Comes Naturally #67 (January 9, 1998):
This Thing We Call Sex

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Spectator Magzine - January 9, 1998
(c) David Steinberg


Questions at the Solstice

It's that holiday/solstice/new year time again. Each year, one way or another, the time of the dark of the sun seems to inevitably put me in some kind of philosophic mood, stepping back to look at some kind of "larger picture." This is when I feel obliged to take stock of the lengthening trajectory of my life, to muse about what makes sense and what doesn't, what about my life feels rich and rewarding, what feels empty and unsatisfying. In the wee hours of the morning, when I'm awake and staring at the ceiling, wondering whether I should brave the cold to get up and work, adolescent questions like "What matters in the end anyway?" and "Who the hell am I, really?" ricochet through cyclical ponderings of the recurring issues of being alive -- basic things like family, intimacy, life, death, love, guilt. And (of course) sex.

It seems to be in the nature of my genes -- or my chi, or my upbringing, or my personality structure -- to always be attentive to what I see as the sexual nature of everything and everyone around me. Maybe I'm just monomaniacal, but my curiosity and interest keep getting tweaked by the sexual dimension of, well, just about everything and everyone. Sometimes I think this tunes me in to sexual issues that other people just don't notice; other times it inevitably leads me down blind alleys. If nothing else, it keeps me amused. Watching the ongoing sexual nature of the universe, which most people seem to ignore or deny, is like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope, endlessly changing and fascinating. "Why do you have to sexualize everything?" my mother would ask me over and over again, year after year. "Why does everyone else desexualize everything?" was all I could ask in return.

I suppose it's a question of semantics. If "sex" means putting Tab A in Slot B, then sex is a very narrowly circumscribed part of life to be sure. But if sex is a certain kind of feeling, acted on or not, directly expressed or not -- a certain way of being on and alive, a certain way of engaging whoever and whatever is around us -- then the territory that owes at least some fundamental allegiance to the sexual stars and stripes is very far-reaching indeed.

Of Sex and Metasex

It was the inveterate sexual voyager and philosopher Marco Vassi who coined the intriguing term "metasex." Vassi thought it was essential to separate sex undertaken for the purpose of procreation from all the other forms of sexual activity that had nothing at all to do with perpetuating the species.

In his 1975 essay, The Metasexual Manifesto, Vassi proposed restricting the term "sex" to procreation, while designating all other things sexual by a different term entirely, "metasex." "Sex is," he wrote, "as the traditionalists have it, a vehicle for making babies, and nothing else.... However, there is a vast realm of erotic behavior which falls outside this stricture." Metasex, according to Vassi, is all that we engage in "for pleasure, for expressing affection, for exchanging energy, for money, for communication and exploitation, for meditation."

"The failure to distinguish between sex and metasex," Vassi asserts, is "at the very core of all our erotic difficulties. The basic error in all erotic thinking lies in muddying the aesthetic of metasex with the moral contingencies of sex." Sex and metasex, he says, "have different qualities of tone or texture. With sex, reverence and responsibility are the guiding attitudes." With metasex, on the other hand, "the necessary quality is compassion. Since the circumstances of metasex are so flexible and range over the full spectrum of human behavior, it is all the more essential that the participants do not lose sight of one another's humanity."

Remember that this was back in the 70's. Vassi was, with characteristic grandiosity, identifying the very shift in sexual paradigm that has been preoccupying our troubledly evolving sexual culture ever since that time. The mass availability of reliable, affordable birth control that swept the land in the late 60's and early 70's made it possible for the first time since the Mayans (who also seem to have had access to reliable contraception) for people to pretty effectively disconnect sex for pleasure (or power or adventure or self-discovery or recreation or pissing off one's parents) from what had previously been its inevitable consequence: babies. As a result, all the traditional cultural perspectives on what sex was all about, and therefore how it should be conducted and socially regulated, were essentially irrelevant, misguided, and obsolete. The basic sex-cultural divide we have been witnessing over the last thirty years or so -- and the political and cultural battle for control of sexual values and attitudes that that divide has precipitated -- is the division between those of us who relate to sex primarily as what Vassi calls metasex and the traditionalists whose sexual values and social codes address sex as if it were still basically and fundamentally an activity fundamentally concerned with procreation.

Putting the Meta Back in Metasex

I have always liked Vassi's term, metasex, but not in the way that Vassi defined it. What I like is the idea of metasex that's analogous to metaphysics -- that which goes beyond what we usually think of as sex, that goes beyond the territory that we usually think of as sexual turf. Twentysome years after Vassi's essay, separating sex from procreation doesn't seem very meta. Most of us outside the fundamentalist fold know and feel that sex is not essentially about procreation, that sex is primarily an emotional, psychological, and sensual sort of thing, rather than something biological.

Like a lot of people, I am intrigued with sex that is meta in the sense of being taboo, of crossing some socially defined limit of propriety, whether that be homosexuality, or bisexuality, or s/m, or blood play, or fisting, or group sex, or all the issues around crossing and blurring gender lines and definitions. I think the intrigue for me in all these sorts of boundary- crossing sexualities is not essentially about being bad but rather a fascination with anything that expands the limits of what it is possible for people to do and experience. My instinctive reaction to all the metaproper sexualities isn't really "Oh my god, how naughty!" but rather "Oh my god, how amazing that there are all these different ways people get to be and get to be sexual!"

But there is something rolling around inside of me that's meta to even all this, that has to do with seeing sex everywhere, with feeling that there is a sexual component to much of life that most other people don't seem to think of in sexual terms. I think that most people, even those people who have separated sex from its biological roots and from its socially defined rules of propriety, still think of sex as a rather well-defined, literal activity. For me, there is something about what it means to be sexual that is more ubiquitous and less specific. For me, sex is also a state of mind or, better, a state of being, that affects not only what we do, but also how we think, how we feel, how we relate to just about every part of being alive. To wit:

Passion According to St. Matthew

I first sang in a choir when I was in college. I went to Oberlin College, a school known among other things for its excellent conservatory of music. The Oberlin College Choir was, and still is, known nationally as one of the finest collection of young choral singers around. Hearing them sing was a definite thrill, but of course to be a member of the College Choir meant you had to be one of those people with magical and well-trained voices, neither of which was me.

At the other end of the skill spectrum, however, Oberlin also had a choral group called the Musical Union, where untrained, inexperienced music lovers like myself could have the experience of rehearsing and performing major pieces of classical music. When I was at Oberlin, both the College Choir and the Musical Union were conducted by a man named Robert Fountain, an ecstatic mystic who totally devoted himself to the wonder of making beautiful music happen every time he took a baton in his hand.

There were 300 of us in the Musical Union, including many of the fine musicians from the conservatory. We sang some of the most transporting and transcendental choral music in the world: Brahm'R Requiem, Mozart's Mass in C Minor, Honegger's Joan of Arc at the Stake, Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. We would work on a piece of music for an entire semester and then perform it in the college's immense chapel for all the other students, faculty, and townspeople. Week after week we would perfect phrases and passages, learn more and more how to deliver ourselves over to the music, let the music take us far beyond our normal states of existence to a state hard to put into words. The more familiar we became with the text, the more comfortable we became with the technical aspects of the music, the more we could just let go and soar. And Robert Fountain would demand that we do just that, always setting a personal example for us, facing us from his podium, sweat drenching his t-shirt and emotions washing over his face as he waved his arms and moved his body, and shouted and smiled at us to give him what he wanted to hear.

I was 17 years old (and then 18, 19, and 20). I was discovering sex with an intensity I had never imagined, let alone experienced, before. My girlfriend and I couldn't keep our hands off each other. Night after night after night we would drown in the wonder of each other's bodies. I was truly possessed. And there was no doubt about it: The feeling I had when I was being swept away by the texture of her skin or the taste of her mouth was the same kind of feeling I had when I was sailing on the passion of Brahms' musical homage to his dead mother. Every Monday night for four years I had group sex with 300 young men and women at a college that was too sexually conservative to allow males and females to so much as sit in each other's rooms, in a chapel named for Charles Finney, the notorious 19th-century, fire-and-brimstone Protestant evangelist.

Later I sang in other choirs, and although the experience was never the same as singing under Robert Fountain, the ecstasy was definitely there. Was it just me? After particularly moving rehearsals I would turn to other people in the choir, wanting to share the excitement of the moment, to not be alone in all that I was feeling. "Was it as good for you as it was for me?" I would want to know, though of course I would never ask anyone such a question directly. People who sing in choirs tend to be good churchgoers; it's not what you'd call the most sexually open of subcultures.

Usually, although I would swear I could hear the ecstasy in other people's voices and see the ecstasy in their faces while they were singing, their faces would be positively sedate afterwards, their bodies composed, their eyes unshining. When I would say something like "Wasn't that wonderful?" they would answer with something like "Yes, I thought we sounded really good tonight." I would be confused and to some extent embarrassed, feeling suddenly very exposed, very vulnerable, and very alone. Maybe it was just me who experienced choral singing in a sexual way. Or maybe other people's experience was similar to mine but they didn't see it or acknowledge it as sexual. Either way, I learned to keep the sexual nature of my experience to myself. But in the privacy of my inner self I knew that, at least for me, sex was precisely what was going on.

A Gastronomic Tale

We are at Manora's, that wonderful Thai restaurant south of Market. Olav Andri Manum and Hanne Grasmo of the Norwegian erotic magazine Cupido are in San Francisco, and Helen and I are showing them around. They have brought ten pounds of smoked Norwegian salmon and two bottles of trans-equatorial Aquavit liqueur as presents, and we are having a wonderful time sharing perspectives and getting to know each other. The mood is festive and we are famished. Olav, it turns out, is a grand lover of good food. He pours over the menu with excited eyes, having the hardest time choosing between one appealing dish and another. I don't remember what he orders, only that both he and Helen order the same thing.

The food comes and we all dig in. Olav and Helen raise their forks to their mouths at the same moment. Whatever it is they are having, it is exceptional. Both their faces go blissful, their eyes close, and in unison they moan their delight. Hearing each other, they open their eyes and exchange an electric look of deep intimate understanding. Then all four of us burst out laughing.

There is no question about it: Helen and Olav have just come simultaneously, with Hanne and me appreciatively watching. The four of us, happily, have learned our way beyond whatever church training and restraining we may have experienced somewhere in our lives. We do not have to keep our ecstasy private. We do not have to desexualize it or be embarrassed by it in the least. We are free to acknowledge and share the sexual nature of what has happened. We laugh, I think, both for the beauty of the moment and for the freedom to experience that moment in a frankly sexual way. We take a quick step closer together in becoming friends.

Toward an Omnisexual Perspective

Maybe it just confuses things to talk about things like singing and eating dinner as sexual experiences. But I think it is helpful to notice that many of the most powerful and meaningful feelings we have when we are doing the things we think of as sexual also show up when we are doing things we think of as non-sexual. Indeed, I think those feelings and that transcendental way of being also show up at times when we're not necessarily doing anything specific at all.

I think there is something sexual about singing, about eating, about swimming, about dancing, about walking, about lying still, about breathing. I think there is something sexual about talking, about touching, about looking at another person. I think there is something sexual about simply being in our bodies, being in our imaginations, being in our thoughts, being in our dreams. I think sexuality exists in us continuously, at least from birth and probably before, separate from what we do and don't do with it, separate from how we express it or try not to express it. I think that sex is, in the end, the primary life force, that sex simply is.

If we see sex as an omnipresent continuity, then we can stop being so dismayed when its presence makes itself known at unexpected and seemingly incongruous times. It is certainly my experience that paying attention to the ongoing sexual aspects of who we are and how we interact with others helps explain why things happen the ways they do. And we can acknowledge the continuity of sexual existence without being afraid that this sexuality will therefore somehow take us over and distort our lives. We can see that sex is everywhere and still get to determine what kind of overt and covert sexual expression is appropriate in different circumstances and with different people. Indeed, attending to the ongoing sexual subtext of our lives can help us to be better able to shape and manage our sexual natures so that they better serve both ourselves and the people around us.

Prostitute Rights Activist Speaks Her Mind: Interview with Tracy Quan

[Tracy Quan is a writer and prostitute rights activist who is also a member and sometime coordinator of Prostitutes of New York (PONY) -- the main prostitute rights organization in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Lingua Franca, the Village Voice, Urban Desires, Puritan, and numerous other publications. She is a contributor to Jill Nagle's anthology, Whores and Other Feminists.]

DAVID STEINBERG: To begin with, could you say something in general about PONY and why you think it's important.

TRACY QUAN: Ok. I should say first, since it comes up all the time, that we don't have a president or a chairperson. PONY is run by a coordinating committee with changing membership. Some coordinators are fairly new, people who came in during the last two years. Others have been around for a while. It gives people a chance to take turns expending all their energy.

DAVID: How many people are involved on the coordinating committee? How many people are actively involved in the organization?

TRACY: It changes from month to month and from year to year, but typically we'll have about five hard-working coordinators and five part-time coordinators. There are about 50 PONY members. We've had meetings that have been as small as two people and meetings that have been as large as 40.

DAVID: Do you meet regularly, or just when there's a reason?

TRACY: When we're functioning at our optimal level we meet once a month.

DAVID: What kinds of sex workers are involved?

TRACY: PONY is open to all kinds of sex workers. We are open to anyone in the sex industry. We have members who are professional dommes, a lot of strippers, quite a lot of call girls. We're also open to madams, people who run sex shops -- people who are not necessarily selling their bodies but who are involved with pornography or with selling sex toys.

DAVID: Selling sex toys is considered sex work?

TRACY: Yes. We haven't had a big influx of shop clerks from sex boutiques, but we do have members who own and run sex shops and, yes, we do think of it as being in the sex industry. You don't necessarily have to be engaged in the physical aspects of sex work. We have phone sex people, for example.

DAVID: Do you have people working on the streets?

TRACY: We've had a lot of interest and input from male and transgender hustlers who work the streets. But we have always wanted to see more people who have experienced the streets at our meetings. Some PONY members who have worked on the street are now doing outreach to sex workers in the Bronx and on the West Side of Manhattan. Looking at our female membership, I would say that we tend to attract former streetwalkers, rather than women who are currently working on the street.

We're all volunteers; we don't get any grant money or any funding from foundations at this point.

DAVID: Do you do outreach to bring in new people, or do you wait for people to come to you?

TRACY: We do some outreach, mostly word of mouth. Mostly people hear about PONY from talking to their friends in the business. For that reason, we grow rather slowly, but it's also a more comfortable way for the group to grow. I'm sure we could reach a lot of people by placing a huge ad somewhere, but we're somewhat nervous about that. People do read about us on the internet. We do a lot of outreach through websites.

DAVID: You have a website?

TRACY: No, but we piggyback off of other people's websites. We're on Carol Leigh's site from San Francisco. PONY is a member of the Network of Sex Work Projects. We're affiliated with all kinds of other groups, and sometimes people hear about us through those groups.

DAVID: What do you think drives people to connect up with PONY? What are they looking for?

TRACY: PONY has been around since the late 70's. It started out as an organization to push for the decriminalization of prostitution, in that 70's style of activism, to "demand" legal change. The organization was named PONY -- Prostitutes of New York -- because there was this custom, that Margo St. James started, of having animal names for prostitute rights organizations. [Margo St. James founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in San Francisco in 1973.] In reality, although we stand for decriminalization, you have to say that what we've really been about is getting people to think about decriminalization.

DAVID: Getting non-sex workers to think about decriminalization?

TRACY: Getting anybody to. PONY came back into existence in the summer of 1989 when a bunch of us started meeting again, and formed a coordinating committee. Some of us had been involved with the movement in the 70's, and some were newer to it. It was quite a hodgepodge of people -- and different age groups. Some of the coordinators were younger, so the orientation of the group changed.

We are still concerned about changing the laws and all that, but we also feel that it is important to make PONY relevant to people who are not idealistic. We want to attract people who work in the industry who are pragmatic, who are more concerned with their day-to-day lives, who are inclined to reject certain kinds of utopian idealism, and who don't necessarily want the agenda of a prostitutes group to be harnessed to a larger agenda, like feminism, or socialism, or whatever. We want to attract them and offer them something.

So I would say that the current PONY is very different from the original PONY. Of course it wouldn't exist if it had not been for the original PONY, and it wouldn't exist the way it is if the original people had not had this idealistic, protest-oriented vision. But PONY is no longer just a protest group. We're very practical.

When somebody's new to the business, for example, we want to make sure they know what the laws are. Some people don't know what their legal rights are. There's the equivalent of old wives' tales in the sex industry. It's like people who believe you can't get pregnant standing up. There's an equivalent of that in the sex industry, unfortunately, among people who are new, who've never bothered to read the laws.

We discovered, for example, that a lot of sex workers in New York (people who should have known better) thought they were not breaking the law if they only performed manual sex for money. They thought they were operating outside of the definition of prostitution, but they weren't. If you read the prostitution law, it's very specific. Giving hand jobs for money is a crime. So we want to make sure people know about things like that. There's also a need for clear information about STD's and safe sex.

DAVID: So what people get from PONY is basically information and orientation around sex work?

TRACY: Yes, especially around the legal issues. It's also nice to bring together people doing a wide variety of different kinds of sex work.

The sex industry has changed. There are a lot of areas where sex work is legal now. Phone sex, lap dancing, and S&M can all take place in a legal context, as long as you don't touch.

DAVID: Touch at all? You mean sexually touch, genitally touch.

TRACY: Well, it's best if you don't touch at all, from a legal point of view. I don't give legal advice about that, but there have been some rulings protecting S&M.

There are other practical things we do, too. If somebody has an abusive experience, they can report it to PONY and we do our best to make sure the word will get out. We do our best to spread the word if there's an abusive guy out there. I don't like to say "abusive john" because abusers are often sociopaths pretending to be johns. But if somebody is behaving badly PONY members will spread the word.

DAVID: How long have you been involved with PONY?

TRACY: I've been in the movement since the 70's.

DAVID: The prostitute rights movement?

TRACY: Yes. I took a break from activism during the 80's, and I'm glad I did that. If you are a full-time activist, you get a warped view of the world. Working in the business full-time, without being politically active, made me realize that it was important for PONY to appeal to prostitutes who are not activists. For one thing, working girls who are not political are much more fun to be around. They're usually much more together, much more down to earth, much more in touch with reality. Also I've noticed that people who are full-time activists tend to be pretty bad at the actual sex work.

You can't just constantly be around political activists. In a group of hard- core activists, there will very often be a rather negative perspective on the work or the lifestyle itself. In the U.S., many activist prostitutes are hard-core feminists with a somewhat anti-male perspective, which turns a lot of people off. It's important to appeal to a more regular type of person, and I think we've been able to do this. Consequently PONY has an attractive reputation, although others may disagree. PONY is surprisingly well known in New York.

DAVID: By the average person on the street?

TRACY: No, but I'm surprised sometimes at the number of people who are not really politically active, or in the business, who are aware of PONY. And we are fairly well known throughout the local sex industry.

DAVID: Do media people call you for comments on the related issue of the day?

TRACY: We get a fair amount of media attention.

DAVID: So you end up speaking for prostitutes, or sex workers.

TRACY: We try not to claim that we're speaking on behalf of everybody in the industry because that's so hard to do. I think we've reached the point in the movement where there are enough of us -- and over the last 20 years I think public awareness of sex work issues has been raised -- so there isn't this need to make these global statements about the whole industry. You can just say "we're a group of 20 or 30 or 50 people and this is what some of us think."

DAVID: What are issues you focus on at meetings?

TRACY: Sometimes we have guest speakers. Our most successful guest speaker was a lawyer, a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who gave a free legal workshop. It was like offering free sex or something. People came in droves because the way the law affects you if you're a sex worker is not a simple thing. Different types of sex workers are affected by different laws. If you work in a body rub establishment and you phrase your advertisement incorrectly or say the wrong things in conversation, you could be construed as offering massage without a license. If you work on the phones for a brothel or an outcall service, you can be charged with promoting, which is a felony in New York State. There are many different laws which affect sex workers.

People also like to discuss health issues. Not just AIDS, but also things like viral warts and so on. Recently members were talking about whether it was possible to do things that are safe from an HIV perspective but unsafe from the perspective of viral warts. There was a question about manual or dry sex acts that can spread viral warts. We also give out free condoms at meetings.

DAVID: Is part of the function of meetings to help people feel less isolated?

TRACY: I've heard people say, "I'm here because I want to meet some other people like me." Obviously you can meet people on the job, but people also want to meet other sex workers in a social context, when they're not working.

One thing I've noticed about the sex industry, or at least prostitution, as distinct from other professions, is that we have almost no fake socializing. If you're a lawyer, if you're on Wall Street, there are social functions that you just have to go to. In the sex industry -- in prostitution, and certainly with call girls -- there's very little of that. People don't socialize unless they really want to, unless they really like somebody. If people want to do business, it's not necessary to meet for drinks or lunch.

This is what a lot of people like about the business. There isn't a lot of faking you need to do with your co-workers. You don't feel that you have to send presents to a madam, or go out socially with your boss. But that also means that there just isn't a lot of socializing. You don't meet other sex workers outside the workplace, so that's one reason people come to the group.

DAVID: Why do you think there isn't more false socializing with this particular work?

TRACY: I don't know. That's a really interesting question. I know that people who leave the sex business, if they've been in it a long time, have trouble adjusting to other subcultures because they're not used to that way of being artificial. That may sound strange because there's a lot of fantasy involved in the work itself. People fake orgasms and stuff like that all the time. But there's another layer of social fantasy that people are not accustomed to dealing with.

That's another thing that we get into in the group. If you're making the transition to a straight job, it's nice to talk to other sex workers who are making or have made the same transition. So there's a therapeutic aspect to what we do.

DAVID: But in terms of just the basic employer-employee relationship, why are the relationships more honest than in other work situations?

TRACY: I don't know if they're more honest. There's plenty of other stuff that goes on. For example, when I worked in a brothel, if I was late because I was up until three in the morning hanging out with my boyfriend and partying, I wouldn't tell that to the madam. I'd make up an excuse just like anybody else because I wouldn't want her to think I was some kind of flake.

The funny thing is that because it's the sex business, if people are too honest, they might be categorized by the madam as a flake, someone she can't trust. Even if the madam suspects that someone was probably sleeping in because she was out with her boyfriend, she'll respect the girl who has the sense to lie about it. It means that she's professional, that she won't say something crazy to a client. There's a necessary amount of faking or storytelling in the business. So just showing that you know the rules and how to play the role can put a co-worker at ease. They know you won't betray them or do something inappropriate.

I guess I don't really know why this industry is different. Maybe it's because in prostitution it's understood that if you want to buy intimacy you'll buy intimacy, but you don't browbeat people into pretending to be your friend.

And there's not a lot of false flattery either. If you work for a law firm and go to the boss's barbecue, you're going to tell him how fabulous his decorator is, how great his place looks. Maybe it looks great and maybe you hate it. There's really very little of this in the sex business, in my experience. I hear the same thing from other people in the business, so I think there's some truth to it.

DAVID: Let's focus back on PONY.

TRACY: Ok. One thing we do is encourage and help people who are leaving the sex industry. A number of PONY members have art school backgrounds, so when they hear about festivals or grants, we encourage them to tell other members about opportunities outside of sex work. We function a little bit the way an alumni association would. Many people don't stay in the business forever, but they still have an affection for it, a feeling that this is where they're from.

DAVID: You were saying a little bit about the political stances of people in PONY, as compared to prostitute rights groups elsewhere. Do you want to say more about that?

TRACY: I think we are less anti-male than some groups. I think we have less of a feminist orientation than some prostitutes groups. There are feminists in the group, but we try to separate those issues.

DAVID: How is PONY less feminist-oriented?

TRACY: I think other organizations have relied more on the ideological input of feminists. A lot of the rhetoric that came out of COYOTE was very feminist-oriented. There was a tendency to polarize things, to turn things into male versus female.

There was a big focus on the fact that johns were not getting arrested. Johns were seen as getting away with something because they happen to be men. "The women are arrested; the men are not." That's exactly how it's said. But that doesn't take into account the large number of prostitutes who are men or boys. It doesn't take into account the transsexual community.

DAVID: Isn't the argument that the workers are being arrested but the customers are not, aside from gender?

TRACY: But customers are increasingly being targeted. Sometimes there's a sweep where they arrest more customers than providers. In Vancouver, the vice squad announced recently that they were going to arrest customers and not street prostitutes because they had decided the prostitutes were victims and the customers were predators. That could happen in any city where you have a law against prostitution.

DAVID: But it's still more dangerous legally to be a prostitute than to be the customer of a prostitute.

TRACY: Yes and no. It's more dangerous to be a customer on the street than it is to be a private call girl.

DAVID: Well, ok, but it's more dangerous to be a prostitute on the street than a customer on the street, and more dangerous to be a call girl than the customer of a call girl.

TRACY: Well there have been cases where customers of call girls have been harassed by the IRS. You could argue that it was more dangerous for them because they had a lot to lose. But certainly more sex workers are arrested than customers.

What I'm saying is that people who use the rhetoric that women are arrested and men are not have actually absorbed and digested the idea that there is this sexist, anti-female conspiracy going on. The word prostitute means female to them.

The prostitute experience is constantly being conflated with other female experiences. Feminists make sweeping statements that are supposedly analytical, but they're just false because they don't acknowledge that there are all these guys working too. It was inevitable that we would have to deal with this issue because one important way the movement got visibility and acquired supporters during the 70's was to work through the feminists. And, of course, a lot of prostitutes are women; you can't pretend that that isn't part of the reality.

DAVID: So with this new generation of prostitute rights activists, people who don't come from such a strong feminist perspective, what is their idea of what the movement is about?

TRACY: Some of our younger members, people in their 20's, have always known there was a fairly well-developed movement around them. They have access to it. They take certain ideas for granted, even the idea that there is this movement. That did not exist in the 70's in the same way. The movement was much more ragtag then.

There was a time when I would have been embarrassed to tell people in the business that I was part of a political movement because they would think I was crazy. They would think, "What, are you nuts? Why are you wasting your time on this?" That's changed. People come into the business now with more of a sense of entitlement. There are people in the business who think the movement is ridiculous, or who don't agree with it, but they'll just say they're against decriminalization, or I'm for decriminalization but I don't have time for this movement. They don't say, what a crazy idea. People take the movement more seriously.

DAVID: So is it a movement or is it a self-help group of women doing sex work? If the movement is not specifically about decriminalization, and if it's not about feminism, what is it about?

TRACY: Well, we are for decriminalization, even though we haven't been sitting around drawing up a game plan for it. In Australia, prostitutes groups sit down with their government representatives and talk about how the law doesn't work properly, how to change the way it works. We're nowhere near that here.

But there's a long-range sense that PONY is about increasing the general social and political power of sex workers. Because there's so much media and publishing in this town, we have an effect that is more than local. The way prostitution is talked about in the press has changed in the last ten years. There's more active support for prostitution.

When Heidi Fleiss was arrested, Interview magazine was completely in support of her and of prostitution. They basically said it's too bad this is a crime. She was treated sympathetically by Vanity Fair. There's a mood among the chattering classes that is questioning why this is illegal. Now, that doesn't change the fact that there are street sweeps and john sweeps -- and indoor sweeps too sometimes, for people who advertise. But the social attitudes have changed.

DAVID: So you could say that PONY is promoting changes in social attitudes about sex work.

TRACY: Yes. That's one thing we can realistically accomplish. We cannot change the laws overnight.

DAVID: To define your political purpose as bringing about decriminalization would be naive. After five years, you'd be pretty discouraged. But in terms of changing the kinds of social attitudes you're talking about, organizations like PONY really can make a difference.

TRACY: I think we have. I'm very self-critical in terms of the movement, but I think the movement can take credit for the fact that over the past 20 years a lot of really valuable work has been done. In other countries a lot of work has been done through the UN, through the World Health Organization. If it weren't for people like Arlene Carmen and Margo St. James and Iris de la Cruz who was running PONY in the early 80's, things would be very different. There are judges now who are for decriminalization of prostitution. The issue is more on the social agenda. The ACLU is concerned with prostitution issues now.

Another ongoing goal of PONY is to keep promoting and developing this idea of community. People in the business have a tendency to get very ghettoized, especially prostitutes. Many prostitutes never meet a porn star or a topless dancer. So it's important that we've got people meeting every month that are from all these different areas of the business, coming together and bonding and learning about each other.

We want people to understand that they're part of a tradition that's really very old, but at the same time we want people to realize that they're part of an industry that keeps changing. We should certainly respect tradition and know about our history, but we shouldn't get hung up on the idea that there's only one way to do sex work. The industry is changing and expanding and getting more high-tech. There are new ways of marketing sex that seem alien to older people, like phone sex.

DAVID: One thing that I see people doing, in PONY and other prostitutes rights groups, is articulating a point of view about who sex workers are that contradicts popular stereotypes and results in more social acceptance of sex work in general. As long as people stereotype sex workers and don't have to relate to them as regular human beings, it's easier to stigmatize the whole business. As people stand up to be counted, and talk about themselves in human terms, it affects the public's attitude about sex work. Do you think that's true?

TRACY: Well, it's really hard for me to relate to the whole concept of stigmatization because I've never really felt particularly stigmatized as a sex worker. But I do meet people who feel stigmatized, who are really uncomfortable with the work.

DAVID: When you socialize with people who are not sex workers and you mention that you do sex work, you don't feel that people have a negative reaction?

TRACY: I've always had a lot of very cool friends. I know some people who are narrow-minded and I don't tell them anything about it, but I don't consider them to be my close friends. But I know there are people in the sex business who are more tortured about the whole issue than I am.

DAVID: When you said that social attitudes are changing about sex work, I thought you meant that people were becoming more accepting of the fact of sex work and of the people who do it, that the traditional stigmatization was breaking down.

TRACY: Well, do I think there's a lot of new support for decriminalization among a certain stratum of people. I could be wrong here, but I think that if you were to ask a majority of a certain kind of people, here in New York -- people in the media, people in advertising -- I would be awfully surprised if they said they were against decriminalization, the same way I would be surprised if they thought it was ok to arrest someone for having gay sex.

DAVID: So you think there's been a shift in attitudes about decriminalization in particular.

TRACY: Yes. Because of high-profile prostitution cases -- like Heidi Fleiss, the Mayflower Madam, and so on -- you've got people thinking about the fact that this is just another away for people to make money.

The other thing that has changed attitudes, which the prostitutes rights movement may or may not be responsible for, is that because a lot of johns are being arrested, people are starting to think about prostitution differently. Johns are the conduit to mainstream life, so now people realize that laws against prostitution can come into their lives and mess things up, that these laws disrupt family life as well as people who are working. Sometimes the police will go to a john's workplace and make trouble for them. A john who's arrested can lose his livelihood.

For so many years, the prostitutes movement went around saying that it wasn't fair to only arrest prostitutes, and so did the feminists. The one thing that a certain kind of feminist liked about the prostitutes rights movement was that it was saying that johns should be arrested too. So this is an idea whose time has come. It's very egalitarian, a very North American thing to do -- to arrest the customers as well as the workers. You don't see customers being arrested in countries like Japan, where they've had a very hierarchical society for a very long time. You see it happening here where there's an idea that the law and society should be egalitarian. Consequently there are all these johns being arrested and I think that that's affecting people's attitudes in an important way.

DAVID: Can you say something about some of the problems you've had within PONY?

TRACY: Well, we've been criticized by other people in the prostitutes rights movement for welcoming business owners into the group.

DAVID: People think that PONY should basically be a workers' organization?

TRACY: I think it was more that some people in other organizations were just not accustomed to working with business owners.

I had a discussion about this with a member of the Toronto sex workers' group. He was sort of an independent escort type. At first, when I told him I thought it was important to have madams and management involved in the movement, he was very uncomfortable with the idea. He said he just wasn't used to dealing with managers. He couldn't get his mind wrapped around the idea, even though as an independent person, he was himself a business owner.

I think there's been a tendency in the movement to trash owners in order to get sympathy from feminists and social workers. To trash owners and play on the idea that anyone who makes money from this business without using their own body is somehow a terrible exploiter.

DAVID: Who are the owners you're talking about? People who run escort agencies?

TRACY: That and people who run brothels, who own brothels or outcall services.

DAVID: Has PONY been able to build a sense of commonality with those people?

TRACY: I think so.

DAVID: So the sense of being in the sex work business together as owners and workers is stronger than the difference between being a boss and being a worker?

TRACY: I think it is. I don't think everybody would agree. Sometimes PONY members have support group meetings for sex workers only, where they can discuss problems management-related problems among themselves. So that need is still there. But there's also a lot to be gained from having business owners in the movement because a lot of these owners have worked themselves and have a perspective that comes from having had a whole life in the business. They know what it's like to be a young person in the business, to be older, to have done all these different things, to have played different roles. Very often people who are young see themselves as being exploited because they haven't had that whole range of experience.

DAVID: How have you dealt with the sort of class issues that exist within sex work? I know that there are lap dancers who say, "Well at least I'm not a whore," and call girls who feel that they're one step above the people who work the streets. It seems that there's this whole hierarchy about who's doing what kind of sex work. Has that been a conflict within the organization? How do you deal with those kinds of divisions?

TRACY: I think the sensible way to deal with it is to have a group that welcomes as many different kinds of people as possible.

DAVID: But don't you get resentments and conflicts around who's better than whom?

TRACY: Well, we're actually pretty civilized, but the idea of some big happy family of sex workers is unrealistic. There's always attitude among prostitutes. One person kisses, the other doesn't. "I'm using condoms, but she isn't. That girl works too hard, she spoils the guys. This other girl is too cold, she's not nice enough to the guys." People are always filled with opinion about how to do the work.

In that way, it's like any other business. If you've listened to lawyers talking about each other, they're very competitive. Occasionally there will be some cold praise for some guy or girl they have a good working relationship with, but lawyers are basically extremely competitive.

People in the business who think they're any good, who care about whether they're any good, are always very opinionated about everybody else's work, how nobody else does it right. That's my take on it. Imbuing it with all sort of political significance is just silly. I think they're just behaving like a bunch of competitive, bitchy sex workers -- like what they are. It's a competitive market, so of course people are going to be like that.

DAVID: Do you think the demographics are changing of who gets involved in sex work?

TRACY: In the past, what, 20 years?

DAVID: Well, 10 or 20. You've been involved for how long? Twenty years?

TRACY: Since the 70's. Sometimes I think it is changing, but then I think it probably isn't. How would you know? People say it's changing. I'm under the impression that more college students are doing sex work, but that's also because more people go to college now.

DAVID: Do you think more people from middle-class backgrounds are doing sex work these days?

TRACY: I don't know that that's true. It's hard to measure because the middle class expanded so rapidly in this century. The middle class got so big that a large number of middle-class prostitutes was inevitable.

DAVID: I guess I'm phrasing it wrong. I suspect that people now are getting involved in sex work from somewhat different motivations than used to be the case. I think the old motivations are still there, but in addition, more people who have other job opportunities are choosing to be sex workers than used to.

TRACY: I don't know the answer to that. I'm not being evasive; I honestly don't know. I think if you took the whole prostitute population, you would find that things haven't changed. In the U.S., there are immigrants entering the sex trade, working in a very ethnic environment, who aren't in college. Many are career hookers. And then there are people who do it for a few years on their way to another profession.

DAVID: Aren't there more people of those people than there used to be?

TRACY: There are a lot of part-timers. But if you read about the history of New York prostitution in the 1800's, there was a lot of part-time prostitution then too. Girls from "good homes" would run away to the cities and get into all kinds of stuff. Maybe things changed during the 1960's, but if you look at this century versus the last century things have changed and yet they haven't.

DAVID: I think that if you look at lap dancing, that population really has changed a lot.

TRACY: Oh, lap dancing. Well, the lap dancing boom is a recent change, but it doesn't necessarily reflect a change in the population. It's just a new way to work.

DAVID: Well before lap dancing there was stripping. It seems to me that more people who have other economic opportunities want to do different kinds of sex work. People want to do it because it's fun, or because they're sexually explorative. And I also think it has become more acceptable for women to embrace their sexuality, to acknowledge it and play it out however they want to in the world.

TRACY: Yes, but even before the special changes that took place around sex in the 60's and 70's women who were sexually exploratory tended to be prostitutes. Perhaps in the 50's they would hook because it wasn't acceptable to sleep with a lot of men socially.

We think things have changed because we're living now and it's so hard to have historical perspective. Yes, more women go to college and have these other types of careers available to them, but if that hadn't changed, those women might have ended up being prostitutes anyway.

I have noticed that a huge number of sex workers are college students working, but you have to remember that a huge number of people go to college these days who never would have gone to college 50 or 75 years ago.

I do think we have a situation where there aren't as many career prostitutes, which sort of worries me.

DAVID: Why is that a bad thing?

TRACY: Because if you're just passing through on your way to some other career you don't necessarily have any commitment to the people you meet in the sex industry. You don't have any reason to "leave the room neater than you found it." You don't have any reason to maintain certain standards, to make sure your clients are well-treated, for example. You get a very exploitive attitude on the part of the sex worker who sees this as just a temporary thing she's doing. She's going to exploit the work and the industry for her immediate needs. She isn't really thinking about building something. People who think in terms of a career in the business, in my experience, are building all these relationships -- with their clients and also with other sex workers.

DAVID: Do you think of yourself as a person with a career in the business?

TRACY: Yes I have been, and that was an important period in my life. That's why I'm saying this. When you have a permanent stake in the sex business you have a greater sense of responsibility for how you deal with your clients. You're more conscious of the pool. You belong to a pool of people; the way you behave affects the way a client treats somebody else. If you don't behave professionally, if you let him get away with something, it's going to affect other prostitutes. That means you are part of a community. People who are passing through prostitution or sex work have an artificial, political sense of community -- they may use the jargon of community, but they don't necessarily have a personal or a professional sense of community.

That's why we sometimes run into anti-john sentiment in the sex worker movement. Anybody who's planning on having a serious career in the business is going to have a positive attitude toward the customers. But the sex worker who thinks, "I'm just doing this for as long as I have to" can be quite heartless toward her customers. And this can be a problem. If a sex worker doesn't see johns as part of the fabric, it will be reflected in her politics and in the way she wants to organize.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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