Note: The name of the instructor has been changed.
As a student in Benjamin Johnson’s experimental poetry class, I held him in the same regard that a grade-schooler might hold their classroom teacher. I took his bio’s word for it that he was a big deal. He was the authority in the room, I believed, simply because he’d said so. There were a dozen or so of us that first day of class, huddled expectantly around a folding table in a common space at St. Mark’s Church. Like most students, I wanted to be noticed by the teacher and perhaps, somehow, singled out as special. I was writing a memoir about my experiences in the sex industry, starting when I was nineteen years old and studying abroad in Mexico.
My writing was a coming-out of sorts, as few people in my life knew I had worked as a stripper, let alone the details. Afraid of what people might think, I kept my experience—and my writing—mostly to myself. Benjamin Johnson’s poetry workshop was my second writing class, the first time anyone had read this particular work. At the time I met Johnson, I had only worked as a stripper, not a prostitute, though the lines between one job and the other were often blurry in my case—a fact I sometimes explored in my writing.
Benjamin Johnson was eccentric. In a black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers, he darted around the room like a beatnik hummingbird. His lectures were digressive, tangential—they were less lecture, it seemed, than they were performance art. At one point he interrupted himself and burst into a jazz riff. In his class I laughed only when I felt I was supposed to; mostly, I nodded appreciatively on cue. I didn’t get him, but I assumed the rest of the class did and I was just basic. Certainly we couldn’t all be paying three hundred dollars apiece to admire the emperor’s new clothes.
Midway through the first class, Johnson began a rant about Norah Jones. She was popular at the time, a fact that seemed to infuriate Johnson. He condemned her for her mediocrity. The more he dug into her for being boring , the more it felt as if he were talking about me.
A wide-eyed Midwesterner relatively new to New York, I had a full-time job at a nonprofit and lived with my boyfriend—who had been my high school sweetheart—in an overpriced cookie-cutter apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Despite my provocative past, at twenty-three years old, I had settled into a decidedly normal life. Not an artist’s life, I sometimes feared. Older, male, interesting, entitled, untethered to the rules of syntax or society—a poet—Benjamin Johnson was everything I was not.
Coming over to his apartment one night for a private session was part of the deal. Benjamin Johnson occupied two rent-controlled apartments on the Lower East Side, one filled to the brim with books, the other the disheveled quarters one would expect of a then-sixty-something-year-old bachelor. I don’t remember a lot about the feedback on my manuscript besides red ink. He criticized the work as overly descriptive and sentimental, slashing away figurative language until barely any text was left.
I had been trying to convey the confusion I had felt at nineteen, confusion that—years later—still troubled me. Whereas I had started working in the sex industry because I needed the money, a part of me had enjoyed the work, and this made me feel ashamed. I lacked emotional distance from the material, a fact that made for sloppy narrative. Certainly, I lacked control over my manuscript. According to Johnson, what I lacked was talent.
What I had hoped would be affecting prose Johnson dismissed as affected. I asked him what I could do other than give up. He suggested I quit my day job and leave my boyfriend, lower my expenses, and devote myself completely to my craft. He waved off my plans to apply to an MFA program, saying that the workshop model only made bad writing worse. Then he suggested I work with him privately and said I could pay for it with sex.
I don’t remember exactly how he phrased it, or what I said in reply. Probably I tried to erase the moment from my consciousness as soon as it happened. Maybe I played it off like he was joking. Maybe I just said no. I do remember his breath smelled of wine and his mouth was stained red. I told myself he was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing. I minimized it, in a way I was practiced at doing.
When it came to brushing off insult, I was, after all, a professional. Having worked in the sex industry, I was well aware of how it felt to become a caricature—a figment of my clients’ imaginations. Enduring small degradations had been part of that job, and I was proud of my fortitude—my ability to suppress pain, ignore hurt, accept insult and move on with my life.
It’s a myth to think that traumas devastate us. Traumatic occurrences, major and minor, happen all the time, all around us, and oftentimes to us. The reality is that most people cannot afford to be devastated by everyday life. Sadly, it must still be said: The harms that befall us are not our fault. Regardless of whether or not we’ve had sex for money, and regardless of what we choose to write or speak about, some men will never see women—whether we are writers, lawyers, doctors, astronauts, or sex workers—as anything other than whores.
I was used to applying this coping skill at work, but I had never needed to use it so overtly in my “real” life. Maybe, I told myself, I had misconstrued my teacher’s intent—although now, over ten years later, I am certain I hadn’t. It’s a familiar story: A man in a position of power uses that power to attempt to lure a younger person into a sexual relationship.
Joyce Maynard describes herself at eighteen, the year she took up an affair with J. D. Salinger, as “a young person in possession of particular vulnerabilities as well as strengths.” Years after he dismissed her, she says, “his voice stayed in my head, offering opinions on everything he loved and all that he condemned. This was true even though, on his list of the condemned, was my own self.” Experts say it can take a person years or even decades to recover from trauma and that recovery depends on how its victims, including victims of unwelcome sexual advances, handle these situations and the feelings that come with them. In my case, it took a decade for this particular incident to even register as troubling.
Now a teacher myself, I can’t imagine delivering such useless feedback, let alone indulging in a fantasy of having sex with a student, under any circumstances. In personal essay and memoir, the artifact of genre is like the paper robe—a transparent boundary between the reader and the writer that, though thin, must exist. Even sex workers put something between themselves and their client. Whether that be the condom or the fake name, or simply the steely belief that nothing can hurt us and that we are in control, we put up boundaries, and it is these boundaries that allow both parties to feel safe.
Would it have been different if I’d already had sex for money? If I had been a current sex worker, rather than recently transitioned? In the years since, I’ve asked myself these questions. Maybe, I sometimes think. But always, on second thought, no.
Over a decade later, I don’t fault Benjamin Johnson for criticizing my work. My writing was pretty bad in the beginning. I don’t fault him for making me insecure. I was insecure well before he and I met. I fault him for being a bad teacher and attempting to exploit my insecurities for his own gain. The manuscript on Benjamin Johnson’s kitchen table had been my first attempt to bridge the divides I had built in myself—rigid categories that defined one half of me as a sexually available and tough to the core, another as someone with feelings and concerns, someone to be taken seriously and treated with respect. In becoming a writer, I was aiming to drop all pretense and embrace my truth—that fact that I could be all these things, all at once, and that who I chose to be was ultimately up to me, not dictated by others—but this was not to be the lesson Benjamin Johnson seemed interested in teaching.
I trusted him, as students must their teachers, and he betrayed my trust.
While I considered continuing to attend Benjamin Johnson’s class, ultimately I didn’t. I had not yet paid the enrollment fee and so for that reason it was easy to drop out, but for other reasons the decision was difficult. I suppose it felt like failing, or letting him win.
I didn’t attend the next week’s class. Or the week after. I never told him why. I told no one what happened. Who would I have told? Benjamin Johnson didn’t work for a college, which, according to a later profile in Poets and Writers , continued to be his preference until his death. He didn’t work for an institution—in his mind, he was the institution—and in my mind at the time, I was no one.
Within a year of our meeting, I quit that day job, just as Benjamin Johnson had suggested, and I left the boyfriend—who, by the time I left him, had become my fiancé. Unattached, I became a “writer” in the Benjamin Johnson sense of the word, replacing food with booze and my “real” job for doing “whatever” just to get by, including sex for cash. Although I ignored his suggestion that I not pursue an MFA—enrolling at the New School, where I earned an MFA in creative nonfiction—I held on to a lot of the deep-seated beliefs about what it meant to be a writer that my meeting with Benjamin Johnson had only confirmed—beliefs that extended beyond my writing, affecting my sense of self-worth and my place in the world.
The first step of recovering from trauma, according to trauma expert Judith Herman, is establishing safety. The second step is telling one’s truth—putting in order what Herman calls a “trauma narrative.” It was only after I exited the sex industry the second time, this time for good, that I was able to begin to make sense of the “stuff” that happened to me at work. I might have been raped. There were a handful of instances when my boundaries weren’t honored . I was assaulted by a client. Once, during a private dance, an old man pulled out his dick and—before I even knew what was happening—he had come on my breasts. I felt humiliated, but I assumed most girls endured worse—and many did—and so I kept my humiliations to myself.
In becoming a writer, and articulating—first to myself, then others—what happened to me, I’ve learned to see myself and my experiences differently. These days, I don’t keep shit to myself. I’ve lost my ability to tolerate abuse. Pain, I’ve come to realize, is not to be tolerated—instead, it’s an indicator that something is wrong.
Like many women writers, particularly those of us who write about sex, I once figured abuse and sexual harassment “came with the territory.” These days, I have the privilege to avoid certain territories. And sometimes, abuse is unavoidable. I don’t ignore it anymore. Instead—no matter how long ago it happened, and no matter how seemingly slight—I call it out.