectations that people already have of women writers. We risk never being taken seriously. It becomes that much more difficult to be known or thought of as anything else.

Once an over-sharer, I sometimes fear I will be confined to work that is forever confessional. I fear I’ll be judged by how I look versus the quality of my work. Faux-hoe Jessica Pilot commented on the same phenomenon in an earlier IHTM after going undercover on a story about prostitution. While her solution for escaping “the pink ghetto” was to start writing about anything BUT sex (she gave bagels as an example) this solution’s just not right for me.

For one, I’m a memoirist -- not a journalist. While I hope my work comments on something larger than my own experience, I begin with me. Having actually worked in the sex industry, on and off, for nearly a decade -- not having just observed it for a matter of months, as Jessica did -- sex work is a big part of my story, especially since my talking about it cost me my career.

Four months after my last day as a teacher, I had sold the Hooker Teacher story yet again, this time to Penthouse. Months after they’d paid me for the article but before it went to print, they asked me for pics.

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The photographer, Alex, was not the furry chested grease-ball sleazoid I expected of a Penthouse photographer. Neither was his assistant, Christine, his wife. The three of us, along with an artist hired to do my hair and makeup, met on location: Pandora’s Box, which has the reputation of being the nicest dungeon in NYC.

Zena led us down a hall past the “oriental room” and a space filled with what looked to be torture devices into the old schoolroom, where the photo shoot was to take place. The concept we’d agreed on over email was the obvious.

Sure, I would be a “sexy teacher,” but sexy is subjective. Alex asked how far I wanted to go.

“Well, I bleached my asshole so I’m ready for anything,” I said.

It was a joke. I hadn’t bleached my asshole.

From the room’s nervous reaction I kind of got the impression no one wanted to see my asshole anyway. Look here, I wanted to say, High Society offered me 60K for sexy pics! Now -- nearly a year later -- I was doing it for free. Why?

Too late to back out, I let myself wonder: Why, exactly, had I agreed to do this? What was in it for me? I wasn’t getting paid. It wasn’t necessarily good for my career. What, exactly, was I expecting?

I guess I had expected to play the old game of “man pursues, girls refuse,” the familiar game where I’m talked into more than I had mentally prepared to do as a way of allowing myself to do what I’d wanted to do anyway. It’s a game I’ve been playing since I allowed myself to be talked into stripping at the age of 19. It is a game that, as an adult, I am determined to stop playing.

Behaving impulsively and giving in to the “heat of the moment” gives me a charge -- it’s sexy and fun -- and yet this bad habit of letting circumstances rather than sound judgement make choices for me has taught me some hard lessons. Since losing my job, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what’s motivated my past choices, besides the political.

Whereas a part of me believes in the power of pairing images and text -- that my image alongside my work underscores certain political points, namely statements about my not being ashamed -- another equally valid part of me really gets off on showing some skin. Yes, the “hooker teacher” is a bit of an exhibitionist -- shocking, I know.

Still, it’s hard for me to admit, even to myself. This is a part of my motivation I am less honest about, a part I am sometimes tempted to cover up with the political justifications rather than having to explore. With so much shame wrapped up around my sexuality, being okay with whatever I desire and allowing myself to experience it without judgement is something that I practice. The problem comes when what feels good in the short run has the potential to bring pain -- and not just for myself.

Career aside, writing about sex-- not to mention the life that inspires it-- has affected my private life. If you think the unspoken fact that you’re a former sex worker alienates your family and friends, trying being called out on the cover of the NY Post.

After the hooker teacher headline, neighbors literally crossed the street. Becoming unemployable in my former field meant that my boyfriend shouldered the financial burden. In couples therapy, it was seriously suggested that I change my name and move to a new town.

I was ambivalent -- I had loved teaching, but I wanted to be a writer as well. I could no longer have it both ways. Knowing how it was jeopardizing my relationship, my decision to keep writing was not an easy one to make.

The worst is knowing that, to this day, my boyfriend tells the people he works with that his girlfriend is a school teacher. I can’t blame him. Still, when I first found out, it hurt.

Understandably, my boyfriend’s concerned to think that the mother of his future children might be known only as a whore. It’s not because he has a problem with my past -- because he doesn’t -- it’s because he knows I’m so much more than what that word implies.

Being in a relationship, I am learning, means accepting that the decisions I make are not all about me. Before the shoot, I had a conversation with him.

“I trust you,” he said. He also said, “I just don’t want to see you get exploited!”

He trusts me. Me, someone -- I sometimes fear -- with no ability to understand what is in her own interest. Someone still learning and relearning to trust in herself. That day at Pandora’s box, enacting the stereotypical “sexy teacher” fantasy, I couldn’t help but think of fantasy and reflect on my own pleasure -- the guilty pleasure I felt in enacting a cliche.

Sure, I can justify my having been a sex worker -- and then writing about it -- for a million political reasons, but a truth is that a part of me likes being exposed -- the more exposed the better. Dare I say, a part of me has always taken pleasure in being seen as an object -- not very feminist I know. But why not?

Having growing up in a culture that fetishizes sex appeal, I’m not immune to the insistent message that attractiveness is a young woman’s duty, and that beauty is equitable to worth. But having explored sexual desire to its tabooed extremes, I know from these experiences that attractiveness is a construct, femininity a performance.

I know that I’m no more attractive or sexually desirable than any other woman -- I simply know how (and choose) to play a certain role. When I perform a certain expression of womanhood, it elicits a certain response. When I made a career of it, I was good at my job. These days, I do it for fun, just as I used to do it for profit.

Alex’s vision, as he explained it that day, was for the “Hooker Teacher” to reclaim her power -- to take the butt of the joke and turn it around. No one looking at the pictures resulting from that shoot could possibly think that I am being myself, or that I am trying to be sexy or that I’m not aware -- and thus, in some control -- of how my image is perceived. Like a drag queen, I played the part a bit too much, and so the act reveals itself as just that -- an act.

I see Alex’s art and my participation in it as transgressive -- in my eyes, it’s commenting on gender, sex and sexuality -- it’s interesting, it’s art and I enjoy it intellectually, whether the rest of the world gets it or not.

When the shoot was over, amidst my signing of releases galore -- including a creepy moment when they made me take a picture holding up my ID -- I felt a momentary panic. I thought, what have I just done? Is this something I’ll regret?

It reminds me of another moment, some years ago between myself and an older lady in -- of all places -- the steam room at my gym. At the time, I had a big tattoo on my arm, which I have since covered with a much larger, objectively more beautiful tattoo -- a tattoo that I love, which I never would have gotten if I hadn’t gotten the first one.

"What is it?" she asked.

Not wanting to talk about it, I said, “a mistake.”

She seemed pleased. “A life full of mistakes,” she said, “is a life without regret.”

I’ve done a lot in my lifetime -- and I’ve never not done something that I’ve really wanted to, which has led to a lot of mistakes. Of all the trouble that I’ve gotten myself into, there’s nothing I haven’t been able to learn from.

Setting off the “Hooker Teacher” scandal was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. It was also the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to become the writer I was meant to be.

In the end, I learned what I knew in the beginning: sexy and serious need not be mutually exclusive, and while I’ve learned that I shouldn’t be careless, I do have to care less about what people think. How much we allow our sexuality to define us has more to do with our own self-perceptions than how we are perceived by others.

In the struggle to be taken seriously as a writer and not be defined entirely by my past, including what happened two Septembers ago, the solution needs to start with me. When I stopped having a problem with my “persona,” so did my boyfriend. Sure, his co-workers still think I’m a teacher, but that no longer hurts. I don’t need everyone to love and accept me for exactly who I am -- just the people I let closest.

When I got home from the photo shoot, my boyfriend thought it would be funny to take pictures of me in my underwear. I pretended to be irritated but the truth was, I was feeling pretty hot. I’m glad I let him get one or two good shots.

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More importantly, a week or so after the shoot, I published an article built around an interview I had conducted with Alex’s wife, Christine. Yes, it’s sort of about sex, but it’s not about sex work and, best of all, nowhere in the piece am I identified as a former sex worker. For the first time, in the lede, I’m referred to simply as a writer.

“Unrepentant Whore” appears in the February issue of Penthouse.