by Sephe Haven
2019 (Redwood Publishing LLC)
Actors. You know the stereotype, or at least the one that predates the internet: they work in restaurants and bars, waiting tables or bartending, doing whatever it is they gotta do to make those financial ends meet, to "hustle" while they build their career, follow their dreams, and do what they love.
Back in the late 1980s, author Sephe Haven was one such actor. She thought, after getting into Juilliard´s prestigious graduate acting program that she would have her choice of talent agents, and that she would do what a number of actors do today: do just enough commercial work (ie back then, maybe a recurring role on a soap opera, or perhaps land a national commercial for some kind of product--something that paid well, though not "really" acting) so that she could fund her real dream: forming a theater company, doing work that was artistically satisfying, collaborative, and engaging. While this dream probably not pay as much, it would provide her with the opportunity to continue developing her creativity, to work with other talented & passionate people, and to apply everything that she had been studying for years.
Unfortunately, her plan did not materialize in the way she was expecting. During her final showcase at Juilliard--where all of the graduates do monologues and scenes for an invited audience of talent agents and other industry professionals who can, quite literally, launch these actors´ careers into a whole other level--Haven was the only one in her class to not book a single meeting with anybody. Keeping her chin up, she tried doing what so many actors do, then and now: they get a job in a restaurant, waiting tables. But she wasn´t very good at it, and she had tremendous debt to pay off. What was she going to do, to climb out of this extraordinary financial hole? How would she pay off her student loan debt from grad and undergrad? Would she ever get the money together to start her theater company?
Early on in her memoir My Whorizontal Life, after getting fired from another waitressing job and seeing how few dollars remain in her bank account, Haven does what any New Yorker did back in those pre-internet days: she picked up a copy of the Village Voice. A free weekly newspaper with a downtown spirit, the Voice which had great art and performance reviews, featured regular columns by folks like Dan Savage and Gary Indiana, and had a wide range of classified job listings that were sort of the analog precursor to Craigslist.
The back pages of the Voice also devoted significant pages advertising phone sex lines and escorts.
While set in New York during the late 1980s, unfortunately things have not changed that much in terms of college graduates struggling to pay off exorbitant debt after completing their degrees (this recent article in the New York Times grimly underscores that this theme of crippling debt is not unique to college graduates in New York City, nor limited to those with a degree in the arts). Broke, open-minded, perhaps even naive, Haven answers an advertisement to be an escort. Initially, she thinks this will mean that she simply "escorts" men to business dinners or conventions, or something. Within hours of her interview, she is sent out with her first client, and begins her odyssey as an accidental sex worker.
Subtitled "An Escort´s Life: the first six months", The Whorizontal Life details Haven´s experiences in her new job (her follow-up memoir, A Someday Courtesan, is more of a coming-of-age prequel, describing Haven´s relationship to her sexuality growing up, and how she into acting). Instead of focusing so much on the actual sex, Haven emphasizes the working conditions of being an escort from dusk until dawn, which are not always safe and supportive, and very rarely sexy. She describes the competition between her and other escorts, as well as some of the less-than-attractive clients that she encounters. She writes about the fear of HIV and other STDs, as well as the constant potential danger of being arrested by undercover law enforcement (and what precautions she and other sex workers do to keep themselves safe). My Whorizontal Life is a memoir, not a movie. Refreshingly, the book de-glamorizes the idea of being a sex-worker, instead offering the truth of Haven´s experience, with very little frills.
Turns out, Haven is pretty good in this role. More than good, actually. While she may not be considered "beautiful" by conventional standards--based on the feedback of the agents who rejected her after her showcase, as well as her internal judgment of her looks in comparison to some of the other escorts she works with--Haven turns out to have a superpower that the other escorts she works with don´t have: empathy. Rather than automatically seeing her clients as awful people--because they´re men, because they´re paying for sex, and so on--Haven instead applies the same skills of listening and emotional connection she cultivated through her acting training at Juilliard. Within months, she becomes one of the most sought-after escorts in New York.
She hasn´t completely given up on her dream of starting a theater company, however. Some of the most candid passages in the book are when she describes trying to get her company off the ground. Being on stronger financial footing through being an escort, she wrongly assumes that her community of actors will be universally understanding and supportive. Instead, one of her closest friends and actors that she admires the most "outs" Haven, shaming her for being a prostitute in front of all of their colleagues, and effectively leaving her dream of starting her own theater company in limbo.*
*(Haven is currently preparing to do a live/theatrical version of My Whorizontal Life in September 2023, as a one-woman show at the Greenhouse Theater in Chicago. To learn more about attending this event, getting tickets, and making a donation to support the piece, please go here).
This memoir contains multiple episodes highlighting a number of important subjects which intersect with any form of paid sex work: gender-inequality, pay inequity, body dysmorphia, multiple forms of discrimination, violence, and much more. Despite the events in My Whorizontal Life happening in the previous century, Sephe Haven´s memoir could be describing events happening today. A very good read. And if you live in the Windy City, go check out her performance in September!