by Furry Girl
I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles
by Lily Burana
A few weeks ago, I was doing a purge of my Amazon wishlist. When I came to Lily's Burana's I Love a Man in Uniform, I thought to myself, "Yeah, I liked her book about stripping and her legal fight against stage fees, but I only have so many hours in my week, and it's not like being married to someone in the military is something I'll ever need to know about." I almost deleted it, but figured I'd go ahead and read the book if someone else bought it for me.
Days later, I ran into a guy who I hadn't seem since we had a one-weekend stand in San Diego the spring of 2003. (We hooked up a few days after the US invaded Iraq for Gulf War 2.) As it turns out, he'd recently moved to Seattle, and had even gotten cuter in the last 9 years. We went out to dinner, where he revealed that one of the things he'd been up to since our tryst was that he'd been in the military. I laughed, and I assumed he was joking. What kind of sassy punk street artist willingly signs up for the US military? (I'd seen An Officer and a Gentleman - since when did the military even allow you to join if you have tattoos?) The guy's reasons and experiences are his story to tell, but overall, his intentions were good. I've seen a couple of photos of him from his enlisted days, and it's still hard to believe it's him in the fatigues, sporting a Forrest Gump haircut.
After our date, which lasted until 7 or 8 in the morning when we finally fell asleep, I ordered I Love a Man in Uniform, laughing at myself about how I'd assumed its contents would never even remotely apply to any situation I would find myself in. (This is not to say that I've found love at second sight, and am now plan on marrying my retired military fuck buddy. Don't worry, dude, I haven't gone all bunny-boiler on you! I do, however, like to put effort into learning about the people who share my bed.)
Lily Burana (@lilyburana) is perhaps best known as the author of Strip City, a memoir of her experiences as a stripper and peep show performer, including a legal battle in San Francisco against stage fees. At the end of the book, she has retired from sex work and fallen in love with a cowboy in Wyoming whom she plans to marry. I have always appreciated her fairly contented parting with sex work and activism, and ability to go forward knowing that she'd made a small dent, even if she didn't change the whole industry.
In this second memoir, I think Burana was able to make her specific scenario as "punk stripper turned military wife" universal, and I'd argue it speaks to plenty of aging sex workers like myself and those who are in some way moving from or between a "weird" life and a "normal" one. Here's a passage about Burana's failed relationship with her Wyoming fiance which deserves highlighting:
He wasn't a bad person by any means. He just wasn't in love with who I am; he was in love with who I used to be. I couldn't forget the time he referred to me as his "sexy Playboy model." It was 2001. I had modeled for Playboy in 1996. I was in Playboy in the previous century. If he'd built his esteem for me on something I couldn't possibly sustain, then where could we go from there? There's no such thing as an eternal vixen, even the dorky, alterna-girl variety. You get bored. You burn out. You turn thirty. The job description includes built-in obsolescence. I didn't want to be some post-stripper ghost-bride -- forever toting the shadow of my old self with me through my married life, stunted and soured by my own over-reliance on my past. It would mean living as a twisted Dickens heroine, wedded but locked into the persona I had already outgrown, becoming more snarled and diminished by the day. Miss Havisham of the pole.
There's a lot to like about Burana's writing and her life story, but my big gripe with this book is that "I Love a Man in Uniform" isn't just a title. Her uniform fetishist-level attention to detail for her husband's war paraphernalia takes up a sizable chunk of the book. Many pages are spent gushing about how sexy her man is in his uniform, how sexy his patches and rank insignia are, and how sexy sexy sexy it all is - and with the assumption that of course, readers share this enthusiasm. Burana spends a good bit of time cooing about how military men are so strong and chivalrous and know how to fix things and open jars for women, as though such a list of cliche masculine traits are possessed only by male members of the armed forces, and the rest of us are stuck dating a bunch of sissy boys who burst into tears at the thought of manual labor or dealing with a spider. (In contrast, my own physically strongest and most stereotypically manly-man friend spent his younger days as a member of Queer Nation and participating in anti-nuke civil disobedience.) Burana's occasional reminders to readers that she doesn't support the war or abuses like those at Abu Ghraib are diffused by being intermingled with long passages about how everything to do with the military is just so sexy and so impressive and so manly. (She notes later in the book that she's had a lifelong issue with compartmentalization.) It also annoys me that much is written that suggests that only those serving in the military know the meanings of sacrifice or loyalty, like the rest of the world is filled with useless flakes who have never made any hard decisions or endured difficulties in the name of their ideals. For Burana, the US military embodies all that is sexy and noble in the world.
But here's the thing: if you're decidedly anti-war, and don't get whipped into a heightened state of arousal at the mere sight of camo, you're not going to be buying a book called I Love a Man in Uniform in the first place. A good writer knows their audience. With cover praise from a military publication, and Amazon reviews from people who found the book at their base's commissary, it's clear that this book wasn't written for someone like me.
It's not as though I believe everyone connected to one of the tentacles of the military is an evil person. My father and both of my grandfathers are veterans. A number of people in my social circles work for defense contractors. One of my most silly and joyous friends does nerdy stuff for a company that also makes cluster bombs. And then there's my new ex-military fuck buddy. The thing is, I care for and appreciate these people in spite of their work for the military, not because of it. I'd never say, "Hey man, can I lick the corporate logo on your paycheck from Raytheon? I'm going to picture that when I'm masturbating tonight."
But, even with all the book's girlish squealing about how sexy and manly military men are, Burana does have a solid and serious journey underneath that I enjoyed reading, including her time in therapy to deal with PTSD from childhood abuse. My favorite chapter, of course, is the one where Burana explores her prior life as a sex worker now that she's had years of distance.
When pondering the complexity of how who I was squares with who I am now, men tend to laugh, but women tend to get agitated. It taps directly into a basic female social anxiety: that a woman's past will cost her a future. Indeed, in some cases, that does happen. (Hi there, Miss Lewinsky!) I did worry that someone might snub me when they found out, and though he assured me that it wouldn't, I worried that it would reflect poorly on Mike. In the face of those fears, I tried to be Teflon Annie. Sometimes it worked.
Still, I didn't fret too terribly much, because I was learning that military people are sophisticated-- more so than civilians assume. They understand what it's like to be judged unfairly. Sex work and soldiering are both flash-point vocations-- rife with public misconceptions and stereotypes.
Then, Burana reminds me of some things I've been thinking about a lot lately:
I don't miss the hustle. When I danced, I thought of the dough in aggregate terms-- two hundred, three hundred, five hundred, a thousand dollars a shift. Only after I quit did I ever break it down: On a two-hundred-dollar night, ten guys paid me twenty dollars each to sit in their lap. Yet if a man at a bus stop had offered me twenty dollars to do the same thing, I would have spat in his face. Context becomes another form of compartmentalization.
Over the weekend, one cam client was particularly annoying, and I only netted $8 from our five minutes of paid time together. It's one of those moments when you step back and go, "What the hell just happened? Why did I put up with someone so rude - who got to see me naked - for less than the cost of a plate of pad Thai? Why should I feel this intruded upon for eight fucking dollars?" Making a couple hundred bucks from the comfort of home is greatly tempered by the realization that it was earned in such a piecemeal fashion. I wonder for how many sex workers that sort of realization is one of the things that inspires them to leave.
And Burana's big question, explored in much of the book,
The stripper life is far behind me and recedes more and more in the rearview mirror day by day. It is, literally, not my business anymore. But the threat of sex-specific scorn wakes me up, reminds me of where I've been. When I hear or read attacks full of fuming generalizations and analyses that are basically little more than finely honed hate, I feel moved to defend my fallen-angel comrades. These are people I know. These are people I love. On their uniform sleeve, combat veterans wear the patch of the unit with which they fought, even decades later. In a less visible way, I do the same: Hey, haters, I served in the porno trenches with these people. Deal. But if I didn't belong there, and I didn't belong at West Point, then where, exactly, did I belong?
Lily Burana ultimately found her sense of belonging in the West Point world with her husband. I'm genuinely glad when anyone from Team Ho finds their true place in the world, whether it's inside or outside of the sex industry. A married life in the military is certainly not the sort of happy ending that I want for myself, but despite that, I think we can all see Burana's tale as a success story.
Buy the book through this Amazon link and a portion of the sales price will go to SWAAY.
Furry Girl: a good time not yet had by all.
- I operate SWAAY.org, an accessible sex workers' rights site that educates the general public about our lives and our issues.
- I've been vegan for 13 years because it's the easiest way for an individual to contribute to less violence, suffering, and exploitation.
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