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. [READ MORE]

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Cheyenne Picardo, director of the independent film Remedy.

Cheyenne Picardo, director of the independent film Remedy. (photo by Rose Callahan)

Cheyenne Picardo wrote and directed Remedy, a film based on her experiences as a professional switch that is currently making the rounds at film festivals internationally. Her movie is an unflinching look at what it’s like to work in a Manhattan ‘house dungeon,’ in which dommes, subs, and switches work shifts for the owner, who in turn provides clients, space, and equipment. I worked as a pro-switch in a Manhattan house myself and spoke with Picardo via email about Remedy and her experiences in the sex industry.

You’re open about the fact that Remedy is based on your time working in a house. As someone who did the same job, I have to say I was blown away by just how true-to-life the movie was. In telling this story, was realism a major concern for you?

It was paramount. When I first started working on the script, back in 2007, I was preoccupied with recreating, with absolute accuracy, every detail of sessions that had happened a good three years before. Because I was producing my own film as part of my MFA thesis, I never saw the need to format the screenplay in the traditional way, so it read like a long journal entry with dialogue.

Then, a year after writing Remedy, I began to shoot the film, and the limitations of the script started to become obvious. Clients were rewritten according to the best actors I could find. Some of my dialogue was scrapped entirely because it was so laced with narcotic haze—I wrote the first draft while bedridden with a spiral fracture. Some scenes were rewritten the night before shooting, often with my assistant director Melissa Roth or the actors who would be playing the parts. For other scenes, like ones involving heavy bondage or corporal, my only direction was to hit a few dialogue points and dramatic beats but otherwise talk normally, and I shaped the acting and language as we shot. I think these methods enhanced the realism tremendously in the final product.

Whatever changes I made to “my story” were OK—as long as I retained emotional truth, and as long as what I depicted was either something I had experienced firsthand or something that a friend in the industry had told me over takeout while we sat the overnight shifts watching gonzo porn or Charlie Rose.

Ultimately—and I’m very free with this—the biggest “lies” in the film are these: I did have a dungeon boyfriend, but we didn’t actually lip-lock; the manager is not based on any single person; and the co-workers are meant to represent certain types of women who work in dungeons, not caricature the actual people I worked with. [READ MORE]

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Tune in here on Tuesday, February 4th at 5:30 p.m. EST/2:30 p.m. PST for our interview with Monica Jones.

Watch the archived interview below! The sound quality improves as it goes on, Bubbles had a learning curve in audio engineering. Beside Monica is Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman of SWOP-Phoenix, present at Monica’s request. You can read Caty’s interview with her here. And here is Bubbles’ interview with Jordan Flaherty about his work covering Project ROSE.

For more information on Monica’s case, visit SWOP-Phoenix.

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Monica Jones (via indiegogo)

Monica Jones (via indiegogo)

For Immediate Release; interview to take place Tuesday February 4th 2014 at 5:30 p.m.

Tits and Sass to livestream interview with Phoenix sex work activist Monica Jones, currently facing charges of “manifesting prostitution” during protests of The Phoenix PD’s Project ROSE sweeps

In May 2013, a sex workers’ rights activist and Arizona State University social work student named Monica Jones was picked up by an undercover police officer, set up on charges of manifesting prostitution, and transported to the Project ROSE processing site. Project ROSE is a diversion program organized by ASU’s School of Social Work, directed by Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz in collaboration with Phoenix police. The program allows eligible sex working candidates the “choice” between arrest or “rehabilitation.”

Project ROSE and the police sweeps that funnel sex workers into the program has been met with protest and anger within the sex worker and activist community in Phoenix. Al Jazeera covered the tension surrounding Project ROSE, pulling a fuller version of the story that was shared with Tits and Sass’s readers.

Jones did not qualify for Project ROSE. She was arrested. Activists wonder whether she was intentionally targeted among the protest’s participants as a trans woman of color, or because she is a student of social work at the very same program that conceived of Project ROSE. Though a special prosecutor has been appointed to her case, indicating that she is to be made an example of, Jones is fully intent on challenging the charges levied against her.

We will be interviewing her LIVE on February 4, 2014 at 3:30 PM MST (5:30 PM EST) on our website, titsandsass.com. We welcome you to watch and participate in the discussion on Twitter. Use the hashtag #AskMonica.

Press release available here.

Since February 2011, we at Tits and Sass have committed ourselves to covering issues that touch sex workers the most. Our brand of journalism—by and for sex workers—is a complicated craft that requires patience and sensitivity. Our mission is to make sure sex workers have the platform we deserve.

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Image via SWOP-Phoenix on Facebook

Image via SWOP-Phoenix on Facebook

We often have cause to complain about media coverage of sex work, but we haven’t had occasion to talk about how good stories can be edited into inadequate ones as they travel from reporter to final outlet. The fate of Jordan Flaherty‘s story about Project ROSE (Reaching Out to the Sexually Exploited) is a great opportunity to look at what happens when a journalist tries to show the public the whole story but is met with resistance from his employer. 

Flaherty traveled to Phoenix in October to cover ROSE and the accompanying protests by SWOP-Phoenix. ROSE is a “concentrated arrest-alternative/intervention program for adult victims of prostitution or sex trafficking.” In practice, it’s mass arrest sweeps during which those taken into custody on prostitution charges are told they can either go through ROSE, starting with a trip to their headquarters at a church, or they can go to jail. And there are problems with the process, ones Flaherty wanted to make sure his finished work represented. Al Jazeera aired a version of his television segment that eliminated key information about ROSE, so Flaherty has made repeated attempts to get a fuller version of his reporting out to the public. He has encountered difficulty in doing so. I spoke with him last week at a time when his story had been posted on Truthout, but as of yesterday, Al Jazeera America has claimed copyright violation, requiring Truthout to remove the story from their site. The story is still available in a couple of other places. Another cut of the television piece is available although it’s not one Flaherty considers complete, either. This written version of the piece as aired is the only one remaining on Al Jazeera America.

Below is an edited Q&A that took place by phone on Monday, January 6th.

How did you first come across Project ROSE?

The issue of the legal treatment of sex workers is something I’ve been following for a while, especially these kinds of programs that say that they’re helping sex workers but are doing mass arrests. These programs have been getting very positive treatment and I was interested in looking at something like that with a more critical eye. When I heard about Project ROSE it just seemed like an example of the way in which people are conflating sex work and trafficking. [READ MORE]

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