The journalist and former sex worker on what feminists get wrong about prostitution.
Melissa Gira Grant is a journalist, she used to be a sex worker, and for a while she did both at the same time.
This past June, Grant reported from a protest outside of the Village Voice’s office in downtown Manhattan. An unlikely gathering of radical feminists and evangelical Christians held pink umbrellas and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho! Prostitution has got to go!” Their gripe was with the Village Voice Media-owned website Backpage.com, which is reported to host some 70 percent of all sex ads on the internet. The protesters, reported Grant, hoped that by likening the alternative weekly media company to a pimp, Backpage.com would be shut down in much the same way that Craigslist’s “adult services” section was shut down a few years prior.
One evangelical Christian told Grant that the Voice was complicit in “modern-day slavery.” The young man did not know that the reporter in front of him had once been a prostitute, or that she had friends who live in fear of being arrested in spontaneous police sweeps, or that she talked to women for whom Backpage.com was a means of controlling their own working conditions and screening for potentially violent customers. “Slavery” did not apply to those women, or to her. Would he have spoken to her differently if he knew that? Grant doesn’t know.
Grant joined me at her neighborhood coffee shop on a February afternoon, and as we sat down, she pointed to a cafe table behind us. “I outlined my book over there,” Grant said, and pointed to another. “And that’s where we discussed the proposal.” This summer, Grant’s first book, Playing the Whore, will be published by Verso Books in collaboration with Jacobin magazine, where she is a contributing editor.
She recently published a piece at Jacobin titled “Happy Hookers,” a critique of how those who have not worked in the sex industry tend to think about those who have, and how those feelings, whether grounded in the reality of the industry or not, shape policy that affects workers–almost always in a way that harms.
In a recent piece in Reason magazine, Grant asks, “How have we arrived at this point, that in the name of ‘protecting’ women, or even ensuring their ‘rights,’ feminists are eager to take away their jobs and health care?” She points her finger at what Elizabeth Bernstein calls “carceral feminism,” wherein success is measured in arrest numbers, and conservative donors are mollified by the portrayal of all sex workers as victims. “The result is—or should be—an international scandal,” Grant writes.
Grant and I talked over tea about sex worker organizing, transmisogyny, and what it means to be real on the Internet.
—Zoe Schlanger for Guernica
Guernica: In your Reason article, you described a war on sex workers being waged in the name of saving them from “sexual exploitation.” You argued that we can’t meaningfully deal with sex trafficking if we still see all sex workers as victims. What do you say to people who argue, “Most people doing sex work do not want to be doing sex work”?
Melissa Gira Grant: People very rarely throw that at me with a piece like this. I might get that in the comments, but no one will bring that to me directly. Some reporter at the Wall Street Journal shared the piece on Twitter, saying something like, “I love those Reason pieces that just depart from reality completely.” [Laughs]
Just before I came over here, a couple of anti-prostitution activists had started harassing me on Twitter. I blocked one of their accounts about an hour ago, and twenty minutes later they had created another new account with the same harassment.
No, I’m not going to have a debate with you about how you feel about sex work. It has no impact on what happens tonight with the police in the streets… How we feel about the commodification of sexuality and violence doesn’t actually translate to those people’s lives.
Guernica: What were they saying?
Melissa Gira Grant: One person was basically saying that feminists aren’t interested in criminalizing prostitutes, that they don’t want to do that. I responded that whether or not they want to, that is what is happening on the ground.
I’ve moved away from writing about and describing actual experiences of sex work, whether mine or anybody else’s, because the culture is obsessed with the behavior of sex workers. They want to figure out why they do what they do and who they are. Women’s sites like xo Jane, Crushable, and even Jezebel have been publishing a lot of first-person writing by sex workers. I’ve noticed an uptick in the last year. A lot of it is really great and breaks stereotypes, and that’s in addition to the blogs that sex workers themselves have.
There are so many feelings. And feelings are important. I wouldn’t advocate for a feminism that’s buttoned-up and divorced of the messiness of our real lives. Your feelings are your feelings, but you’re not going to litigate your feelings about my body.
What I’m trying to do is to shift the focus onto the producers of the anti-sex work discourse: the cops, the feminists, the anti-prostitution people. They don’t like being talked about. So my response was, “Look, this wasn’t a piece about how you or I feel about sex work. It’s about the actions of groups of people, and so if you can show me something different about the impact of these actions, I’d like to see it.” Those are the people whose behavior needs to change.
I’ve been free in my writing to have that opinion. I’ve never been constrained by journalism in a formal way in which I have to hear both sides. I don’t even know who “both sides” would be on this issue. No, I’m not going to have a debate with you about how you feel about sex work. It has no impact on what happens tonight with the police in the streets. Our feelings alone don’t change what happens with the police, what happens in jail, what happens when someone tries to go to the welfare office, the unemployment office, or any kind of state agency where a criminal record comes up for prostitution. How we feel about the commodification of sexuality and violence doesn’t actually translate to those people’s lives. A lot of the debate is really academic and a waste of time.
[T]here’s a lot of money in this particular way of looking at prostitution because of the values of people who historically have money to give to these kinds of causes.
In some ways, it needs to be had, and I think the anti-prostitution feminists need to do some consciousness-raising amongst themselves about their feelings. But that’s a different political activity. Asking ourselves, how do we feel about the fact that our boyfriends, our husbands, our male partners might hire sex workers? They should have that conversation, but they shouldn’t attach it to policy conversations that affect people.
Guernica: You’re describing the anti-prostitution activism as not really coming from a place of concern for the sex workers, but more from a place of unsaid anxiety. Is this the problem? An activism driven by these feelings?
Melissa Gira Grant: There are so many feelings. And feelings are important. I wouldn’t advocate for a feminism that’s buttoned-up and divorced of the messiness of our real lives. Your feelings are your feelings, but you’re not going to litigate your feelings about my body. The feminist ethics that I signed up for were respect for my bodily autonomy, that my experience is my experience, and that I’m an expert in my own life.
What shocked me today was three different anti-prostitution feminists asking me to justify that I had been a sex worker, to prove it. That either I hadn’t done enough sex work by their standards, or I hadn’t done the right kind in order to have the right to speak about it. I couldn’t understand them. I’m not speaking for you. I’m not speaking “for” anyone. I’m trying to put together this picture of the different forces that are producing a result in the lives of sex workers. You can’t contest the fact that tons of people are going to jail and experiencing violence.
Guernica: I could imagine, though, when you talk about these feminist tropes, that there are plenty of feminists who say, “We don’t believe this, this is not something that we are trying to perpetuate.” Do you feel that they’re not vocal enough?
Melissa Gira Grant: They don’t know how to connect it to meaningful action. And that’s not just an issue specific to feminist activists.
Guernica: Is it a problem across academia and academic work on this subject?
Melissa Gira Grant: Everyone’s politics are born of self-interest, particularly around sexuality. We just have to own up to that. The reason I got onto these issues is that the way they were playing out was hurting me and hurting people I love. That’s fine, but I think we have to go broader than that and take risks. It’s actually not much of a risk to say, “I don’t think we should put sex workers in jail.” That’s a decent, normal thing you should believe. But then what are you going to do about it?
Amber Hollibaugh said that it is hard to consider that the woman who cleans your toilet or gives your husband a blowjob is someone you need to consider in your politics.
The organizations I talk about over and over again are not marginal. Equality Now is not a marginal organization, and they and their affiliate organizations have been the ones pushing against Backpage, against Craigslist. They’re the ones who have driven this conflation of trafficking and prostitution internationally, and now within the U.S. These are organizations that are part of the feminist mainstream.
Another part of this is that there’s a lot of money in this particular way of looking at prostitution because of the values of people who historically have money to give to these kinds of causes.
Guernica: So again, we’re back to anxiety-driven stances on prostitution.
Melissa Gira Grant: Amber Hollibaugh said that it is hard to consider that the woman who cleans your toilet or gives your husband a blowjob is someone you need to consider in your politics.
Guernica: Are those two women thought of as in the same category economically? Are they essentially similar?
Melissa Gira Grant: They might be, or they might be really different. Look at how successful the domestic workers movement has been. They can get their employers, who are other women, to say, “Yes, you should be treated fairly.” There is class stuff going on there that’s significant. But it’s different when it’s your husband hiring someone.
A program officer from a foundation stood up at a domestic worker’s meeting and he said, “This is fantastic and I want my foundation to support domestic worker rights, but I know that the people on our board are not all high-road employers of domestic workers. I can’t get them on board until they face their own stuff.”
Guernica: High-road employers?
Melissa Gira Grant: That’s what he called them, which I had never heard before. That’s a nice way of putting it.
It’s a recognition we rarely make. Your house has to be in order for you to agree to make any kind of real change. Domestic workers quite literally say, “You need to get your house in order. You can’t join this movement unless you look at yourself.” And they’re very forgiving, amnesty for everyone. “You haven’t been paying into your nanny’s unemployment insurance? That’s cool, we’ll teach you how to get right and go from there.”
Porn has kind of fallen apart. I heard the AVNs this year—the big porn conference in Vegas—were super depressing and the “future of porn” conversation was five old white dudes complaining about DVDs and why no one buys DVDs anymore.
What would the parallel be around sex workers? I don’t know if there can be one. Clients of sex workers, or customers, or johns—I hate calling them johns, not because I think it is a bad word but because the anti-sex work people have so fixated on it that I don’t like using it anymore—but, customers: they’re so stigmatized right now. Not as stigmatized as sex workers, but I just can’t imagine. I interviewed one politically active customer of sex workers from California for a segment on CurrentTV that unfortunately never aired. He was really open about how he chooses who to hire and how he negotiates in a way that he feels is respectful. That is the kind of education that sex workers and customers can do, but right now it’s only safe to do so among each other.
Guernica: Is that possible? Destigmatizing customers of sex workers—or educating them to be politically active? Is that a viable road to go down?
Melissa Gira Grant: It’s possible and it happens. I’ve also heard cases of clients or customers calling law enforcement when someone that they’ve seen in a business place might be there against their will. There have been cases where they have been allies in actually finding people who have been trafficked or forced.
But right now the wind is in this different place where anyone who wants to buy sex is seen as either a loser or a pervert or a sociopath, and it’s not helped any by the fact that there are violent people who target sex workers. But I don’t think of a mass murderer who targets sex workers as a bad client. I think of him as a mass murderer. A client pays, goes home, and everything’s okay. The deep disconnect—and I don’t know yet where this goes in a political agenda—is when do women get to process the reality that clients aren’t evil, terrible people? That they might be the men in their lives that they love?
Guernica: Those questions of policing customers are standing in the way of a deeper conversation on sex work?
This is the hardest thing to articulate: I think that there is a legitimate space for sexual commerce. And like every other industry, particularly the service industry, the workers are getting the short end of the stick.
Melissa Gira Grant: That these aren’t bad people. These are people we love. Whether the issue is infidelity or dishonesty on some other level, the people who are paying the price are sex workers. Wouldn’t it be different if there were some sort of solidarity between those two groups of women?
Guernica: Which two groups of women?
Melissa Gira Grant: Women sex workers, and women who don’t do sex work who have a political consciousness about it and want to ally with sex workers and not with the people who put them in jail.
Guernica: Do you think this perception of customers as being deviants or criminals comes out of a changed perception of sex workers over time? In my mind at least there is a retro version of the sex worker who was in the shadows, yes, but not necessarily a victim. More of a jezebel-type figure. If that popular perception has changed, has that changed the perception of the customer, too?
Melissa Gira Grant: I think sex work has become isolated from the social. Prostitution has gone indoors. Porn is almost entirely viewed in private now, you don’t have to go to a theater anymore, it’s in your house.
Guernica: And with the emergence of Craigslist and Backpage…
Melissa Gira Grant: Right, it’s a privatization, which maybe makes it scarier for people. Women in the past thought all they had to do was see if he comes home late, or smells like cigarettes. But nothing’s really changed, right? People still cheat. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. But now that sex work is more private, there’s that chance to have a double life.
Also, and this is the hardest thing to articulate: I think that there is a legitimate space for sexual commerce. And like every other industry, particularly the service industry, the workers are getting the short end of the stick. Are there some industries that just shouldn’t exist? Yes. But I don’t think the sex industry is one of them. As it currently operates it’s not damaging, necessarily, but it might itself be damaged. It’s busted.
Porn has kind of fallen apart. I heard the AVNs this year—the big porn conference in Vegas—were super depressing and the “future of porn” conversation was five old white dudes complaining about DVDs and why no one buys DVDs anymore. The writer Lynn Comella was there and reported that it felt like a throwback.
Guernica: And that “future of porn” conversation was depressing because of an economic decline for the porn industry?
From what I can see, a lot of the political change that could happen is going to be super boring. It’s not going to be about sex—it’s going to be about zoning.
Melissa Gira Grant: Well at those conferences workers are never a topic, right? Because the other thing those conferences do is that they have to perform the sexiness of pornography for the fans who attend them. The workers who are present are there in a fantasy world. It’s not a tradeshow for them in the same ways it might be for others who attend professionally. In their hotel rooms at the end of the night, maybe, when they take their shoes off they can get real with each other and talk shop. Wholesalers of porn get to have that experience on the sales floor. The workers don’t necessarily. They might feel like they have to maintain this front.
That’s part of the other obstacle to sex workers being perceived politically, that people only really know how to perceive them as sex objects.
Guernica: Because they are the sum total of their own market?
Melissa Gira Grant: Yes. It’s so hard for me to say that’s dehumanizing because it sounds like I’m saying that to see someone in a sexualized way, particularly in a commercialized way, is dehumanizing. But given that sex workers have almost no political power, the sexual objectification is destructive. If they had political power, the objectification wouldn’t be a big deal—people objectify powerful people all the time. I think it’s fucked up that people say, “Beyoncé shouldn’t wear that.” I’m not too worried about Beyoncé. She’s made an empire of doing this. For people who are relatively powerless, it has a different kind of charge.
Guernica: How would changing the popular mood around sex work—and raising consciousness about the anxiety-based motives behind different kinds of activism—actually translate into structural, legal change?
Melissa Gira Grant: I hesitate talking about a program for change because we’re in this moment where no one is listening to sex workers about how things should change. So I’m even speaking less as a former sex worker and more as a person trying to see the bigger picture that might be hard to see when you’re doing sex work full-time, or running a social service organization, or doing all the things that a lot of sex worker activists are doing. It’s hard work, and they don’t necessarily get the time to step back and see the whole picture.
From what I can see, a lot of the political change that could happen is going to be super boring. It’s not going to be about sex—it’s going to be about zoning. Where are people permitted to work? It’s going to be about getting sex workers onto health and entertainment commissions, which started to happen when I was in San Francisco. It’s going to be about saying: “Actually, you can’t require people who are arrested for prostitution to submit to mandatory HIV tests. That’s a violation of their human rights.” It was common as AIDS became a panic in the eighties to push for those criminalization-of-HIV laws. That’s something in healthcodes that needs to be dealt with.
Step one is to get the police off people’s backs because there is only so much political organizing you can do when you’re worried about outing yourself to the cops. It makes me so angry when people say, “We never hear from people who are happy doing sex work.” Well, that’s because they’re working. The activism privileges people who hated doing sex work, are no longer doing it, and have a job at a social service organization, for example, that trains them on how to speak to the media. We are hearing from those people quite a bit.
You’ll hear, ‘Oh, and these boys on the street are also selling sex to older men,’ but you’ll never hear, ‘Here’s a queer woman who dates women in her non-sex-work life and has sex with men for work. Deal with it.’
We also hear from sex workers who have through their own volition become media figures, or have despite their own wishes become media figures. Like Ashley Dupré, who has a sex advice column in the New York Post. You get outed and then people expect you to write a memoir because they think, what else are you going to do with your life?
But just Jack and Jill middle-class sex workers? You don’t really hear from them. I think that’s because they’re okay, they’re working, and they’re trying not to stick their head up because they don’t want to be seen. We’re missing a lot of the real-life stories of what people’s work looks like. Those are the people that I want sitting on the zoning board meetings, on the zoning commissions. Those are the people I want participating in business improvement in their own industry. The gentrification processes that often happen in cities so often manifest in street sweeps of sex workers. How do you get sex workers on neighborhood associations, regarded as members of the neighborhood?
Guernica: Would that start with decriminalization?
Melissa Gira Grant: Decriminalization is one necessary step, but it’s not going to impact all these other things. There’s another layer, which is the way that prostitution laws are used against people to criminalize them in the absence of prostitution. Police are going to find ways to target trans people, to target youth of color, to target queer kids, to target gender nonconforming kids. We have to be mindful that it’s not just about people who do sex work and have a political identity as sex workers, but it’s also about people who are perceived to be sex workers or maybe just do it occasionally, but are involved in communities that police are invested in policing and controlling. They need to be part of us, too.
I look at a group like Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE) as an example of good work on this. Ten years or so ago, they started organizing queer youth of color around Christopher Street, the West Village, and the piers, because some of the older, white, gay neighbors were saying, “Get these kids off our street.” They didn’t just get on the city commission for gay and lesbian youth, they got on the community boards, on the boards of the “redevelopment” projects. They were able to build a voice for themselves as constituents who had a say in the life of the city. That’s the way to do this. Just looking at it as an issue of gay identity is only going to get them so far, particularly when the people who are angry are in part other gay people. I think there’s a really interesting parallel there to the intra-feminist conflict around sex work and women’s rights, and who gets to say what women’s right are.
Guernica: I hear little said about queer people when it comes to discussions about sex work. Does queer sex work fly farther under the radar?
Melissa Gira Grant: You’ll hear, “Oh, and these boys on the street are also selling sex to older men,” but you’ll never hear, “Here’s a queer woman who dates women in her non-sex-work life and has sex with men for work. Deal with it.” Which was basically everyone I knew in sex work in San Francisco. My queer community was my sex worker community, which isn’t particular to San Francisco. There was a lot of crossover between the lesbian community and the sex-working community in pre-Stonewall gay rights organizing in New York, and it was not without contest.
When are we going to just say that the cops are the enemy here?
Reina July posted this great video on her Vimeo of Sylvia Rivera speaking at one of the early pride demonstrations when it was still a rally in Washington Square. This was 1973 and she was yelling at the buttoned-up radical lesbians who didn’t want the trans women there. Sylvia criticized the crowd for thinking that trans women were “offensive to women because we liked to wear makeup and we liked to wear miniskirts. Excuse me! It goes with the business that we’re in at the time!” She was telling them, you can’t kick us out! This dynamic is really wrapped up in transmisogyny, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the same people who want to keep sex workers out of feminism also see no place for trans women.
Guernica: Do you see this as generational? Feminism of a different time?
Melissa Gira Grant: I think so, but it’s also humbling to see this coming from inside the house, that this was really a fight between lesbians and transwomen trying to stake out a place in the queer community and being told they didn’t belong. I wonder if it radiated out from there. The culture is transmisogynist, but this is an internal policing. There’s this edge to it that feels very specific to that lesbian seventies feminist, maybe separatist generation. But even I have to confess to having warm feelings for some of the cultural artifacts of that. [Laughs]
There’s a place for feelings in this, but I don’t think that governance is how we can work out our feelings with one another. I don’t use “feelings” as a diminutive word. I’m trying to take feelings back.
I went to college in Amherst and lived in Northampton for many years and we had our quaint little feminist sex toy shop that somehow made it in town and wasn’t scandalous. But you still got the vibe once in awhile that this didn’t used to be okay. That twenty years ago women would have come in saying, “You can’t sell realistic-looking sex toys. You have to only sell things that look like dolphins or something.”
Guernica: Is that the generation that anti-sex work feminists come out of?
Melissa Gira Grant: Yeah, and ultimately that attitude is losing, right? That’s why they had to back off of what seemed like the pro-censorship anti-porn thing and re-configure this as sexual exploitation. I remember being in high school in the ’90s, and even then somehow hearing about the the Canadian Supreme Court’s Butler decision which was meant to keep “obscene” material from entering Canada. The stuff being stopped at the border was almost all lesbian.
Guernica: Was the issue that the media was coming from the U.S.?
Melissa Gira Grant: I think it was because it was lesbian content. One publication that was famously censored was an independent lesbian sex magazine called Bad Attitude, which I was lucky enough to come across in high school. Sarah Schulman had some stuff in her recent book, The Gentrification of the Mind, about going to Canada to testify as a lesbian that no, this content–and in her case, explicit gay male writing–does not cause damage to women.
Guernica: Do you see the fight around sex work going the same way as the censorship fight around porn?
Melissa Gira Grant: I would hope it would get there. And what is going to get there isn’t going to be about free speech or sexuality. It’s going to be about criminalization. Kristin Gwynne has been writing some great stuff about the sexually violent element of “stop-and-frisk.” This isn’t just “turn out your pockets.” This is young people being groped. That form of power—using sexuality for power and control—seems pretty straightforward to me. When are we going to just say that the cops are the enemy here?
In the current situation with criminalization, we’ve created situations where sex workers have very little power and control over their lives. Increasing one group of women’s power and control over their lives does not take anything away from other women.
In college, I worked for a rape crisis center that had a lot of Department of Justice funding, which really shaped the work we did. There was nothing about collective change in our programs, nothing about how can we advocate for ourselves as survivors to have a world that looks different. It was: How many men can we give anti-porn lectures to? How many classes on gender roles can we teach? Which is great, let’s do that, let’s give people spaces to have those conversations. But there was no sense of going from there and building collective power.
What would rape crisis centers look like if they were built on the model of a union versus on the model of a homeless shelter? There’s a reluctance to engage sex and power as things that can coexist. It’s keeping sex and power in this oppositional relationship, where sexual power has been defined as something that is done to you. Something someone has over you, something that you will be victimized by. We don’t have a way of saying “a powerful sexuality.” We’ll say, “a healthy sexuality,” which is fine but just medicalized discourse of healthy and unhealthy.
Guernica: So building a culture of power in sex will change the lot for sex workers?
Melissa Gira Grant: Hey, anything that is going to be good for sex workers is going to be good for women across the board. Less women in jail is going to be good for all of us. More women having control over their money and not always fearful that they’re going to get arrested and have it robbed from them.
The patriarchy’s figured out a way to outsource hatred of prostitution. They’re just going to have women do it for them. And I think that that’s how I try to have compassion.
Or say you’re a sex worker and your partner knows you’re a sex worker, but you’re not out to your family. That could be very dangerous, particularly in an unhealthy relationship, where it could be a recipe for conflict, for something potentially violent that could lead to someone going to jail. There’s so much pressure because of the criminalization and stigma. If we lifted that, it’s only going to benefit more women.
It’s hard. I acknowledge that.
Guernica: It would certainly take a massive, population-wide shift. A feelings-based shift, something that would reorient anxieties around sex.
Melissa Gira Grant: There’s a place for feelings in this, but I don’t think that governance is how we can work out our feelings with one another. I don’t use “feelings” as a diminutive word. I’m trying to take feelings back. I think of everyone on the internet whose response to everything is: “#Feelings! This is important, this is real, this is significant!” That connects to power, too. Wanting to feel like you have power and control over your life.
[W]hat unites us as a class is opposition to compulsory virtue.
In the current situation with criminalization, we’ve created situations where sex workers have very little power and control over their lives. Increasing one group of women’s power and control over their lives does not take anything away from other women. When a woman’s value has been constructed as keeping a man and keeping him faithful, then when he’s not we’ve been taught to internalize that there’s something wrong with us. But there is nothing wrong, it’s the culture telling you you’ve failed. The building part of this is resisting the culture, resisting those messages, saying “this isn’t about me. There’s nothing I can do! This is a terrible person who cheated on me.” Or maybe, “this is a wonderful person who made a mistake.”
There are degrees here. It doesn’t service anyone any to say, “This is a terrible violation in any circumstance always,” because that robs us of our ability to write our own lives, to have agency. I’ve had people cheat on me and it’s been devastating, and I’ve had people cheat on me and felt that it showed their true colors.
Guernica: So how do we make this shift happen?
Melissa Gira Grant: The patriarchy’s figured out a way to outsource hatred of prostitution. They’re just going to have women do it for them. And I think that that’s how I try to have compassion.
Broadly, what unites us as a class is opposition to compulsory virtue, to whore stigma. I think it’s fallen out of vogue now that “slut shaming” has been taken on as a term. But the theoretical precursor to that was “whore stigma,” which was proposed in the early nineties by Gail Pheterson. I don’t think she was a sex worker, but she’s an academic who wrote a lot about sex work. And Jill Nagle ran with it in her book, Whores And Other Feminists, and she took it back to Adrienne Rich, to “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence.” So if there is whore stigma–just like there’s compulsory heterosexuality–then there is compulsory virtue. And all women are injured by compulsory virtue. That’s a point of opportunity, to say, so long as the worst thing you can call any woman is a whore, are we going to stand up to that?
Guernica: How did you get into journalism?
Melissa Gira Grant: I’ve always been a writer. I started getting paid for writing in college. Where it transitioned from commentary to journalism was in that shift we were talking about earlier—not wanting to write personal stories because people are hungry in not necessarily great ways for the sexy, sexy, sex work story. I was trying to shift the focus, and journalism was the tool I needed to write about people outside my own life and range of experience.
Almost everything I’ve learned about journalism has been from other friends who are journalists, taking advantage of the money I hope they don’t think they threw away at j-school [Laughs]. I studied comparative literature, but the professional vagaries of journalism I’ve learned through other people’s trial and error, and my own.
Guernica: How long were you doing sex work while you were a journalist, and why did you stop?
Melissa Gira Grant: A couple of years. Timing was part of it. They didn’t mesh well, as schedules. Another sex worker and writer I respect put it this way: she said that as a writer, you’re not about pleasing people, and as a sex worker it’s all about pleasing people. It’s all about creating this fantasy. I still feel like as a writer you actually do have put on a show. You can’t just hand over your notes. And there is a degree to which you are appealing to the reader’s vanity, whether you tell yourself you’re doing that or not.
Guernica: Do you see parallels between journalism and sex work?
Melissa Gira Grant: There are some parallels. But it’s more with my relationships with the people I write about.
Guernica: Do you tell your sources that you had been a sex worker?
Melissa Gira Grant: I don’t, unless it is relevant. Many of the people who I’m talking to already know. But when I interviewed the evangelical Christian youth group who were protesting the Village Voice, I wanted them to feel they could freely tell me things like, “Did you know that 90 percent of prostitutes don’t want to be doing it?” Is that unfair? That’s sort of an invisible privilege for me.
Once when I told sex workers about my own sex work, it ended up building inappropriate trust with some people. But there have been events now—like covering the protests against Backpage at the Village Voice—where I’ve talked to sex workers who don’t necessarily know that I’ve done sex work.
Guernica: That sounds like a fine line to straddle, journalistically, between making people feel comfortable whether they’re sex workers or not. Or the ethics of needing, say, to tell a sex worker that she didn’t want to be telling you certain things on the record.
Melissa Gira Grant: Right. I have to do this all the time–choosing what to print based on how it might come back to harm people from whom I’ve earned trust.
Guernica: The consequences are part of that choice.
Melissa Gira Grant: That’s the scary part: we don’t know what the consequences could be. They build up in aggregate. Say she does this interview with me, and then she writes something somewhere else on the Internet—it’s in that cross-reference that things could be revealed. I respect people who come forward and speak, but I’m not asking most of the sex workers I interview now about their work. I’m asking them about their lives in general or their political organizing. I take pains source things pointing back to intellectual work that sex workers have produced, because that’s really absent.
I did a piece for the Guardian, and “Comment Is Free” wants you to get in the comments and talk to people. It’s sort of like, I’m not really paid enough to do that, but I’ll look. I was actually getting a cavity filled and thought, whatever, I’ll kill some time, I’m anesthetized. [Laughs] I was looking at the comments on my phone and there was someone who said something like, “I really feel deceived that the author didn’t disclose that she was a sex worker in this piece.”
It’s like a double-edged sword–I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t. If I disclose, it’s “you only believe this because you were a sex worker… ” and if I don’t it’s “Your held something back… ” It’s a stigma. It doesn’t really go away. Even though I don’t work anymore, it will follow me.
I’d be fascinated to know how many women who write about the political issues around sexual assault are also survivors of sexual assault, or who are queer and cover LGBT politics but don’t come out in their own writing. There are probably a lot. They aren’t necessarily writing about their experiences, but they are writing about the broader issue. So how do you negotiate those boundaries and take care of yourself? That is the bigger question. How do you continue to do your work? If people start to attack me in ways that make it hard for me to do my work, that’s when I would actually worry about it.
To contact Guernica or Melissa Gira Grant, please write here.