Books

Tales of Sex and Insight: How a Smart Girl From the 'Burbs Ended Up in a Harem in Faraway, Wealthy Brunei

AlterNet interviews Jillian Lauren about her coming-of-age memoir, 'Some Girls: My Life in a Harem,' a story of adventure, abuse, riches, and ultimately, healing.

If a book came across your desk with the title Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, you probably would have done what I started to do: roll your eyes and throw it on the rejection pile.

But as I was about to discard Jillian Lauren's memoir, I noticed two blurbs. One was by the fine novelist Jennifer Egan (Look at Me), who says of Lauren's book: "Riveting: Lauren illuminates the murky world of high-class prostitution with humor, candor, and a reporter's gimlet eye." Meanwhile, the radical, super-funny Margaret Cho calls the book "a heartstopping thrilling story told by a punk rock Scheherezade."

Hmm, I thought, these two talented stars think this book is not only interesting, but well-written. Book blurbs are usually produced by colleagues in the same field, a kind of "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" deal, but these seemed genuine.

So I peeked inside to find that Lauren grew up in suburban New Jersey, about 15 miles from where I grew up. (Later I learned that she went to Long Beach Island -- the Jersey Shore -- during the summers as I did.) So we had the Jersey thing going on. She was also an arty, edgy, wild New Yorker before she went on her sex journey, hanging in places and doing things very familiar to me, albeit a generation later. And it didn't hurt that she reprinted my favorite Talking Heads lyric in the front of the book, the one that ends with "And you may ask yourself, well... how did I get here?"

So I was hooked. I was going to read this unlikely book because it seemed to defy stereotype. I thought, "This might be one-of-a-kind." And it was. Lauren is a fine writer who establishes an easy intimacy with the reader. She comes across as fundamentally honest and thoughtful about her experiences, and the book is a fun journey, a bizarre and colorful narrative.

One of the richest men in the world, Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei, the youngest brother of the Sultan of Brunei, assembles a rotating collection (or, as Lauren realized, a harem) of some 40 women -- the most beautiful from all over the world -- to be his sexual playmates. Robin, as his women called him, employed a network of procurers, who offered the women a mini bonanza of cash, clothes and extravagant jewelry to come to Brunei and be on constant call as nightly entertainment for Robin, his brothers and his pals. The guy was clearly one of the horniest in the world -- ready to give Hugh Hefner a run for his money.

Brunei is a strange place. Most people think it's in the Middle East along with Dubai and the other states of the United Arab Emirates. In fact, Brunei is on the north coast of Borneo, in Southeast Asia. It has the fifth highest GDP per capita in the world. According to Wikipedia, crude oil and natural gas production account for nearly half of its economy and its wealth includes a mix of foreign and domestic entrepreneurship. Substantial income from overseas investment supplements money from domestic production. The government provides for all medical services and subsidizes food and housing.

For this story, what the economics of the country translate to is the wealth of the Sultan of Brunei -- for a time the richest man in the world -- and his family.

The opulence, the ostentatious wealth and privilege enjoyed by Prince Robin and his royal family and by extension, his harem, is mind-blowing. The stories of manipulation and mind games, of competition among the women for Robin's attention and approval are more akin to "Lord of the Flies" than supportive sisterhood (with some exceptions). Lauren's story illustrates how seeking approval from a powerful figure becomes the be-all-end-all when one is removed from one's environment and comfort zone.

So how did a 19-year-old NYU student from the suburbs end up in a harem? Well, that is what the book is about, or at least its understory: A wild, needy teen, escaping the constant negative gaze of her father, drops out of college, strips for easy money, gets introduced into the escort biz for faster, easier money, and suddenly has the opportunity of a lifetime, or perhaps one of the most unusual. She ends up spending a total of 18 months (two stints) becoming, in effect, a star member "team concubine" for the Brunei royal family.

Of course, it isn't that simple. Many people who go into sex work have emotional issues. Jillian Lauren's issues included eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and lack of boundaries. She had a risk-taking streak that, luckily for her, did not lead to self-destruction, but nevertheless required many years of healing before she could tell her story.

Lauren, who calls herself a semi-socialist and a feminist, is politically and culturally sophisticated. This helps her write a smart book. She was also got lucky in being an early adopter of e-mail, writing diaries about her experiences and emailing them back to the states, creating a treasure trove of material for use in her memoir.

I met Lauren on May 11 at the Palomar Hotel, one of the chic properties of the Kimpton chain, just south of Market Street in San Francisco. We sat upstairs in the unused lounge -- a dark, rich-feeling space that offered a good environment for our talk. My job was to shine some light on the author's journey and inner life, and she was eager to share her story.

Don Hazen: Let's warm up a little bit. How is the book doing?

Jillian Lauren: It's doing very well. There have been a lot of reviews -- one in the Times, but not the book review. And I was on "The View."

DH: Wow, that's exciting.

JL: Yes, my friends told me they thought that Barbara Walters was hostile -- since she called me a hooker about 40 times. But I didn't mind -- that was what I was.

DH: Are you getting good questions in interviews?

JL:I've been getting some good questions, and a lot of typical questions, over and over.

DH: I’ll try to make things interesting. I'm not going to ask you what the prince was like in bed.

JL: [laughs] Yes. The Cosmo version.

DH: One of the fundamental questions I have is about the stages you went through. You go through a coming-of-age stage in New Jersey. You have experiences with pills and bulimia. Then there's the sex work. And you come out the other side with real insight and self-awareness. Do you have to go through stages like these to gain that awareness?

JL: Well, this is a book about my story. Do you need to suffer to be an artist? I don't really know if you need to. You don't have to go through addiction and sex work. I do not think that's a prerequisite to gaining wisdom. But that was my path. I do think there is something to the traditional narrative of going into the darkness in order to get to the light.

DH:Because there are steps along the way where you could have stopped, right?

JL: Stopping is not my forte. [laughs] I prefer to go to the fullest extreme with anything. It's partially about pushing my own boundaries. I think some of my decisions that led me down this path and ultimately to the prince's harem were about pushing my own boundaries.

DH: What would you say to other women who might be considering escalating their sex work? For example, a young woman stripping, how typical is it that she'll go to the next stage?

JL: I don't think it's atypical. But I don't think it's the norm. I would say to a woman considering sex work, or the next step if she's already in sex work and thinking, "Oh, I already crossed that line, what's another one--"

DH:Is that what went through your head?

JL: I think that went through my heart. I just think this sort of boundary stopped mattering. I think once you are already letting them crumble, nothing has any meaning anymore. Once you’ve already broken down boundary after boundary.

DH:But also the incentive gets bigger, right, because you make a lot more money?

JL:It can, but that can be imaginary too. It can look like there'd be a lot more money but the trade-off may not be worth it. The impulse to go further might be coming from somewhere else. I was making enough money to live. I had that conversation with my boyfriend at the time. "So let me just make this amount of money. And that'll be enough. I want to not worry about money for a minute." And he said, "That's not how money works. You're making plenty of money. More money doesn't give you less worries about money. With more money you just have different worries."

DH: That's wise.

JL: He was. In answer to your question about what I would say to somebody considering sex work or taking the next step: I would say that I know women who were made for sex work, and they do it in a very joyful, incredible way. Like the Annie Sprinkles and the Nina Hartleys of the world. They're one in a million. I can't tell anyone what to do or what not to do. The point of writing this story wasn’t to be instructive.

DH: But you have all this wisdom.

JL: I would say to really look in your heart and say "Why am I doing this?" Am I doing it because I feel like it's a joyful expression of who I am? Or because I have some damage, that allows me to not feel things?

DH: But what if you're pragmatic and you say, these are my assets, to be crass about it. I can make this much money doing this. Seems like a dilemma.

JL: Yeah. Except that I think that regardless of your assets, most women make the decision to go into sex work often based on a history of some sort of abuse.

DH: Can we move to that? One of the most telling parts of the book was your father's double messages. On the one hand he was encouraging, on the other impossibly critical. And obviously some of those messages made an impact. Is that the damage you're talking about?

JL: In my case, yes. It wasn't the entirety of the reason I did what I did and the choices that I made. There was a whole mess of other factors that went into that cocktail. But I do think that for many women it’s a big piece of it. It allows them to dissociate. We become very accustomed to it, and disassociating is what will really allow you to be a successful sex worker.

DH: You have to be impulsive too, and not have too many barriers.

JL:Right. No idea of consequences. Although on some level that's just being young. You haven't lived with consequences yet! You don't know what they mean. But statistically abuse is a big piece of why most women go into sex work. That's most of their stories. I'm not saying that's why women go into sex work entirely, but it's part of the picture. I don't mean to be reductive about it: A+B=C – my daddy treated me bad, so I turned into a stripper and a prostitute. That's not the point. But it's in there.

DH: What about your political awareness? I guess when you're 18, 19 you can only be so aware. But you talk about it in the book, you even call yourself a semi-socialist. But that all seemed to evaporate when you went on this journey. Can you talk about that?

JL: I just read an unbelievable passage in a book. Melissa Febos has a memoir called Whip Smart. She also came from politically aware and active teenage years, and suddenly found herself with a bunch of money and standing in the middle of Tiffany's, thinking, "It no longer matters to me that I don't believe in this. It only matters that I want it." And I read that and it gave me the chills. That was my experience. I found that it no longer mattered that I didn't believe in it.

DH:In the book there's a crucial moment when you realize that power is so much more important than relationships, in Brunei. You didn't care about these other women you might have had solidarity with. You were the center of attention and it gave you this enormous power.

JL: I wouldn't say power is more important to me than relationships now. Certainly at that time I had never experienced power before. And I found it incredibly intoxicating. And I wanted to win. And I wanted the kind of validation that it gave me.

DH:Was that true for you growing up? Was the need to win part of your psychology?

JL: Not really. The winning also meant something else. It meant love, and it meant validation. It meant I felt beautiful, important. And really, this wasn't empirical evidence of whether I'm valuable or not! Here's this prince. He could have any woman in the world, and here I am! Hopefully at the end of the book I get into how this was not my truth and was not fulfilling to me. But it was my experience for part of the book.  

DH:At the end of the book, you write: "I had made the most un-Patti [Smith] of choices....I had wound up a well-paid piece of property -- only a rental property, but still I had severed the connection between my soul and my body so profoundly that I could barely feel my own skin anymore. "

That's pretty powerful.

JL: Thank you.

DH: But then you imagine Patti would forgive you.

JL:I do.

DH:And you forgive yourself?

JL: I do. That's sort of who Patti is. Like looking to a fairy godmother, guiding light, you know. She is my better self. Patti Smith is who I imagine myself to be, if I were as cool as I could possibly be, if I had none of the barriers and social mores and insecurity and self-hatred. And all that really holds me back from being the most Patti I could possibly be! That's who she represents when I say that she would forgive me….

DH:There's a larger question about sex work and feminism. Depending on your wave of feminism you may have different attitudes. There are certainly lots of anti-porn women, and others who are pro-porn. And feminists who support sex work. Do you have a theory about all that?

JL: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. And there was Susie Bright and Carol Queen and all those women who were very vocal about being sex positive, and "women-centered porn" and "we love our sex workers!"

DH: Fast-forward 20 years. Are you still there?

JL:Now I'm friends with a lot of these women. I do absolutely consider myself part of that camp. However, I'm not where I used to be in that camp. I'm not just, "Sex work is so empowering, hooray." Because that's not how I feel anymore. Now that I'm out of it, now that I've lived with the consequences for 20 years. Now that I've tried to have healthy relationships. I think that some of the damage we're talking about before, it was really reinforced and reinforced. And became deeper and more embedded in me and harder to get out. I could have spent those years healing. And doing the work I had to do later. And it affected my relationships with my body, with my sexuality. With men, with women. My husband.

It still has a ripple effect in my life, the sex work that I did. And so I would say that I don't think that taking your clothes off for money – it's a valid choice, maybe it's the right 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 you can do for your soul as a women for the most part.

DH: These days on the Internet there are literally thousands of young women doing porn. It just scares me that all these women – not to belittle anything that you did, but part of your path was glamorous. Itdoesn't seem like there's anything glamorous aboutonline porn. Do you worry about them?

JL: I do. And I think, wow. There was a point at which I considered doing porn, and I wound up not doing it. It wasn't so easy for me to do it. There were certain hurdles to wind up on camera and have that recorded for all time. But I think about how easy it is now. It's just so easy for them to wind up on camera. And maybe regret that later ….

DH: Every day on the Internet for the rest of your life.  

JL: And regret it because of the hurt that may cause later. And I think about the explosion of social networking and how technology has evolved and how we interact with each other …. I don't know what's going to happen. Maybe it will matter less and less to people. Maybe everyone will be having sex on camera. And everything I say will be totally wrong! I don't know what's going to happen. And I have a son, I may have a daughter someday. And I worry about my little babysitters. Maybe I'm just an old mom now. But I'm concerned for young girls.

DH: What about being adopted? Did that have any relevance in your journey? I enjoyed the part of the book where you reconnected with your birth mother, it was very moving. Do you think most adopted people should reconnect with their birth parents?

JL: Adoption is relevant to my story. I didn't up and join a harem because I was so broken up about being adopted! But part of who I am is what made all these decisions. I don't think everyone should reconnect. I think everyone has their own story and own path. My son is also adopted, and I want to do everything I can to preserve his story for him. Write everything down about my experience in Africa where I adopted him. And I have done extensive documentation. I keep in touch with people from the orphanage. I know the family of the girl who shared his crib when he was a few months old. So I am doing everything I can to make that information available to him should he want it.

To me it was very important, to find out my story.

DH:The strength of the book is that you truly reveal yourself. And for the success of the book it was quite fortuitous that you were on e-mail back then so you were able to write down your experiences.

JL:I know, it's just a miracle. I still had all that material.

DH: Are you going to do more writing? You're a great writer. Most books about sex are not very well written.

JL: I know. And yes, I've also written a novel. The publishers thought it made sense to come out with the memoir first.

DH: What do you hope people will come away with from reading the book?

JL: I hope people will open it up and be surprised. I think a lot of people have a different expectation of what the book is. For some it is disappointing…. I think people expect a romance novel. People have this romance novel version of things in their head. It's a literary memoir – it just happens to have a very surreal setting. But I think most people are pleasantly surprised. I hope it encourages dialogue about sexuality and where our validation comes from.

DH:Do you have any fear that a woman who is considering a sex worker path reads the book and thinks, "Look how well she came out in the end, could this work for me?"  

JL:I don't think so.

DH: You make it pretty exciting.

JL: It was exciting. But I'm very lucky that I came out of it well. I'm very, very lucky and I think that I express that in the book. I think many women all over the world don't come out of it as well as me. I hope no one sees it as glamorizing, just because I came out on the other side.

DH: You still think about Patti Smith all the time?

JL: [laughs] I recently I found out an old friend of mine is very close with her. So I was just conversing about her a few days ago. She also came out with a fantastic memoir which was reviewed back to back with mine in Bust magazine. That was exciting! So I'm thinking about her a lot these days. I don't think I'm a crazy person! I don't think about her every day of my life or anything. But she's definitely in my thoughts right now.

DH: What's the question you hate that people ask you on tour...the roll-your-eyes question?

JL: [laughs] Hard. I don't want to be critical and I'm always thrilled at people's interest. I've had one question from numerous European publications, which is "How can a woman get into a harem? Can you tell us how?" That concerns me.

DH: And what's a question that no one's asked you that you really want someone to ask you?

JL: You’ve asked a lot of great questions. About feminism, and all kinds of fun stuff. I don't have a particular question in mind. I hope people come to me and do exactly what you just did. Which is that they're reading the book in a particular way that I find really interesting. It's not like I have some message that I want to get across. But really I'm interested in seeing what people take away from it that wasn't intended by me at all. That's the beauty of putting something out in the world. You can't control what people are taking away from it. So that's what I hope. That I won't keep getting, "But how MUCH money did you get? Exactly how MUCH money did you get?" And more getting a sense of what meaning people get.

DH: I hope you sell a lot of books.

 

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.