Caty Simon and The Virtues of Vice (Part One)

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.

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34 comments for “Caty Simon and The Virtues of Vice (Part One)

  1. Anna
    September 3, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    I remember looking for books about sex workers for my pro-choice/feminist book group, and although we read a thing or two, I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the material. THIS is the exact kind of stuff I want to be reading! Ask Caty Simon to write a book!

  2. Paula
    September 3, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    I REALLY hate it that a person does not have full control over thier body’s. I am all for decriminalizing escorts. It PROTECTS women. I just see people as purtan a holes who hate women and want to put them in thier place- like a grave.
    I think men envy womens sexual power and dominate and shame it.
    I will always sign any patition to get this legalized.

  3. September 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    I have been reading the Virtues of Vice blog and I’m looking forward to your posts here.

    I would quibble a little with the idea that all second-wave feminism is anti-sex-worker. COYOTE was founded in the early 1970s and I remember other feminist thinkers who were down with sex work.

    I think they mostly got left behind as the movement tried to put itself on “safe ground” — like the “deserving” sex workers described above, there’s pressure to make yourself the man-loving, child-loving, moral feminist who just wants to wear a business suit and be a CEO, rather than questioning sexual politics itself.

  4. Victoria
    September 3, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I really enjoyed this. I especially enjoyed her referring to herself as a socialist, and pointing out that sex workers’ rights *is* a labor movement. Alot of socialist-feminists, who began writing only a little later after the radical feminists, are often too harshly critical of the sex industry. Yet, a male Marxist commenting on what is unfortunately assumed as a male proletariat would by NO means condemn unions or other labor movements. Just because he wants, ideally, there to be no proletariat, doesn’t mean he can’t support the proletariat’s fight for self-determination. :)

    (Not to extend the metaphor too far, though, because I don’t think sex work is inherently degrading and in need of elimination like class division. I support sex work just as I can still critique human sex trafficking across the globe and and other, historical mutations of sex work that *are* coercive.)

  5. September 3, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Oldfeminist—I totally get you about the feminist CEOs–when I dropped out of Bryn Mawr, I used to joke that the concept of feminism ended with the idea that women could be CEOs too.
    Sorry about making assumptions about the second wave—I certainly honor Margo St James and other pioneers. But I think in general we can agree there were fewer advocates for sex workers in that time period, even among heroes of mine like Kate Millett. This generation of feminists has the average woman more likely to be a sex worker ally…although I’m sure things got worse during the porn wars than they ever were during the 70s.

    I’m really surprised at how positive the comments have been so far and I have to thank you. I’ve been thickening my skin prepping for flames, to use the 90’s terms. Maybe when I talk more about drugs tomorrow…

  6. Dawn.
    September 3, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I second Anna’s comment: Caty Simon should write a book!

    This was a fresh, interesting, and passionate perspective and I’m looking forward to your next posts.

    I have always had an extremely negative view of pimps, even though I believe in sex workers rights and I think sex work is a legitimate and vastly misunderstood line of work. Literally until I read this, I thought of pimps as either abusers or people who consciously preyed on people in vulnerable positions. I still think this is often true, but after reading your kick ass essay, I will be more hesitant to assume the worst of men and women who are commonly referred to as “pimps.”

  7. laprofe63
    September 3, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Excellent piece! I’m in awe of her courage. I’d be curious to know what she thinks is the biggest obstacle to legalizing sex work in the US and what she considers to be the best route to decriminalization.

  8. Kaija
    September 4, 2009 at 5:36 am

    Excellent post…I enjoyed your thoughtful and eloquent words on both your personal philosophy and experience and the links to systemic issues, such as the labor movement, gender roles, and feminism in general. One big thing I have gotten out of reading blogs and posts by sex workers is an appreciation for the variety of experiences and motivations and work relationships that individual women have as well as the activism and brave speaking out that so many of these intelligent women engage in outside of the daily job…thank you to all of you who put your life into words like this.

    I completely agree with the link to the larger idea of a labor movement, worker exploitation, and the boss/employee relationship. This is something that many people don’t like to look at with clear eyes in their own employment so it’s easier to point the finger and make judgements about others in less socially accepted or less statused forms of work (whether it’s sex work or picking in the fields or doing nails). And gender role expectations and Puritanism must make it hard for sex workers and their partners to build the kind of trusting working relationship that is described here. Anyone who works with a partner knows how hard it is to mesh personal and professional roles and responsibilities and keep the communication going, and it must be infinitely harder while having to contend with the oppressive social and legal factors surrounding sex work.

    Looking forward to hearing more!

  9. Medea
    September 4, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    This was really interesting. Thanks! I had no idea what the legal definition of “pimp” was.

  10. September 5, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    This is an interesting post. I agree that no sex worker or any other professional has the responsibility to live up to a certain image.

    Having been a sex worker (stripper) and known many who were drug takers, however, I’m less sanguine about whether it’s good for oneself or or loved ones to accept this as an ongoing condition.

    Regarding pimps, I agree that working relationships should be judged on a case by case basis, and certainly not based on class or race. I also don’t think we should be surprised about where the stereotypes about pimps, of any class/race, come from.

  11. September 5, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Or better stated: I don’t think we should be surprised that the stereotypes exist.

  12. September 5, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I appreciate the links between the sex workers rights movement and the movement for the rights of those with mental illness. I will have to start reading your blog on a regular basis!

  13. September 6, 2009 at 6:08 am

    Octagalore, most people who profit and/or work with prostitutes do not exploit underage girls. Creating stereotypes by looking at the tiny evil minority within a group of people is what prejudice is all about.
    & actually, heroin/opiates have very few long term bad health effects
    — a mere fraction of those of alcohol. The two big dangers are addiction & overdose, both of which could be much more well managed in a decriminalized environment (pure supply from a legitimate market with which to calculate dose, and no taboo about education re: timing necc. to avoid physiological addiction.) Other bad effects stem from the inflated prices of criminalization and the impoverishment that brings about. I think a major feminist principle should stand here about ownership of one’s body–people take more risks with themselves statistically skydiving or well, crossing the street.Locking people up for longer than murderers or rapists with mandatory min. sentencing for drug crimes or forcing them into treatment through “medicalization” is not the answer. The coercion of those who are not directly harming anyone around them should be anathema to any human rights movement.

  14. September 6, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Where do the stereotypes about pimps come from?
    The girls mentioned in my post, via the New York Times opininon piece

    have been used, abused and molested. There’s no getting around that. And yes, the pimps have greatly contributed to this. I don’t care how you slice it, Pimpin’ is just plain sleezy.
    I certainly don’t want my seven year old daughter to be anywhere near a pimp, strip club or any other sex-related trade. I’m praying for her right now as I write this.
    I don’t know where you’re coming from with this, but I don’t find it in the least bit liberating. WE cetainly don’t want our GIRLS on the streets or anywhere else selling their bodies.
    Thank you.

  15. September 6, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    I don’t disagree with you about decriminalization. I do disagree about whether a significant proportion of those who profit from sex workers exploit them, and about the long term effects of heroin.

  16. September 7, 2009 at 6:52 am

    How about we find each other a bunch more sources about the long term effects of heroin & we can both agree to read the other’s perspective?

  17. September 7, 2009 at 6:54 am

    Also, re: those who profit from sex workers—in your mind does that include *any* dependents of sex workers, as it does legally? Or just boyfriends?
    Perhaps you being a stripper and I being an escort the people we know have had very diff. experiences. I mean, I imagine the club provides for many of the needs that a boyfriend working for an escort does, so they become superfluous and exploitative…

  18. Constintina
    September 7, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    @ Alicia

    It seems like you didn’t read the piece and you’re just here to plug your blog.

    don’t know where you’re coming from with this,

    Um, did you read the interview? Where she explains where she’s coming from? Where she goes into a number of different situations involving pimps that don’t fit your stereotype? Explains what the legal definition is? Says that of course there are pimps that are, well, “sleazy”, as you put it? The awful experiences of some sex workers–with pimps and in general–are not THE universal experience.

  19. September 7, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Caty — re the long term effects of heroin, I’m pretty good with the NIH and an assortment of lived experience, thanks.

    RE pimps, let’s review what I said. “I agree that working relationships should be judged on a case by case basis, and certainly not based on class or race. I also don’t think we should be surprised about where the stereotypes about pimps, of any class/race, come from.” Clearly, I wasn’t talking about children or other dependents, but of how the word “pimp” is commonly understood in the lexicon and as defined in “One who finds customers for a prostitute; a procurer.”

    Possibly, there are “pimps” who are wonderful, caring people, secure in their knowledge that condoms never break, AIDS tests reveal ones up-to-the-minute status, and nice johns who’ve been checked out never turn unexpectedly violent, such that they are OK setting up someone they care about for a mutually chosen business transaction. To the extent one could call the mobbed up dudes, I mean business establishment owners, of the strip club I worked at in LV pimps, some of them seemed like decent chaps as well.

    The fact is that the stories Alicia cites on her blog (and I think it’s unfair to claims she’s simply here to plug it; I linked it and she came to fit it into the context here) aren’t isolated. They’re why pimps get the rep they have, and even where some folks by that name might be the salt of the earth, I have a hard time understanding why the shock and amazement that the stereotype sticks.

  20. September 8, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    My dear, somebody used the post from by blog BEFORE I did. That’s the only way I even knew about this article (sitemeter). I said what I meant.
    Anyway, I don’t think the readers of this blog would be much interested in what I’m talking about in my blog.

    See Above: octogalore says:

    September 5th, 2009 at 2:17 pm – Edit

    This is an interesting post. I agree that no sex worker or any other professional has the responsibility to live up to a certain image.

    Having been a sex worker (stripper) and known many who were drug takers, however, I’m less sanguine about whether it’s good for oneself or or loved ones to accept this as an ongoing condition.

    Regarding pimps, I agree that working relationships should be judged on a case by case basis, and certainly not based on class or race. I also don’t think we should be surprised about where the stereotypes about pimps, of any class/race, come from.

  21. September 8, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Octogalore – I wanted to say about heroin – I was told when I checked into a hospital for detoxing that actually opiates in and of themselves do very little if any damage to the human body. That the health effects which are negative have more to do with a) what it may get mixed with b) dirty needles c) other vulnerabilities associated with addiction (poverty, street level prostitution and its risks, malnutrition, etc.).

    What I find problematic about this interview is what comes across to me as an attempt to obscure some parts of the truth via supposedly edgy declarations. Yes, pure opiates are unlikely to harm one’s body even with long term use. Everything else associated with heroin use? Not actually harmless. And of course, it is obscene that a person who is *in partnership with* and/or a child of a prostitute could go to jail simply for being in relationship to a person who shares economic resources with them. I must be missing all the outrage at loving partners and children of sex workers, technically-fitting-the-legal-definition-of-pimp though they may be. I’ve only ever felt, and seen, objections to those who MAKE a prostitute give them their money, under penalty of violence. Which is a wholly different thing than a prostitute willingly sharing it with someone she loves.

    The fact that a 13 year old girl (or any aged woman) may feel love for a person who pimps her does not make her handing over the money to him a “sharing” arrangement, if she couldn’t also decide to keep the fucking dough without him harming her.

    I find the framing of things like heroin use and pimps-as-misunderstood-loved-ones to be red herrings, and bad faith ones at that.

  22. September 8, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Joan — good point, I know it’s sometimes used in lieu of methadone in rehab. However, street heroin is on average 50% pure, at most. And even when pure, as you stated, heroin is highly addictive, which creates its own issues. So this gets back to the privilege issues Latoya raises in Part 2. If we’re talking about some kind of isolated, medically controlled, either wealthy-person or ideal-world situation that isn’t the kind of thing a poor woman is going to counter in this real world of ours in the next hundred years (bet on it), sure. But alas, we can’t afford utopian arguments.

  23. September 9, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Octogalore – absolutely agreed. I didn’t go into the issue of purity and its unlikelihood because I do think it’s factual re: decriminalization, that drugs could be made safer, in that sole sense, if regulated like in a pharmacy. So people not being able to get “safe” heroin on the street is shitty, but still a side point to me, because as you point out, none of that addresses what is actually happening and who is actually affected the most, in the most negative ways, by hard drug use and addiction.

    And – alcohol is legal. You’re unlikely to get vodka mixed with Drano off the store shelves, for instance – and while I’m glad the already-shitty prison system is not further expanded by people who are buying or selling booze, none of that addresses let alone solves the amount of alcoholism and alcohol-related violence that so many people are/have been harmed by. Nor would pointing out that some people use alcohol without attacking, killing, running over, etc. others.

    *No* people, by the way, use alcohol with *zero* effect on themselves and anyone around them. The whole fucking joy of substances, heroin and booze included, is that they cause physiological and psychological changes (motor skills, pleasure centers in the brain, judgement, etc.). And there is no way to have any of those things affected without also affecting everything around that changed person, including other people. Sometimes the effects are not bad? Yay. Still not an argument for harmlessness or “good clean fun,” as what is also fucking fantastic about substances is the lowering of inhibitions and controls. Which means unpredictability. Which makes claims of predictable harmlessness insane at best and a self-serving lie at worst.

  24. September 9, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Joan — we may be talking to ourselves here at this point :), but I enjoyed your comment and it provoked a thought. How much of blogging about controversial matters from a position of relative security is (a) self-serving and self-validating and how much is (b) a public service towards reducing harmful stereotyping? I think it’s usually some combination of the two, and how worthwhile such posts are depend on the degree to which (a) or (b) predominates.

    I think to be effective, a post trying to do (b) has to be realistic about where the stereotypes come from and whether there is any truth to them, and also look at whether the degree to which they apply has to do with privilege. If the conclusion is that there’s some statistical accuracy there, but it’s still not appropriate to second-guess the individual’s decision, then I think it’s important to make the differentiation between individuals (eg, sex workers’ rights) and an industry or situation at large (eg, the sex industry or the drug industry).

    Otherwise it winds up being a mixed up discussion that loses the forest within the trees. eg, if I were going to do a post about stripping, using my personal situation as a guide, it would be a vanity exercise and a major waste of time for anyone looking for nuance. A few people who wanted to hear a certain verdict or get a hands-on feel for the industry (albeit thru a very limited lens) might find it “validating and challenging.” That’s kind of the concern I have with the OP.

  25. September 9, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Guys, in my blog & here I acknowledge that there is a source for the stereotype of the Iceberg Slim wirehanger abusive pimp, & argue that criminalization is exactly what protects these people.
    & the whole pt. is that things MUST change, in that there should be a pure decriminalized supply of all drugs, so that alcohol–the most correlated to violence, the most damaging physiologically, and up there as one of the most addictive–is not the only legal option.
    & in a decriminalized environment, there would be education about harm minimization & responsibility around the use of drugs that would make the effect towards others negligible.
    Finally, you’re assuming that all my experience comes from a privilege that may or may not exist. I’ve seen street workers more responsible in their drug use than wealthy socialites are in their alcoholism.
    Red herring? Tell that to women who are forced to work alone b/c they don’t want their loved ones to get a felony charge. Tell that to the silent majority of occasional drug users who if caught, get their lives destroyed, and are sentenced for years for a nonviolent act that only affected *them* (most drugs are bought not by addicts but by chippers.)
    & has it ever occurred to you that the media distorts pimps the way they distort sex workers?
    Joan, are you the author of _The Pleasure’s All Mine_? I just finished your book. It brought up really interesting questions for me–and I didn’t close my mind immediately & put the hammer down & say NO PROFESSIONAL SUB WORKING ALONE CAN EVER BE SAFE, PERIOD.
    & Joan, I am not talking abt the battered wife syndrome you describe when you talk about a woman who loves someone who financially exploits her. I’m talking about a functional, loving relationship.

  26. September 9, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Octogalore – and I was thinking of looking for a way to email you because I don’t know if it’s kosher to keep basically just-talking to you (I’m enjoying it but not sure if it’s bad form here? I’m not a super regular commenter at big blogs) – but then I realized what I would say in response to your most recent comment, I don’t know, maybe it’s self-serving of *me* to say it only in private?

    Which is – I think what you say here:

    “it would be a vanity exercise and a major waste of time for anyone looking for nuance”

    applies actually somewhat fairly to both the book I wrote and some of the blogging I do at my own site. And I don’t mean that self-deprecatingly (I’m not really the one to bash vanity, ahem), I just think it’s an objective truth. Which makes my feelings about another thing I wanted to respond to in your comment, I don’t know, weird? Contradictory? Unfair, given my circumstances?

    Hello muddled-ness. What I mean is:

    I think I have a different take on harmful stereotyping of women in the sex industry. Which is to say, I find it harmful that men hate women and feel entitlted to our bodies. The stereotypes about women in the sex industry – that we’re all on drugs, all in it against our wills, or at any rate are too damaged to right-minded-ly choose it freely – my experience is that even when people realize/d all those things are not true about me, it did not make them stop thinking of me as a whore, or stop thinking “whore” is a bad thing. And it surely did not stop any males from hating me or feeling entitled to my body or any other woman’s.

    I think that my view of the sex industry is radical feminist-oriented (that the harms are systemic and universal to class-female, no matter if some individual females have it better or worse) and that this differs from sex worker advocacy (which I understand [maybe misunderstand though?] to be about addressing individual circumstances – which ways is it bad for which of us, and what do we do about each thing to make it better for those of us who could benefit?)

    So I think dispelling stereotypes is indeed useful from a sex worker advocacy perspective. But since it’s one I don’t share, I notice that I have the emotional respose of “what the eff, waste of time.”

    And partly that’s a problem because it’s dismissive – I’d like to be able to see things differently from someone without dismissing her, and I haven’t always cared about that, let alone succeeded at it, in the blog world. I try not to be a dick in that way anymore but christ knows I falter still.

    And partly also why it’s a problem is the aforementioned, muddled reference on my part to unfairness –

    If dispelling stereotypes was an endeavor that never got air time, well, obviously I would not have had a book published. That very thing – hey look it’s an educated, sober, white middle class, got-into-it-when-she-was-older person, whoring it up for fun and (okay technically no)profit(but still)! – is the only reason it was considered edgy and attention-grabby enough to sell.

    And I say that as someone who has some arrogance about my writing skills. An equally or better written book by someone who fit any of the negative stereotypes – from sympathetic to despised – would not have gotten published.

    I’m not sure if my comment now has turned into a one-person circle-jerk, help. I don’t know what to do about the fact that sometimes it bugs me when I see what looks like self-servingness that erases some parts of reality in harmful ways, when in fact I have done the same thing.

  27. September 9, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Caty – okay well a) thank you for reading my book (I’m not being sarcastic) and b) even though I get your point about your open-mindedness and appreciate it (not being facile either) I would not take issue with someone saying “no pro sub working alone can ever be safe.” Technically it’s true. And I don’t just mean in an abstract “none of us are ever safe if we leave the house” way. I have really good instincts and – fuck it, I mean REALLY good instincts, and I am at decreased risk for many other reasons too, but the reason I quit altogether for a couple of years and would never go back to full time is because my great instincts and other lower risk factors did not protect me from a dangerous experience that fucked me up. And it is a true thing for me that I have to acknowledge – there is something about the inherent danger that I am willfully participating in, now that I do sessions again part time. I can’t pretend that’s not true just because it makes me probably sound like I need mental help. I mean, I do need help, ha, what can I say. That’s not the same as me being worthless, or pitiable, or incompetent, or anything else. Nor does it mean I want to get hurt, or would deserve it. It just means – shit’s complicated, and I do the best I can with who I am.

    I don’t disagree that criminalization protects pimps. Also, I’m sorry if my other comment sounded like I was implying you’re in a battered wife situation, like doubting your non-hostage-ness, or anyone else’s. what I meant was that I felt like you were trying to say “this is what a pimp REALLY is, even though a small percent may be dicks like the stereotypes.” And it’s not from TV or movies that I get my hostility towards pimps.

    Maybe it’s such an emotional thing for me that it was really hard for me to take it as anything other than pimp-defending. When maybe all you were actually saying was – it’s not fair that people who are not harming women are also subject to legal prosecutions and punishments exactly like people who are harming women. To me, though, that argument is not – “well this is who pimps really are, so people should re-think pimps,” that argument is “these people are not pimps, and it’s not fair that the law characterizes them as such.”

    Lastly – I think we’re on the same page about alcohol. Heroin, probably not so much, but such is life.

  28. September 9, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    Joan — I sent you my email.

    I realized belatedly that there’s a third option besides my (a) vanity and (b) edification/stereotype reduction above, and that’s entertainment/reading enjoyment. I enjoyed your book, for example. I’m certainly not one to talk about writing in the (b) category — much of my writing about stripping comes from just my own lens and is more about storytelling, capturing some dynamics about customers that I found interesting, and probably some vanity too.

    I agree that being one example of stereotypes of sex workers not being applicable doesn’t tend to help much to eradicate the stereotypes. People usually just slot you into a box of “well you’re not [stereotype] because you’re — [pick it, typically something about background or education].” And yeah, being in the position of selling sex or sex-related actions like lapdances puts one into a category where one can be the basis of assumptions no matter what ones resume looks like. But often getting paid depends on going along with those assumptions, depending on the payor.

    I agree that dispelling stereotypes is useful from a sex worker advocacy perspective. But also that much of that’s a waste of time. As long as women, percentagewise, derive more income from being visual (and that includes marrying “up” income-wise or employment-wise from any starting level, as well as sex work), the stereotypes will be there. My interest is more in advocating that women and men have equal economic power. To me that is the *only* way that the stereotypes go away, no matter how many drug-free Ivy League strippers are out there.

    “I don’t know what to do about the fact that sometimes it bugs me when I see what looks like self-servingness that erases some parts of reality in harmful ways, when in fact I have done the same thing.”

    Oh, but you haven’t. Your book and your blogging doesn’t pretend to wash away all the negativity, doesn’t dress it all up as “pure” and “clean.” You’re out to tell your story, to entertain the reader, to speak your truth. Nobody goes in with the illusion that you’re out to explain away the dark side, using yourself as the shining example rather than one woman telling her story.

    Which differentiates your writing from the OP, IMO. The OP and Part II use expressions like: “I don’t think that our working relationships as sex workers [with pimps] are more likely to be abusive than anyone else’s relationships” and heroin is “pure clean fun.” This isn’t telling a story, it’s an attempt to persuade, without perspective.

  29. September 10, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks for all the kind words, seriously. And thanks for reading my book in the first place. It never gets old for me, that anybody ever reads the thing, always gives me a rush, ha.

    agreed about first person writing being potential entertainment and that being a value in its own right. I still have weird feelings about my relationship to all of that. To be honest, I think I am one of the only truly sex-negative people I know. In that it’s never de-politicized for me, it’s not possible for me to sexually (or in any other way but somehow I’m obsessed with the sex part) interact with anyone outside a framework that already troubles me. White male supremacy is what we’re in, and though I do believe in resistance, I won’t be able to ever undo mine or anyone else’s induction into it, and the effects that has. Plus most people don’t see problems where I do, so that puts me at odds too, hence the sex negativeness.

    There are some pretty easy laughs to get if you’re a physically-mostly-graceless, at-times-emotionally-awkward person like me, having clumsy sex, especially in kink. I don’t mean that like “oh my god I’m an ugly duckling please everybody reassure me,” I just mean I never have had that everything-goes-smoothly-and-I-look-“sexy”/graceful-doing-it pizzazz when up against other people’s bodies.

    So the crabapple knee jerk feminist in me is like, okay, I can understand why I might think “this could be funny to write about” but outside of instances of sarcasm, I’m not a social-critic type of humor-having person. I mean I’m not someone who does political satire in any way. When I’m joking around about personal sex stuff, I’m establishing a baseline that I don’t even agree with myself – that the only thing imperfect in that given snapshot is how smoothly it didn’t go, tee hee.

    At the same time – my sister’s a stand up comic, and going to shows with her, seeing her and her friends do their sets, I could never fawn enough over them to express the full extent of how honestly – corny, sorry but true – healing/restorative it was for me to just get to laugh that fucking hard. and none of them were radical feminists, hello.

    I think it’s that, I feel like there’s this weird thing around people who write openly about their own sex stuff, where some kind of authority is almost automatically granted them, and words in written form are given so much weight by a lot of people to begin with. Like, hey now I’m a “sexpert” because I gabbed about spanking and selective dick sucking. Instead of reality being its own kind of authority, being acknowledged *as* reality, rather than distorted and spun for personal gain.

    Reality is I had a lot of super ugly, soul-crushing experiences doing full time pro kink. But was not able to get a publisher until I cut most of that shit out of the book. And now that book is looked at (not so much by others in the pro kink world, ha, but very often by “outsiders” to kink) as an authoritative account of pro subbing. And an entertaining one, so I’m told. And it’s not a book I would write today, not jokes I would make today.

    That may make me a dud in some people’s books, but that book’s very existence makes me a liar, retroactively, in a sense. How’m I supposed to balance the fact that I do think almost everything is worth joking about, that people laughing about stuff with each other has value, but there is rarely room to simultaneously respect the whole, the reality of everything? And that even though I know there’s a difference between me focusing on lighter-hearted stuff and someone else perhaps intentionally obscuring harms done out of a vested interest in their continuance, the effect is the same? It goes unseen/unremarked upon.

  30. September 10, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Yeah, I kind of hate sex workers that set up shop as “sexperts”. (& sex is so fluid, that while we can argue that sex workers have to have a certain set of skills and/or attributes, different ones work for different people for diff. clienteles, & to universalize a certain set of tricks is to limit other people’s exploration. Actually, I think a lot of my clients bore me to tears lately b/c they’re not following their own desires, they’re emulating porn.) My ex-gf, Melissa Gira, writes a really good essay about the slow death of the authoritative “sexpert” as cultural phenomenon. Hurray for that.
    I have to say, Joan, one reason I really liked your book was how unabashedly personal it was, so I’m glad you let us see all your clumsiness.

  31. September 10, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Is there any place we can read the material about the ugly stuff? Would you want to blog it? I spoke to a friend yesterday who showed me her ass, all striped up. Turns out she’d seen a sadist client. She’s an escort like me, but she’s been doing it for less than a year, not 8 years, and I feel like she has a very rose tinted view of human nature, so I don’t feel comforted by her statement that she felt like she had an understanding with the person, that he would check in, etc.. (He didn’t even take the time to warm up her ass with that riding crop, just went whalloping away.)I was really concerned for her & expressed that, told her if she was working in any kind of group location it might be different, but…I didn’t want to be absolutist, so I did mention recently reading your book, but I DON’T feel she has the instincts you do. I’d love to be able to point her in the direction of the whole story, b/c she mentioned wanting to work in that way more, and she is a switch in her personal life.
    Why do you think that the publishers didn’t want the totality of your experience in the book?

  32. September 10, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Oy, Caty. First, thanks again for the kind words about my book, I’m glad you liked it, truly.

    The ugly stuff…maybe I’m being too generous towards myself and the reasons they wouldn’t publish it was because it was banal? I did hear “this is too depressing” I can’t remember which thing I took out after that feedback from a publisher via my agent. Then at another point my agent said “can we cut back on the crying? Seems like you’re crying in every chapter right now, what the eff!”

    So that was the book thing – unless it’s like salacious-ugliness (somebody famous reveals abuse/horror, like Linda Lovelace in ORDEAL), publishers want the arc to generally be more uplift than debbie downer.

    But as far as ugliness that *happened* (versus why it did or didn’t get published) – I’m guessing there’s a commonality of sorts throughout the industry? Maybe similar to how what was shitty for me as a waitress at Marie Callendars was what would be shitty for anyone waiting on the public, even though the particular restaurant I worked in had specific awfulness (I had a glass of dirty water thrown in my face for asking one of the assistant managers not to tell obscene “jokes” in front of me for one example).

    I mean, at the base of all the ugliness is the same thing – male clients dehumanizing me. Whether it be coercing acts I had not consented to, stealing money from me by hugely under-paying back in my cringe-worthy naive days of taking someone’s word for it when he said “I just want to play for as long as we want, and I’ll pay you at the end” (meaning “I don’t know how long we’ll play for so I won’t know how much to pay you until the end,” when in fact he knew all along he intended to pay me for one fucking hour, period), having horrible hygiene while expecting me to get within 10 feet of them…just, all the ways a male can convey: I matter, you don’t – not here, and not anywhere. I’m the kind of irritating radical feminist who thinks that is inherent to the sex industry – inherent in the perfunctory access to some women’s bodies at all times that males are currently guaranteed, via both consensual and non-consensual parts of the sex industry. I think the “I matter, you don’t” thing is inherent to white male supremacy everywhere, all the time. You just don’t see a lot of movies or memoirs about how quirky or romantic or glamorous it can be to service humans who have more power than you in any other way except the way females serve males in the sex industry. It seems to be the only such set-up that has the nerve to bill itself as harmless fun.

    As for your friend – I feel like the bottom line is – nobody has good enough instincts to prevent misogyny, basically. It’s like – self defense is a great skill, but it doesn’t make *men* less dangerous towards women, or less hateful, nor can it ever protect infallibly. But if you or your friend ever want to talk specifics that you think might be more helpful, my email door is always open. joandotkellyatsbcglobaldotnet. For anything.

    Um, I feel like I should tell you this since we’re having a friendly exchange now – sorry for the awkwardness of it – I got mad when I read your reaction to the movie “The Girlfriend Experience” and I expressed that anger in a post at my place. It was many days ago, but I thought, what if she goes to my blog and sees that and then thinks I’ve really been like “eff her” this whole time, instead of there being a, uh, timeline, and, uh, some earlier hot-headedness. Anyhoo, there you have it.

  33. September 11, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Caty – got your emails, will respond soon.

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