Monday, October 22, 2012

The Letters Project, Five Years In

In January, it'll be five years that I've been doing The Letters Project.

The Letters Project is a way for people to share their secret sex lives anonymously. The project includes: Letters from Johns, Letters from Working Girls, Letters from Men Who Watch Porn, Letters from Men Who Go to Strip Clubs, and Letters from Cheaters.

Here are some thoughts.

1. I never thought I would do The Letters Project for five years.

In fact, I think the only other thing I've done for that long is write about porn. (See: "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?", "The Obscenity Police Are Coming.")

The first installment was Letters from Johns. It is my favorite. It is, I think, the best. That is because it is the one where there is the most at stake. What they are confessing to is illegal, in most cases.

My favorite letter is: "I Am Ashamed of Nothing I Have Done."
One can try to hang a sign on us, the collective john, as perpetuating the global conspiracy of sex/slave traffic, and I'll grant that my Thailand trip may have/probably did contribute to some sort of thuggery. But in the end, I am ashamed of nothing I have done. 
I corresponded with "I'm a State Investigator" through encrypted emails. 
I keep a coded diary, in case it's discovered. 1 dot is oral, 2 dots is vaginal sex, and 2 connected dots is anal sex. In the event that someone questions the dots, they are associated with good/bad days: no dots are normal days, 1 dot is a good day, 2 dots is a great day, and 2 connected dots is the best day for that week. 
"I Have a Physical Disability" had cerebral palsy.
I am now a regular customer, although not as regular as I’d like to be. This is mostly because my brother has moved overseas, and it is hard to find people who will willingly accompany me. However, each time I go, I no longer feel like a cripple. I feel whole. 
2. I have published:

51 letters from johns

18 letters from working girls

33 letters from men who go to strip clubs

13 letters from men who watch porn

3 letters from cheaters

118 letters total. 

3. The Letters Project has been featured in, among other places:

You see how complicated it is to be a man — you know, you’re supposed to be big and strong, but you also have these desires and conflicted feelings. Ideally, anything laid bare will invoke compassion, and that’s what it made me feel. Like a friend of mine says, “You see men as they are and you love them anyway.”
"What could be more taboo than going to an agency when you're a crusader for all that is moral and good?" she theorized. "It's only natural," this call girl asserted, "that they'd hire a girl to get off."
The Guardian:
A Washington DC policy analyst in his early 30s who went to strip clubs as often as two or three times a week during his 20s confirmed: "Our society has become so hyper-sexualised that [going to strip clubs] almost seems tame."
CBC Radio:
Susannah proclaims that it has freed us to express what we truly want and desire, when all it really has done is imprison us with our own desires, ignoring true love and compassion in the process.
Susie Bright's Journal:
It's sort of like "Post Secret" for turning tricks.
4. People are always interested in Letters from Working Girls.

I didn't get a ton of letters, but my favorite anecdote is from "I Wanted Them to Leave Happy." She talked about being a sex worker in 1979. She wrote about her two years turning tricks at a small town massage parlor in Connecticut. Her letter was one big, uninterrupted and breathless paragraph.
One guy, in particular, we all loved. We called him "park bench." He did not get undressed, he laid face down on the table, and the girl sat on him, naked, reading a magazine, not talking to him. After about 20 minutes he'd say thank-you, and that was it. 
Today she grows organic vegetables.

5. Every letter is a confession.

At first I thought people were confessing to me. They are not.

Years ago, I asked the john who talked about not being ashamed why he wrote me, and this is part of what he said.
When Studs Terkel shows up at the door, the Average Joe asks, "Studs who?" Yet he's created an indispensable repository of American history by asking simple questions. You were my Studs, showing up unannounced at my door, like a census-taker, with three simple questions.
They are confessing to themselves.

6. There are some letters I didn't publish. A few were disturbing. Some were fake.

A few months ago, I received two emails from someone I did not know.

The subject header of the first email was: "I knew it wasn't a dude!"
I read your post on some strip club stories site. I got lost in the article and towards the middle of it I realized how well crafted it was. Then came to the statement: "I cried myself to sleep every night".. then I realized a woman wrote it. If you changed it to "angrily jacked off" I would've just thought it was a man carefully expressing his feelings. I'm just curious why you wrote the article. Thanks!
The subject header of the second email he sent one minute later was: "I just realized you wrote every thing in that blog!"
Haha! You are a talented writer!  Still, what motivates you to write that blog?
I did not sit around writing 118 emails that I was pretending were from other people.

7. One year after I launch each project, I close it to submissions.

Then I start another one. I think after awhile I thought I would stop when I got to five years. But then I thought, well, why would I do that? Maybe I'll keep going.

Letters from Men Who Go to Strip Clubs closes on October 26th. 

The strip club letter that got the most responses was: "I'm a 24-Year-Old Drone."
I get there at 8am. I leave at 6pm, and often times I find myself sitting in the parking lot wondering just where the hell to go. My family's far away, I have no friends to speak of; nothing awaits me at my apartment except Netflix and a couple of cold beers. Despite the overall pointlessness of my life, though, I do feel the basic human need to talk to someone. Not even necessarily to vent about how much I hate where I've ended up (especially compared to my childhood dreams of being an astronaut), but just to have someone who listens. Perhaps that's why I'm writing this e-mail, even.
I love this letter. Other people did, too. A woman sent me an email asking if I would please give her his email address. So she could reach out to him. She wanted to save him. She wanted him to feel less lonely.

Recently I reached out to the Drone.

This is part of what he told me.
Yes, my life is still significantly lacking in the intimacy department.  I know that for most, "intimacy" connotes something sexual, but that's not what I mean.  Compared to the robotic and automated world I find myself stuck in, a simple, friendly conversation is the sexual equivalent of a passionate make-out session; a hug, the equivalent of a group orgy.  I know the tease is still out there at the local strip club, though not the tease most strip-club patrons are looking for.  They want that almost-legal girl to get almost-naked so they can almost-taste that almost-sex that they almost-had that one almost-unbelievable night.  I want that same girl, but I want her to have an almost-conversation with me, to be an almost-good-enough actress to make me almost-believe she's almost-happy, to have an almost-chat about almost-anything.  "Guys" want lapdances.  I just want the time of day.
8. The Letters Project is not not about sex and cheating, johns and prostitutes, fetishes and lap dances.

It's about intimacy.

I know that when I read each letter for the first time. Because that is how it feels.

9. Before I post the letter, I put tags with it. So people who visit the site can see what the most common words are that appear in the letters.

Letters from Johns: alcohol, cheating, condoms, drugs, escort, love, marriage, money, oral sex, porn, professional, prostitute, relationship, sex, virgin, wife.

Letters from Working Girls: client, college, condom, escort, family, internet, love, marriage, men, money, sex, sex workers, strippers.

Letters from Men Who Watch Porn: addiction, adult magazines, anal, dating, friends, girlfriend, internet, masturbation, porn, relationships, videos, virginity, women.

Letters from Men Who Go to Strip Clubs: alcohol, asses, beautiful, breasts, conversation, dancers, drugs, forties, friends, fun, girls, happy, intimacy, lap dances, loneliness, marriage, money, naked, relationship, sex, tips, wife, women, work.

Letters from Cheaters: alcohol, cheating, coworker, husband, love, marriage, men, relationship, sex, success.

10. I have gotten some grief along the way, for doing this project.

People have called my conclusions "twaddle," accused me of misogyny, complained because I am not a sex worker but I am writing about sex work that I am doing something bad. Mostly, I ignore them.

I believe the Letters Project is a mirror.

You can live your life believing someone else's husband is having sex with prostitutes, someone else's wife used to turn tricks, someone else's girlfriend is cheating, someone else's boyfriend is having an affair, someone else jerks off to porn. But it's not about them. It's about you.

Don't you see yourself in it?

Letters from Men Who Go to Strip Clubs is open to submissions through Oct. 26. Letters from Cheaters is open to submissions via email or on Tumblr. All letters are anonymous.