Interview with Hürriyet (Turkey)

Melissa Gira Grant in Hurriyet

I was interviewed by Mehmet İren for the Turkish paper Hürriyet on Playing the Whore and the politics of sex work.

(You can read my unedited answers in English below.)

How did you decide to work and stop working as a sex worker?

Have you ever had a disturbing experience during your time as sex worker?

How long were you doing sex work in general?

I was expecting conclusions based on your own experience as a sex worker in your book. Instead it’s political, more like a manifest. What was your motivation for the book?

I’ve been working as a freelance writer and journalist for over a decade. It’s interesting to me, that you haven’t asked me any questions about my work as a writer, as this is a book drawn from my criticism and my reporting. The labor of this book is writing and reporting and research, not sex work. Yet you correctly understood that the motivation of the book is to expose the politics of how we understand sex work. It’s not a memoir. So why would you expect it would include autobiographical stories about sex work?

One of the main feminist arguments against prostitution is that man is driven by a belief that he has the right to access women as a commodity because he sees women as his inferior. Would you agree?

There is no one feminist analysis of sex work. In Playing the Whore I describe how American feminists in the 1970’s did not seek to abolish prostitution, but to find common cause with sex workers and to support sex workers in their political organizing. It’s only been in the last decade or so that mainstream feminists have sought to use law enforcement to abolish sex work and to remove sex workers from their jobs, which they say is for their own good. And of course, many sex workers who are feminists vehemently oppose this, and find this attitude towards their work and their rights to be what places them in an inferior position.

You suggest us to concentrate to ‘work’ instead of ‘sex’. But still, isn’t there a problem in relationships where the social roles are clearly defined by a cash transaction?

That’s to look at sex work from the perspective of an outsider. For sex workers, this is what they do to earn a living. It’s work. No sex worker understands herself or himself completely or solely through their job. Most people would resent this idea, that they are fully defined by their work. Sex workers are no exception.

There are many it girls and it boys in porn. They’re writing columns in Salon or Daily Beast, they have interviews in magazines like GQ. Do you think sex industry, especially porn, became somehow glamorous?

You mustn’t confuse the interest of a handful of publications in giving space to sex workers to write for them with “glamorizing” sex work. (And — speaking of “glamorous” work — despite being well-known names, those publications also pay far less than sex work does. Any sex worker who writes for them is taking a pay cut.)

What do you think about the coverage about sex workers on mainstream media?

It’s mostly lazy, but I can’t entirely blame writers. Editors have a narrow way they tend to want to cover sex work. You only need look at the usual photographs that run with sex work stories — headless women on streets at night — to understand how cliched most media on sex work is. The media is responsible for creating these faceless stereotypes of sex workers. They must be more critical, or at the very least self-reflexive about the power they hold. It’s getting better. Sex workers routinely speak back to media who misrepresent them, and sometimes get results. It’s laughable now that any reporter can pretend to have greater access to sex workers’ stories than the general public can just by looking at social media. This is why I don’t report only on sex workers, but on the policy makers, police, and press who create danger in sex workers lives.

You claim feminists getting wrong the prostitution. You don’t consider yourself as feminist than?

I’ve been a feminist for most of my life. Certainly before I did sex work. Which is why it’s quite painful to see how mainstream feminism has rejected sex workers. But then, when some feminists don’t listen to sex workers and value their expertise, no, it should not be surprising that they don’t understand sex work. But that obscures what’s really happening: it’s not that some feminists don’t want to understand and listen to sex workers, it’s just that they think — even those who have never done sex work — they understand better than sex workers do.

Is there really a ‘choice’ for all sex workers?

Ask me that question again about writing professionally. Did I have a ‘choice’ to accept money for my writing? Surely I could have continued to write for free. Who am I to commodify my most valuable intellectual labor? How am I to be sure I’m not being exploited? What’s a choice, accepting too little money for a story or not doing the story at all? Ask me about ‘choice’ as an author promoting a book. Do I turn down an interview when most of the questions are cliched and personal and inappropriate, or do I do the interview anyway because publicity is important? Work always presents us with a range of unappealing choices from which we must choose. That’s not a problem with sex work. That’s the problem with work.

For example in my country there is no other work for transgenders. If you are a transgender in Turkey you can be a sex worker or nothing (%99 at least. a few exceptions with one of them being the most famous ‘diva’ of the country but this doesn’t change the general rule anyway). How can they choose in these conditions where they are not even considered legal persons?

For trans sex workers, who face employment and social discrimination, yes — in many places they are over-represented among sex workers. That’s an issue of anti-trans discrimination. They face additional stigma. But further stigmatizing sex work as something “only people without choices would ever do” doesn’t help people with few choices. You need to fight discrimination, not fight sex work.

“No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry.” Do you think there is no difference between serving coffee to someone than you don’t choose, and sleeping with someone you don’t choose?

I’ve never served coffee to anyone for pay. Which is why I don’t presume to know what people who do work in the service industry need. Whereas countless people who have never sold sex believe what sex workers need, without trying to find out from them directly, is to be rescued from sex work.

What should be the ideal politics about sex workers?

Listen to, believe, value, and give resources and power to sex workers. As an activist said at one of my book events in London, understand that any answer you have, sex workers have already come up with it, and they either found it lacking or simply lacked the resources to make it happen. The “answers” and ideal politics are out there. Too few people are listening.

On Biographies

The Atlantic’s CityLab: How D.C. Finally Stopped Punishing Sex Workers for Carrying Condoms

CityLab: Washington, DC

The Atlantic’s CityLab is publishing a series I reported while on book tour, on sex work and policing in America. My second story covers policing and discrimination in Washington, DC:

In some District of Columbia neighborhoods, the Metropolitan police pass out business cards decorated with a rainbow-hued row of condoms. “Individuals are allowed to carry as many condoms as they want,” the text reads. “There is no ‘three condom rule.'”

“People can’t believe it,” says Darby Hickey, a sex worker rights and trans rights activist in D.C., who is currently working for a member of the D.C. Council. “They take photos of the cards,” she tells me. “And they’re like, ‘you can’t believe what I just got from the police, check this out’ and they text it or they tweet it – trans workers, sex workers, people who get profiled by the police.”

New York Times: The Price of a Sex Slave Rescue Fantasy

Desktop-2014-05-30-NYT

These are the women whose stories are not told in an anti-trafficking fund-raising pitch. Some of the “victims” whom Ms. Mam said she saved then attempted to escape from her shelters, only to have her claim to the press that they had been “kidnapped.” She later apologized for a 2012 speech before the United Nations General Assembly in which she asserted that the Cambodian Army had killed eight girls after a raid on her shelters.

Ms. Mam’s stories were told in interviews with journalists including Nicholas Kristof, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times. She attracted high-profile supporters: There were benefits thrown by Susan Sarandon; Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer, is on the advisory board of her foundation. Ms. Mam’s target audience of well-off Westerners, eager to do good, often knows little about the sex trade. It doesn’t require much for them to imagine all women who sell sex as victims in need of rescue.

The Price of a Sex Slave Rescue Fantasy, my op-ed for The New York Times, appeared Friday, May 30, 2014. Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, called for Kristof to offer a full explanation for his coverage of Somaly Mam.

The Debate, Redux

Margo St James - Amnesty for All Prostitutes
photo: Margo St. James with members of Wages For Housework, San Francisco City Hall, 1977 (from the Coyote Howls newsletter)

In my book Playing the Whore, I devote a chapter to addressing the typical limits of “the debate” on sex work:

The sex work debate, no matter how sedate and sympathetic its interlocutors claim it to be, is a spectacle. It attracts an audience with the lure of a crisis—prostitution sweeping the nation!—and a promise of doing good by feeling terrible. Sad stories about sex work are offered like sequins, displayed to be admired and then swept off the stage when the number is done. As a treat, the organizers may even decide to invite a token whore to perform.

I conclude:

Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm.

In a recent review of Playing the Whore published at the Boston Review (to which I was invited to respond by an editor), a critic grossly overstates my assessment of the state of the sex work debate, claiming I wish for no one to debate sex work at all.

This same critic has previously charged that when sex workers raise issues of stigma and abuse against sex workers, they do so to lure the public into a “honey trap.”

I don’t wish to devote much more labor to the topic of the debate, as I have already given it enough in my own book, which I hope others at the Boston Review have read (and if not, perhaps their readers will). My withdrawal from this particular form of debate on sex work represents not a rejection of all free and open debate on the issue, but an attempt to put my labor in service of one that actually lives up to those honorable qualities.

To confine or even prioritize our public discussion of sex work to how it makes those who do not do sex work feel about sex work – or, more coyly, to debate how sex work impacts “our culture” – is to cede debate to its narrowest and all too typical form: to debate the other without their participation, with little regard for how they may benefit (or for how they may face the consequences).

Such a small debate, in this case, serves to reprise the exclusion sex workers face in wider political discourse. It’s also woefully over-tread ground. As writer and prostitute Charlotte Shane noted, “Right. The biggest problem with sex work is how no one will criticize it.”

Instead, I invite those who find purpose or meaning in this debate – of what sex work means to the people who do not rely upon it – to continue it amongst themselves if they must.

I can only hope they understand why I find it more timely and necessary to debate nearly anything else regarding sex work: why we abandon the regulation of sex work to law enforcement; why we do not more loudly demand accountability when members of law enforcement abuse sex workers; why more of us do not support transgender women and gender nonconforming people profiled and harassed by law enforcement as sex workers; why it is that those who face criminal records for their alleged involvement in the sex trades are overwhelmingly women of color, transgender women, and poor women;  why even after forty years of their own organizing do we not consider sex workers’ rights to be labor rights; or even, if you insist, why some people find their own feelings about sex work to matter more than the persistent, systemic, and almost entirely socially-sanctioned stigma against sex work and, by unqualified extension, against sex workers, which puts their well-being and their lives at risk every day.

For those seeking that more complete debate, they may be pleased to find a new volume devoted to the subject.

2013: The Work of Sex Work Writing

I put all my wrap-up energy into this list of the best sex work writing of 2013, so this will be short and sweet. Mostly, because most of my writing this year is in this book, which you can have come March 11, 2014:

Which now looks like this:

Books. They are inferior to blogging only in that at present, you just have to trust me about what’s in there.

Now here’s what you can read right now:

The War on Sex Workers, my feature for Reason, was my most widely read piece this year.

Sex work at the Super Bowl: the myth and its makers, for The Guardian.

Girl Geeks and Boy Kings, my review of Kate Losse’s book on Facebook for Dissent, runs right into my take on the branding of corporate feminism for The Washington Post. (Terminating in this brief follow-up, “Like” Feminism, at Jacobin.)

Who speaks for women who work in the adult industry?, for The Guardian.

For The Nation, I covered the Supreme Court case challenging the US’s decision to make HIV funding contingent on opposition to sex work.

Anti-Prostitution Pledge Heads to Supreme Court
Ending Prostitution ‘Central’ to Ending AIDS, US Tells Supreme Court
How the Anti-Prostitution Pledge Hinders AIDS Prevention
Supreme Court Strikes Down Anti-Prostitution Pledge for US Groups

For In These Times, I reported on cases of violence against women in the sex trade, and on transgender women in particular.

Sex Workers Rise Up After Fatal Stabbings, on #justiceforjasmine and #justicefordora
Better Treatment of Trans Women by Philly Police Could Have Averted Brutal Murder, on the murder of Diamond Williams

Amnesty International, human rights, and the criminalization of sex work, a behind-the-scenes on sex work policy for The New Statesman.

Spitzer v. Sex Workers, on what his campaign would rather we forget about his politics, for The American Prospect.

Don’t Trust Feminists Fighting to Keep Sex Work Illegal, on anti-sex work campaigners, for Talking Points Memo.

Betty Dodson’s Feminist Sex Wars, a long and wonderful interview for Truthout.

What the New York Times (and France) Got Wrong About Prostitution, taking up the trend of forecasting “trends” towards treating sex workers as victims, for Slate.

The Red Light and the Cloud, a history of the future of sex work, and maybe my favorite of the year, for Medium.

One of the consequences of being so in the book is I gave better interview than blog (sorry, blog). Here’s two using words I liked the most, for Guernica (by Zoe Schlanger) and for Autostraddle (by Carmen Rios). And one using the microphone: Radio Dispatch Live.

Along the way of writing, though, I got to travel and give some really rewarding talks, at Duke University and at Yale, and for the Labor and Working-Class History Association. Since those are folded into the book, you will have to wait.

So here’s to 2014, when I get to hand you this book and do this in person, right? Let me know where you are. I might be there.

Sex Work in 2013: No Debate

No more debate. And ignore the johnalism. Those are my writing resolutions for 2014, after pulling together (with your help) this year of excellent writing on sex work.

No more debate – because reporting and analysis on sex work issues go way beyond the predictable pro/con, “are sex workers responsible for the subjugation of all women? discuss!” thing, and to quote every sex work rescue program out there, we’re better than that (and if you haven’t noticed, shake your feeds up).

Ignore the johnalism – because even though those guys are still out there filing the same cliched copy (saviors gotta save), they are so clearly outnumbered, and they are outdone.

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(White Savior Cat, by Scott Long)

And maybe I’m inured to the exploitation of journalism, or maybe I’m just becoming an old softie, but I noticed a lot more news stories that treated sex work absolutely uncontroversially. Like here, as evidenced in this kind note from New Orleans based journalist Alison Fenterstock on her favorite piece:

In the grand scheme of things it’s not especially awesome or groundbreaking, but I write for a mid-sized, mainstream metropolitan daily paper and was pretty pleased they went for a Super Bowl strip club story that extensively quoted an actual stripper on how not to be an asshole in strip clubs during the Super Bowl (for customers) and basic advice on how to stay safe if you had traveled to New Orleans to dance during the Super Bowl. It ran on A1 and about a year later, still gets hits every day from people Googling “New Orleans strip clubs.”

Simple, servicey, and yet still so unusual that I had to add a category for just these kinds of stories, “News Stories That Treated Sex Work Like A Real News Story.”

And now, from the depths of my Instapaper and sex work twitter to you, the list. (Oh, also: I didn’t include my work on this list. My 2013 writing is over here.)

2013: The Best in Sex Work Writing

Crime & Law Enforcement

Dragged Off By The Hair’: An Indian Sex Worker Recalls a Raid, Parker, Tits and Sass

Exposing Bullshit: Extorting Sex Work Clientele Isn’t Helping, Tizz Wall, Medium

New York’s Condom Bait-and-Switch, Emily Gogolak, Village Voice

New York Cops Will Arrest You For Carrying Condoms, Molly Crabapple, Vice

Operation Cross Country VII Roundup and Comments, Emi Koyama (in which Emi goes the mile most newsrooms did not and crunches the numbers on a coordinated, national FBI sting operation)

On LGBTQ Youth, Condoms and Police Stops, Olivia Ford, TheBody.com

Police officers accused of rape get a pass from the LA Times, Rania Khalek

Soho police raids show why sex workers live in fear of being ‘rescued’, Molly, The Guardian

The Big Ripoff: TER, The Texas Murder Acquittal, and the Myth of the Vulnerable Client, Charlotte Shane, Tits and Sass

Economics & Labor

Branded: The Fight for Employment After Sex Work, Kitty Stryker, Slixa

Fired for doing porn: The new employment discrimination, EJ Dickson, Salon

ICTU: Denying Sex Workers a Workers’ Identity, Wendy Lyon, Irish Left Review

‘I’d rather be a sex worker than a beggar’, Ilija Trojanovic, The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Is Exotic Dance… Dance?!, Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Pacific Standard

Gag Order: Sex Workers Allege Mistreatment at Kink.com, Kate Conger, SF Weekly

“Getting Away” With Hating It: Consent in the Context of Sex Work, Charlotte Shane, Tits and Sass

Glimpses of history in Storyville’s 3 remaining buildings, Kathy Reckdahl, The Advocate (New Orleans)

The myth of seductive money, Calico Lane

Reflections on Minneapolis madams and the city’s red-light districts, Marlys Harris, MinnPost

Sex work and gentrification, Dan Bledwich, Overland

Tales of Kink.com, Maggie Mayhem

Taking the Boom Out of the Boom-Boom Room: Why Are Strip Clubs Banning Rap?, Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Complex

Transition, Danny Wylde

What It Was Like to Work at the Lusty Lady, a Unionized Strip Club, Lily Burana, The Atlantic

What Prostitutes, Nurses and Nannies Have in Common, Robin Hustle, Jezebel

Wildcatting: A Stripper’s Guide to the Modern American Boomtown, Susan Elizabeth Shepard, BuzzFeed

Gender & Sexuality

Black porn, white pleasure, Feminista Jones, Ebony

Ethical sluts and “dirty whores”: Straight talk about sex work, Melinda Chateauvert, Salon

The Feminist Sex Wars and the Myth of the Missing Middle, Gayle Rubin, at Susie Bright’s blog

Gender inequality and sex work, Molly, A Sex Worker in Glasgow

Memorial draws controversy over invitation of speaker Janice Raymond, Mercedes Allen, Rabble.ca

NWC2013: write-up & some opinions, Jennifer Moore (n.b., this long, well-researched post defies categorization, and is an essential read on sex work and the politics of exclusion)

Sex workers need support – but not from the ‘hands off my whore’ brigade, Selma James,  The Guardian

Transforming Pornography: Black Porn for Black Women, Sinnamon Love, Guernica

Unhappy Hooking, or Why I’m Giving Up on Being Positive, Sarah M.

When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland, Tressie McMillan Cottom

Why are we afraid to talk about gay porn?, Conner Habib, BuzzFeed

Why I never signed the No More Page 3 petition, Zoe Stavri

Health

Cold Case, Good Cause, Matthew Lawrence, Providence Phoenix

Sex Workers Embrace Obamacare, Erika Fink, CNN

Higher Ed 

Campaigners for sex workers face bullying and bad data, Belinda Brooks-Gordon, The Conversation

FYI, Julie Bindel: Your Ideas About Sex Work Research Affect Sex Work Students, Sarah M.

On Good Research, Lori Adorable, SWOP-NYC

Why Pornography Deserves Its Own Academic Journal, Lynn Comella, Pacific Standard

Human Rights

Activists Campaign Against Philadelphia Judge Who Ruled Rape as Theft, Tara Murtha, RH Reality Check

Both Transphobic and Whorephobic: The Murder of Dora Oezer, Caty Simon, Tits and Sass

Equality Now, or Else?, Parker, Tits and Sass

Forty Years in the Hustle: Q&A with Margo St. James, Anne Gray Fischer, Bitch

Misery to Ministry: Kathryn Griffin’s Prostitution Rehab in Texas, Kate Zen, Slixa

Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about ‘Rescues’ of Youth in the Sex Trade, Emi Koyama

Sex imperialism, Scott Long

Sex slave story revealed to be fabricated, Simon Marks and Phorn Bopha, The Cambodia Daily

Talking to Sex Workers About Fighting for Their Rights, Feminism, and More, Lauren Rankin, RH Reality Check

The “Ugly Truth:” Ad Campaigns about the Sex Trade Will Always Fail…, Hadil Habiba, Prison Culture guest post

“What Antis Can Do To Help,” Part 1 and Part 2, Lori Adorable, Tits and Sass

What India’s Sex Workers Want: Power, Not Rescue, Michelle Chen, In These Times

Law & Policy

Arizona’s Tenacious Laws Against Sex Workers, Jordan Flaherty, Truthout

Canada’s Supreme Court Striking Down Prostitution Laws, Brooke Magnanti, Reason

Enduring (the) Myths: Sex Work, Decriminalisation and the Nordic Model, Nine, Feminist Ire

I am a former escort. Trust me, criminalizing prostitution doesn’t help, Matthew Lawrence, The Guardian

Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores, Laura Agustín, Jacobin

Red-light greenlight: Sex work at the brink of legalization, Justin Ling, The Coast

Sex Workers in France Resist Attacks on Their Liberty, Michelle Chen, In These Times

Something Rotten in the State of Sweden, Nine, The Toast

Treating Sex Work as Work, Maggie McNeill, Cato Unbound

What Prostitutes Can Teach the Canadian Government, Samantha Majic, Washington Post Monkey Cage blog

When XXX Doesn’t Mark the Spot, Yasmin Nair, In These Times

Media Criticism

Cold Cases, Susan Elizabeth Shepard, The New Inquiry

Condom debate offers another chance to explain porn personnel to us, Gram Ponante

The Feminist Porn Book, Caty Simon, Tits and Sass

Feministe Can’t Just Make Their Sex Work Problems Disappear, Chris Hall, Literate Perversions

Mira Sorvino, CNN child-sex series ‘shameful’ for Cambodians, Michelle Tolson, Asian Correspondent

On the Importance of Writing Accurately About Sex Work, Stoya, Vice

Sauna Raids and Silenced Sex Workers, Mrs Misandry, A Thousand Flowers

Study Abroad, Charlotte Shane, The New Inquiry

Why Is The Canadian Media Still Referring To Sex Workers As Prostitutes?, Sarah Ratchford, Vice

Why This Video Needs to Fuck Off, eithnecrow (also awarding this one, ‘2013 Best Response To An Upworthy Headline’)

Memoir & Personal Essays

How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, Amber Dawn

Prose & Lore, the Red Umbrella Project literary journal

News Stories That Treated Sex Work Like A Real News Story

Argentina’s prostitutes – mothers first, sex workers second, Roberta Radu, The Guardian

California Prostitutes Win Victims Compensation, AP

Louisiana Overhaul of Discriminatory Law: Hundreds Cleared from Sex Offender List, Sarah Lazare, Common Dreams

Police Harassment In Louisiana May Be Increasing The Number Of People Dying From AIDS, Tara Culp-Ressler, ThinkProgress

Porn and Banks: Drawing a Line on Loans, Chris Morris, CNBC

Porn industry trade group halts production for third time this year, Massoud Hayoun, Al Jazeera America

Sex workers meet to demand rights, Ambika Pandit, Times of India

Politics (Electoral)

The Twitter feed of Lynsie Lee (and this decent interview)

And yes, I am including the Sydney Leathers sexting how-to

Profiles 

Stoya, Pop Star of Porn, Amanda Hess, Village Voice

How porn star Courtney Trouble is starting a queer revolution, Lynn Comella, Las Vegas Weekly