Prose & Lore is the Red Umbrella Project’s literary journal, which collects memoir stories about sex work in two issues per year. I’m particularly excited about the journal because it gives me inspiration for my own forthcoming anthology project, How to Come Out Like a Pornstar. (Yes, the same one I’ve been working on all this time. No one said it’d be easy!) Reading a collection of literature from a wide range of experiences and writing styles reminds me how crucial it is to share our stories. Especially the ones often unspoken.
I had the pleasure of attending a Red Umbrella Diaries reading event once. It was quite an event, held at Happy Endings Lounge (a former erotic massage parlor turned bar in New York), where workers past and present stood at a mic and shared parts of themselves with a blend of humor, camaraderie, and courage. The pages of Prose & Lore recalls to my mind the raw emotional element of oral history, recorded with the permanence of the written word. Editor Audacia Ray says it best in her introduction:
Telling stories in community—out loud in a room—is a powerful thing. But being a witness is not just about being in the room with someone and hearing their voice shake as they speak their truth. Having stories take up space in the world—in, say, a literary journal—is important too. Within the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) community in New York, we are trying to create spaces—physical, creative, and emotional— where people who have sold or traded sex can be honest with each other and can develop the skills of writing and telling their stories.
I’ve been given permission to post one of it’s works. Of all the varied stories of sex work, I chose to post LESSON LEARNED, by Danielle, about performing in porn. It’s a revealing first-hand account that I was particularly drawn to because I was surprised to find myself in the background of the story. Without naming names, I can say that it’s fascinating to see another angle from years ago, like watching a scene in a movie from a supporting character’s point of view.
It’s counter-intuitive, to fight against the reign of your body when it’s in the throes of passion, even if the passion is documented on film. If you’re one of the lucky ones that can drown out the cameras, the bright lights, the camera crew, the deafening silence that seems to envelop the sound of your pounding heart and your heavy breathing, in the back of your mind, you still have to fight against the urge, the ravaging, screaming, pounding urge, to shut your legs tight. Snap, quick, clicking like two shells just grazing their edges. I never smell the ocean when I cum, still I think of oysters.
It was S who told me first: Never close your legs when you’re coming, the camera can’t see anything. It had never dawned on me that the camera was the eye that I was playing for, the giant wide-open eye that was the observing my every move.
S was the first person I had met when I started doing porn. At that time, she was a small legend, part of duo that was revolutionizing the way that LGBTQ folks viewed porn. None of this mattered to me, when my girlfriend at the time pointed her out at a dance party, and said, “If you want to make porn, that’s who you talk to.” I ran up to S. I was drunk. “I want to be in your films,” I screamed. Probably loudly. I had never been so sure of anything in my life. Later, she would describe the situation as the easiest casting recruitment she ever had to do.
In my real life, when I fucked who I wanted, I would snap my legs shut. The moment of breaking up and never wanting to come undone, unwrapped from my partner, the easiest way was to snap shut my legs. Weave them tightly together, using all my strength, fighting the sweat, just to stay there a bit longer. My legs are strong from ten years of high school athletics and active gym routine.
This is counter-intuitive, yet I remember, in the midst of my performance, because that is what it is, a performance, that the camera’s eye, the audience’s wide stance on the edge of their seats, does not care about the strength of my upper thighs and my automatic response not to disentangle from my partner. Even if the sex is just for work. Still, I remembered with every turn of my body and every turn of the camera, never shut my legs. Always open towards the camera. Always open towards the camera. Always open for the camera.
Mr. C wasn’t the creepy kind of porn director, not that I had the pleasure of meeting too many directors for my judgment to be completely accurate. I think that my general alt appearance in the mainstream porn world, mixed with my brash art form at the moment of no return, took charge of the situation for no bullshit.
Or maybe I was just lucky.
The room was small, in the upstairs part of a large Porn Valley mansion, the type that seem to only be constructed for the purpose of shooting films. No one actually lived in these replications of Home & Beauty commercials, the rooms were furnished completely out of expensive department catalogs. No one real lived liked this, only the make believe students who were always home alone, the new fresh-faced real estate agents, and the tired babysitters. I once was all of them. Never at the same time.
The room was unfurnished, aside from a large, unmarked bed, fitted with feminine sheets that were neither bright nor frumpy. Mr. C wanted slightly memorable but not overpowering, pretty but not breathtaking. The large bed faced a wall of mirrors, floor to ceiling, that hid a very large and sadly empty closet. These mirrors forgave nothing but flourished only the sense that this was make believe. We could see everything, her and I, as we rolled around on the bed.
This house was not made for the normal folks.
“Whatever you do, do not look in the camera,” Mr. C laughed. “If you look in the camera, we will have to reshoot everything, from the beginning.”
Spending an entire day rolling around in bed didn’t sound half bad, but really, I just wanted to get back to my friend’s house with his big yellow Lab and then eat Thai food alone.
The big eyes of the cameras were making me sweat.
We laughed, her and I.
“No looking at the cameras, promise,” we said. The mirrors mocked our promise. How could we not look at ourselves, our egos glaring at us as we performed as best as we could, while the crew stood in front of the unforgiving closet, their back sides reflected back to us as our front sides were captured on film. We were the meta in creation of porn. An endless mirror of clothed turned into unclothed back into clothed. All for the camera.
It was easy to not look at the cameras, those eyes blinked silently at me, and I had practiced blinking them away. The mirrors were different, they laughed at my body, at my movements, at my every physical choice. My hard choice was to not let the mirrors taunt me. I just tried to not look. It was better that way.
You can get a digital/print subscription to Prose & Lore for just $45 dollars. They release two issues a year, and you’ll also get subscriber-only eBooks with writer interviews. Find all this, and a TON of resources at redumbrellaproject.org. Or find the book on Amazon, and be sure to write a review!
Want to get involved? Have a story to tell? Submissions are open for Prose & Lore Issue 3.