Nancy Chan is a postfeminist icon of sorts. The ultimate lady entrepreneur, Chan–the title character of the popular serial Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, catalogued on Salon.com–has an enviable collection of Prada bags, a pricey pad on the Upper East Side and a little black book full of Wall Street power brokers. Nancy’s creator, Tracy Quan, is a former working girl herself, who describes her past life as a whirlwind of lucrative dates: “Here I was,” she writes breathlessly, “a New York call girl, routinely bedding CEOs, foreign nobles, and entertainment moguls in the city’s five-star hotels.”
What would antipornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who electrified a generation of women’s studies majors, think of Quan and her resourceful, business-minded creation? Addressing an audience at the University of Michigan law school in 1992, Dworkin admonished that society might want us to “feel a kinky little thrill every time you think of something being stuck in a woman. I want you to feel the delicate tissues in her body that are being misused.” All prostitution, she maintains, “whether the event took place in the Plaza Hotel or somewhere more inelegant,” is a violation of women’s bodies and their civil rights.
What’s missing from both sides of the theoretical divide is the “work” half of the sex worker’s job description (“sex worker” is a term preferred by many in the industry to the old-fashioned “prostitute” or the derogatory “hooker”). For women who make their living in strip clubs, brothels, massage parlors or in front of the pornographer’s camera, sex is part of the job description, and the work is often as dull and unstimulating as telemarketing or stitching sleeves in a garment factory.
Describing the monotony of her job, Miss Mary Ann, a peep-show dancer, complained in an essay, “Labor Organizing in the Skin Trade”:
The job has always been defined in MY mind by the repetitive manual labor it demands. Punch a time clock, spot an open window, make eye contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stilletto-clad foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke whatever pubic hair you haven’t shaven off, repeat these ten steps until the customer comes, then move on to the next window, repeat the process until your shift’s over, punch out.
Miss Mary Ann works at the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco, which was recently the site of a bitter–and ultimately successful–unionization campaign (chronicled in the critically acclaimed documentary Live Nude Girls UNITE!).
Of course, a good stripper can never let on that she is thinking about collective bargaining and the picket line while she’s working the stage. One of the requirements of the job is to pretend you’re having a great time–as Miss Mary Ann says, to pout, wink and swivel your hips. Until recently, writing about the sex industry followed suit. Tell-alls like Madam: Chronicles of a Nevada Cathouse and Confessions of a Part-Time Call Girl satisfy our curiosity with a liberal ratio of sex scenes to story line. As the study of sex work has crept into the academy, usually through the backdoor of cultural studies but on some campuses in unabashed porn studies classes, volumes like Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition are beginning to reconsider sex work in the context of the historically limited employment opportunities for women.