Charlotte Shane Talks Sex Work And Misandry

There are some writers whose work I will drop everything for. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing: for a few minutes, it’s just their words on my screen and nothing else. Charlotte Shane is one of those writers — and I don’t believe I’m alone in that assessment. While I don’t remember exactly how I found her work, I do know that her very popular TinyLetter Prostitute Laundry newsletter quickly became a reason to take a break at work whenever it appeared in my inbox.

Now, Charlotte’s letters will no longer be limited to just the digital space. Last month, she announced a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish Prostitute Laundry as a book. By the 12-hour mark, the project was nearly funded. And by the time the campaign ended on October 30, no fewer than 626 supporters contributed $27,842, well over three times the original goal of $8,500. (Note: I supported Charlotte’s campaign.)

It’s not hard to see why Charlotte elicited such a groundswell of support. Her writing — which often focuses on her relationships, body, and sex work and sex life — is in turns incisive and tender, embracing human frailty with bracing honesty. Most importantly, she breaks down harmful stereotypes and acts as a voice for those whom society routinely marginalizes.

We chatted over email about her writing, how having an online community is central to sex work, and her thoughts on the hype of TinyLetters.

How did you begin writing online?

I started a blog sometime after I began in-person sex work, though I can’t remember exactly when. Probably 2002 or 2003. It was extremely unliterary, and willfully so. I imitated the loopy, cavalier, purposefully juvenile tone found in other girls’ blogs I liked, but they posted a lot more pictures than I did, which makes that style work better. I wrote about situations that were confusing for me, but treated my life like it was insubstantial at the same time. It was very affected. And I gave everyone really stupid nicknames — not to make fun of them, but because I’m just awful at renaming people.

I know I have all those old entries, but I reread them as rarely as possible because they are thoroughly mortifying. I had hardly any readership besides a few loyal commenters (I allowed comments!) and my two closest friends. One of my first entries described a client I saw who is not quite a celebrity but sort of an icon — someone known and worshipped in certain circles. A commenter recognized him and I freaked out and deleted the entry. That was a useful lesson in being more discreet.

Earlier this year, you wrote for The Kernel about your online identity, and this line jumped out at me: ‘Sometimes that supportive aspect — community, information-sharing, advice-giving — is more important than the need to release pent-up fear and irritation.’ It seems that the need for communing with others — whatever field we work in — springs at least partially from navigating the emotional labor of what we do. Could you expand on that?

If you don’t have access to an in-call studio or physical place where other sex workers gather, sex work is almost inevitably isolating — unless you create or find an online community. Of course everyone’s lonely, and everyone feels a little isolated in some dimension of their lives. But it’s exacerbated for sex workers, who are so maligned and misunderstood and punished in dramatic ways for attempting to connect with each other. (By the law, by their agents, etc.)

Human interactions are complicated even when they’re circumstantially simple. A man hires me because he’s horny and lonely; I take the appointment because I want money. Simple. But internally, there are dozens of different forces determining my experience: how much I like him or don’t; how I feel about how much I like him or don’t; what I imagine he wants from me and how willing I am to give it; what will make my job easier and what I want out of the encounter besides money, etc.

‘Emotional labor’ was such a useful term to me when I first heard it years ago (probably also around 2002 or 2003), and it’s been so important to understanding what makes certain undervalued jobs extremely challenging to perform. But I think most people have seized on it as shorthand to refer to being intelligent while being alive. Being alive is pretty emotionally demanding!

In August, you wrote about misandry memes, and how these can undermine the rightful rage of misandry sentiments. You wrote, ‘Self-care and community building through humor are valuable and powerful endeavors, but what primarily nourished me in my original anti-men commiserations with other sex workers was the shared recognition of how much our exposure to male entitlement hurt — like, really hurt.’ What do you see as an alternative to meme-ing misandry? Is it more about sharing our experiences without the trappings of humor?

Honesty. Directness. Telling the truth about when we do feel like we hate men, and where it comes from. Couching suffering in sarcasm is heartening sometimes, but can also defang the recognition of an unjust and painful reality, especially if joking isn’t balanced out with sober, attentive discussions about what’s going on.

Your Jezebel essay ‘Men Consume, Women Are Consumed: 15 Thoughts on the Stigma of Sex Work’ was brilliant and convicting, especially in relation to what you were responding to. Do you feel that writing can be a form of emotional labor too? While sometimes writing is meant to exorcise, it can also foster exhaustion.

Oh for sure! I think for me, writing is a way to make emotional expenditure more valuable. It can redeem an emotional process I would have gone through anyway by giving it direction and purpose, which feels like strength. That essay came about because I was like, screw it, I’m going to spend at least five days absorbed by being sad and hopeless and angry about this anyway, I might as well articulate it all. And I immediately wanted it to go to Jezebel because of their audience. It wasn’t like I conceived the angle and shopped the pitch around. I knew just what I wanted that essay to do and where I wanted it to be. So it wasn’t purely a cathartic ‘I’m going to get this out’; it still had an intention.

But, like you say, there are other considerations when you write. The fallout, for one. Are you going to burn some personal bridge? Are you going to get a mountain of shit from strangers? Or are you going to get a stream of earnest but clueless people trying to talk to you more in a way that just fatigues you? Sex work has been so useful in helping me tune out what doesn’t matter; I block liberally on Twitter, ignore emails all the time, and don’t take hateful stuff very seriously anyway, because it’s never worse than what I had to listen to when I was working on webcam. Being pseudonymous is hugely helpful, too; I can’t underestimate that. But also I seem to be blessed with some of the most sensitive readers of all time. So I would say it’s always net positive when I write something under my own emotional pressure.

The word prostitute usually has negative connotations. Is reclaiming or reassigning a word meaning possible?

I wrote about this recently for Pacific Standard. The short answer is: I think the problem with the word is a problem with most people’s attitudes toward sex work and more precisely, sex workers — not the word itself, or what it indicates.

I signed up for your TinyLetter Prostitute Laundry about seven months ago, I believe, so I know there’s so much I’ve missed. But despite beginning in what really was the latter part of TinyLetter, I fell into the narrative pretty quickly and easily. The lack of the archive maybe even forced me to pay more attention to details and immersed me further. Could you talk about how you structured your letters? How did you decide what medium was best for you to write in?

Charlotte's Twitter avatar, Catherine Deneuve
Charlotte’s Twitter avatar, Catherine Deneuve

That’s so good to hear, that it wasn’t unintelligible. I had no idea the letters would have such a strong narrative when I started writing them. I was just trying to staunch my loneliness and figure out what the fuck I was doing with my life. And consequently I wrote about whatever I was most preoccupied with, whether it was some idea or emotional dynamic or an encounter. Usually it was a collection of all three. As the events in my life started becoming more dramatic, the letters assumed more of a straightforward trajectory, and were less discursive. But they ultimately returned to that baseline of emotion plus inquiry. That’s how I think, so it’s also how I write — though I would say it’s arguable which act came first.

The problem with blogs, for me, was that they always got me in trouble. People I didn’t want to find them would find them. That felt more manageable with a letter, though it happened anyway (and I’m sure many more times than I know of). Not making an archive was a form of self-protection. But with Nightmare Brunette (my blog before the letters, after the first blog mentioned above), I’d been convinced of two things: 1) writing about my life for an audience forces me to think about it a lot more intelligently and thoroughly than I otherwise would, and 2) writing about my life creates movement inside my life. It’s almost like a charm for inviting wildness. That could be just an illusory effect, and what’s changed is only the attention I pay to what’s already around me, but . . . the 20 months while I was writing Prostitute Laundry were probably the most eventful of my life.

Especially since your letters have a temporal quality, it’s exciting to know they will be turned into a book. I think you may be the first to publish your TinyLetter in any capacity like this. Do you see this as a return to older forms of books, like epistolary novels? Or, do TinyLetters present a whole new kind of form, even when published off-line?

Well, the distinguishing feature of Tiny Letters is that they’re not intended for a single reader, or any self-organized group of readers; they go out to people who don’t know each other and will never meet, so those people are only connected by receiving the letter. Which makes it a little more like those family updates people send to their personal networks around the holidays, except (please, God) not so bland.

A lot of the hype around TinyLetter feels manufactured to me, and some articles don’t make a distinction between the truly personal ones and the ones that are just newsletters with ‘cool links,’ as my friend Meaghan O’Connell has said. I subscribe to a lot of the cool-link TinyLetters and really like them, but they’re not a new phenomenon. Maybe they’re being adopted more widely for personal reasons instead of, say, for a company or recreational group or school. But it’s not a new idea or format. It’s a mailing list.

I think what is new about the TinyLetter arrangement is that a writer can have a self-selected audience and be aware of each audience member. That’s so different from, say, having a column and knowing people read you, but not being sure who those people are, or how many of them there are. And that mutual visibility fosters a sort of intimacy, or at least it did for me.

I noticed that your TinyLetter link now takes us to a landing page for Post Prostitute. Do you know what’s up ahead?

I have no idea. It feels wrong to use the list for a true newsletter, though sometimes I’m tempted because it would be easy and fun. I think maybe I’ll still write an old/original style letter every now and then, when the urge is overwhelming. I miss writing them, but it was the right time to bring it to a close.

I didn’t want to shutter the list entirely because it still feels so valuable, like a black book for great readers, but it will be dark for the foreseeable future. And that’s funny, because so many people signed up since the last one went out. I sort of feel like they’re waiting in front of a stage after a concert has ended and I can’t bring myself to tell them to go home.

For now, I’ve started Prostitunes for putting together playlists and sending them out with some thoughts, but it’s like Prostitute Laundry Extra Lite if it’s like Prostitute Laundry at all. It’s brand new so I haven’t really figured out how it will look regularly.

The author has chosen not to show responses on this story. You can still respond by clicking the response bubble.