Over the weekend, Lily Allen announced in an Instagram post, “I slept with female escorts when I was on tour, cause I was lost and lonely and looking for something.” She continued, “I’m not proud, but I’m not ashamed. I don’t do it anymore.” The singer explained that someone had leaked portions of her upcoming autobiography, My Thoughts Exactly, to the Daily Mail and that as a result, an article about her experiences with sex workers was about to publish. So, Allen said, she wanted to get ahead of the story.
Sure enough, on Saturday, the Daily Mail ran an article headlined, “Lily Allen admits she paid for sex with female escorts while on tour following the breakdown of her marriage to Sam Cooper.”
An avalanche of tabloid stories followed. On Tuesday, she attempted to counter the developing media narrative during an interview with the Australian TV show The Project. “It’s not, like, steamy, raunchy, although that’s what the tabloids have made it out to be, as a ‘lesbian prostitute sex romp’–which I guess it was, in a way,” she said. “But it was more about a period of time that I was feeling incredibly lonely and sort of at my wits end. I was looking for anything. Looking for an outlet.”
Allen continued, “It’s not really a salacious sex story, it’s more about hotel rooms and being on my own and being very far away from my kids and my husband,” she said. “In retrospect, I know what was going on. I think I had postnatal depression and my marriage was deteriorating and I found outlets to deal with all of that.” Cue the second avalanche of tabloid stories. A headline from the Independent announced, “Lily Allen defends sleeping with prostitutes: ‘I had post-natal depression.’”
I’m assuming that Allen paid consenting adult sex workers for their time. That she has to “admit” and “defend” that, particularly within the salacious tabloid realm, is unfortunate. As PACE Society, an organization that offers support services for sex workers, tweeted, “There’s no shame in spending time with an escort
#LilyAllen. The only thing shameful is a society that stigmatizes #sexwork & shames people for seeking human connection, pleasure or companionship. Sex Work is work.”
It’s also telling that sex workers are cast aside in this narrative. Allen was, as she wrote in her Instagram post, in a “dark time” but now she’s moved on. She doesn’t “do it anymore.” She’s “not proud.” What about those sex workers who helped her in that “dark time” and served as “an outlet”? After all, the fact of Allen seeing those sex workers will now, in all likelihood, help her sell a heck ton of books. The least she could do is give a nod to decriminalization, right?
Then again, here we have a celebrity talking about seeing sex workers and saying that, while she’s not proud, she’s also not “ashamed.” That is something. It’s also something that this celebrity is both a woman and a mother, no less. Allen’s experiences might marginally inch toward correcting several misguided societal assumptions at once: Sex workers’ clients are not always men; mothers can be sexual; moms sometimes have needs beyond their children. In fact, sometimes moms need things—even sexual things—because of their children. After all, Allen explains her need as arising at least in part from postpartum depression.
But there is something slightly disappointing and detractive about Allen emphasizing that seeing sex workers as part of a mental health problem. When famous men are “caught” seeing sex workers it’s often understood as a pursuit of pleasure (although they do often play the “sex addiction” card, which is a particular kind of mental health gambit). Wouldn’t it be nice to see a woman really claiming her pursuit of pleasure? That said—this is a story that requires a lot of “that saids” and “then agains”—it is nuanced to acknowledge that sex work isn’t just about sex. Sometimes it’s also emotional work, whether or not there is sex involved. If you’ve spent any time listening to sex workers, you know that a great deal of the job can be conversation and companionship. And, of course, sex itself can meet real and valid emotional needs.