Monday, February 18, 2008

The Great Letters from Working Girls Debate


Not long after the first of this year, and on a whim, I launched two online projects: Letters from Johns and Letters from Working Girls. I created Letters from Johns first. The purpose, I suppose, was to expose another side of sex work. Thus far, the real reasons why men pay for sex have remained a bit of a mystery. By procuring letters from guys who had done so, I would reveal, if nothing else, the myriad reasons why men seek out working girls, how they see female sex workers, and what men reveal about themselves when they write about those experiences. In a nutshell, I created Letters from Johns because I was curious--and I figured others would be, too. Not long after, I created Letters from Working Girls. Here, the intention was very much the same. Everybody knows the "Pretty Woman" story about the hooker with a heart of gold, but what were the real stories that were told when sex workers wrote about their experiences selling sex? For johns and working girls, the letters format would enable both parties to speak their truths in their own words. All letters would be anonymous to protect the identities of contributors who were engaged in what in America is an illegal act. Not long after I launched Letters from Johns, I got an email from a reader who pronounced my sexual politics skewed. As he saw it, I imagine, I was in some way trying to glamorize sex work, and, the reader wrote, he had experience with sex workers through his line of work, and, he said, sex work was anything but glamorous. In the end, he contributed his own letter: "I'm Not a John." Since Letters from Johns went live, I've received a slow, steady stream of emails from johns, ranging from one from a state investigator to another from a former drug dealer. Along the way, I've gotten a few fakes--or, at least, letters I believe are fakes. Generally, letters that end with scenes in which the sex worker returns payment because the sex was so great, or include lines like, "I felt a pressure building up in my pants; it was my erection," "How easily can my penis be fooled," and "Her virgina redefined femininity," are fakes, in my opinion. Suffice to say, Letters from Johns has turned out to be pretty much what I expected. And Letters from Working Girls has turned out to be pretty much what I expected, as well; although, for very different reasons. One reason I didn't launch Letters from Johns and Letters from Working Girls at the same time was that I knew letters from working girls would be hard to come by. As I wrote to one reader of the sites, in many cases, female sex workers are too busy living the life to sit around writing me letters. If you know what I'm talking about here, you know what I mean. In addition, there were other venues for sex workers out there already. I grew up in the Bay Area, where strippers unionize and prostitutes parade. Since sex and the internet are longtime sticky bedfellows, I well knew there were many other existing resources out there already for female sex workers who wanted to speak their minds. These days, the ways sex workers are articulating their thoughts, ideas, and visions are as myriad as the sex workers themselves, from College Callgirl to Melissa Gira, Susie Bright to Debauchette, $pread to ISWFACE--to name but a few. (And, yeah, if you're splitting hairs, I do consider Susie Bright to be a sex worker. In fact, I consider myself to be a sex worker. But that's another story altogether.) Having grown up in a community where everything was political, I was interested in creating a forum focused on the sex business that was as depoliticized as possible. Why? Because I thought the letters would speak for themselves. Who better to speak about sex work than those who have engaged in it? Of course, things are never that easy, and anything involving sex is never black and white. When it comes to sex, the line is always blurry, and the politics are forever fuzzy. A few weeks ago, Audacia Ray, a well-known and well-respected author, blogger, and sex worker advocate, who is an executive editor of $pread, a magazine that supports sex worker rights and publishes work by and for sex workers, posted "Sex Workers Speak Up: But Who Publishes It?" In her post, Ray wrote about her feelings regarding Letters from Johns and Letters from Working Girls. At the time, I had been getting next to no letters from working girls, so I had emailed a few prominent sex worker-oriented blogs and sites in hopes they would spread the word that I was looking for letters from working girls. While she wrote, "I can never get enough of stories from inside the sex industry," my projects, she said, rubbed her the wrong way. In the comments section to a post at Bound, Not Gagged, a blog for sex workers, Ray wrote: "Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but I really value sex worker run, written and edited spaces. Instead of sending your stories about being a sex worker to that blog, we should encourage sex workers to start their own blogs or participate here on Bound, Not Gagged... I personally would rather see that than see sex workers send their writing to a blogger who, to my knowledge, isn’t a sex worker. This isn’t to say that Susannah has evil intentions for our words, but I’d rather see those words in sex worker run spaces." Ray's comment was polite, intelligent, and, I think, for the most part, right. Sex work is one of the world's most misrepresented and misunderstood professions in human history. These days, thanks in no small part to the internet, sex workers have the ability to speak for themselves in their own forums without censorship or misrepresentation. Therefore, it only makes sense that sex workers rights--as workers, writers, and bloggers--would be best met in forums created by and for sex workers. Not long after Ray posted her comment, I saw it, and while I was for the most part in agreement with what she said, I couldn't help but take issue with it. (After all, this is my project.) So, I published a post that included Ray's comments--and was titled: "So, It Would Be OK If I Fucked for Money?" My point, while provocative, was aimed to point out what I saw as the flaw in Ray's thinking, which, if one considers it, is, in my opinion, for lack of a better word, wack. Letters from Johns and Letters from Working Girls would be OK if I was a prostitute, a stripper, a former sex worker? I'm sure there's a Latin word for that kind of flawed argument, but if there is I don't know it. So, in the same vein, should I withdraw that post I wrote on the Congo rape epidemic because I'm not black? I don't know what to say to that line of thinking other than that, frankly. Ray responded, "That’s a pretty harsh way to simplify a conversation I was trying to have, but if you wanna go there, I’ll answer simply: Yes." And as much as I advocate my own position, I get hers, too. Ray goes on to say I didn't reach out to others in the online community of sex workers already out there, which I find to reek of someone trying to stake out ownership to a territory that's, well, composed of pixels. Regardless, I encourage any and all sex workers who bother reading my blog to write, publish, and tell your stories--wherever the fuck you want. I guess that's my idea of being a sex worker advocate. I'm not interested in affiliating either Letters project with anything. In this particular case, I want the letters to stand alone, unabashed and unashamed. That way, the readers can make of them what they will--rather than one more person, for or against sex workers, speaking for people on either side of the equation. That's my motivation. In the comments, after one commenter suggested a boycott of Letters from Working Girls, a working girl who contributed her story to Letters from Working Girls wrote about why she did it: "It isn’t so much that I’m afraid of repercussions, I just wanted to tell ONE story, and have it heard. Her project was an outlet for that. At this moment (and it could change) I don’t feel the need to write about sex work all that frequently (I tried to blog about it but it got neglected because I was rarely inspired to sit down and write about it). I wanted a one-off, where I could say something and have it heard, and there it was... Collecting letters in one place could serve to enlighten someone to the range of (very, very different) reasons people buy or sell sex, in a way that a singular sex worker’s blog couldn’t. I kind of like that idea." In any case, all that said, I've got new letters up today: "I've Always Been a Quiet, Shy Guy" and "I Felt Like Being Destructive." The latter letter is from Mystery Working Girl #4, a rare redhead to whom I am thankful for telling her story--and letting the rest of us read it. As an interesting final note, Letters from Working Girls is updated one-fourth as often as Letters from Johns and gets four times the traffic. In conclusion, I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Update: Debauchette and Melissa respond with their points-of-view.