Am I My Brothel's Keeper?

Author and former sex worker Tracy Quan talks about human trafficking, legalizing prostitution, and 15 years in The Life.


In 2003, The Bush administration introduced the "anti-prostitution pledge," an oath required of U.S. aid organizations working overseas who hoped to continue getting government funding. Born out of a conviction that eliminating sex slavery requires a war on prostitution, the move provoked intense opposition from foreign aid organizations, human rights activists, feminists and sex worker groups. It's also revived an age-old conversation about the moral and legal dimensions of the sex trade.

Author Tracy Quan delves into this earnest debate through the unlikely medium of chick lit. Quan, whose work has appeared in Lingua Franca, Congressional Quarterly, and The Boston Globe, spent 15 years hooking in London and Manhattan before turning exclusively to writing. Her popular bi-weekly column for Salon, which grew into the semi-autobiographical Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, introduced readers to independent, bourgeois hooker Nancy Chan. Diary of a Married Call Girl, a sequel published last month, is another behind-the-scenes look at a profession pushed underground.

Assistant Editor Kerry Howley spoke to Quan in November.

Reason: What's the ideal legal framework for prostitution? Do you support complete legalization?

Quan: What I would support is more nuanced. The U.S. is out of step; the laws are very backward. We need to learn from the way other countries deal with prostitution. I think it would be unrealistic to just say that you want wholesale legalization across the board—too sudden. There is a distinction to be made between what legalization means to people and what decriminalization means. If legalization means that you're going to be regulated in a way that is unfamiliar to the currently working prostitutes, there is going to be a lot of resistance from prostitutes themselves.

Reason: What regulations in particular concern you?

Quan: Zoning. Zoning can be helpful, but it can also be abusive. We've seen how corporations have colluded with government in New York City, in the kind of zoning crackdown. That was all to the benefit of a few huge corporations, not to the people living in those neighborhoods. There were small business owners who were completely railroaded by eminent domain laws. It has nothing to do with public good. Have you looked at Times Square lately? It's a gigantic scam on the population. Times Square is much more vulgar and offensive looking than it was before. Architecturally it's a disaster. It's completely wrong and unnatural. I don't know who would go there. What person would want their children to be exposed to this sort of thing? It's really vulgar.

Reason: And there are places a brothel would seem unnatural and out of place.

Quan: I am in favor of the idea that you wouldn't want a brothel next to a school; most prostitutes can see the common sense in that. But the interesting thing is that without all kinds of crazy zoning laws, human beings have been naturally inclined to do prostitution in places where there is say, theater. It's absolutely natural for human beings to buy and sell sex in a theater district. That's traditional. Adults are out late at night; actresses were traditionally involved. That's true in London, in the west 40s in NY. There aren't a lot of kindergartens next to the theaters. And this all makes sense, it generates income, it's a completely positive thing.

If you close something like that down, where are the prostitutes going to go? They're going to end up in some completely unnatural and strange place, maybe near a school. I'd be in favor of some kind of zoning if I thought it was informed by something rational and realistic. The problem is that zoning in this country, given the fearful religious climate, might be misused to try to put prostitutes in dangerous places where they can't be accessed. Zoning is sometimes used not to support a concept but to try to make it go away. And that's a sort of violence against the market.

Reason: Sex workers don't use the term sex worker.

Quan: The term is not really in use among actual sex workers on the street or in the bedroom. It's a clinical term; a respectable term; it's never been part of the lingo of the business. There is a schism of some sort—a difference between the language of the bedroom, the bar, the business; and the language of the activist circle. It's necessary for that language to be a little artificial.

Activism is something that you're inventing every day, whereas prostitution is very natural. Activism takes a leap of the imagination. It's a little bit abstract, the urge to create a more perfect world and talk about principles behind how you're treated. It's appropriate really that activist language isn't the same as the language in the street.

Reason: Your protagonist, Nancy Chan, is deeply skeptical of sex worker activism. Does that reflect your own views?

Quan: I've always been attracted to the hookers' movement, and I admire the advances of activism. But I have noticed that, though we're behind politically, prostitutes in America who are accustomed to working illegally are often more trustworthy people than prostitutes who have worked under a legalized system. The value system is an outlaw value system.

I think outlaws are more trustworthy people. They're forced to think about what they think is right and wrong. You are forced to think about the ethics of your behavior in terms of loyalty. It's a very tribal mentality: us against the world. In the respectable world, it's about what you can get away with legally. There are a lot more loopholes in the respectable world. People will tell themselves: "It's OK because it's legal." An outlaw doesn't have that option.

Reason: What do you make of claims that sex workers are motivated by deep-seated psychological problems?

Quan: All human beings have deep-seated psychological problems. That's what makes us interesting. Writers have deep-seated psychological problems, and I would hope a prostitute has deep-seated psychological problems. I think those claims come from people who have been brainwashed by the medicalization of therapy; they want everyone to be flat and have no problems. But that's never been the goal of serious psycho-therapeutic thinkers. The goal is to understand what lies beneath the human condition. These people are bureaucrats and they aren't thinking about the range of human experience.

Reason: Has the acknowledgement of female desire led to women taking greater enjoyment in sex?

Quan: I think we're enjoying sex more than we did in the past because we have birth control. The methods have become better and better. My parents didn't have access to condoms in four different sizes. It makes a difference.

Reason: What effect has it had on men?

Quan: I don't think our enjoyment of sex is separate from men's enjoyment. I'm sure that in my grandmother's time it was more of a zero sum game. In a society where women have more access to birth control, our pleasure comes to be seen as more important to the man. The fear of getting pregnant would have stopped me from enjoying the experience. The idea that something you like to do is going to lead to physical hardship really puts a damper on things.

Reason: Prostitution in the developing world has been getting a lot of attention lately, much of it because of the effort to stamp out human trafficking. Has the attention been positive or negative for sex workers?

Quan: The movement led by prostitutes themselves is really concerned about trafficking. But we are concerned about it in a larger human rights context. We are really upset about people who use trafficking to attack the whole concept of prostitution. I think there is a lot of unexamined hatred toward prostitutes that gets expressed as compassion.

Reason: So the issues of voluntary prostitution and human trafficking are being conflated.

Quan: They're being exploited. People are exploiting, psychologically and emotionally, the issue of trafficking to turn a human rights problem into an anti-prostitution agenda.

Reason: Is the argument that prostitution is necessarily exploitive?

Quan: I'm not concerned that prostitution is exploitive. What does exploitive mean? People exploit minerals and their own power and each other. Exploitation is a fairly neutral term. The question is whether somebody is being abused or harmed physically. These people are trying to cast prostitution as something evil rather than something exploitive.

Prostitutes exploit their clients all the time. And they're often exploited by madams. The idea of clients exploiting anyone is kind of laughable. It's like someone saying that someone running a shoe store is exploiting the labor of an employee. That's how businesses run. It's a fairly neutral term. The question is whether it's abusive.

Reason: And the assumption is that it is always abusive?

Quan: They are trying to say prostitution is a human rights violation. It's an absurd idea to me. Anti-prostitution activists have found an issue, human trafficking, that they can exploit and that pushes a lot of peoples' buttons. We're living in a time when we don't think slavery is acceptable. Which I would agree with. But people who are naive, who have never worked with a prostitute or hired a prostitute, people who have no natural organic contact with prostitutes, are easily manipulated into believing anything about prostitution.

Reason: The sex worker organization portrayed in your second novel uses a sewing machine with a line through it as a logo. Do you see the anti-human trafficking movement as potentially pushing women into sweatshops?

Quan: It's difficult because you have people like [New York Times columnist] Nicholas Kristof who seem to think it's better and possibly safer for a teenager to be working in a sweatshop. I don't know which is safer. I'm not entirely convinced that it's safer to work in a sweatshop around big machines in countries where factories are not regulated.

As a friend of mine once told me, affluent people can't imagine what it's like to have a child and want your child to work as a prostitute at the age of 13. Yet on the other hand nor can affluent people know what it's like to choose between sending your child to a factory or a whorehouse. You cannot argue with a machine, you can't negotiate with a machine. You can negotiate with a human being. You can appeal to their empathy or get more money out of them; get them to help you and your family.

Reason: Kristof seems to be writing about slavery, not a voluntary sex trade.

Quan: Kristof's ideas about slavery are not very sophisticated. He has written about sex between African slaves and European slave owners, about how the races mingled. My family is from the Carribbean. Since I was a child I've known that there was an African slave who slept with a Dutch slave owner; this is part of my ancestry. Kristof describes this kind of thing as female slaves being seduced and exploited. I had always assumed that my ancestor might have seduced her owner. People do what they do in order to survive. This is all very shocking to someone resistant to seeing nuances in human behavior. You don't have to be in favor of slavery to see that.

Reason: Do you consider indentured labor a form of slavery?

Quan: My Chinese ancestors were indentured laborers and I've often had this conflict in my mind. I know a lot of prostitution activists who are opposed to prostitutes being involved in indentured labor. But this is how some of my ancestors got to the New World. It's not a pretty story. It's what it is. And while I don't think we should duplicate the conditions under which they came, I get nervous when I hear well meaning Westerners possibly depriving other people of a chance to move around the globe.