Tracy Quan: From Call Girl To Sex Industry Advocate

Tracy Quan: 

From Call Girl To Sex Industry Advocate

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Tracy Quan is the author of international bestselling novels Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl and Diary of a Married Call Girl, both of which were inspired by her own 15 years working in the sex industry. Now retired from her call girl life, Quan remains an advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution, and provides commentary on pop culture, sex, and politics for outlets such as the New York Times, Salon, and The Washington Post. She is also a frequent guest on Phil Whelan’s podcast, The Morning Brew. In our conversation with Quan, we covered everything from her personal experience as a call girl, to today’s “neopuritanism” and the inherent dangers of slut shaming.

On Entering, and Working in, The Sex Industry

Before she even reached 20, Quan had already built a career as a call girl.

“Looking back on it now as an adult, I realize that I was attracted to the glamour [of the sex industry], but if you had asked me at the time, I would have described it as a purely economic decision,” she said. “When you’re a teenager, you think you’re such a tough little cookie, and I saw myself as a completely rational actor. Of course, I wanted to earn some money on my own because what person doesn’t want the dignity that goes with having your own money that you work for? But at the same time, I was drawn to the sexual glamour of being a call girl, of being some kind of sex worker.”

“I was drawn to the sexual glamour of being a call girl, of being some kind of sex worker.”

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Quan and her friend, another teenager, jumped into the sex industry without any connections, and with no true idea of what they were doing or how to make a living. Together they ventured into a hotel bar, and the rest is history. Quan considers herself fortunate to have never lived on the street, and to have been – for the most part – safe along the way.

“I didn’t walk around in fear of my life all the time, but there were times when I certainly felt endangered. There were also times when I didn’t know what kind of danger I was in, and times when I did not appreciate the risks I was taking,” she said. “Then there were times when I began to realize, you know, maybe that was quite dangerous. When that happens, you kind of go into another state of mind and you become quite paranoid and very, very careful. My mood with regard to safety changed; it was different on different occasions.”

In regard to safety, though, it wasn’t clients she was necessarily worried about. In fact, many of her clients were friendly, and people she saw on a regular basis.

“You’re having sex with this person, but they’re a buddy,” she explained. “Sometimes it was more theatrical and there was more of a mystique and a distance – it depended on the client – but with a lot of regulars, there was a buddy feeling and there were a lot of laughs. You know this guy for a long time, and realize,”Well, I’ve known him longer than my boyfriend.’ That kind of thing. And sometimes these clients would even have an insight into my own personality that would surprise me.” 

“Someone comes to see you every two weeks for quite a while, and they actually start to observe you and see things about you. It’s not that they were in love with me – I mean, some of them were – but for the most part these were people who would just develop a kind of liking for you.”

Photo courtesy of Amazon

An arguably bigger worry for many call girls are the dangers of getting caught, and the legal repercussions that follow. This is especially true in the United States, were the criminalization of prostitution is much more extreme than in, say, London, where Quan has also worked.

“In London it was not legalized, but many aspects of the job were untouched by the law. That meant that I was less afraid of the police,” she said. “I felt that there was less they could say or do to me, or threaten me with, because I had certain basic rights. In England – you could put it this way – the right to have sex for money is not intruded upon by the state.”

“I know that [in the United States], you do have to worry about a police officer offering money for sex and then being able to arrest you just for that,” she said. “I did not ever get in trouble with the police, but I knew people who were and I feel like it’s a bigger problem now. I have the sense that we’re living in a harsher time and there’s more interest in really going after people, and that things are just a bit more ruthless.”

On Decriminalizing the Sex Industry

We are miles away from the legalization of prostitution in the United States. The focus for activists and advocates, instead, is the decriminalization of the sex industry. In essence, decriminalization is the process of removing crimes from penal code, and/or reducing the punishment.

“What we have been able to do is build a political and social movement where we have organizations and foundations working on specific laws that affect sex workers,” said Quan when we asked her about how much progress has been made on this issue. “So, for example, in New York State, we made progress over the fact that condoms were being used as evidence in prosecution arrests.” [Read more about the legislation here.]

Quan explained that sex workers have numerous people advocating for them, including district attorneys, politicians, human rights lawyers, and members of the general population.

“It’s more about the baby steps, but having organizations and foundations that are able to address [these issues] is really a lot of progress,” she said. “We didn’t have that 20, 30 years ago, and you do have other countries where progress is being made. So even though right now, in the United States, we may feel a bit isolated from the world, we have to bear in mind that we do live on this planet with other countries and we can look at those other countries as models for how to deal with [the sex industry].”

Naturally, not everyone believes in sex workers rights. For those who do want to help, though, Quan urges you do so from a place of authenticity. If you’re offering true solidarity with sex workers, and are genuinely advocating on their behalf with a true understanding of their struggles, that’s wonderful and productive.  

However, she cautions, “if it becomes a paternalistic thing about saving people who are less fortunate, this can come from a well-meaning place, but can lead to very unproductive dynamics. Sex workers aren’t that naïve. They’re used to being hustled. I think it’s important for liberals and feminists to understand that distinction and that dynamic.”

Neopuritanisim and Slut Shaming

You might have caught an episode of Mary Tyler Moore, either in its original heyday, or via Nick at Nite reruns. For Quan, Moore’s character was a heroin figure in the unique time period between the outright sexism of the ‘50s, and the rise of today’s religious right.

“She slept around, and she took some pills, and sometimes she would spend the night at a guy’s apartment, and it was a big deal in the sense that she was rejecting the 1950s values,” said Quan. “She wasn’t condemned. She was sort of this heroin of her period: a young working woman who was more interested in her job than in her home life.”

While there’s been steady opposition to women’s basic freedoms and their right to be overt sexual creatures, Quan made an interesting point that today we’re dealing with a sort of “neopuritanism.” There’s something rather new about slut shaming today, she said, even though it’s an age-old issue.

Perhaps it’s because we’re dealing with the interesting dynamic of people outwardly calling out sex shaming for what it is, and opposition that is desperate to hold on to old “values.”

“I feel like the really moralistic people in the U.S. will use a word like ‘progressive’ as if it’s a dirty word. But how can it be a bad thing to be progressive unless you really believe we all need to turn the lights out and cower in darkness?” she pondered.

“I do think that this is a sort of neopuritanism that we’re dealing with, and I’m worried that there are people who are like, age 12, who might not realize it wasn’t always like this.”

One example: Planned Parenthood’s current fight to survive. Again, they’ve always dealt with opposition, but today there seems to be an outright backlash against every service they provide, when in years past they had steady funding and were free to engage in open dialogue on now-taboo topics.  

“These things are connected to slut shaming,” warned Quan. “I mean, slut shaming may feel like it’s an attitudinal thing of ‘how much of your shirt do you open,’ but slut shaming isn’t only about attitude. It’s about legislation and practical things. It’s about being able to get birth control and having an abortion if you need one.”

“People who are very well-to-do don’t have to worry as much about what other people think of them. Maybe they worry about their peer group in ways that a lot of people don’t, but still, there is a luxury there,” she said. “What worries me about the slut shaming is that I fear we’re going into a society where a certain kind of sexual health becomes a real luxury that’s only available to these upper and middle classes.”

One last point on this matter. Often the conversation about slut shaming focuses on whether someone is being judged about a sex tape, nude photos, or a sexy Halloween costume. While these conversations are important and valuable in their own right, Quan said, it’s imperative that we discuss the more practical issues, as well.

Here’s to continuing the dialogue.

Wendy Rose Gould

Wendy Rose Gould is a reporter based in Phoenix, Arizona. She covers women’s lifestyle topics for numerous digital publications, including Refinery29, InStyle, xoVain, Headspace, PopSugar and ModCloth. You can learn more about her at WendyGould.com.

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