As you know, today our class was supposed to discuss the 2008 economic recession and the subsequent bank bailout. We were supposed to discuss liquidation squeezes, credit default swaps, toxic assets, and the real estate bubble. We were supposed to discuss the Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns and Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac. I had a PowerPoint prepared that included clips from The Wolf of Wall Street and a group activity about the concept of subprime mortgages using Pop Rocks and cream soda.
But, unfortunately, today we will not be discussing the 2008 economic recession or the bank bailout or how all of this relates to the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999. In fact, Principal Dickson will be addressing my sudden departure from Ron Jeremy Public High School at Friday’s assembly. He may tell you that I have accepted a spot in a prestigious Economics PhD program in a very far away state, Alaska or Florida, or maybe abroad, New Zealand or Wales or Switzerland. He may tell you that my mother is ill, pancreatic cancer, heart failure, a severe stroke, and that I must go home to Connecticut to care for her and my elderly father. Or he may tell you that I simply disappeared, without any notice whatsoever, and that it is a reflection on my moral character that I would so abruptly leave behind my hardworking and dedicated students without saying goodbye. I don’t know what Principal Dickson will tell you, because I don’t yet know what lie he and the rest of the administration have settled upon.
But I want you to know the truth.
The truth, just discovered by the school’s PTA and brought to the attention of Principal Dickson, is that there was a period of time in the late 1990s when I was not Mrs. Bennett, 12th grade US History/Government/Economics teacher at Ron Jeremy Public High School in Chatsworth, but rather, an actress. An adult film actress.
I want to clarify a few things for all of you, assumptions based on stereotypes and tropes regarding the porn industry. I did not come from a troubled home. I was not abused by my father or abandoned by my mother or addicted to drugs. I was not trafficked, a wholly awful and far more pervasive practice now than in the late 1990s and one which I have spent much time and many resources fighting against. I did not find myself in those studios because I had no other options.
I made a choice, an economic choice—as did many of the other actors and actresses I worked with and as you will one day when you enter the workplace. Remember, I was young, only a few years older than all of you, and the decision to become an actress in the adult film industry seemed like a good idea. I imagined the job as exciting, dynamic, and it at least had the potential to be financially lucrative. I wanted to be part of the world of P.T. Anderson’s newly released Boogie Nights, even if it did depict an earlier era in pornography, an earlier culture. And I’ll be honest. I liked the idea of being paid to engage in sexual activities on screen. It felt empowering for me rather than degrading.
That likely would have been the end of it—a naïve youthful fantasy, a rude awakening to an industry that did not want to hire me, and then something else. But in January 1998, the story about the scandal involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky first broke, and when the world learned of the alleged affair between President Bill Clinton and his former twenty-two-year-old intern in what was alternately referred to as “Monicagate,” “Lewinskygate,” and “Tailgate”—as you should all recall from last semester, ending scandals with the word “-gate” was popularized during the Nixon administration—in any case, when the world learned of the details of this incident, it simultaneously became the catalyst for my own success.
This may seem unlikely now—believe me, I am aware of how age has greyed me, wrinkled me, weighed me down—but in the year 1998, I was a near doppelganger for Monica Lewinsky. I had the thick dark hair, the grey-green eyes, the toothy smile, the ample bosom. Soon my agent’s phone was ringing off the hook.
The adult film industry of the late 1990s understood commodification perhaps better than any other, mastered the principles of supply and demand and efficient distribution like no other business. They knew what their consumers wanted, and they produced it in mass quantities for a fraction of the cost of Hollywood blockbusters. Producers made millions of dollars for my roles in The Oval Orifice, Here Cums the President, and Commander in Queef, and I shared in the wealth, the abundance. We sought out international markets, shooting Ceci N’est Pas Une Bite for release in France and Belgium, and in an appeal to the increasing number of Hispanic and Latino people in the United States, we shot La Casa Blanca for our Spanish-speaking audience, though most copies of this film were soon recalled due to video stores too frequently placing them in the Classics section.
I worried, correctly so, that my career would be short-lived, that my stardom was due to my resemblance to a public personage whose infamy would eventually be replaced by somebody else, and so I made smart financial choices. I set up an IRA and invested in mutual funds, unlike the actor who portrayed Bill Clinton, who believed his celebrity would never fade away. But indeed, after the President’s acquittal and with campaigning for the 2000 election soon in full swing, the Lewinsky story was no longer fresh. The new trend was horror porn about the pandemic of mad cow disease moving through Europe, and Bill Clinton’s porn doppelganger, Willy Johnson, had to move back into his parents’ basement.
Though my career in the adult film industry was all but over, in portraying Monica Lewinsky and researching more into her life, I found that I had a penchant for history. Hence why I am standing before you, a teacher for nearly twenty years, a teacher who has loved nearly every moment of the work she has done at this school. I was always concerned this day would come, that even with all the precautions toward anonymity I took, some parent or student or fellow teacher would stumble upon my former career. But I had also hoped that by the time this past self of mine was discovered, we, especially in Los Angeles, would be progressive enough for this information not to matter.
My only regret is my potential contribution to the continuing defamation of Monica Lewinsky’s character, for which I feel a constant, intrepid sense of guilt. If you have not watched Ms. Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk entitled “The Price of Shame,” I would encourage you to do so. She speaks with great eloquence and grace about the long-lasting and detrimental effects of cyber-bullying and notes that she in particular faced “mobs of virtual stone throwers.” Her affair with Bill Clinton, though consensual, was an abuse of power. The late 1990s first saw the widespread influence of Internet news sources and, as a result, Internet gossip.
As your soon-to-be former teacher, I want you to know that I am not ashamed of the decisions I made about my own body. I am not ashamed of who I was in the late 1990s, and I am not ashamed of who I am now in the spring of 2017. I can only hope that with time, women will be given the respect and agency that they deserve.
Will one of you please open the door?
Principal Dickson—how serendipitous that you have shown up at this moment, and yes, I see that you are adjusting your tie and clearing your throat and on the verge of saying something that you feel to be very important. I would just request of you, for modesty’s sake, to zip up your fly before you continue…that’s better.
Class, do you remember in the first weeks of the semester when I introduced Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism? The notion that the value of an action is derived largely from the pleasure it produces or the pain it prevents, or in economic terms, the amount of utility generated? As a thought experiment, I want you to consider a scenario in which a school district—LAUSD, for example—paid out a large sum of money in the settlement of a harassment lawsuit—around a hundred thousand dollars to a female teacher—to protect a single one of its employees—a principal at a public high school in the northwestern San Fernando Valley. What would be the economic logic behind this decision?
The answer, of course, is that the utility of this action was not based on the principal’s value, as said principal should be easily replaceable, according to the concept of scarcity and the realities of the job market in our current day and age. Rather, the utility of this action was based on the value of the accompanying non-disclosure agreement that would prevent the school district from facing scrutiny, humiliation, and disgrace in the public eye. The problem with this assumption of value under economic utilitarianism was the assumption of value’s permanency and stability. At the time, maybe the plaintiff, this female teacher, had deemed the terms of the settlement to be worth honoring the NDA. But let’s say, at some point in the future, the plaintiff changed her mind. What if she decided it more valuable to break the NDA and suffer the resulting consequences in order to have her story told?
Whelp, that’s the bell. You’re free to go. Enjoy your lunch—I hear the cafeteria is serving chalupas. And Principal Dickson, I’ll see you at Friday’s assembly. I think I’ll be attending after all.
Michelle Meyers’ writing has been published by Juked, decomP, The Adroit Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. In addition, she has received awards and honors from Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Wigleaf. Meyers was a 2015 PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellow in Fiction and is a graduate of the University of Alabama’s MFA program in Creative Writing. Her debut novel, Glass Shatters (She Writes Press), was selected as an Editor’s Pick in Literary Fiction by Foreword Reviews. She currently resides in her hometown of Los Angeles, CA.You can follow her on Twitter at @themichmeyers.