Stella Marr was a prostitute in New York City for almost ten years. Then a London-based Oxford professor gave her a grand piano, a beautiful condominium across from Lincoln Center, and kept her for nearly two years. She sold the condo, using the money to finish her BA at Barnard College, Columbia University where she studied extensively with Kenneth Koch. She graduated with distinction, majoring in writing. She’s deep into a memoir about these experiences.
An Ex-Hooker’s letter to her Younger Self
Dear twenty-year old Stella,
Work hard on learning to ask for help. It’s the only way you’ll ever break free. No one ever does anything alone. You don’t have to.
You’ll learn how to make the men happy. The happier they are the nicer they treat you. You’ll get very good at being a hooker. But when the Johns say “baby you were born for this” that doesn’t mean its true.
Now when most men come near you feel a stabbing at your eyes, your throat, and your gut that you know isn’t real. You don’t want to admit it but you’re terrified. You start, you tremble. Your hands shake. Think about it, you’re being stabbed a lot these days. This is a quite reasonable reaction to being used by man after man, day after day, in this prison of a brothel. It doesn’t mean you are so miserably flawed that you can’t do anything but be a hooker.
Being a hooker doesn’t make you subhuman. It’s not OK for your (white) pimps to smack you and tell you they’ll kill you.
You have to work up the nerve to pay a cashier for a soda. You’re too scared to ask that guy behind the deli counter to make you a sandwich. This isn’t weakness, it’s biology. Trauma changes your brain. Your hippocampus, where you form narrative memory in the brain, shrinks. This is a symptom of PTSD – a neurophysiologic response to repetitive trauma –not evidence that you deserve to be in prostitution.
In the middle of the winter in the middle of the night when that guy in the Double tree suite invites you to sit while he pours you a seltzer trust your gut and back out of there before the five guys you can’t see who are waiting in the bedroom have a chance to get between you and the door.
Being vulnerable means you’re alive. There’s no shame in it. It doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person. You don’t have to apologize for doing what you must to survive.
When Samantha tries to stop working for your pimp Johnny. make her get out of the city. Otherwise two weeks later Nicole, the madam who works with Johnny, will show you Samantha’s diamond initial ring and tell you Johnny murdered her. Though you’ll always hope she was lying, you doubt it.
You’ve lost all sense of the linear — time disappeared and you felt it leave. Now you’re living in the immediate and eternity. It’s scary and bewildering, but you need this — you need each moment to stretch infinitely so that you can be acutely aware of each man’s tiny movements and shifts in expression, which can reveal a threat before it happens. This hyperawareness will save your life. One day you’ll see this being untethered from time as a kind of grace.
When that shiny classical pianist you meet at Au Bon Pain says he wants to know everything about you don’t believe him.
A lot of what’s happening doesn’t make sense now but it will later. That habit you have of writing poems in your mind to the beloved you haven’t met yet as you’re riding in cabs to calls? There’s something to it.
Your ability to perceive beauty is part of your resilience and survival. When a man is on top of you watch the wind-swirled leaves out his window. Seize the gusty joy you feel as you run three blocks to a bodega to buy condoms between calls at 3 AM. When you think for a minute you see that friend, who’s death you never got over, standing in the brassy light under a weeping linden, be grateful. All this has a purpose.
Being a hooker can seem to mean you’ve lost everything you hoped to be, but that’s not true. You’ve splintered into a million pieces, but you’re still you. You’re alive. It’s in the spaces between those pieces where you learn to feel how other people are feeling. It hurts so much you’re sure it’ll kill you, but it won’t. Later when you’re out of the life it’ll be so easy to be happy. The mundane will buoy you.
When your madam sends you to the Parker Meridien at 3 AM and you meet a British professor who says he wants to help you, believe him. He will set you up in a beautiful condominium across from Lincoln Center that he deeds in your name. Of course you’ll have everything to do with this — you are so “good” at being a hooker, so “good” at fucking that you can make a guy want to buy you a condo. Shame is a hollow stone in the throat.
During the two years that this voracious man ‘keeps’ you as his private prostitute the condo will come to feel like a platinum trap. But it’s still your chance to get out and heal. Take it.
After you’ve sold the condominium and are living in a graduate dorm at Columbia University, a man with eyes like blue shattered glass will sit beside you in the cafeteria. When he begins to speak you know he’s the unmet beloved you’ve been writing poems to all these years. You’ll try to run away, but he won’t let you. Fourteen years later the two of you will be hiking through pink granite outcroppings with your Labrador retriever. You’ll feel like the freest woman in the world.
One afternoon when you’re twenty-one you’ll be at the Museum of Metropolitan of Art with your best friend Gabriel, who’s a hustler, a male prostitute. When he says you ‘remind him of his death’, don’t lash back. Even though he told you the doctor said he didn’t have that rare new virus named AIDS, it would behoove you to realize he’s still coughing.
Stop thinking about your own hurt. Don’t lash back with that vicious phrase your mother’s said to you so many times –” I hope you die a slow death.” Don’t tell Gabriel you never want to see him again and storm out of the sculpture gallery. Or it will be the last time you see him. Gabriel will die of AIDS five months later. When he said you reminded him of ‘his own death’ he was trying to tell you he was dying. You’ll regret what you said for the rest of your life. But even more you’ll regret running away from his friendship.
Say forgive me.
Say I love you.
Stella’s opinion on legal brothels.
Well-meaning people who’ve never been commercially sexually exploited often think that legal brothels will protect the women in prostitution from pimps and violent johns. They are mistaken.
In the 10 years I worked in New York City’s sex industry, where the pimps were part of organized crime and could follow through on any threat, I met many women who’d experienced Nevada’s legal brothels. They all preferred the New York sex industry.
If we legalize brothel and escort service pimping we’ll only be giving these predators more power, while we help them protect their cash.
Women who worked in Nevada’s legal brothels said they were like prisons where you have to turn tricks. Rimmed with high-security fencing and an electronic gate, they can look like a detention camp. The women live in lockdown conditions and can’t leave the premises unless they’re accompanied by a male pimp. Living and working in cramped, dark rooms, they’re on call 24 hours a day. This is what happens when the law protects people who profit from commercial sexual exploitation. It’s the ideal business model. It’s the best way to get a woman to turn as many tricks as possible.
Most of the women I knew in the brothels and escort services, had a history of trauma and abuse. I was homeless at the time I entered the life and, had multiple sclerosis. That vulnerability makes them even more easily victimized by pimps. And pimps don’t stop being pimps when you legalize what they do. If we legalize brothels we’ll only be giving these predators more power, while we help them protect their cash.
As the prostitution survivor and activist Natasha Falle has said, “Where there’s high-track prostitutes, escorts, strippers and masseuses; there’s pimp violence.”
Stella says, ‘Never again will I be silenced. They tore out my tongue but I learned to regrow it. Now I will always speak.’