West Virginia woman weaves dark tale of the sex industry

October 15, 2006|By CHRIS COPLEY

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. ? Priscilla A. Rodd's new book, "Surviving Mae West," is not for everyone.

"I tend to fall on the frank side of things," Rodd said, over coffee at a tiny table at the Lost Dog in Shepherdstown. "There's room for what people might consider graphic."

"Surviving Mae West" tells the story of Tess, a 20-year-old West Virginia woman who suffers a sexual assault after her first year of college and goes into an emotional tailspin. She doesn't tell her parents, and the resulting rift drives Tess out of the house to New York, where she finds work in the sex industry.

Tess tells her story in journal entries that are spare, funny, insightful, raw, frank. About a favorite client, Tess writes, "I want clothes. How cool for a man to know your taste and size, and select the perfect dress for you to wear? I know I sound disgustingly Pretty Woman."


About her workplace, a house of prostitution, Tess writes, "Each room is equipped with a powerful shower you can use before and after The Dirty Deed. And one room sports a bidet, which I love. A tower of safe sex spiraling to the sky."

In her private journal, Tess talks about her customers, the acts she performs with them. She discusses body parts. She uses frequent strong language. Her entries are graphic but not pornographic. She is, after all, talking about her ordinary, day-to-day work routine.

"This book is rated R," Rodd said. "(Working in the sex industry) is a very removed existence from the rest of the world."

When she began writing the book, Rodd, 32, of Charles Town, W.Va., followed the dictum: "Write about what you know." So she used her own history. When she was younger, she worked as a cocktail waitress in a strip club in New Orleans. She got to know strippers. She met others in the sex industry.

"I had a friend who was a nude housekeeper ? that's more common than you think," she said. "I was fascinated by this world I was always on the fringe of."

Rodd said she felt safe dipping her toes into the world of the sex industry. For her, it was an adventure, not a dead end.

"Some women were 18 and were there for a few months and then gone. Some were there for the long haul, bodies not in their peak form," she said. "Coming from a strong family, I always felt my stay in that world was temporary."

Rodd's parents are Quaker. She was home-schooled until sixth grade. Her parents have always put their faith into action. Mom is an environmental activist. Dad clerks for West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher.

Now Rodd has a family of her own. Husband Deane Kern is a seventh-grade English teacher in Loudoun County, Va.; he also is a writer. They have two sons, Loki, 3, and Zion, 1.

Rodd said she has a few goals for "Surviving Mae West." For one thing, she wanted the book to offer a model for people who suffer following trauma.

"I would ultimately hope that maybe (military) veterans would read this and see themselves in it," Rodd said. "Tess has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It doesn't have to be sexual ? that was important for me as a writer. Trauma is trauma. I wanted to speak to their experiences, and to respect people with PTSD."

But another goal of the book was to show a young woman exploring her life.

"With men, it's different. You can bike cross-country or hitchhike on railroad tracks. But with women, it's more dangerous," Rodd said. "If you want to be an adventurous young woman, what can you do? Stripping is one way to do that. It's bizarre, but it's safer to work in a strip club than to bike cross-country, if you're a girl."

"Surviving Mae West" is available at Walden Books in Martinsburg (W.Va.) Mall and Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, or can be ordered online at for $12.

If you go ...

Priscilla Rodd will meet fans and sign books at the second annual West Virginia Book Faire, a writers conference and book fair, on Friday, Nov. 3, and Saturday, Nov. 4, in downtown Martinsburg, W.Va. There will be book discussion groups, authors talking about their books, writing workshops, children's events, and an authors dinner. There is a fee to attend some events. For more information, go to

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