Your Story Already Sucks: An Open Letter To Tourist Journalists

by Charlotte Shane on September 18, 2012 · 23 comments

in Silly Media Coverage, This Time, It's Personal

Oh, hello there. It’s such a surprise to run into you here, Clueless Journalist Who Successfully Pitched an Article About Prostitutes Which You Have No Idea How to Actually Deliver. I know how much you hate to do even the most basic amount of research about the huge, knotty subject you’ve cavalierly decided to tackle, so it’s refreshing that you’ve deigned to stop by Tits and Sass. I’ve been involved in the sex industry for about 9 years, which means I’ve had plenty of time to collect examples of the emails you send to solicit my time and expertise in order to support your own career, and boy, are they compelling. Time and time again, before even doing fifteen minutes of self-education, you get straight to the interview solicitation. Why try to learn on your own when there will surely be a bevy of call girls dying to tell you everything you need to know for free, right?

Here are the all the important points to include if you want to make it clear right away that you’re completely unqualified to say anything on the subject of prostitution.

1) You don’t want to “demonize” me. Color me impressed. We all know that famous aphorism about how good intentions reliably pave the way to magnificent results, so the ability to not hate me is the only credential you need in order to earn my trust. Plus, it’s federal law that journalists, like cops, have to tell you the truth if they’ve not got your best interests at heart, so I’m sufficiently reassured that you mean exactly what you say.

2) You already know your angle even though you’ve never spoken to any sex workers. It’s very helpful to me if you approach me after already deciding what made-up trend you’re reporting on. For instance, maybe you’d like me to tell you about how all of my clients are socially awkward and sexually inept? Or maybe I can talk to you about how tough/not tough/booming business has been since the recession, or how all of my clients in finance cry after they orgasm, or how hard it is for me to have a “secret life” or how I have to get labiaplasty because of porn-based expectations? I enjoy providing strangers with handy quotes to support their foregone conclusions. Tell me exactly what you need my work life to look like, and I’m all over it.

3) You know what GFE means. A billion gold stars for you! It’s very exciting that you’re so well versed in my industry’s lingo and that you’re able to use the phrase with all the finesse of a middle-aged man who’s just learned common texting acronyms, and harasses unfortunate strippers who’ve given him their numbers with “hey QT wat up im horny LOL.” Reading that you are aware of “GFE” makes me feel safe, like I’m corresponding with someone who really “gets” the intricacies of my job. It’s a magical keyword guaranteed to make me drop the panties of my soul.

4) You know I want to be anonymous. If I’m playing tutor to you for an entire semester’s worth of Hooker 101, odds are I want some credit. I want you to name and link to my personal blog, or to my work website if I’ve not said anything that would drive away clients. And the even better odds are that I’m not going to let my anonymity be yours to give. You’re not going to know my real name, I’m not going to call you from my personal phone number, and I’m not going to hang out with you in person. Like your empty assurances that you’re going to write an article whose sentiments I support (see #1,) your promise of my anonymity means nothing. Years ago, The New York Times outed a former sex worker who was generous enough to meet the reporter in person. He revealed a slew of physically and circumstantially identifying details that resulted in her being fired from her straight job on the same day the article was published. My entire profession is predicated on my ability to keep myself anonymous. You are not going to be smarter about that than I am.

Not that you care, because I know you only want to get your quotes and go home, but if you do meet a sex worker who’s downright eager to talk to you but who doesn’t have a well-established track record as an advocate or activist, it should be a red flag. You’ve probably found somebody brand new to the industry who’s really into being a “whore” and who doesn’t have any real insights because of her newness. It’s also quite possible that you’ve found someone who isn’t really a prostitute at all. Most of us are doing this to make money, not to dish to the first stranger who asks.

Prostitutes are just like turtles—they need your voice.

5) You might pay lip service to your query being something of an inconvenience, but deep down you’re convinced that I’m desperate to talk to you. Let’s get something straight: we don’t need you to tell our stories. We tell our own stories all the time, to ourselves, to each other, and to publications that have earned our trust and who respect us enough to let us write our own essays. Also, there’s now this thing called the internet—maybe you’ve heard about it revolutionizing the business of sex for sale? Nevermind, probably you haven’t—and most of us are really good at using it. That’s why there are  more escort blogs than you can shake a used condom at, both those designed for purely promotional purposes and for purely cathartic ones. And we have communities: message boards and duo partners and email groups. We have other friends in the business even if we’re independent. We know about activist organizations like SWOP and the Sex Workers Project and Women With A Vision. You don’t know about those because you’re ignorant and you think you’re too good for Google, and assume that we live lonely lives full of subterfuge and shame that make us ripe for interviewing. I’m sorry but we know each other, and we know better.

Here’s the bottom line about your byline: We are not farm animals, you’re not PETA, and we don’t need your voice, so stop pretending that you’re doing us a great favor. You’re doing yourself a favor by getting a paycheck and a publication credit, and we detect bullshit everyday as a way to stay safe and alive, so you better bring something better than the expectation of a warm welcome for your selflessness.

Maybe you think I’m exaggerating and there’s no way that most emails are this bad. Oh no? Here are two examples, each of which was sent to an escort with whom the emailer had no pre-existing relationship:

[A] Are there a lot of self-employed prostitutes out there who work by word of mouth and maybe some Internet advertising? Or would you say almost all have some relationship to an escort service or something like that? Also, which sites would you tell me to look at to find self-employed prostitutes? I’ve thought about Hard Sugar and Adult Friend Finder.

[B] What I’m wondering is how I could convince you to do an interview. It would be totally chill, over coffee lunch or whatever you would feel comfortable with. I am in no way looking to demonize you or the profession. I’m sure you have plenty of interesting stories you could tell me.

One of these was sent by someone whose magazine never launched and who doesn’t seem to be a legit career writer. The other is from someone with a decades-long career with many major magazines and newspapers. Yet they’re almost identical in their embarrassingly uneducated and presumptuous stance. It scares me that this is as good as it gets, that this is who we as sex workers are supposed to rely upon to make our lives intelligible to the general public.

A sex working acquaintance of mine once said she feels guilty for reacting badly to articles on sex work that are written by outsiders, and she compared it to (irrationally) feeling like every article about sports should have to be written by an athlete. It’s not that every article about sex work should be written by a former or current sex worker—we’re the authorities, but not the only authority. A better comparison would be this. Let’s say that someone who’s never played sports and isn’t a sports fan suddenly decides to write about pro football players without acquiring even rudimentary knowledge of the rules of play. Then that reporter shows up to a single game and writes about nothing but the uniforms, the bodies, the noises of the crowd, what’s sold at a concession stand, and proceeds to pretend it’s somehow a comprehensive take.

That’s how writers treat sex work all the time, and it’s precisely why, when I asked about 10 friends of mine to suggest even one well-written mainstream article by an (American) outsider in the past four years, everyone struggled to do it. We don’t need another article about the sensationalist stuff on the surface. We don’t need another “sensitively-written” profile on a single prostitute that never goes outside the lines of one individual’s life to look at the laws and circumstances shaping it. We need mainstream articles about condom confiscation, about travel restrictions placed on prostitutes, and about the profound lack of action by police regarding the Gilgo Beach murders. We need those articles from people who give a shit not only about the issues themselves but about the integrity of their reporting, so that they don’t write a 5,000 word article rehashing all the work of sex worker rights organizations without crediting a single one.

If all you’ve got is an internet connection and the impulse to write a fluff piece about prostitutes without a mention of our criminalized, stigmatized, and rights-less status as workers, don’t come knocking around my door. You may not want to demonize me, but I feel perfectly comfortable demonizing you.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Gira Grant September 18, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Fucking bravo.

Even now, I still get requests from reporters to “help” them with ill-conceived stories on sex work that follow this precise Mad Lib template. The cities and times may change, but the level of journalism spared for the sex industry as subject is as shabby as ever.

And if I can add one – no, reporters, I will not “introduce” you to the sex workers I know and/or who have been generous with me as sources. Do your own job.

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Seska September 19, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Love the Mad Lib template comparison!

Indeed, I have been getting requests for years. Plus, the ones from grad students who have sex work as a pet project.

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Laura Lee September 18, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Excellent stuff. I have a policy with hacks now, sing my song or GTFO.

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Paul Whitehead September 21, 2012 at 6:41 am

Good morning, Charlotte

Thank you for a most interesting article. I must admit to some naivety here. What is “GFE”?

All the best,

Paul

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BP September 21, 2012 at 9:56 pm

I love this post overall, but one quibble:

“if you do meet a sex worker who’s downright eager to talk to you but who doesn’t have a well-established track record as an advocate or activist, it should be a red flag.”

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you here, but I think sex workers who are not necessarily activists can still have insight to contribute and voices that should be heard. The percentage of sex workers who are also well-established advocates is quite small and interviewing only them would automatically shut out a great deal of other perspectives and opinions. Obviously journalists should be cautious of “fakes,” but I don’t see a problem with talking to sex workers who are new to the industry or who aren’t involved in activism.

It’s been great to see sex workers online push for a plurality of voices and viewpoints on the issues that matter to our lives, but if that’s the ideal we strive for we need to mean it and it needs to be universal – newbies and veterans, activists and regular workers, etc.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane September 22, 2012 at 12:11 am

“Eager” is the key word, and to me “red flag” only means proceed with caution. I think it’s a huge jump to equate that with saying non-activists shouldn’t be spoken to or don’t have insights. I don’t think of myself as an activist but I think I have something worth saying. Talking to a sex worker who is brand new to the industry (without qualifying him or her as such) would be bad journalism in a lot of circumstances, simply because someone who’s been doing it for two weeks has a very different, arguably less complete perspective than somebody who’s been doing it for longer. For instance, new girls often make more at incall locations, so if you use their earnings average to extrapolate to the general pool of local sex workers, it could be misleading. And I stand by the proposition that an (American) prostitute who is eager to talk to a journalist is far from representative of most. What we do is illegal and journalists notoriously mishandle sources in this context. Like I said: Most of us are doing this to make money, not to dish to the first stranger who asks.

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Elle Elle September 23, 2012 at 2:13 am

Thank you, and thank you.

Most recently, I get a lot of; ‘I’m doing a study at my school, for a class in Human Sexuality/Sociology/Psychology/Women’s Studies’.

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Companion September 23, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Charlotte,
Fucking bravo is right, x’s a million.

Paul,
Google it, you lazy SOB…what’s wrong with you?

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eagerbeaver March 20, 2013 at 5:25 pm

google is the new library…nobody wants to bother.

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Robin Hustle September 25, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Hallelujah. I hope you don’t mind if I reply to all future interview requests with a link to this piece.

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Josephine Josephine October 15, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Today I got an email from an ABC journalist for an interview and, oh, hey, “Do you have any pictures of you and your friends to share? Please send those my way.” Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

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Bubbles Bubbles October 16, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Just email back a link to this story.

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Nikki Fox October 27, 2012 at 1:54 am

As a dancer my favorite is the 22 year olds with a women’s study class project. I’ve seen a few of them come in during day shifts, one even left long questionnaire pamphlets for dancers to fill out. Usually female but male students do it too for “sociology”. They never have a clue.

What sucks more than emails is someone in your space when you are trying to work treating you like a hamster they are observing for their middle school science project.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane October 27, 2012 at 9:45 am

The grad students are constant! Even undergrads, sometime. We get lots of emails like that at the Tits & Sass email account. I guess they (students) get used to people indulging their requests because they usually ask people who are relatively close to them, like their parents or some other mentor type figure for an “interview” to use in an essay. I remember doing that type of thing in middle/high school. I don’t know if I ever would have had the balls to go to some type of professional who I didn’t already know though and ask them to give me a bunch of their time for an essay that will be thrown away after it’s graded.

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eagerbeaver March 20, 2013 at 5:28 pm

A hamster they don’t approve of, at that.

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shawnak November 2, 2012 at 8:04 pm

“What we do is illegal and journalists notoriously mishandle sources in this context. Most of us are doing this to make money, not to dish to the first stranger who asks.” Yup. The LA Weekly called my memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix fiction because I refused to put the cub reporter/book reviewer in touch w/the headmistress of my former dungeon. I did put him in touch with another domme who worked there, but that wasn’t enough–and he just bugged her for contact, as well.

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eagerbeaver March 20, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Maybe you can connec the dots and realize that when journalists give anonymity to government officials in order to promote a neolib/neoconservative agenda, the fact that they mishandle little details about people nobody is bugging them for, might be on purpose. They’re looking to destroy lives and freedom. Protecting power is one way. Outing the living and the free is another.

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Charlotte Shane Charlotte Shane June 15, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Better late than never? Here’s a link to the epically fucked up NYT article mentioned in the original post, which included about a dozen serious errors and is therefore only available in severely edited form: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/nyregion/16call.html?pagewanted=3&_r=0

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