Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 20 Sep 01 11:03
Tracy Quan is the author of "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" (Crown), a novel inspired by her career in the sex trade and her work as an activist in PONY (Prostitutes of New York). "Diary" is a continuation of Nancy Chan's adventures which first appeared on Salon.com as a fiction series, gaining a wide international readership. For more than ten years, Quan worked as a call girl, starting her sex work journey when still a teenager. Her involvement with prostitutes' rights began almost as soon as she entered the industry, and she is also a member of the International Network of Sex Work Projects, a human rights NGO active in 30+ countries. Her articles about topics ranging from early puberty to artificial intelligence have appeared in Salon.com, Urban Desires, Civilization and many other publications. An archive appears at www.tracyquan.net She lives, works in (and is still madly in love with) New York. Leading the discussion is Jef Poskanzer, who has been playing with these computer thingies since the early 1970s. These days he does consulting and software development, mostly relating to high-performance web servers. He has been involved in online communities also since the 1970s, and has been on the WeLL since 1986. He reads a lot, which is how he got nominated for this interview gig - he read the original Nancy Chan series in Salon, and sent Tracy some email commenting on it. He was born in New York City, and, while he has never lived there, he loves to visit. Please join me in welcoming Tracy and Jef to inkwell.vue!
Jef Poskanzer (jef) Thu 20 Sep 01 11:31
Thank you. Tracy and I actually weren't sure the interview would proceed, given last week's events in New York. But the consensus response seems to be to return to normalcy as much as possible. The British were very good at this during WWII. Even so, I think my first question has to be: Tracy, what has life in Manhattan been like for the past week?
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Thu 20 Sep 01 14:41
I think it depends where you live or work. I know a few people who were at the scene of the disaster -- about to enter the WTC or walking around the neighborhood. They feel very lucky to be alive and intact -- yet displaced. The gal who does my facials came into work on the "day of mourning" because she needed to get back to work as quickly as possible and start making money to buy clothes for her two kids. She couldn't get back into her home, didn't know if it was still standing, and the weather had turned cool all of a sudden. So the day of prayer was a work day for her... I guess what I'm saying is that daily rituals can be more valuable than national rituals. I've often felt (and said) that "work is the most important thing we do" -- now I really feel it more strongly than ever. When your worklife is disrupted by outside causes, you feel everything start to fall apart. A beautician's work seems on the surface to be about adornment and pampering but this event makes everything harsher and more about survival. Walking around the Upper East Side, on the day itself (September 11),was not as traumatic as being downtown. The corporate chain shops were closed, the banks, and so on. But the small shopkeepers, for the most part, were open -- the shoe repair, drycleaning, barbers, nail salons, discount stores, food shops. Small businesses that give the area its real character and soul and its slightly frumpy unpolished air -- these people were just getting through their day. They made my neighborhood feel real. Those corporate chains were empty and absent from the neighborhood -- it made me think about how they were never really part of the neighborhood in the first place... New York is all about its neighborhoods.
Jef Poskanzer (jef) Thu 20 Sep 01 18:20
"Work is the most important thing we do" - a quintessential American attitude, I think. In this country we tend to ask people upon meeting them, "So what do you do?" I've heard that this sounds weird to folks born elsewhere. Very interesting about the chain stores closing and the local shops staying open. Maybe something about large corporations being more risk-averse. I assume they're opening back up by now. So did either you or Nancy ever work in the Marriot that was between the Trade Center towers? Personally I tend to remember the places I've had sex as much or even more than the people I did it with.
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Thu 20 Sep 01 19:34
Like Nancy Chan, the narrator of "Diary", I'm better acquainted with the uptown and midtown hotels, like the Pierre or the Peninsula, which are more steeped in Manhattan mystique because of location or age. The Peninsula, for example, is "new" but only because it was not always the Peninsula -- it was once a rather worn-out looking hotel which attracted a different kind of guest. Now it's very glam and expensive. The Marriot Between the Towers brings to mind the Salon.com series where Nancy's diary first appeared. Her diary was illustrated with an image of a Nancyish character at one with -- "straddling" is how a highly respected newspaper put it -- the World Trade Center. At first I didn't know how I felt, when I saw this drawing -- somebody else's vision of your written creature does not always to mirror your own. But I came to like Tim Bower's over-the-top depiction of Nancy Chan and now I appreciate it more fully. Perhaps, after last week, I get something that I did not get before --as a New Yorker, it rarely occured to me that the World Trade Center had more meaning to the world than my own visual symbols of the city. Mr. Bower obviously understood this, though. Since we're talking again about work -- working as an illustrator versus a writer -- I want to add: Though I think it's the most important thing we do, it doesn't follow that we must ask everybody we meet "What do you do?" right upfront. There are other ways to find out about the most important thing someone does -- and some people do not wish to discuss the most important thing they do. Especially if their occupation is illegal! Something may be important but private. Work defines Nancy Chan and her friends but they spend their lives dodging and evading the inevitable "What do you do?" query. Call girls in London or Paris tell me they can go for weeks without having to make up a cover story because a new friend won't ask right away "What do you do."
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Thu 20 Sep 01 22:51
This is Tim Bower's drawing of Nancy between the towers: http://www.salon.com/health/sex/urge/1999/07/12/nancy/index.html
Jef Poskanzer (jef) Thu 20 Sep 01 23:46
Oh yes, that was a nice graphic. Yeah, Nancy does spend much of the book obsessing about which of her friends knows what about her. Managing a fragile web of lies. Tracy, on the other hand, seems to be completely open about her life. Are you in fact out to all your friends? And relatives? And how recent is this?
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Fri 21 Sep 01 01:18
The short answer: "sort of." I have not announced my past to each and every friend or relative. I told my parents and my brothers some time ago. Of course, my brothers knew before my parents did. I never told my grandmother. I had an urge to protect her from the shock! horror! of discovering that I was a scarlet woman -- I thought she might blame my mother for abandoning the Catholic church, and I felt that my family would be upset with me for upsetting *her*. I never felt that my family would be seriously upset with me for having commercial sex, just that they would be distressed if my grandmother had been confronted with this information. It's a fairly practical approach to sexual morality, don't you think?
Jef Poskanzer (jef) Fri 21 Sep 01 01:27
It's all about the practicality. So have you started to get friends who previously didn't know asking you about the book?
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Fri 21 Sep 01 02:11
Ha. Yes. One or two. But the people most surprised were those who knew about my sex work without knowing about the novel, until they read about it somewhere or saw me on TV. One of my friends in PONY was saying, last night-- "I am *shocked* because you've always been so private!" So the people most genuinely surprised are those who knew some of my secrets -- while imagining that a writer's career can be almost totally reclusive.
Jef Poskanzer (jef) Fri 21 Sep 01 10:08
Well, presumably you could have published it anonymously. Did you consider that?
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Fri 21 Sep 01 11:49
I'm not sure what that means. There isn't a huge market for first novels by totally unknown -- and unknowable -- authors.*I* certainly have no interest in reading or buying such stuff! I do want to know something about the author when I read something currently published. And I'm intrigued when I stumble across a secondhand book from, oh, 80 years ago by someone I've never heard of -- who was this writer? How did he or she live? Was she a success? Did she go to lots of parties? Read Freud? Or just talk about him at cocktail parties? Wear lipstick? Sleep around? Have a happy marriage? I'm thinking of Alice Duer Miller whom I just discovered this past winter -- I'd never heard of her before but it was obvious to me that she was a commercial success when I saw a row of her books at the NY Society Library in the stacks. It was breathtaking! In some ways, more interesting to me than writers who are still widely talked about. Though she's not a big name today she was not seeking anonymity at that point. What I'm saying is -- anonymity is what most sensible working artists *fear*. Maybe when you've already achieved a lot as a writer, you can dabble at being anonymous, but a struggling writer is already anonymous, so what's the point? That's just my take on it. I realize other writers may feel otherwise but all the writers I've met recently are preoccupied with getting as much public recognition as possible.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 21 Sep 01 13:07
For those of you reading along on the Web who are not WELL members and would like to participate in this discussion, please e-mail your comments and questions to: inkwell-hosts.@well.com and we will see that they get posted.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 21 Sep 01 13:12
I would also like to mention that, if you have not yet read the book, you can get a taste of what it's like by going to the URL that Tracy posted in response 5, which contains links to the stories that originally appeared on salon.com. Tracy, I have a question for you, which actually goes back to the question that Jef asked in response 1. In addition to wondering what life is like in general in New York right now, I'm wondering what you might have heard from folks you know about how the terrorist attacks have affected their business. Is there more interest in sex, now? Less interest? Or is it completely different in unanticipated ways?
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Fri 21 Sep 01 13:46
The first thing which comes to mind is religion and commercial sex -- which "Diary" addresses in a modern, light-hearted way by looking at the goddess-worshipping faction in the hookers' movement. But this recent disaster in New York has put religion in the spotlight, especially religious prejudice. Prostitutes are often highly cynical about that kind of rhetoric. Our customers come from every religious group and that's especially true for those of us who work in larger cities -- like New York or London. I like to think we are less easily swayed by certain forms of racism because we've had sex with so many different kinds of people. This isn't always true, of course, but it's something that comes up in a lot of the discussions I have with other sex workers these days...
Jef Poskanzer (jef) Fri 21 Sep 01 14:56
I guess when I said publishing the book anonymously, I actually meant pseudonymously. Like for example Pynchon. You can still establish a brand-name identity for your work, while maintaining a degree of separation from your real life. Of course going on TV to promote the book kind of blows that (and also quashes the rumors that you're actually Mike Godwin in online drag!). Anyway, I'm certainly glad you stuck with your real identity.
Mike Godwin (mnemonic) Fri 21 Sep 01 15:07
jef, you're such a joker to hint that I might be Mike Godwin in drag. Uh, ooops!
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Fri 21 Sep 01 22:51
Cute. But - er, I had no idea --where did you hear this rumor? It's common knowledge that Mike is a great editor. But what does Mike know about handbags or, for that matter, mixed used neighborhoods? Answering Linda's query... I have heard reports from working girls...Some clients feel guilty about seeking pleasure because so many other people are traumatized or worse. But these are younger clients. Sexual guilt is really a younger person's problem. Older clients are more matter-of-fact about their sexual and emotional needs. In fact, many older guys in New York -- the typical call girl customers -- are Europeans who lived through some major 20th century traumas. They bring an adult perspective to the current situation.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 22 Sep 01 00:23
Huh. Thanks. So it's business as usual then, with the only difference being that the younger clients feel guilty about needing to do it? Very interesting.
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Sat 22 Sep 01 10:07
Well, business as usual if you live/work in midtown or farther north, like the girls in "Diary" who dwell in the untouched neighborhoods. And if your clients are alive. Or feeling solvent. Men sometimes feel guilty about spending on sex -- it's money guilt, not sex guilt. The catastrophe had an effect on individual business deals -- if a john has lost some clients of his own or watched an ongoing deal fizzle out as a result of last week's mayhem, of course he will be reluctant to indulge his wallet. Some guys think of a call girl as a luxury, others visit call girls for "maintenance sex" -- we're not extracurricular, we're basic to their lives. In the novel, a good example of this is Jasmine's regular, Harry, who zips in and out of her apartment like clockwork -- he's the male counterpart of the call girl in Klute looking at her watch while she's "coming." A man who is that organized about his sexual needs does not think of this as dessert -- it's more like taking vitamins. In real life, I want to add, there are (were?)discreet brothels and individual girls working in the residential parts of the financial district. For them, of course, it's been a very upsetting, destabilizing time -- and that's how our lives aren't so different from the lives of other New Yorkers.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 22 Sep 01 16:34
Whew. Thanks. I'm 7/8th of the way through the book and dying to find out whether or not Matt finds out what she does for a living! And, I'm very interested in your descriptions of some of the sexual activities. I didn't realize how much at a distance the girls keep themselves. Like when you discuss the threesome with - I can't remember if it's Jasmine or Allison - and you talk about the agreement about penetration with a dildo, i.e. not much, or about pretending to lick each other, and about not kissing the John. That was fascinating, I had not realized that there was such a code of conduct. Is it because if you are really participating, it's harder to remain in control, and harder to concentrate on the john's experience without getting lost in your own? And why can't johns kiss the girls? I've always wondered about that.
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Sat 22 Sep 01 17:45
Some girls kiss but most -- like Nancy -- don't. If you have lots of sex partners -- three to five a day,or more, it's not very practical to kiss. Kissing is rather special and it just would not feel right, physically, to be kissing so many people in a given day or week! It's easier to fake or exaggerate the enjoyment of intercourse than, say, the enjoyment of kissing. A pro's repertoire should consist of pleasurale acts that will go smoothly for her, that can be easily repeated -- kissing every guy would be rather draining, emotionally. The code of conduct keeps things fair -- there have to be some agreed upon sexcual mores so that girls can compete and stay friendly. It's like other businesses where competitors need to get along...You're no less a participant for being professional, it's just another way of having sex. And you are there to take care of someone else, so you must stay focused on the client and on getting him finished in time for the next date. Clients try to push the boundaries but they very often like it more when they can't get over on you. :)
Jef Poskanzer (jef) Sat 22 Sep 01 21:01
That's very interesting. When you say 'not very practical to kiss', are you thinking about catching colds? The rest of your message is more about emotional issues, not practical ones. Did you ever work with another girl who wanted the sex more real than you did? Or the reverse? How did you negotiate?
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Sat 22 Sep 01 21:56
Emotional issues *are* practical issues. As Nancy could tell you. It is impractical to put yourself through a lot of emotional discomfort in the course of a day's work. It makes sense to have a comfort zone because the more at ease you are, the more unoffended your senses are, the more clients you can handle. The ideal working partner is another girl with a light pleasant touch, not too intrusive, who makes you feel kind of happy to be there but doesn't try to become your lover. Even when you fake it, you want to feel that there's some basic physical harmony, you don't want to be with someone who's paranoid *or* pushy. If you start with the assumption that you'll fake it, and then see how it develops, you can't go wrong. Often, some nice vibes start to develop during a session with two girls but the pleasure is almost never discussed after, it's a purely sensual experience and besides, it's business. In the novel, Jasmine is the kind of girl who takes offense if another girl "does it for real." Nancy's more flexible but she lets Jasmine set the pace. I rarely took offense but once I did get annoyed with another girl -- because of the way she touched me. She was very mechanical and brusque. Perhaps she thought the client could not tell the difference since he was watching, not feeling, the action. But I do have nerve endings and it's important to touch your coworkers gently.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 22 Sep 01 22:42
I hadn't thought about the repeatability of the activity, even though it makes perfect sense now that I think about it.
Tracy Quan (tracyquan) Sat 22 Sep 01 23:16
Nancy's friend Jasmine started her career in a high turnover house -- a brothel where the clients were in and out in 20 minutes, where the emphasis was on "volume." In a house like that, a girl might see ten or more clients a day. She worked her way up to a more leisurely style of hooking but her old habits stay with her. A girl like that would be extremely reluctant to kiss! Even when you're a private call girl, seeing a few good clients, you see as many of these good clients as you can. A prostitute has to maintain a steady flow yet remain sexy and cheerful -- she cannot afford to tax her nerves and emotions. It's much easier to get through your work day if you are the sexually aggressive party, setting the pace. That's another reason for the very strong codes of conduct. When money changes hands and you start dealing with something as a profession, there is also the question of quality control. If you just let sex happen, without having an agenda for the session, who's to say that the customer will achieve orgasm? Johns actually *want* professional sex to be kind of structured -- they want to know that the woman will make it happen.
Members: Enter the conference to participate