Tracy Quan: From Call Girl To Sex Industry Advocate


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.


A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.

Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.