A Nation of Sex Workers: An Interview with Tracy Quan

by Caty Simon on March 5, 2013 · 3 comments

in Activism, Interviews, Prostitution

photo taken by Stanton Wong

photo taken by Stanton Wong

I’ve been reading Tracy Quan since before I was a sex worker, when a prequel to Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl was serialized on Salon.com, and I’ve been chummy with her online since 2003, when she graciously replied to my e-mails. I’ve learned so much from Tracy, her callgirl comedy-of-manners novels, and the quirky takes on sex work, relationships, and public figures in her articles. I imagine many of us have.

One of the first of the sex worker literati, Tracy was also one of the first to successfully transition from out sex worker and sex workers’ rights activist to in-demand freelance writer, modeling a career trajectory that helped bring our voices to the mainstream. Yet, her street cred as part of the sex workers’ rights movement is unimpeachable.  After reading about the history of PONY (Prostitutes of New York) collaborating with ACT-UP in the 90s, I asked Tracy to talk about her involvement with PONY’s work during that era, as well as many other things.

You started working quite young, at 14 years old, as a way to gain financial independence from your live-in older boyfriend and your parents. Nowadays, there’s a whole lot of tangled discourse about youth sex workers, from a law in NY state that may be able to retroactively erase youth convictions , while another NY State law  diverts those now arrested into “state protection”, to anti-sex work feminists shrieking fallaciously that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13, to the sex workers’ rights movement trying to figure out a way to help homeless queer and trans youth who subsist on survival sex. As a former teenage sex worker, what do you have to say about all this?

Because I started at 14,  I never got around to internalizing certain things, like the virtuous woman who looks down on the prostitute. I didn’t have time to! I worked with girls who learned how to be what I call “mainstream virtuous” in their teens and early 20s. When they began hooking, they had to come to terms with losing their  mainstream virtue. I was spared that experience, but if you began maturing a bit early, you realize you’re not the norm.  You don’t expect everyone to be just like you, and you wouldn’t force your experience upon others. Late bloomers are less self-aware, and they very often think they know what’s best for everyone.

If prostitution were legal, we could talk about having the age of consent for commercial sex equal to the general age of consent. But I’m afraid this could result in some bright bulbs trying to raise the age as high as possible for every human activity.

It’s appalling to think that people get arrested before 18 and stuck with a criminal record for prostitution, so erasing a conviction makes sense. However, it’s just as appalling when it happens to adults. What we see is teenagers being used as an excuse to crack down on the entire industry. I noticed this when I was a teen, and it’s only gotten worse in recent years.

Teenagers often recoil from things that are intended to be helpful. Being housed by the state in a location you did not choose sounds demoralizing, and it’s often dangerous. We prefer to live with a companion, however temporary, who has no legal authority over us. The boyfriend or customer of a 16-year-old cannot legally prevent that teenager from finding a better deal. In all the options offered by the state, a teenager is dealing with adults who have far more legal power than a customer or a pimp. For some teenagers, that would be reason enough to run away.

You were the first sex worker writer I knew to emphasize the importance of secrecy. Instead of talking about the coming out narrative, like a lot of sex workers in the movement do, you wrote about keeping your work identity and your private identity separate, and the importance of the choice to hide your work even from those closest to you. Why do you think this particular choice is so little focused on in the movement? Can you talk more about the liberation of secrecy for sex workers in general?

Why aren’t we also saying that criminalization makes it harder to keep your job private? Let’s say you’re on the street, you pick up a celebrity and you both get busted. Your face is all over the media, as we saw with the lady who picked up Hugh Grant in the 90s.  If you got busted for running an escort agency in the 80s, your face was on the cover of the New York Post. Now that the internet splashes these things around more widely, and we get spam offering to tell us which of our friends or neighbors has broken the law, with considerable emphasis on sex laws, I think the argument that we hide our work because it’s against the law is beginning to sound like a 20th century trope.

This idea – that our need for privacy is a symptom of illegality – sprang up before the internet was part of our lives. Facebook didn’t exist when 20th century prostitutes were developing their political rhetoric. So now I think it’s more likely that legal reforms could be seen as a way to take back some privacy, because people everywhere – including sex workers and their customers – are feeling freaked out about their privacy.

I know we say that sex work is work, but sex work is also SEX. I don’t know everything about my parents’ sexuality—and  they’re open, liberal people. A sex worker might not want her kids to know all her business because parents need to retain some mystery in order to be respected. A sex worker might not want the local dry cleaner or the man who repairs her air conditioner to know she has sex for money—but that might have more to do with erotic boundaries than the law.

These creepy web pages created by police departments. The rise of the commenter which has its most problematic manifestation on escort review sites. The 24-hour news cycle. These things didn’t exist in 1975, when our big sisters occupied the churches in France and put us on the map. But some of our rhetoric, even coming from newer voices, has a 1975 quality. When I hear activists ranting about how we should come out of the closet, I feel like I’m in the presence of the thought police. In 2013, people are more interested in reinventing privacy than they are in some fanatical version of liberation.

You’re kind of the beloved black sheep of the sex workers’ rights movement. You’re an unabashed capitalist, and, while most sex workers’ rights activists are leftist feminists, you’re more of an idiosyncratic independent when it comes to politics. (How would you define yourself politically, anyway? As one of those partisans obsessed with labels, I’ve always wanted to know.) There are a few other sex workers’ rights activist who are politically closer to you, like Maggie Mcneill, but mostly you’re the odd one out. How do you negotiate your political difference with the rest of the community?

I really like Maggie—she knows all the words to Jesus Christ Superstar!—and we retweet each other, but our politics aren’t that close. Maybe that’s the narcissism of small differences, but I never look for allies who are just like me. Those are the worst political friendships.

Capitalism? I’m not a crank worshiping at the altar of the free market, like some people we know. But I
enjoy the marketplace, and I don’t think markets are simply imposed upon us. A market is as complex as the people who create it – and we all play a role in creating it, whether we’re rich, poor or somewhere in the middle.

I went through a feminist phase, which inevitably meant dabbling in prosex feminism, followed by my 90s antifeminism. Now I’d be described as nonfeminist.

My particular vice, as an activist, is talking to people who hate each other, hoping they’ll work together. An earful of righteousness from two sex workers who want to expel each other from the movement is a quick and dirty political history lesson, and though I’ve been moved to tears by such incidents, I can also laugh at myself. I’m not ready to define my politics because I’m constantly rebelling against myself, but I do have one sacred cow. I was on a radio panel with Ron Weitzer [ author of Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business] who said street prostitution should remain illegal. I made it clear I’m rabidly in favor of the right to work on the street – though I didn’t use the word rabid on-air.

During the commercial break, Ron tried to bring me around to his point of view. I said, “Ron, I’m a fundamentalist. It’s not going to happen.” Kind of surprised myself. Didn’t know I was a fundamentalist until I said it! That puts me on the left, if you think of the street as a class thing – or maybe on the right, if you see the persecution of streetwalkers as a war on small business.

One of the first things that attracted me to you as a writer was the way you affectionately satirized the sex workers’ rights movement in your novels, like the scenes in which your hyperfeminine protagonist Nancy Chan is aghast at the activists’ unshaven underarm hair and disdainful of women with a month or so of camgirl work under their belt speaking for career sex workers. These days, what strikes you as absurd about the sex workers’ rights movement? What do you most admire?

We’re so PC in the US, and I love the way we keep finding newer, crazier ways to be politically correct.

I’m pretty infatuated with the size of the Indian sex workers’ movement. They have the most insanely huge numbers! When Americans hear about it for the first time, they think it’s a typo—65,000 members in West Bengal ‘s Durbar, for example.

Recently, we’ve heard a lot about India and sexual violence, we’ve seen the women protesting, and the MSM tells us this story about how India’s a terrible place to be a woman. OK, but prior to these protests, there have been many other marches involving hundreds, sometimes a thousand, female sex workers – and violence is one of the issues they’re confronting.  In August, there was a procession through Sonagaatchi, Kolkata to celebrate the Sex Workers Freedom Festival and the politicians who came to  SWFF were courting the sex worker vote. India’s more complex and varied than Western media manages to show, and hey, the prostitutes marching in the street for the last 20 years have something to do with that.

Can you tell us about your involvement with the early sex workers’ rights organization PONY (Prostitutes of New York) in the 90s?

I was an indie call girl in a circle of independents, with a few madams, scattered around Manhattan. We saw ourselves as the norm, and anyone who worked outside our  milieu was on the fringe of this cloistered microcosm. Most of my co-workers weren’t into activism.

So it was eye-opening to get involved with PONY. It shook things up for me. I met people who worked in peep shows, in different kinds of brothels and dance clubs, on the street, in the domme sector. There were phone sex workers at our meetings. I also had a chance to meet guys who sell sex, and you rarely meet such guys if you’re a private call girl – well, that was my experience. I loved having contact with people outside my scene and I developed this feeling that we’re like a nation, with provinces and constituencies, but still…a nation of sex workers.

Vic St Blaise was a San Francisco escort who published a quarterly called Whorezine, using a black and white photocopier, white paper, staples – it looked very fresh and home made at the same time. Whorezine was full of the latest activist news and these helpful bits of wisdom and etiquette he would share with his readers. He came to New York for awhile, chaired a number of PONY meetings and was very good at bringing people together, building the group. Vic is a special person, throws himself into something,  nurtures it, and then he’s onto something new. I have never heard a bad thing said about him. Ever. That’s kind of amazing for this movement. There’s a lot of tension and gossip, as you know.

We had some incredible meetings at the Harmony Theatre in Tribeca. When we met at GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis), it was like a civics class. If we met at the Harmony, which was a lap-dancing club, there was a charismatic feeling. We often met at Annie Sprinkle’s apartment, and we actually sat around stuffing envelopes once a month, to announce our meetings. This might sound like a nuisance, but it was an opportunity to meet in someone’s home and create a community by doing something practical. I’m really grateful for the internet, don’t get me wrong – but the paper-era movement had its high points. I remember seeing these charming handwritten notes addressed to PONY with an Olympia, WA postmark… something to do with the Riot Grrls.

Talk to me about your preoccupation with the figure of Mary Magdalene.

Well, it cracks me up whenever someone tells me that Mary Magdalene wasn’t “really” a prostitute. That’s like saying Barbie wasn’t “really” an astronaut. Mary Magdalene comes up briefly in my first novel. She’s a troublemaker in my third, Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl. She’s not some new age healer, she’s disruptive. Last week, Melanie Chisholm, a former Spice Girl, won the What’s On Stage Award for her depiction of Mary Magdalene in  the Jesus Christ Superstar UK arena tour. She’s completely different from Yvonne Elliman, who was the original singer on the concept album, and a perfect choice for that era. Mel C’s Magdalene feels right for today, and her attitude reflects the things we’re going through now.

You’ve made the surprising point many different times in many different venues that prostitutes and other sex workers can actually be kinda prudish in some ways—learning, as we do, to spill the champagne at the club instead of getting soused at work and to dole out paid sex in a disciplined manner. Sex workers are often more wary and less impressed by the glamor of transgression for transgression’s sake. Can you tell me more about how we differ in our approach to indulgence and relationships from non-pros because of these factors?

Well, the great thing about sex work is that it  frees you from having to prove how “liberated” you are. (How’s that for an  old-fashioned word!)  The Bend Over Boyfriend craze struck me as one of the most demanding new trends when I  heard about it. I mean, if straight couples are really loving this, good for them. But my industrial insight was: ‘this is a manufactured kink.’ There are not, in fact, all these wives and girlfriends who truly want to play such a masculine role. It’s too much like work and it’s unromantic. I think the trend was driven by purveyors of Bend Over Boyfriend equipment, and may have tapped into  “transgression for the sake of transgression.”

That’s funny, because using strap-ons on guys has always really turned me on, even before I heard about the Bend Over Boyfriend series. But I hear you about “manufactured kinks”—some specialized BDSM equipment I hear about seems to create kink to accompany it, rather than the more organic process of a kink creating demand for props to perform it.  (Also, I kinda wish it was the 70s so I had the excuse to use the word “liberation” more often.)

You can like something for yourself and realize that a mass market trend does not do it justice. I’ve heard wonderful things about the 70s. It’s the decade in which prostitutes come of age politically, everyone’s suddenly bisexual and women start getting equal access to mortgages and credit cards. It sounds kinda thrilling, but I’d like to paraphrase my fictional character Nancy Chan and give her the final word: Nobody is more a product of her time than the working girl who wants to return to an earlier one.

Correction: In the first question, I originally made the mistake of thinking that the Safe Harbour Act would vacate youth prostitution convictions. An astute reader wrote in to correct me. In fact, The New York Safe Harbour (sic) Act doesn’t retroactively erase past convictions. There’s a separate law that might, the New York Vacating Trafficking Convictions Act, but it has yet to be applied by the courts to people under 18 who have not experienced force, fraud, or coercion, so, really, it applies the same standard as for adults. The Safe Habour act does divert people to a kind of state protection, but they aren’t diverted *from* the court system, as I first wrote. They actually become more involved with the court, as a child protective proceeding (called “PINS”) is substituted for a juvenile delinquency proceeding in family court. This allows the state to actually take a stake in custody if the court feels it’s necessary,  allowing for interminable  family court involvement in the teenager’s life. Many youth sex workers would do anything to avoid  this custody, justifiably, as Tracy  points out in the interview. I changed the question accordingly. (Information provided by Brendan Michael Conner, Haywood Burns Fellow and third-year law student and organizer at City University of New York School of Law) (C.S.)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane March 5, 2013 at 10:17 am

I remember that radio show with Ron Weitzer, and you did an amazing job of presenting some pretty radical/progressive points with clarity and nonchalance. It was a really inspiring lesson about how to control a dialogue. I loved it, and I love this interview.

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Tracy Quan March 6, 2013 at 2:51 am

Hey thanks for the kind words about that radio show. It was with Michael Medved, a social conservative (very far to the right imho) and I enjoyed it a lot. I loved doing this Q&A with Caty!

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