Earlier this year, I taped a radio segment for the Judith Reagan show with Susie Bright and Sarah White. Both are intelligent, open-minded, and progressive women. But when Judith Regan read my provided bio (“Charlotte is a prostitute,”) each turned to me with raised eyebrows and smiles. There may have even been giggles. I had the impression they were offering me their support in the face of Judith calling me something rude. After all, “prostitute” still strikes most people as a dirty word.
Part of their reactions, in this circumstance, may have been inspired by Judith’s resonant, provocative delivery. (There’s a reason the woman’s given a microphone for three hours straight.) But part of it was probably the nakedness of the term. With “prostitute,” there’s no euphemistic softening of the reality as there is with “escort” or “companion” or “callgirl,” no prettying up of the transaction taking place. The difference between these terms is not fundamental; it’s all about presentation. If you do an image search for escort or callgirl, you’ll see a lot of pictures of traditionally attractive women in lingerie, posing against a bland background or somewhere indoors. If you image search “prostitute,” you’re going to see a lot of seedy settings and red light ambiance.
Those in the sex industry already know that classism runs rampant. Because of stigmatization, many sex workers work hard to distance themselves from work they frame as more degraded, immoral, or unpleasant. It’s an attempt to maintain their dignity in the face of a world that says they’re a bad, worthless person for commoditizing their sex appeal in this way. It leads to dominatrixes sneering at bodyrub providers, massage girls belittling “full service” prostitutes, indoor escorts denigrating street workers, and porn performers denouncing all prostitutes. Of course a professional submissive is not offering exactly the same service as a stripper, and those distinctions are valid. But the handjob-giving massage girl and the multi-hour “courtesan” aren’t protected from social scorn, blackmail, assault, or arrest by telling themselves they’re “not a prostitute.”
For me, “prostitute” is purely descriptive. It’s not a slang term designed to maximize offense; it is simply our most basic word for a person who has sex for money. I like its honesty. And I like its solidarity. Because when a sex working woman is arrested or murdered, the news coverage is going to call her a prostitute whether she used Craigslist, took referrals, or worked the streets.
Because I am a prostitute, the drama unfolding around the unsolved murders in Long Island has been hard to endure. I can admit, with shame, that my first response was to ignore it. I didn’t want to think about it, but that wasn’t an option for long. Soon there was a flood of media requests passing through my inbox, tons of hasty emails sent out to certain sex worker listservs from reporters who offered no background on their experience with or knowledge of sex work. I always want real sex worker voices to be part of the public discussions about our lives, but these requests infuriated me. I thought of all the amazing people I know who’ve shouted themselves hoarse about the importance of decriminalizing and destigmatizing sex work, of offering resources before judgment and punishment, of getting even the most basic aspects right when writing an article. I had so much anger, and I wanted to excoriate these journalists for coming for us now, when it’s too late for those murdered women, after countless salacious stories promoting the hateful rhetoric of ego-tripping politicians and academics with personal moral agendas and no sense of responsibility towards the people whose lives they’re gawking at and debating.
Nancy Goldstein sums all of that up when she writes “Some of those 10 people might be alive today if it hadn’t been for the lackluster response of law enforcement and the press coverage of the case — much of it sensationalist and dehumanizing — all because of the first victims’ sex-worker status.” Her entire article is full of heartbreaking, astute observations about the complete lack of sensitivity and compassion shown by various reporters and police, and about the ugly nature of prostitution’s illegal status. (Even if temporary amnesty is granted to sex workers with relevant information, as Melissa Gira Grant says, “the moment the killer is caught, any sex worker who came forward with information is likely still going to need to do sex work and will once more be a target for law enforcement.”)
Thank God for Melissa and for Audacia Ray, who is also quoted liberally in the piece. I’m still treading these confused waters of my own anger, hopelessness, and resentment to know where I might find a place as an activist in times like these. Right now, I’ve latched on to Audacia’s point about making our media in order to control the message completely and not trust a stranger to present it accurately. I’m excited to be part of a site that’s trying to do just that, even if I often feel lost about how I myself can do that effectively.