Soon after I was asked to guest blog at Feministe I emailed my internet friend Caty to ask if I could interview her for one of my posts. She maintains the fabulous blog The Virtues of Vice and is generally one of my favorite people to talk with about politics or pop culture or pretty much anything. Her thinking and writing is both validating and challenging to me, which is a great combination. I’m sure a lot of Feministe readers will be interested in her work as well. So without further ado, I bring you the first part of our Q&A.
Please us give a little introduction to you and your activism and anything else you feel like sharing.
My name’s Caty Simon. I’m a small town escort and activist. I’ve worked with multi-issue low income rights movements all my adult life, from Arise to Social Justice to the newly founded Poverty Is Not A Crime. I’ve participated in campaigns that prevented the criminalization of panhandling in my town, fought against the then illegal status of needle exchange in Massachusetts, and asked local police departments to consider deprioritizing vice enforcement, as well as many others. A few years ago I was in a Curve magazine feature called Top Ten Dyke Activists Under 25 To Watch (or some other equally unwieldy title.) I’m also a member of the board of the Freedom Center, an organization that fights for the rights of those diagnosed with mental illness, exposes the fraud of the pharmaceutical industry, and the human rights abuses within the psychiatric system. Recently I was on ABC’s Primetime Outsiders representing the mad movement and arguing that those diagnosed can live successful lives without psychotropic medication, and that in fact many of these supposedly life saving medications are incredibly neurotoxic. Most of my activism has focused around sex worker’s rights, harm reduction and drug decriminalization, and the mad movement. I’m a biblomaniac & a biblioklept (don’t lend your books to me), and after many years of being a no-TV prude, I took a cultural studies class a few years ago and discovered it was intellectually credible to like low culture, and now I’m obsessed with The Wire and Mad Men. True Blood has awakened this weird vampire sexual fetish in me. I also have been an unapologetic user of IV drugs. I’m not like you. I’m probably a lot more boring, actually.
Can you talk a little bit about your blog, why you started it and what your goals are?
well, there’s this old notion of what people used to call “the deserving poor”, and I think that trope is still implicitly very much around. When a marginalized group agitates for its rights, it naturally attempts to portray its members as good, noble, and most of all, besides whatever difference coheres them as a
minority group, NORMAL–people whom the mainstream are able to relate to and emphasize with. Deserving. Hence, for example, the Ward & June
Cleaverization of many major LGBT rights groups. So in the sex worker’s rights movement, we have the deserving ho, and in the mad movement, we have the person just like you or I who for whatever reason, because of a period of trauma in their life, got diagnosed and was labeled and forced drugged and mistreated. And since out and unrepentant drug users are such pariahs in a culture in which the discourse around the use of mind altering substances is mostly limited to how badly we’ll criminalize those who partake in it, or at best how we’ll force them into treatment, there IS no deserving drug user by definition.
So as I wrote in my live journal once, “But I’m so sick of thinking of what everybody thinks. Image and image and image. I must be the political poster child, not the sad stereotype, I must. I must be a perfectly wholesome all American girl who just happens to have sex for money. The movement depends on it, right? All the other call girls were so angry at me when I started doing heroin. It wasn’t just concern–I was giving them a bad name…”
Because we can’t talk about the complexities of our identities, the many things that make us Other instead of focusing on single issue microcosmic movements, we can’t talk about the intersections between our various issues and struggles, which I think are vital–for example, the paternalistic Puritan criminalization of both drug use and sex work. So, I decided I was willing to put myself out there as the undeserving Other, and talk about all the marginalized groups I was a part of at once so that I could make these vital connections. Even if that meant allowing the inevitable accusations to be flung at
me–I obviously was only escorting to make money to score drugs, I obviously was only a junkie ho because I was crazy, etc.
I’d written about these things before for many years in a pretty widely followed livejournal, but I wanted to write in a less personalized memoir fashion now, because what I’d found is that many readers from the mainstream kept making excuses for me and seeing me as some sort of exception, the kind of tortured smart girl who indulges in all these bad things but redeems herself as an individual because of the fact that she’s bright and engaging, rather than politicizing the issues and accepting rather than excusing what I was.
One post you wrote that I found particularly thought provoking was about the bad rap pimps get. I did see the pimp as the boss– inherently exploitative even if not abusive, so my economic analysis led me to feel negatively towards pimps in general. Your post really made me re-examine and re-evaluate that. Can you talk a little bit about what a pimp actually, legally, is, and how pimps can play an important role in partnership with prostitutes?
Well, to the extent that I’m a socialist/leftist/Marxist/whatever I’d agree that all labor is inherently exploitative and alienating in some way. But if we’re
defining pimps as employers of prostitutes–the BOSS– it’s interesting that we view them as particularly, brutally exploitative, rather, than say, as impersonally exploitative as your boss at the pizzeria that pays you a bit above minimum wage. And that’s of course, again, a direct result of the fact that the culture sees sex work as inherently degrading and dehumanizing, and thus can’t conceive that any sane woman (this second wave feminist analysis, in
portraying these damsels in distress, conveniently omits the fact that so many men and genderqueer people do sex work, since it wouldn’t fit their lurid story so well) would choose to do it of her own volition, so she must be being forced by an abusive boss figure who must be inhuman and heartless to live off the earnings of such work without qualms.
Essentially, the sex worker’s rights movement is a labor movement, and we’re fighting to work the way we choose. And while that includes the right to be independent entrepreneurs–which is why the Nevada system is not a satisfactory system, because it allows the industry to be monopolized by a male dominated draconian big brothel business which doesn’t even allow the women it employs off brothel grounds for fear that they might turn a trick independently, and uses their virtual imprisonment on the job to overcharge them for every necessity–that also includes the right to structure our work in other ways.
Not everyone wants to work as an independent, taking on all the tasks of running an escort business by themselves–working the phones and screening clients can be some of the most exhausting parts of the job. Other workers aren’t criticized for having managers or bosses. Sex workers should be free to choose to work for themselves or someone else.
But beyond labor issues and into matters of the heart: I think the real tragedy of the taboo of the pimp is how those of us who live off
the black market are isolated from each other.
Legally, a pimp is anyone who knowingly takes money from a prostitute. So that means If you were working and your husband was taking care of your kids, he’d be your pimp. If you had a friend staying with you to escape a domestic violence situation and she wasn’t paying rent she’d be a pimp. Your child could be a pimp! If you have ever given money to anyone, expecting nothing in return, they are a pimp, if they know what you do.
I wrote on my local escorts’ listserv on this topic (and I apologize for how I keep on shamelessly quoting myself!):
“I think we should judge every working relationship, every personal relationship, and every relationship which straddles these two categories
on a case by case basis–not assume what they’re like based on class and race (remember, all the evil pimps of the media imagination are usually
black), based on labels. I’ve had a boyfriend who’s taken care of me by hook or by crook when I’ve been too depressed to work, and I’ve also taken care of him–while he did a bunch of work driving me, protecting me, and all sorts of other stuff. I decided where our money went, but some of it did go to him. I have never thought of him as a pimp.”
It seems like the romantic relationships of drug users and sex workers are constantly written off as abusive and or at least totally dispassionate and utilitarian. When I was still doing heroin daily, an ex-boyfriend accused my relationship with my new boyfriend of consisting only of using each other to obtain drugs. Again, nothing could be further from the truth—the reason that I worked with my boyfriend to obtain drugs for each other is because I trusted and
loved him. In the dangerous world of criminalization, I trusted him to care about protecting me from the police and other people who might want to take advantage of me, I trusted him with the money I gave over to him, trusted that he would split the spoils with me fairly, and trusted that he would watch over me and care about my safety when we injected together. He lived up to these implicit promises, and my trust in him as a driver/bodyguard/running partner was vindicated the one day that I did have a problem with a sex work client–he scared away a client that approached me aggressively, got between me and the
violent person with no hesitation, wielding a tire iron and getting the man to back down. I didn’t choose him as a lover because he was handy to me in terms of scoring drugs, I chose him as a running partner, driver, and bodyguard because I loved and trusted him. In an environment in which drug users and sex workers are reviled and criminalized and their safety is not a concern for most people, it only makes sense to team up with good friends and intimate partners, people who actually do care what happens to you. To paint all these relationships as exploitative and abusive by definition does a huge disservice to the people involved—many of whom are trying to take care of each other in an environment that cares nothing about their welfare.
To survive criminalization, people team up to conquer odds with those they trust most. In a heterosexual context, this can often mean a husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend team. Women make the most in the adult industry, and certainly someone working on the black market makes more than someone who doesn’t, so the woman ends up being the main wage earner (especially since most couples realize that having two people work on the black market in the same household is too risky). Often rather than having their male partners work in the legitimate marketplace while they have to hire some stranger to do call in checks, to drive them to outcalls and do bodyguard work, or worse, have an agency that provides these services take a huge cut out of their earnings, they prefer to have their partner do this backup work for them. And it’s hard to work in a profession so beset by criminalization and stigma all alone.
And yet, as sex workers we’re denied the comfort and safety of working with others whom we trust. Even in countries where sex work is decriminalized or legalized in some way, often “pimping” or “procuring” or whatever the label is is still criminalized. Personally, I can’t imagine living in the kind of cold world it would be for sex workers if it was possible to perfectly enforce these laws. I can’t imagine working my first year on my own without the great women employers I started off with, who started me off with clients they knew and trusted, taught me to protect myself from arrest and other dangers, and told me to always trust my intuition. What they took from me financially was a pittance compared with what they gave. And if I hadn’t had my friends living with me at the time, whom I did partially support, who cooked and cleaned from me and supported me emotionally when I was first entering the business, I don’t know what I’d have done.
Why is the idea of a partner who is part of a sex worker’s business so shocking? Is it because many libertarian or leftists accept and respect the sex work that independent, single indie escorts do,but when we talk about a man in a couple who accepts and abets his partner’s work in the industry, they fall back to old sexist knee jerk responses? Like a “real” man would never accept having his partner do sex work, and would certainly never actively back her up in the business? And if he is doing so, then he must be a batterer? If we were talking about the woman being the main wage earner because she had a high paying straight job, we’d never hear a peep about the man in the relationship, even if he did work for the woman–and if you understand sex work as “real” work, there should be no difference between a woman doctor paying the household bills and a woman escort doing the same thing.
I’m not romanticizing anything. I’m not saying that these relationships can’t be abusive or exploitative. But I don’t think they are inherently so because the woman is working in sex work and her partner receives some of her profits, and may work for/with her. In fact, criminalization protects the abusive partner in these relationships when things turn sour. A woman who is intimidated into giving a man all of her income from prostitution is less likely to report that kind of abuse than a woman who suffer the same kind of treatment who earns money through legal means. And because criminalization makes it hard for women to protect themselves, especially on the streets–most prostitutes do not feel comfortable calling the police when a client physically or sexually assaults them (for example, given a recent case in which a U Michigan law school student was prosecuted when she reported being assaulted in the context of a call, it’s easy to see why). So when they have protection, they are reluctant to strike out on their own, even when the person who protects them physically and sexually assaults them and exploits them for their income.
But I have to say in general I don’t think that our working relationships as sex workers are more likely to be abusive than anyone else’s relationships.
Actually, after I posted that pimp entry, I was talking to one of the good old friends who lived with me at the time and she said she really appreciated that entry because, as she said, “I was one of the best pimps ever!” And I really had to agree. Maybe we’ll come around to reclaiming the term–that’d be fun.
I’m really surprised that in all the coverage of the Craigslist murderer, more has not been made of the husband who saved his erotic masseuse/exotic dancer wife’s life from this monster. The husband obviously knew what his wife was doing for a living, and it seems like he was providing security for her. This is a “pimp” as hero. But we don’t get much about this story–no one has followed up with an interview with the husband or the wife–but whenever we hear about an abusive prostitute/intimate partner relationship, we’re sure to get a comprehensive account.
- Caty Simon and the Virtues of Vice (part two) by Constintina September 6, 2009
- Sex Work and Marriage by Ren July 28, 2009
- International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers by Cara December 18, 2009
- Caught Between the Tiger and the Crocodile by Latoya August 29, 2008
- black girls like us by maia August 4, 2010