April Hope, 38, stepped in front of the group, mostly young adults gathered at CultureFix, a small art gallery in the Lower East Side. She was wearing a vintage feather hat and a long black dress, and she began to read.
“I haven’t had sex once this week,” she read. People in the audience chuckled, but she kept on.
Hope is one of 27 former or current sex workers who have contributed to the third edition of Prose & Lore: Memoir Stories About Sex Work, a publication put together by The Red Umbrella Project, a New York-based organization that aims to give a voice to people working in the sex business, or who have done so.
Red Umbrella’s goal is to get sex workers to tell their own stories, “because they are represented very poorly, or often presented in fallacious ways, “said Audacia Ray, 33, a former sex worker and the founder of the organization. “It’s also a way of giving folks who are not sex workers an opportunity to learn who we are and what our experiences are like.”
For the third edition of the book—which at 240 pages is twice the size of the previous one—the authors, mostly from the U.S., but also from as far away as Australia, have set down on paper anecdotes or key moments of their lives.
Last Wednesday night, as the Red Umbrella Project officially launched the book, several dozen people came to listen to a few of the authors who had volunteered to read part of their texts aloud.
Hope was one of those writers.
She had been a daycare teacher for more than 15 years and then a travel writer for almost a decade. But Hope had also published articles about sadomasochism, a topic she was interested in. She had never told anybody. “I would share stories I wrote about traveling on a budget,” she said, “but I couldn’t share this other part of me.”
Then, in the early 2000’s, Hope said she got hired as a dominatrix in a Manhattan club called Jasmine Dungeon.
While she found some advantages to her new job—she made between $300 and $600 a night, enjoyed working with cross dressers and learning about men’s secret sexual fantasies—she wasn’t entirely comfortable about the situation. “It clashed with my spiritual beliefs,” she said, “and my religious upraising.”
In Prose & Lore, Hope partly recounts how she struggled to find the right religious system that would allow her to combine faith and her appetite for sex. She never quite found that system, and she also felt somewhat exposed to danger. So Hope left her job at the dungeon after a year. She said she carried feelings of shame, guilt and secrecy after that. Writing helped. She has been conducting women’s writing workshops in Brooklyn for ten years. But “It’s not until I joined the writing workshops at the Red Umbrella Project that I felt in peace with myself,” Hope said.
“I used to be a sex worker,” she said, “and today I’m not ashamed anymore.”
From October throughout November, Hope gathered weekly with a dozen other Prose & Lore authors to attend the Red Umbrella writing workshops in Brooklyn. For three hours at each session, writers worked on their storytelling skills and shared their experiences in the sex trade. She felt supported. And she found colleagues who “fully embrace who they are and that’s inspiring,” Hope said. “It made me come out.”
The first people she came out to were at her place of worship. She told members of The Church! Of Park Slope in Brooklyn. There she applied to teach at the children’s Sunday School. When that went well, she told her mother and her sister. “I was really nervous and scared, but people have been very accepting and open about it,” she said. “To me, being unapologetic about being a former sex worker is revolutionary.”
Each of the authors of Prose & Lore have a different story, and there are probably 27 different reasons why they took part in this project, according to Ray, who ran the memoirs-writing workshops and also published her own chapter in the book.
Dominick, a former escort who didn’t want to use his real name because he feared it could impact his job as a sale representative, said he participated in all three issues of Prose & Lore because he wanted to improve his writing skills and to build an audience.
“They say you need 10,000 hours to be good at something, so I’m getting there,” the 49-year-old man said. He said he felt empowered to be part of a community.
On stage, Dominick read a humorous piece about his relationship with his sugar daddy in the late 90s. Later, a small woman with long red hair, who presented herself as Lily Fury, recounted the dramatic deaths and sometimes murders of some of her friends and colleagues.
“I think it’s important for us to tell our stories because they are untold,” Ray said.
Ray said she sold about 20 copies of the $12 publication on Wednesday night. She also sent about 200 copies to the Red Umbrella Project subscribers.
She was nervous about the event, Hope said, but then glad to see some public interest. “There is such a stigma against sex workers and I would like to let know that we are humans, we are people, we are complex individuals and not caricatures of what people assume sex workers to be,” she said.
Her next step, she said, is to send the Prose & Lore copy to her mother, who lives in Rhode Island. “She keeps asking for it,” she said. “I was a little hesitant, but I think I’m going to send it to her.”