Her revolt against the pruderies and sentimentalities of the world was evidence, to begin with, of her intellectual enterprise and courage, and her success as a rebel is proof of her extraordinary pertinacity, resourcefulness and acumen.

H.L. Mencken, writing about what we would today call a sex worker, in In Defense of Women (1922)

Anyone who writes fantasy, even just as a hobby, will get whacked on the jaw by the real world from time to time, and I’ve just been so whacked. I confess to occasionally using an imagined modern harem as a locus of erotic fantasy. Imagine my surprise at an author coming out with an account of having been an actual harem girl, right at the end of the twentieth century. Well, there is such. Jillian Lauren has apparently done exactly that. Her new book is Some Girls: My Life in a Harem.

some girls

As a teenager rebelling against her middle-class, suburban New Jersey upbringing, Jillian Lauren dropped out of NYU and began first stripping and then doing escort work in New York. Eventually she received an offer to become a “guest” of Prince Jefri, the youngest brother of the Sultan of Brunei, a North Borneo sultanate that opted not to join the Malay Federation in 1963 and ceased to be a British dependency only in 1984. The country has substantial oil wealth, tightly controlled by its royal family. Which means that even younger members have a lot of money to spend on pretty women.

The harem that Jillian Lauren ended up joining wasn’t the enclosed prison of enslaved beauties imagined in Orientalist fantasy. Its 40 or so members were there voluntarily, on temporary stays in guesthouses on the Prince’s estate that would end with their being given “gifts” of jewelry, phenomenally expensive clothing, and envelopes of cash. (Though Jillian Lauren notes with her keen eyes that art alluding to the tradition of Orientalist fantasy would hang on the walls of the cottages — very postmodern.) While they stayed they would attend nightly parties with the Prince. At some point, some woman or another would get the nod to go off with the Prince. Women who pleased the prince more would get greater gifts and might be invited to stay on for longer. Unsurprisingly, this was a system rife with internal gossip and backbiting. Fiona, a more experienced member of the harem, tells Jillian at one point (p. 175):

Are you here to make friends? That’s a mistake. I’m not your friend. Robin [Prince Jefri] is not your friend. Those morons [some of the other girls] are not your friends. The money is your only friend.

Sage advice, as it turns out.

I wouldn’t say the money was a bad friend. Jillian left Brunei with a lot of it, returned to New York, endured various boyfriend tribulations, succeeded (some) as an actress, sought her birth mother (she had been adopted as an infant), and then returned for another tour of duty in Brunei. It makes for gripping reading, and it’s a testament to Jillian’s powers as a writer that the story of her life outside the harem just as engaging as that inside. This was a rare one-sitting book for me, and it’s 339 pages and I’m not the world’s fastest reader.

Though I confess it does leave me perhaps a little wistful that by the age of twenty Jillian managed to pack in more interesting experiences than I had had by twice that age.

There’s usually a passage one takes away from a book and chews over for some time after putting it down. This one was mine, a reflection of Jillian’s on being a sex worker:

There’s a persona you create to fill in for you on the strangers’ laps all day, or to lie forgotten about between the black silk sheets in a prince’s office bedroom. The persona is sexier, bolder, wilder, and inevitably feels less pain than the real you. If she doesn’t, you haven’t done a very good job inventing her. So maybe you start to visit that persona once in a while when you’re not at work. On weekends, you know, just when you’re being socially awkward at a party, or when a friend hurts your feelings or you’re out on a date and feeling vulnerable. And you find out that she helps you, that brazen stripper, that sophisticated call girl.

She then concludes, though “…that girl who wears the thong so effortlessly in public might not be the one making the major life decisions for you.”

I’m just a pseudonymous sex blogger, something which by any measure involves vastly less risk and commitment than being any kind of professional sex worker, and yet I sometimes think I know a little of what Jillian is thinking here…

Very highly recommended.

As a bonus, those of you lucky enough to be subscribers to In Bed with Susie Bright can hear the inimitable Susie herself interviewing Jillian Lauren this week and next. (And those of you who aren’t yet so lucky might want to try getting so, hint, hint…)