Activist Spotlight Interview: Melissa Gira Grant on Playing The Whore and Policing The Policers, Part Two

by Caty Simon on March 4, 2014 · 6 comments

in Activism, Books, Interviews

Melissa Gira Grant (Photo by Noah Kalina)

Melissa Gira Grant (Photo by Noah Kalina)

Part one of this interview is here.

You encapsulate the tired terms of the sex worker debate, in which the token sex worker is asked reductifying questions ad nauseaum: Is sex work exploitative or empowering? Is it violence against women? How can we help women (always women, and always cis women, never sex working men or trans women) “exit” the industry? And so on. (I think back to a radio interview I did recently with a progressive, well-intentioned interviewer, which I thought was going to be about how anti­-traffickers hurt sex workers, but which turned out to be “Blind Date with a Hooker,” take #1001–what’s a nice girl like you doing in a movement like this?) You claim we should refuse to engage in these stale performances. But given that we often have no access to the public except through this media ritual, how do we change the terms of this conversation to our benefit?

It’s not easy to get around the debate, let me just start there. Here’s a few ways I try, with the gigantic caveat that these don’t apply to all opportunities. When I do speak in public about sex work, including to other members of the media, a line I draw right now—upfront—is that I don’t speak about my personal experiences in sex work. I’ll tell stories about what I’ve seen in my work as a journalist, and before that, I would tell stories about my work as an advocate or organizer. Just doing that can be enough to deflect the cliched kind of stuff, like wanting to know why you got into sex work, all the stuff that seems designed not to humanize you but to decide how “representative” you are. Depending on the outlet, you might even be able to turn that around. At the last debate I did agree to do, I turned to the anti-prostitution “side” and asked her, after she had insinuated that all sex workers had been abused as children, that I wondered what had happened in her own life, that had made her come to that conclusion. It was dramatic, but that was the point, and the whole room snapped to attention at the provocation—why was she allowed to ask those questions, and why wasn’t I?

I’ve also turned down opportunities when I thought I was being brought in to play a part or just stand in as a caricature. Sometimes that’s quite obvious when someone approaches you—like when a business news cable network wanted me to come on and argue why prostitution should be taxed and legalized, something I’ve never argued for, not that it prevented them from telling me what my argument would be. Sometimes it’s more subtle—like when you’ve been asked to do a panel and you realize that of everyone there, you are the only one who is a out as a sex worker, and now there’s quite a lot of weight on you to represent everything about sex work. It’s still a hustle, all of it. Sometimes you can turn the conversation around, and sometimes a producer has already decided how they are going to cast you. And if being public is something you want to do, you don’t have to do it alone. Red Umbrella Project has a guide for navigating the media and sex work, how to deal with combative interviews, how to package a soundbite, how to vet the media. And just as sex workers keep lists of bad clients, I encourage people to keep lists of bad media. Screen them, and check in with other sex workers—I’m still doing that, because odds are if some reporter just emailed everyone they could find online looking for a source on a story, you probably know someone else they emailed.

Or—another way around all of it is what you’re doing here—make your own.

Melissa goes low tech--sort of. An outline of _Playing the Whore_ on note cards. (Photo by Melissa)

Melissa goes low tech–sort of. An outline of Playing the Whore on note cards. (Photo by Melissa)

You’ve always been an ardent adopter of new tech, and as a journalist you’ve focused as much on the internet as you have on sex work. Since the advent of the web, there’s been a lot of hysteria around the new sort of socialization it allows us across social boundaries, which spreads to encompass what you term “the male use of technology” to purchase sexualized services. As someone who’s written about the internet for years and as—let’s face it—a confirmed tech geek girl, what are your insights about the widespread concern over this new gentrified “internet red light district” and the way it operates right alongside the rest of our online activities?

Sex panics and tech panics tend to go together. The other book I’ve been working on—since before I started Playing the Whore—gets much more into all of that. Where the I had already done for that book was instructive most around sex work was appreciating that sex work doesn’t provoke a sex panic, or not only a sex panic. There’s deep fears and freakouts under there about work, about our value, and they just get grafted onto the “newest” thing on the radar. So that might be “hookers on craigslist.” Or it might be “hookers on Twitter.” But the panics are like a clock, they’re so predictable, and there’s not much novel or innovative about each new thing that provokes them. (You could probably go back into most of my Valleywag stories from the late 00’s and just swap out the company names.) There might actually be something new about it, which is the proximity of sex work online to everything else we do online. When so many fears about sex work, historically, are about contagion and then were addressed through segregation, I think the internet demonstrates how impossible segregating sex work is, that there is no other internet to go to, there is no “underworld.”

You write, “A prostitution arrest doesn’t require actual sex…but rather, only communication for the purposes of prostitution. If sex workers’ speech is where whole lives are made criminal, how does that carry through to public demands to make sex workers’ lives visible and relatable by ‘sharing our stories’?” Prostitution, you explain, is a “talking crime” which we are made to enact again and again. This sort of prurient voyeurism in which we are forced to account for ourselves in tabloids and cable specials, before psychotherapists and social workers, and in confessions and filmed evidence at our trials, is the reason you’ve given for shying away from the confessional throughout your career as a sex worker and then a former sex worker turned journalist reporting on sex workers’ rights issues. You say you want to tell your story at some less criminalized, safer point in the future—is this the only setting in which you’d consider a memoir?

It’s not as firm a line for me, in the long view, as it was for this book. I’ve always been writing true stories, and sometimes they’ve been about me. But there’s something I’m resistant to in the world of publishing (not the world of writing) when it comes to how sex workers’ stories are packaged as memoir. Actually, I’d love to hear what Kate Zambreno would say about this. I bought her book Heroines when I started writing Playing the Whore and put it aside to be the first book I’d read once I was done —it took a year, but I kept that promise to myself. It was a way of putting my life story on hold, giving myself permission to go back to it later.

In Playing the Whore, not doing memoir is presented as a refusal, or a strike, really. I’m withdrawing the labor of writing that part of my life. Of course, when I finally got back to Heroines I saw how Zambreno made this question of how women deemed “too much” write their own lives the subject of the book. That book defies memoir, not by shying away from it or by settling for the basic stance that “all memoirs are complicated by questions of truth and representation,” but by going all in, being excessive, celebrating stigmatized literary forms, pulling those apart from stigmatized female identities. So I’m thinking a lot about that book not just as a piece of literature but as a strategy.

And the thing was, when I finished Playing the Whore I couldn’t wait to get back to something more like a memoir. I still approach memoir as a reporter, though: not just writing through memories, but going through my own (undoubtedly excessive) archives, retracing my steps, interviewing people. David Carr’s memoir of his time as a journalist and a drug addict (his words), Night of the Gun, employs that tactic. Though his angle is still something akin to the “we shouldn’t trust the stories we tell about ourselves,” and that’s not quite what motivates me. I would want to report my memoir out in order to return to these scenes with what I know now, carrying more history but not just my history. If I’m going to tell a history about myself, that is going to require me to tell a bigger history at the same time, and that’s what excites me most right now about getting back to that book.

How can we drive it home to well meaning industry abolitionists that, as you put it, their “‘raising awareness'” about prostitution is not a value neutral activity”—that every time they proclaim that we are victims and sex slaves, their rhetoric leads to more funding for police departments to arrest us, supposedly for our own good? We are constantly faced with people who say they just want to discuss the “issue,” without realizing that theirs is the real “talking crime.”

I like that flip you did at the end there. The big issue with “awareness raising” is who has the power and resources to dominate the conversation. I love Laura Agustin’s cheeky responses on Twitter and Facebook each time one of these stories comes out about trafficking where the reporter frames it as something “no one is talking about,” which of course is itself such a common trope now, this “unspeakable” issue that now has journalism courses and institutions devoted to it.

It’s a pretty basic disconnect, though—the distance between “intent” and “impact.” There’s no point in arguing through “intent.” I bring the focus back to the evidence—the numbers of arrests, the number of stories that appear, the number of mugshots published online, the budgets for all of this—and also, to where there’s a lack of evidence to make the kinds of claims the “awareness raisers” perpetuate.

The resources Melissa used to write _Playing the Whore_, arrayed around her desktop (Photo by Melissa)

The resources Melissa used to write Playing the Whore, arrayed around her desktop (Photo by Melissa)

You manage to cite a rich variety of academic work on the sex trade and the sociology of sex in your short book,­­ from Samuel R Delany to Anne McClintock, from Susan Dewey to Elizabeth Bernstein. If you could make all our readers read two academic works on sex work, which books or papers would they be and why?

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is a book I was introduced to in a quasi-academic context—my undergrad advisor recommended I read it, and it probably kept me in school another few years before ultimately deciding to drop out. Delany was actually part of our department at the time, but I never got to take a class with him, so the book had to do, and it absolutely did. As much as it was a very human text about commercial sex, it modeled a way to tell that story that touches back on why I appreciate a book like Heroines—it’s what publishers today would call a hybrid of a memoir and an “ideas” book (you know, those things white dudes generally get accolades and big advances for, which you find at airports.) Delany didn’t leave himself out of the story, doesn’t play at being some detached observer, but also goes far beyond his own experience and draws on other literature and histories. Plus I’m a sucker for urban sexual history and I wish there was more of it. So I’ll pick that for very personal reasons.

If I am picking just one more text, the one I’ve recommended lately more than anything else is by Elizabeth Bernstein, and it’s an article she wrote for the journal Signs, where she introduces the concept of carceral feminism. What I find especially important about her work is she’s challenging even sex workers’ established or conventional ideas that anti-sex work campaigns are motivated principally by sexual or moral puritanism. Instead, she draws connections between anti-sex work politics and broader issues of incarceration. And she’s just a beautiful writer and storyteller, too. (And yes, that is the article that inspired my Carceral Feminist Cat meme. Sorry, sociology.)

Can you tell us a bit more about the proud inter-movement tradition, going back to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, of funding unpaid activism with sex work? Reading both your book and Mindy Chateauvert’s, I was struck again by how integral and yet invisible sex worker participation has been in so many movements, from early gay liberation to harm reduction, from prison abolition to AIDS activism to immigrants’ rights to trans people’s rights. Thus, as you comment in Playing The Whore, the sex workers’ rights movement is actually a conglomeration of many movements rather than just one homogenous whole.

Right, it’s a testament to how well sex workers can and must manage multiple roles in their working lives and in community. On the one hand, sex workers’ organizations in the US have very few resources compared to their counterparts in other movements, but of course, people are very resourceful and do what they have to do to take care of their communities. The other sort of validating thing, looking back at these other connected movements, and finding places where sex workers were leading and weren’t often recognized for that work—it shows that sex workers’ rights movements didn’t come out of nowhere. Also, it shows that sex workers’ movements didn’t come out of an oppositional relationship to feminism, but—like the early gay liberation movement—they came out of an oppositional relationship with police and the state.

Finding those old COYOTE Howls newsletters that Carol Leigh had in her collection really put that in context, even if COYOTE is sometimes thought of today as a sort of “happy hooker” organization. But one of their first projects was a hotline for sex workers in jail. As visible as they were with their Hookers’ Balls, Margo St. James was also in court with people, supporting them to fight their charges, or press charges against police violence. I regret not getting it into the book, but I found an interview that one of the original Lusty Lady organizers Siobhan Brooks did with Angela Davis. Davis reflected on her experiences while incarcerated, how white women charged with prostitution were released from jail much more quickly than women of color, and how the criminalization of prostitution drives more people of color into the prison system. In the interview which she also called Margo a pioneer and said that she herself supported decriminalization. So when some people claim that decriminalization is something new, or something only very privileged “happy hooker” sex workers support, actually, the history of these movements is that decriminalization does have much broader support—it’s just they likely haven’t heard about it.

The roving reporter takes a selfie at an airport in Dubai in 2009 (Photo by Melissa)

The roving reporter takes a selfie at an airport in Dubai in 2009 (Photo by Melissa)

As you note in Playing The Whore, outside the US, sex workers’ rights organizations have modeled themselves more closely after labor and human rights movements than after feminism. Frankly, it seems the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee and co. are kicking our American asses, organizing wise. How can the US sex workers’ rights movement learn from the sterling example of sex workers’ rights movements in the Global South?

I’m not as familiar with DMSC as I am with WNU (Women’s Network for Unity) in Cambodia, who I write a bit about visiting. My understanding is that these groups, and those like them that came up out of labor and human rights movements, attract support that sex workers in the US historically have had a hard time maintaining, if it’s been extended at all. I mean, back when I was a member of the Exotic Dancers’ Union and attending union events— with the SEIU, who represented us, or with the Coalition of Labor Union Women, of which I was also a member—in one-on-one conversations, I did feel quite a lot of support and solidarity for dancers’ organizing from the labor movement, even if the other workers I was talking with didn’t really have a lot of education about the sex industry. If they did have objections, they didn’t come at us with them in the same way that some women’s organizations have. But we also were there as sex workers already organized in a union. I’m sure that gave us some cred.

Organizing really does come down to relationships and resources. When US organizations do have support for organizing—I’m talking about activities that go beyond service provision—it’s not enough for sustained work, and usually, understandably, direct services come first. So I wouldn’t say the US movement is having its ass kicked by other sex workers’ movements. It’s that in the US, sex workers’ organizations—with a few exceptions—haven’t had the same kinds of resources to build a movement of their own and to develop those relationships to other movements for sustained collaboration. And it’s worth looking to other relatively marginalized US movements—look at how the trans movement is growing alongside but outside of GLB movement—for examples of how they’ve overcome those challenges. It’s not just because sex work is especially marginalized. This is one reason I’m glad to be doing the work I am now, after having worked a few years in a foundation tasked with getting resources to movements. It’s really hard work, and super political. I’d recommend that those thinking about these movement issues read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.

At the end of the book, you talk about how the representation of sex workers obscures the material conditions of our labor. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to cast off the idea of sex as having some metaphysical special value and see it instead as a form of work for us? For example, why is it so much more appealing to feminists to lobby against porn rather than lobbying for fair contracts for porn performers?

To be blunt—self-interest? An image of a woman in porn can be seen to stand in for “all women,” whereas an actual woman performing in porn is understood as essentially other. So “defending women from images of women in porn” is a project that’s understood (by some feminists) as a broader political project, whereas the labor rights of women who perform in porn are considered marginal—and also, are considered beside the point, because the problem as they’ve diagnosed it is her image and how (they think) it impacts them, and not the conditions of her labor and how it impacts her.

It’s a kind of negative solidarity—blaming women in sex work for how the women outside sex work are treated. When women in sex work could argue just as convincingly that it’s the blind eye most women turn to how they are treated that allows labor abuses in sex work to continue. But they don’t want to hear about labor abuses in sex work. They want to believe a picture contains —or even is—abuse.

I understand why people want to argue over pictures and other representations, but that’s not a substitute for improving the conditions of sex workers’ labor. But then, maybe that’s not what it was ever about for them. To paraphrase babydyke me ten years ago in On Our Backs, “people think the conversation about sex work is about sex, but once they realize it’s about work, they tune out.” It’s just that.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda March 4, 2014 at 9:55 am

I also keep a bad media list. Is there any way that sex workers who have done media can make a master bad media list, something like a small National Blacklist? As more and more media attention comes to sex work, it would be helpful.

“…people think the conversation about sex work is about sex, but once they realize it’s about work, they tune out.
So sadly true.

Caty, perhaps the reason people are never concerned about anyone other than women exiting the industry is because it’s only “bad” for women to be sexually available and only women are sexual sinners. Whore Stigma in action, of course.

If one really thinks about it, decrim is often supported by the unhappiest of hookers, the ones who face the harshest consequences of criminalization. That logic escapes most people whose work isn’t criminalized.

As for the US, the sex worker rights movement loses a lot by not being as inclusive as they think. I know I’ll get flack for this here, but there are thousands of sex workers who would love to do something about the problems they see, but the movement as it stands doesn’t answer their needs, therefore, they do their own thing or stay away. I think this is where the movement in other countries has it right: they do what they can to bring in the majority of sex workers, to get their numbers up, which gives them power and strength. Or perhaps other countries have a larger, homogeneous population of sex workers than the US does, you know, a reflection of society and all that.

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Maxine Doogan March 4, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Thanks Melissa for calling out the lack of resources “the US, sex workers’ organizations—with a few exceptions—haven’t had the same kinds of resources to build a movement of their own and to develop those relationships to other movements for sustained collaboration.” Comparing US bases sw activist orgs to other counties almost feels like victim blaming or is it inclusive baiting? It can be hard to believe that US/dominate/imperialist/supremacist centric hasn’t greatly benefited US based sw nation. My understanding is that the India group is funded through HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment monies. It seems they’ve used their outreach model as a type of organizing model which is not what HIV/drug programs have done with our population here in the US. In order to move forward, its important to start with where ‘you’ as individuals are and were ‘we’, as orgs and movements are. Acknowledging that space between the rock and the hard place is the first step. My sense is that many people from the street based issues savoy worker to the Ivory tower whore doesn’t like to see how fucked up our situation really is here in the US which is what happens when we meet up w/others. The sense of overwhelm is palatable and can be paralyzing. We must speak our vision and version of ourselves to give each other hope and get some training! Yes ACTUP took on the federal and local government but there is something to be said for the fact that the sodomy/anti female impersonation laws had been struck down by legal action, (at least here in Cali in 1977 prior to the epidemic), and repealed on a state by state basis. The AIDS activist didn’t and don’t have a well federally funded and well equipped surveillance task force threatening to put them out of work every minute.

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Jessica Barry March 13, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Ordered “Playing the Whore” months ago and Amazon is FINALLY shipping it. Can’t wait to read it!

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