THE PROJECTS: YOU WERE MY STUDS
THE PROJECTS is a series focused on reinventing the journalist as an autonomous creator, exploring new avenues for digital self-publishing in a transforming media climate, and inspiring a new generation of creators to redefine how they do business in the digital age. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. The projects section of this site can be found here.
I started The Letters Project on a whim. It was January 3, 2008. At the time, I had no idea the project would last five years, or that it would garner attention from media outlets around the world.
day, I posted a call to my blog, asking readers to send me emails about
why they pay for sex. Within a few hours, I had received my first
email: "The Night I Drove A Call Girl To Her Next Stop." It began, "I am writing because I can’t tell this story to anyone I
know and maintain my dignity."
That afternoon, I created a blog and named it Letters from Johns. "Why do you pay for sex?" the sidebar queried. I posted my email address, asking for more letters. The authors would remain anonymous.
the following year, I heard from over 50 johns. Their letters came at
all hours of the day and night. They were from young guys and old guys,
white guys and black guys, military grunts and corporate drones. The letters were poignant, exhilarated, nostalgic, terrifying, revelatory.
They were all confessions.
"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."*
Of course, the letters weren't about sex, or prostitution, or johns. They were about love and loneliness, from guys who just wanted to be touched and men who had gotten dumped, stories in which call girls really had hearts of gold and mercenaries cruised foreign streets in search of bodhisattvas-for-hire.
On January 14, 2008, I launched Letters from Working Girls.
I heard from fewer sex workers than I
did johns. They were too busy living the life, I assumed. Those I did
hear from had a wide range of experiences. Some were in their twenties
and used the internet to turn cyber tricks. Some had long since retired
and recollected fondly the good old days in which they had sex for
"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."*
On March 10, 2008, the New York Times revealed that then-New York governor Eliot Spitzer had been paying escorts for sex. A few days later, Newsweek
discovered The Letters Project and asked me to write an essay about why
men who have a great deal to lose would risk paying for sex.
"For some men, especially those who are seen as particularly moral or righteous in their public lives (think of all those fallen preachers), part of the appeal is the fact that it is illegal and a moral transgression in their eyes."*
On April 26, 2010, I began Letters from Men Who Watch Pornography. I didn't hear from many men who wanted to examine why they watch porn. Introspection is the enemy of pornography: a literal boner-killer.
"Am I addicted? Yes, probably. But I would rather say that I'm addicted to the world and to beauty. And while not all porn is beautiful (believe me, I know), sometimes a glimmer shines thru it and that is what I'm looking for."*
On October 26, 2011, Letters from Men Who Go to Strip Clubs went live. This iteration begat a great deal of media attention. Salon deemed it "bizarrely poetic," CBC Radio concluded, "men go to strip clubs for much more than just naked women," and the Telegraph found it "startling."
Compared to the letters from johns, the letters from men who go to strip clubs were lighter, more playful, less torn. In some cases, strip clubs functioned as a kind of school for socially-awkward males who couldn't navigate the real world of courting women. In the clubs, they were assured a positive response from the dancers -- as long as they were tipping. The nudity was secondary to the connection.
"The reason I go to places like this is for those moments when they stay and talk. That's all I wanted. They don't have to be naked. They could be wearing a suit of armor for all I care; I just want to talk to someone who cares, and $1 every 3 minutes is a lot less than $250 an hour for a therapist."*
On September 24, 2012, I reached out for Letters from Cheaters.
Adulterers didn't want to talk, apparently. Or perhaps the term
"cheaters" was too pejorative. Maybe part of the thrill was keeping the
secret a secret.
"Sometimes I worry that everything is really just work and performance."*
Every letters project lasted one year. Then I closed it to submissions. Over those five years, rarely did I respond to the letters. I surmised the letters were not for me; they were for their authors.
I did reach out to one john. He was John 21: "I Am Ashamed of Nothing I Have Done." He was ex-military, and he had traveled, and been a john, around the world. He had closed his letter with this assertion:
"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 asked him why he had written his letter and if it had made any difference that I was a woman. He responded:
"I read a piece on Slate or maybe MSNBC about the Spitzers of this world that referenced your blog. I found the concept of your blog akin to one of those Avedon-type coffee table books--voyeuristic and interesting enough to keep it in plain view for guests to peruse while the host/ess is at the bar scaring up some more mojitos or martinis or whatever. So I navigated to the blog, read a couple of the letters and decided I had a story to tell.
We create stories to share, and before I navigated to your blog, I had nothing to share. 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. Although I loathe writing this, I will: 'This is why I sent the letter.
The writing experience was cathartic for so many reasons. The facts of the matter matter to me in such a profound manner. I love(d) the mother of my beautiful daughter, but I had such intense revulsion that she shared our crazy love/sex with someone else that I had nothing other than the 'nuclear' option available to me. While writing the letter to you, I experienced a range of emotions I haven't felt in almost a decade: achingly deep love, disloyalty, loss, freedom, puppy love, freedom... in a sort of linear fashion. I even had a Jenny and Forrest reunion synapse trigger while writing my letter. Although you may have picked up my closet romantic self in the letter, Jenny and Forrest will not be reuniting in an antebellum estate anytime soon. And, yes, I did find writing about my Czech beauty very titillating. I was able to transport myself to another time, carefree and full of wanderlust. I saw the room, I saw her body, and I felt, f-e-l-t, the excitement I experienced. It was wonderful, and as I sit here writing this reply, I feel nothing of the sort. (Too bad.) This is near-clinical, but not quite.
By that, I mean I never considered that I was writing my letter to a woman. You're Ms. Breslin, with a blog about john experiences. Like my several john experiences, I was reaching out to no one in particular; I was, in hindsight, trying to find some elusive unidentifiable emotion. Although I gave you 'a perpetual, royalty-free license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, distribute, and otherwise exercise all copyright and publicity rights with respect to that information at its sole discretion, including incorporating it in other works in any media now known or later developed including without limitation published books,' you cannot take from me the liberating experience you elucidated from three simple questions. Thank you. And again, thank you, if only for a few brief moments of experiencing ... .... ..."