Activist Spotlight: Melissa Gira Grant on Playing The Whore and Policing the Policers, Part One

by Caty Simon on March 3, 2014 · 8 comments

in Books, Interviews

Melissa at Frida Kahlo's house. O, roving reporter. (Photo via Melissa's flickr)

Melissa at Frida Kahlo’s house. O, roving reporter. (Photo via Melissa’s flickr)

In the early aughts when I was a novice escort and On Our Backs was still being published, I was wowed by Melissa Gira Grant, an internet porn-making, geeky, theory spouting phenom, even managing to be friends with her despite the fact that she was an Anais Nïn devotee. Over the years I’ve kept in touch with her as she branched out into self-publishing on her imprint Glass Houses, producing works like the innovative sex anthology Coming and Crying and Take This Book, her report on Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library; activist and foundation work at St. James Infirmary and the Third Wave Foundation; and radical journalism. Soon enough her byline became a common sight in publications like the Guardian and the Nation, bringing sex workers’ rights to the attention of the mainstream public. Now, with the publication of her new book, Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work, Melissa has brought her formidable intellect to bear on how the mainstream conceives of us.

You’ve always been fascinated by representations of sex work. I remember when I first met you, you talked about how you used to love to look through escort ads in the back of your local alternative weekly as a teenager, and you write about that in the book as well.

And before the paper, the phone book! It wasn’t just the ambient Massachusetts puritanism I grew up in, even if that would be easy to blame it on (and actually, I was raised Catholic). I was desperately curious about sex as a kid is what I’m saying. (Thanks for taking us to such a Freudian place right off the bat, Caty.)

So even though it wasn’t totally obvious what was going on in the phone book escort ads, they did a good job of signifying that it was probably sex. And then you got much more than clip art of lips and evening gowns to advertise with on the internet. It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to be confined to what some print designer put together, probably to sell prom dresses. It’s not just the photos, videos, and everything else some sex workers can afford to put in their ads to stand out now online that attract me. I wrote something for $pread once about how even the typography in the headlines of ads on Craigslist Erotic Services—the asterisks, the spacing, the creative use of symbols—it reads like a red light as much as red neon does now, to someone scrolling around online. I look at ads as cultural production, as part of the labor of sex work. If someone has some old phone books to donate, or could just tear out the “E” section, I’d take them. I know ads are almost always meant to be ephemeral, but someone needs to archive ads for posterity.

Yes, I remember your curiosity about my advertising process back when I was a pre-internet escort in 2002, working out of one of those alternative weeklies, and you were an ex-stripper just starting to establish herself as a writer. You actually chronicle one of our Q and A sessions about my work back then in one of the first chapters of your new book, discussing how fraught that exchange was, given that sharing information with other sex workers can still be construed as felony pandering. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on sex workers’ fascination with other sex workers’ jobs. You captured your side of the interaction, how you didn’t know whether you should be asking, whether you were good enough to do full service work, whether what you said might make me think you thought you were too good for full service work…

Well, how else was I supposed to learn about escorting, I thought? I had met other escorts before, but they all worked in big cities, either for agencies or in ad-hoc ways using the internet (this was in the early 2000’s), using Yahoo personals or Craigslist. Way before social media, but still at a time when the back page of the newspaper didn’t seem real. I had been doing sex work for some time, and I still didn’t understand that the ads in the paper would be tolerated long enough by police for anyone to make a living off of running them. So that was my curiosity: the medium.

It’s fascinating now, to look back and remember what an outsider I felt like, within our friendship and in our very very small community, because I hadn’t escorted. It’s one thing for a dancer to help out another dancer, but to ask you how you structured your calls and organized your business? I knew I was asking you to take a risk on me, because of the legal issues that could be associated with giving that kind of advice, under criminalization. And I also, on some level, wanted to seem like, oh of course I must know all this already! But I didn’t. No one is born with the two-call system in their head.

Valerie Solanas, Melissa's cat, one of the first readers of Melissa's new book (photo by Melissa)

Valerie Solanas, Melissa’s cat, one of the first readers of Melissa’s new book (photo by Melissa)

I was totally happy to help you—it’s the thousand other requests I’ve gotten over the years that start to grate, especially now that there are resources like Amanda Brooks’ Internet Escort Handbook, and yet, perfect strangers ask me to incriminate myself by holding their hand through the learning process. Back then, there was no other way, and you were my friend, and I was flattered by the idea that I could teach you something so vital. I really like how in Playing the Whore, you highlight the danger of pandering but also talk about a utopian vision in which we could all learn basic sex working skills from each other, since, hey, almost anyone could get into a situation in which they needed to trade sex.

There was also something charming in an old fashioned feminist way about the whole thing: sharing secret knowledge, this maybe simplistic idea of sisterhood. Like something out of a missing chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves, those conversations. Not that they’re always all lavender and flannel, I mean: they were fraught, too, with ego and fear. That’s why we might take them so seriously, value the information we share as so hard-won: because we all have to struggle a little to get it and learn it for ourselves. As much as I thought I knew, these conversations recurred over the ten years that I did sex work, in each new club or incall or other work situation. I was always learning. Looking back, those conversations were also about building intimacy and, sometimes, solidarity.

Other marginalized groups have written huge bodies of literature on how they’re represented in the public imagination. In comparison, the sex workers’ rights movement has focused more on policy writing, memoir, sociology and anthropology. Works like your new book, analyzing the way the we’re conceived and represented, are rare. Why is it important for us to address such issues of representation?

I’m not sure they’re rare, but maybe I just hope they aren’t. One thing I came away from this book with was a pretty sorrowful acceptance that some of history is lost to us. I leaned on Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind as a way to understand that pulling together these stories I had along with this analysis of the systems that harm sex workers could operate as a form of resistance. It’s how I resist being spoken for and overshadowed. It’s my personal activism, on a very intimate and individual basis, now that I’m not engaged as I once was in collective sex work projects. Plus, I’ve known for a while that I’m not good for being out in the streets much now without a notebook and a recorder. Actually, watching the documentary Schulman produced, United In Anger, on the history of ACT UP, was also a touchstone: seeing ACT UP activists producing their own media, as well as working in the media. I could recognize the path my own work has taken watching that, seeing how this isn’t really new. That’s where I came to terms with the politics of my own work of representation.

I also felt that grief again, knowing that others have come before us doing this, and we know so little about many of them. I know it’s not just in the last fifteen years or so that sex workers have developed their own theory, their own way of understanding the world. One of the most fascinating texts I came across, unfortunately only in translation and through a secondary source, ­were these French feminist pamphlets put out around the time of the prostitutes’ occupation of the church in Lyon in the 70’s. I read The Little Black Book of Griselidis Real for the first time. It’s not just a black book. It’s got a politics. Maybe that’s always been what’s buried in what everyone else thinks are just our “wild” customer stories.

Representation interests me because I’m a writer. It’s the stories we tell ourselves that I keep coming back to, why we settle on a narrative, and then from there, I’m curious about the power of that narrative: rather, who gets power from that narrative, and who is excluded. As much as policy change is critical, so are the stories we tell each other. They’re mutually reinforcing. And stories are as much a part of a materialist politics as any law. Or, as I quoted Jill Nagle writing in Whores and Other Feminists, when other people produce stories about sex workers without us, that alienates sex workers from the means of productionthe production of the stories of our lives.

Both your book and Mindy Chateauvert’s recent movement history primer, Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, delve into the history of early second wave feminists’ alliances with sex workers’ rights organizations. How did the women’s rights movement go from only condescendingly accusing us of false consciousness and hoping for the abolition of prostitution, but also allying with us in lobbying for decriminalization, to partnering with the religious right and the prison industrial complex in arresting us and our clients?

In the beginning, it didn’t seem like the women’s movement had much of a policy position on sex work. Mindy captures this well, how for them, prostitutes (this is the early 70’s, so I’ll say “prostitutes”) were symbolic of women’s lesser status under patriarchy. They didn’t fully exist as women with concerns and demands of their own. And not all of the early feminists wanted to eradicate prostitution. There’s examples of women’s liberation activists coming out, sitting in the courts, protesting against laws that criminalized loitering with intent to solicit.

I think you see the anti-transition in a broader shift within feminism towards the end of the 70’s and early 80’sthe move towards feminism having mostly an inside strategy and not focusing as much on grassroots organizing, moving towards a corporate feminism, a Thatcher feminism. It’s lazy to just go, “I blame neoliberalism,” but that’s what it looks like, and other issues of labor and economic justice for women were sidelined along with sex workers more specifically in the move to get women into positions of power in existing institutions. At the same time, the anti-porn feminism that was quite marginal in the 70’s came to dominate any feminist analysis of sex work and sexuality in general.

And then what hadn’t been sidelined by the straightening-up of feminism at the time, those simultaneous fights against porn and the glass ceiling, was even further devastated by AIDS. Sex worker rights’ advocates feared rightfully that they’d be scapegoated for AIDS, and what success they had in organizing feminists around sex work in the 70’s was now overshadowed by more urgent concerns. Sex workers were among the first women to take AIDS seriously as a public health and political issue. The doc I mentioned, United In Anger, did a good job of lifting up the participation of women in ACT UP, and Melissa Ditmore has written about sex workers’ early AIDS activism, and Mindy writes about Iris de la Cruz. As much as feminism abandoned sex workers in those years—and these are years when AIDS quarantines had public support, and when laws criminalizing HIV passed in state after state, and when sex workers were being forcibly tested in jailssex workers were taking care of themselves, in ways that the mainstream of the women’s movement were slow to recognize (and in many cases, still haven’t recognized) as deeply feminist.

Melissa in an action reporter shot: "Covering the SXSW festival, not hooking in this hotel" (Photo via Melissa's flickr)

Melissa in an action reporter shot: “Covering the SXSW festival, not hooking in this hotel” (Photo via Melissa’s flickr)

I asked Carol Leigh in an interview last year how we can reclaim feminism from the trend toward sex worker exclusionary reactionary feminism, only to find that she, like many other disillusioned sex worker activists, had disavowed “feminist” as an identifying label. It seems like that’s more and more the case, and it makes me almost nostalgic for the aughts, back when we were both more naively sex positive and unabashedly feminist in our baby hooker politics, back before it was really brought home to us what assholes non-sex working feminists could be to all of us. How can those of us who refuse to allow whorephobes to hijack radical feminism take it back?

I wish I had known Carol’s work when I was in high school, being scared that if I came out as bisexual that the sex ed and HIV prevention work I was doing would be discounted, as just something only queer people cared about. I got over it, I did come out, and it wasn’t a huge deal. People had already decided I was a dyke and a whore (and a witch, oh the 90’s), and coming out actually just meant I finally had a posse, all the other disaffected queer kids in my school who coalesced around our little direct actions. I say all this to remind myself that I didn’t come out of feminism, not at first, and that’s not where I got my sexual politics. Which meant I also didn’t really understand right away that feminists weren’t immediate allies with what I was curious about. At the time I felt that everything we were curious about—sex ed, abortion, queer rights—it was all equally controversial.

Or maybe that’s why I was always out about sex work, even in those hostile spaces. I’d already dealt with queer bashing. I didn’t really expect to experience whore bashing, particularly in what we all took pains to call “safe spaces.” It took working at a campus women’s center to lose that naivete about institutional feminist politics, about why it was that some feminists would so quickly ally themselves with a state apparatus in order to “end violence against women”—by which they also meant sex work—when the the police and the prison system had been such a profound source of violence. What long, pointless fights after hours at the women’s center, where the supervisor of our anti-rape program wanted to explain to me that I wasn’t representative as a sex worker, that I didn’t really understand how dangerous and degrading sex work was. This was a woman who actually kept copies of that misogynistic Melissa Farley and Nikki Craft piece “Why I Made the Choice To Become A Prostitute” in with the handouts on rape and stalking. The one that says, “I realized that gang rape could be a transcendental experience.” The only rape jokes you can make in a rape crisis center are about sex workers’ rape.

I would like to say this sex work eradicationist wing of feminism is new and marginal, and won’t last—and there are signs of its unraveling. But the truth is, for all their talk of a “pro lobby,” they have far more institutional power, funding, and in most cases have influential people’s ears more than sex workers do.

What made feminism at all viable for me, as a practice and as a community, was getting far away from all of that, getting outside of the mainstream bubble of feminism. It was doing the baby steps work you and I did in our early 20’s, to learn from women who organized their own food banks, syringe exchanges, and child care. Then after that, learning from and supporting reproductive justice activists, women of color and queer people and trans people, finding connections around bodily autonomy, criminalization, gender and sexual identity. I had to go find my power, if I can say something that desperately earnest. So no, I’m not concerned with “Feminism,” but I am a feminist. I’m not into policing the borders of feminism, of who should call themselves that. I don’t want to defend feminism. I want whatever I do, in some way, to produce power for people who are fighting to survive under patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism.

I guess I wasn’t romantic about feminism at that point so much as I was certain that the problem was liberal mainstream feminism, and if I could just get to a radical, post-riot grrl enough environment there’d be perfect sisterhood somehow. I thought that was the source of the shpiels on “prostituted women” I heard in my own internship at a rape crisis center when I was eighteen. I realized the problem permeated almost ALL the feminisms I encountered very quickly throughout the succeeding years. But yes, economic justice workers, queer and trans people working on anti-assimilationist GLBT politics, womanists, prison abolitionists and mad movement activists—these are all people I learned and am still learning an intersectional feminism from. Still, when I think about all the second wave feminist texts I revered as a teenager, and face the fact that the women who wrote them are supporting policies that lock us up, it makes me sick and sad.

How do you think sex workers can best work against carceral feminism?

We can do some political education within sex worker communities, around criminalization and how it puts so many communities at risk. So many people have got this: you can support and follow the work of INCITE, read Beth Richie, read Reina Gossett, read Mariame Kaba’s blog and twitter. Because sex work criminalization creates a broad category of people considered criminals for their presumed or actual association with sex work, it’s also a potentially broad coalition of people to work on these issues. I look at the work groups like FIERCE have done, highlighting how criminalization impacts LGBTQ youth, and how sex work criminalization is part of that. I want more work that addresses how transgender women of color experience sex work criminalization. I want to know what it took for Women With A Vision to pass a law prohibiting using a “solicitation of a crime against nature” charge to put sex workers and others profiled as sex workers on the sex offender registry, and to retroactively have those people removed from the registry.

There are lots of people creating their own analysis about criminalization, and doing the work to confront it, and making progress. I’m sure there’s lots of sex workers involved in that work who might not be out about it, or identify that way, but that’s the nature of intersecting oppressions: you find your people everywhere if you look.

What I’m less certain about is the capacity for mainstream feminism to contend with these issues. That’s not about a gap in analysis—I think a lot of feminists can understand, from fights to protect abortion access, that arguments for outlawing something in the name of protecting another class of people are usually advanced by those who want to take power away from that other class of people. But when it comes down to the role of law enforcement in protecting people, there’s such a gap in making that real, unless they’ve been there, unless they know someone personally who has been caught up in the criminal system. If you aren’t likely to suffer under those laws, can you understand why others are opposed to them?

Of course, it’s not just about feelings. It’s about money, and the reality is, there’s a lot of resources available right now for those who want to say they are “combating trafficking,” to start another hotline, to create a new police task force, to demand more stings. As long as that’s where politicians and foundations want to allocate funds, and as long as community-based organizations need grants, that’s going to be part of the landscape activists have to contend with. You can offer to give social service providers and lawmakers the most authoritative information you can get on why criminalization harms people, but in so many cases, their ship has already sailed. Then it becomes what the fight around carceral feminism looks like from my vantage point: you’re doing harm reduction, figuring out how to survive and carry on when there’s that kind of money and power working at cross-purposes with what you need to do to care for yourself and care for your community.

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The manuscript of _Playing the Whore_ (Photo by Melissa)

There’s so much more to do. I’d really like to take some timeinspired by some really sharp investigative journalists like Kiera Feldman and Kathryn Joyce, who have covered Evangelical communities—to report on the Christian anti-sex trafficking movement. There’s only so much you can learn from reading these organization’s 990 tax forms, though that’s useful in making sense of who funds them and what other projects they’re engaged in. I’m seeing more links between organizations that want to set-up “safe houses” for young women in the sex trade and more openly anti-abortion projects like crisis pregnancy centers and “Magdalene homes.” But I’m also curious about who makes up the base of this movement, like the young Evangelicals I reported on who were protesting against Backpage.com.

One of the main points you make in the book is that “the prostitute imaginary,” as you call it, is so wide and varied, with so many people over history weighing in on who sex workers are and what should be done with them, and yet, the “surveillance class” of police, anti-sex work activists, and politicians are left unexamined. The sex workers’ rights movement has only just begun to monitor those who monitor us and call them to account—what ideas do you have about how to continue doing this sort of work in the future?

Right, I’m remembering how quick sex workers were to respond to the Milano School, when it looked like Equality Now—who are known as a global women’s rights organization, but are also firmly anti-sex work and campaign against sex workers’ rights—wanted to use their students to conduct opposition research on sex workers’ groups. That was a pretty bizarre thing, and sex workers responded to it swiftly.

One project I’m developing to support my reporting, inspired by sex workers’ rights groups who write their own “shadow reports” to go along with official human rights reports, uses a similar method to document police harassment and abuse of sex workers. I’m also thinking here of Young Women’s Empowerment Project, who used the format of a “bad date” list—which sex workers developed—to do “bad encounter” reports, where what’s being reported on isn’t customers, but police and health care providers and others who are supposed to be offering help. We’ll see if that gets off the ground this year.

Speaking as someone who has to track down this kind of information constantly—evidence of harms coming from the police and others—it’s just not as readily available enough to journalists and others who could use it as it could be. There’s a wealth of knowledge in the sex workers’ rights movement, but it’s not getting across in the media as quickly or obviously as the same dubious statistics about trafficking seem to. I think part of is is that anti- organizations have more resources, they have dedicated offices and phone lines, they send out regular press releases—things that seem pretty basic, but things that make them available to the press in a way that the majority of sex workers’ rights organizations aren’t. I get the same odd media requests now that I did when I worked in sex workers’ organizations. It’s easy to just ignore all of them, because so much media on sex work misses the point. But more than that, when there’s little funding, that’s going to go to direct services or organizing, not to publicity. I get that. But that lack of resources is giving organizations working against sex workers’ rights an outsize platform. A lot of who gets covered and who is considered an expert comes down to which organizations have someone paid to hound a reporter, someone there when the reporter calls to pick up the phone.

Part two of this interview is here.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

blazintommyd March 3, 2014 at 6:18 pm

In the USA, most of the funded opposition you allude to and those that adopt it are motivated and/or facilitated by the idea of a lumpen proletariat, it’s very much the same as with pot use or anythinjg deemed anti-hegemonic in terms of what The Party (The USA Democratic-republican Party) deems as, the social norm viz., http://tl.gd/n_1s0pgeo

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Risa Goodman-Rice, Anarchist MBA March 3, 2014 at 7:19 pm

Wonderful interview, wonderful!

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Amanda March 4, 2014 at 9:33 am

Thank you for for the mention, Caty. I appreciate being recognized as something of a resource.

The thing that struck me the most here was “The sex workers’ rights movement has only just begun to monitor those who monitor us…”. This is something I’d like to hear more about, both on the simple how-tos as well as from those who are actively doing it. This is an idea whose time has come, as both you and Melissa discussed. I’m reading the links Melissa provided.

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Caty Simon March 4, 2014 at 9:39 am

Well, I know your handbook was invaluable to me, even though I’d already been working for at least five years when I read it. Can’t imagine how helpful they must be to someone who’s new to the biz. And yes, that’s one reason I think _Playing the Whore_ is so genius–it’s an analysis of those who analyze us, turning the tables on them and making them the subject of research and speculation.

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Amanda March 4, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Thank you!!!

You’ve moved Melissa’s book to the top of my next purchases, and hopefully for others as well.

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DOMINA ELLE March 4, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Very interesting article. Funding is the major issue as well as organization around labor rights.

I’ve been investigating local groups here in Denver which are faith based and working in tandem with law enforcement. It’s truly sickening what they are allowed to do and of course they are not being monitored. AND they are getting more and more funding as the rescue industry grows.

Having to stand up in front of a church congregation when you ‘graduate’ from their treatment program after being arrested for sex work, with church ladies feverishly praising Jesus- is disturbing. There are many questionable factors involved. You have very young interns (primarily those who have attended Jesuit schools) who are in no way equipped to handle the circumstances going on in the lives of the sex workers they come into contact with.

Witnesses have reported how the skinnier attractive younger clients of the program are obviously treated with contempt, if a client doesn’t want to read the bible it can be equated with not complying with the program. Take your meds and come to Jesus.

Church ladies from the various funding sources (churches are among the funding sources) get to regularly walk through the facility doing what amounts to ‘touring the whores’. There isn’t a concern for the privacy of the clients. A witness described how she observed when a new client arrived into the program she was herself, but by the time this client had graduated this faith based program, six months later, the young woman was dressed like she was Amish- with a long sleeved buttoned up shirt (buttoned to her neck), and a skirt down to her ankles, as if she dared not show any part of her body. The comment was “it’s like a cult, they try to brainwash these young women”. Regarding the treatment programs graduation at a church a witness stated: “I watched as women in the congregation praised Jesus with a fever in their eyes like they were possessed. The clients were paraded before the entire congregation”.

When you are at the mercy of the state after an arrest, you are vulnerable. These organizations are taking advantage of these women when they are in a wounded vulnerable circumstance. These organizations do need to be held accountable and be brought into check! It makes more sense when you look at their budgets and where the money goes. When over half the budget goes to paying the executive board member, rather than for services for the clients, well you do the math. So YES, I like the idea of policing the policers!!

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