March 8, 2009

Spitzer-versary: Reflections on a Sex Work Scandal

I’m mentioning this at both the beginning of this post and the end: Tuesday, March 10th is the deadline for the Sex Work Awareness workshop Speak Up! Media Training for the Empowered Sex Worker. If you’re a current or former sex worker in the NYC area (or can get here) and are interested in a day-long training that’s part media self-defense course and part tool kit for media making awesomeness, you should apply. The workshop takes place Saturday, April 18th – we’ll provide stipends, food, and flip cameras to the 10 participants.

It has been a year since the now-former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer went up in a firey ball o’ scandal due to his habit of dropping large amounts of cash (and credit) on high dollar escorts. Beginning on March 10, 2008, my phone rang off the hook for more than a week. I fielded calls from MSNC, CNN, NBC, Fox News, WNYC, the New York Times, the New York Post, and many many more. I granted interviews to some of these media outlets, and I denied interviews to others. I wrote a flurry of blog posts as a means of fighting back against the mainstream media – and it kind of worked, though I didn’t expect it to. I’ve been involved in media flurries before Spitzer, and sometimes I’d bitch on my blog about it, but I had never named the exact news outlets that were being abusive and otherwise not awesome. In the Spitzer news cycle, talking back worked. After the first two days, I started to get calls from producers and reporters who would lead with, “I’ve read your blog and I know your concerns.”

On the first day of the scandal, I got a call from an MSNBC producer, and then I blogged about it, because he asked me Have you been a whore? Here’s me on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC discussing whether or not prostitution should be illegal. This is the press release jointly written by a bunch of NYC sex worker activists –What About Kristen?– after more back and forth than may actually have been productive. That said, it was really amazing how folks banded together and produced documents, lists of friendly and enemy press, sex workers who were available to talk – all this happened on google docs, by email, and a bit of phone calling and Skyping. On March 11th, day two of the scandal, I sat down and wrote a fierce blog post that I’m still really proud of, Why sex workers aren’t represented by the media. I have read this piece at a few events since I wrote it, and it always feels amazing when I say those words. Here is the last bit of it, worth repeating here:

We exist. In growing numbers, there are sex workers and allies of sex workers who have a critical and political take on how our bodies and our labor are legislated. Not to mention, we are well aware of and constantly struggling with the ways our stories and our work are grossly exploited by the mainstream media in an attempt to get a juicy story. You want to talk about exploitation of women, media? Look at your own goddamn questions, the exposure you ask us to engage in, the personal questions you want us to answer. Look at the sexy container you put us in, all sultry bad girl secret story, no room for brains with the boobs. We don’t want to tell you our naughty secrets. What’s in it for us? You won’t give us the space and air time to talk about issues that matter to us, we won’t give you the dirt.

Sex workers aren’t represented in the media because the media does not create space for us to talk intelligently about the issues that face us. Like I said in my post last night, we are being cast into roles, roles that are nearly impossible to break. We’re afraid of being abused and manhandled by a media that has no interest in our well being, only in our cunts and the details of how we got to be so bad.

Mainstream media, if you’re so concerned about the exploitation of sex workers – stop perpetuating the exploitation with your own tools.

On the third day of the scandal, I got three calls asking about a rumored list of 100 politicians who patronize sex workers that somehow sex worker rights folks had and were planning on using. What a bizarre rumor that was. At one point, I was tempted to yell: “Yes we have a list and we’re blackmailing all of you!” Seriously, how would that list even happen?

On day four, March 13th, I was feeling seriously worn down, but I got a really great call from CNN Headline News. And I did the fucking teevee interview up bad ass, with my hair in a bun. I even managed to take arm-length myspace-style self portraits of myself in the interview booth. Here’s the interview:

After I finished my five minute interview at CNN, I grabbed a cab and rushed downtown – because that day was also the day of the very first fundraiser for Sex Work Awareness. The timing couldn’t have been better to underscore our point that the world needs an organization that supports sex workers, does public education, and trains sex workers to stand up for themselves against the media. I shot this video at the event:

I totally crashed after that and basically started hiding from the phone – the whole experience was pretty emotional and intense for me. The following week I wrote a bit about my thoughts on the whole thing: Private bodies, public stories.

My most distinct, visceral memory of that week is a kind of swirl of feelings, involving me pacing in my apartment, talking on the phone, feeling totally panicked and sweaty and anxious and incompetent and alone, but also oddly lucid and charged and ready to fight.

For the first time dealing with the media, I felt empowered. Maybe this is because I finally learned the trick, especially with radio: just keep talking, repeat myself, interrupt the shit out of people, push my agenda, be inflammatory enough to keep them listening, but stand my ground and be firm. In the midst of the Spitzer scandal, I tapped into my voice in a new, ferocious way. I started to revel in giving media a hard time, and almost wanted them to say fucked up shit to me, so I could talk circles around them. I also loved the chance to educate reporters and consumers of mainstream media about sex work issues, and I learned to stand my ground and get what I wanted (a space to talk about politics and labor issues of sex work) in exchange for what they wanted (juicy stories of whoring).

Though I was thoroughly convinced of the need for public education around sex work and the need for sex workers to have media skills before the Spitzer experience, that week and change really made those aspirations concrete. And I’m really glad that Sex Work Awareness is able to offer this bad ass media seminar. So, sex workers: head over to the Speak Up website and check it out, then drop us an email to request an application. And if you aren’t in the NYC area but think you can organize your community to make this happen locally, get in touch.

2 Comments on “Spitzer-versary: Reflections on a Sex Work Scandal”


[…] Waking Vixen » Blog Archive » Spitzer-versary: Reflections on a Sex Work Scandal “It has been a year since the now-former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer went up in a firey ball o’ scandal due to his habit of dropping large amounts of cash (and credit) on high dollar escorts.” […]


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