Hillbilly Elegy: An Unlikely Sex Worker(y) Memoir

I just finished J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a family and Culture in Crisis. It’s the hot liberal read in this Era of Trump, a well-written book offering a glimpse into a wing of the American family that many of us don’t feel much connected to: the Scots-Irish of Greater Appalachia. I picked it up because I was feeling the need to take a break from sex work writings, but oddly enough, I found myself feeling a deep resonance with many first-person sex work stories.

I know this may sound like a stretch, but hear me out. (And just to be clear, I’m not saying for a second Vance’s experiences are the same as sex work. Just that his dominant themes, observed dynamics, and lived-in truths were resoundingly familiar.)

I’ll make my case, but just a little background first, for anyone not familiar with HE.

Vance was born in 1984 in Middletown, Ohio, once a proud town built by the Armco Steel plant in the mid-twentieth century, which devolved into just another hollowed-out Rust Belt hamlet once the plant closed. But his roots, his social heritage grew out of rural Kentucky. His grandparents migrated north to Ohio to find work, and the trappings of Kentucky hillbilly culture never left his clan.

Vance writes movingly about both the good and the bad traits of hillbilly social life. On the one hand there was the grinding poverty, teenagers having kids and dropping out of high school, drugs, domestic violence, arrests, chaotic homes, and empty bellies. On the other hand, Vance always carried with him a sense of place, of belonging, of right and wrong, of deep loyalty. These attributes both helped and hindered him as he grew up.

But it was the values of hard work and education of his grandparents, especially his grandmother, Mamaw, whom Vance went to live with when he was fifteen, that gave him enough constancy and resiliency to succeed. First he made it through high school, when he was in real danger of dropping out. Then onto Ohio State, the Marine Corps, and finally, Yale Law School. He was the only member of his family to “make it out” of Middleton, and he never forgets that he had to be both lucky and good.

A fine read, but where’s the connection to sex worker stories?

  1. Just as sex workers tell their stories in order to explain themselves, his is the story of the marked outsider making himself understood to the dominant culture. He knows his people, with their rotting teeth, bad credit histories and arrest records, spotty education and employment records, are looked down upon, are sneered at, are held up for mockery and contrast to “decent” society. His story complicates white-skin privilege, in much the same way sex workers complicate the dynamics of power, class, and shame inherent in sexual agency and attractiveness.

  2. Vance offers a nuanced view of both the love and shame he feels for his extended family, whom he feels deeply identified with and loyal to, even as he wrestles with their obvious self-destructive shortcomings. This complicated relationship to identity, the urge, at times, to embrace where one comes from while wanting to hide at others, is one I think many sex workers can relate to.

  3. HE is a profound rumination on the construct of “class,” a heavily freighted term in the sex worker community. The word is often used to describe income and wealth levels, but Vance points to something deeper: values of hard work, commitment to self-improvement, self-reliance, familial loyalty, and discipline. Vance outlines the lifestyle of his mother: living on credit, addicted to drugs, serial husbands, violent outbursts, multiple arrests, and living off others. In contrast, his grandparents, who worked hard, saved money, yet helped family members when needed, they instilled in him a belief in upward mobility, that one day he could and would educate himself out of Middletown. Both his mother and grandparents were poor, but Vance locates in the concept of class a distinction between his mother’s learned helplessness, poisonous resentment, and denial, and his grandparents’ belief that, despite long odds, people have control over their futures. In Vance’s world, the single most important determinant in a person’s life is whether or not they believe their choices matter. These class-conscious conversations happen in sex worker communities everywhere.

  4. While in Yale Law School, Vance did well academically and even made it onto the prestigious Yale Law Review. But he finds himself slow to learn about the other benefit an Ivy League education offers: social capital. Vance had no idea that the true value of a Yale Law degree isn’t bragging rights, but the access to influential individuals. He has to learn fast how to schmooze and network, how to make a good impression at a job interview, which fork to use at a fancy restaurant. I was struck by the similarity to the experience of many sex workers who, while living with stigma, must navigate the worlds of clients who are often much wealthier, better connected, and more educated than they are. Vance was in a privileged position where he was both expected to succeed, and had people dedicated to shoring up his weaknesses. (Not all of us can “phone a friend” from the restaurant restroom when at a loss on what to do with the silly knives and spoons at a fancy interview lunch, as Vance hilariously describes.) But that gulf in social capital between sex workers and their clients can be felt keenly, contributing to feelings that “the real world” is a far-off place we as sex workers might not ever gain access to.

Overall, a well-written book that offers insight into a world many of us have never visited. Recommended read.