You may know her as Portland’s famous stripper, that MySpace celebrity, the anonymous Wikipedia alternative model, or the Wendy O-looking lady who’s always walking her miniature pinschers. I can’t tell you how many times people have insisted on telling me their oh-my-god-I-met-Malice-one-time-and-she’s-like-sooo-nice stories. It’s true; she is the sweetest, most approachable badass you could hope to meet.
Something that you may not know about Malice is that she’s really funny. (Her deadpan is the greatest.) I was able to catch up with her on a recent trip to Portland, where she made a week-long cameo at Sassy’s (strip club) and picked up her red ’66 El Camino. I got her hyped on Chai and sweets (as she has 10 years sober) and asked questions.
For some reason, the voice recorder ate the part of the interview where she lets us know that she moved from Portland to LA in August 2010 in hopes of possibly working at the legendary Jumbo’s Clown Room. Jumbo’s wasn’t all that receptive so she ended up at Crazy Girls, where she is currently the emcee of the increasingly popular live band nights.
L. Synn Stern has been doing outreach work since the 1980’s. As an ex-sex worker and ex-injection drug user, she has a unique perspective on her work and the lives of her clients. She is now a certified R.N. and works as Health Services Coordinator at the Washington Heights Corner Project, a community space in Washington Heights that provides syringe exchange, counseling, and various support groups among other services. She also helps run the weekly women’s group there. I took some time to talk to her about her past doing sex work, her passion for outreach, and how she was rebirthed into the woman she is today.
What was your experience being homeless for much of your youth in NYC?
I spent a lot of time as one of the hidden homeless; the couch surfer, the office dweller, the sleeper in locker rooms, exploiting the rich, unpoliced resources of college campuses. I spent more time than that frankly homeless; out on the street with nowhere to to stash my blankets and nowhere to wash. NYC is a cruel place for those in need of a public toilet, and the more homeless one looks, the harder they are to find. Although it took me a while to figure out, as long as college was in session, I was able to keep myself together by sleeping in unused campus spaces or befriending legitimate students, eating in their cafeterias (or getting students to steal food for me) and bathing in gym buildings and the like. I lived several relatively undisturbed years in the dance building of a campus under construction. I had my own set of lockers, unlimited access to showers. Fantastic. Between semesters I ran the gamut of out-on-the-street homeless, to sleeping on trains, to living in abandoned buildings, squats, emergency rooms, and tricks’ houses. The usual thing.
How did you get involved in the sex industry? What was it like working then in comparison to how it is now?
I remember sitting in a bar once, very underage, during school hours, and the guy next to me said, “Penny for your thoughts.” I scoffed. Then he said, “Twenty bucks for your thoughts,” and it was that simple. Before that I had not realized that there was any value to what I’d been giving away.
And for the first dozen paid encounters, I felt like Queen Feminist. I felt like I’d invented it. I could not have been prouder. Of course, I was out there a long time, vulnerable, incautious and young enough to experience at lot of pain and shame as well…
The biggest difference between then and now is technology. Cars were bigger and child safety locks had not yet been invented, and there was no such thing as a cell phone, an ATM, or Craigslist. Some changes have been for the better, some for the worse.
Adrienne Graf and Annie O’Niell are two social workers whose focus has been sex workers. O’Niell has experience as a sex worker and Graf is an ally. Together, they have facilitated workshops at the university, state and national level on how to work with students in the sex industry. Here, they have a conversation about their work as social workers reaching out to sex workers.
Annie: How does your work with sex workers intersect with social work?
Adrienne: Even before I started doing social work I have always been in community with many types of sex workers. I was privileged to get to interact with many different people around this topic, and receive a lot of education and exposure that my current work is based off of. So from very early on in my young adulthood I was thinking about sex work as legitimate labor and sex workers as people in my community facing different types of marginalization. When I started in social work, I just always thought of social work as a profession working with and for various communities and sex workers are in our/those communities communities. So for me there was never a moment of “Wait, does social work address the concerns and experiences of people in the sex industry?” I always assumed that of course it would. Cue massive disillusionment.
Anna Saini is a community organizer with Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York (VOCAL-NY), where she works towards ending the drug war, mass incarceration and racist policing. Her writing appears in Bitch magazine, make/shift magazine, the forthcoming Dear Sister Anthology, her self published anthology Colored Girls, as well as both Red Umbrella Project writing workshop literary anthologies, Prose and Lore issues One & Two. She is a Brown and proud captivating performer, a veteran Red Umbrella Diaries storyteller who is featured along with six other sex worker storytellers in the upcoming documentary, “The Red Umbrella Diaries: A documentary about sex worker stories.” Writing can be a great vehicle for social change and Anna’s work is an example of this kind of activism.
In your writing andperformances you talk about your Indian family, growing up in the suburbs, and living in Detroit before moving to Brooklyn. Seems like your background is pretty mixed. How do these different experiences influence your work?
It wasn’t until I moved away from Southern Ontario and came to live in the United States that I actually realized how I’m a mish-mash of all these different identities. I’m fiercely working-class and Desi, Asian, queer, a suburban city girl and a survivor, an academic, an activist. It means I connect my struggles with a lot of different people and I hold a lot of intersecting communities dear to me.
It also means that I never really feel like I fit in or I’m at home anywhere. If you look at where I was born and raised, a bizarre and wonderful place called Brampton, it’s this brand spanking new suburb that’s morphed into a place largely populated by folks like my family, who identify as “from” somewhere else. I never really felt like I’m from there so much as I came from there. The suburbs are kind of a vacuum in that way.
But it’s also fascinating. It’s this unique confluence of socio-political dynamics: the suburbs, Punjabis, Canadiana and the biggest city in the country a mere thirty minutes away… It’s probably the only place in the world where you can get a proper chai from a drive-through window at Tim Hortons. Now that I don’t have to live there anymore I have a lot more respect for the place where I grew up and a lot more interest in how it made me who I am.
Sometimes you have to reach back into an uncomfortable past to make meaning out of it. You’re a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Dear Sister, about healing from sexual assault. What did you share in it about your healing process?
The call-out for submissions for the anthology presented the opportunity to write a letter saying whatever you always wanted to say to another survivor. I know that often when we think of a “survivor” the expectation is that the person is valiant, strong and resilient. I wanted to talk about the flip-side of survival, the part that many consider ugly or uninspiring, the part that breaks down thesemyths about who we are.
I wanted to say what people don’t say about surviving, so that I could feel less alone in the experience and reach out to others so that they could also feel less alone. A lot of folks who have survived violence that I’ve known are damaged in some kind of way. Instead of ignoring that damage, I wanted to acknowledge it, maybe even revel in it. I wanted to talk about that damage, explain what it looks like on me.
My piece is called “The Unlikable Survivor” and I guess what I’m trying to accomplish in it is to deconstruct the persona of a survivor. The commonality of our experience is that we lived while others did not. And for many (most? all?) of us the healing is never really complete.
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.