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.

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Dear VCs: Making Pledges Won't Close The Funding Gap

Amid the mainstream conversation about inclusion and justice in the workplace, otherwise known as #MeToo, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund considered how they can be more inclusive of the women, minority, and LGBTQ entrepreneurial communities.

Their solution? Ask the CEOs they currently fund to promise to hire senior-level employees from diverse backgrounds.

Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital fund that has investments with blockbuster startups such as The Honest Company, Affirm, and HQ Trivia, has asked its portfolio company CEOs to sign a “side letter" affirming their commitment to consider women and other underrepresented groups for senior jobs and new spots on their board of directors.

Can making pledges— or even hiring a C-Suite level employee to manage diversity efforts— really make an impact on the funding gap for multicultural women-led companies?

Many experts say it's going to take systemic change, not letters of intent.

It is well reported that the amount of investment going to multicultural women-led companies is incongruous to the entrepreneurial landscape and the performance of their businesses. Between 2007 and 2016, there was an increase of 2.8 million companies owned by women of color. Nearly eight out of every 10 new women-owned firms launched since 2007 has been started by a woman of color yet, these businesses receive an abysmal 0.2 percent of all funding. Amanda Johnson and KJ Miller, founders of Mented cosmetics, were just the 15th and 16th Black women in history to raise $1M in the fall of 2017.

The multicultural women who do defeat the odds to get funded receive significantly less than male founders. The average startup founded by a Black woman raises only $36,000 in venture funding, while the average failed startup founded by a White man raises $1.3M before going out of business.

The implicit and explicit bias not only impacts individual multicultural female founders, it could be stifling innovation. For example, companies with above-average diversity on their management teams reported innovation revenue as 45 percent of total revenue compared to just 26 percent of total revenue at companies with below-average management diversity. That means nearly half the revenue of companies with more diverse leadership comes from products and services launched in the past three years.

In our economy today, venture capital is responsible for funding the work of our most innovative companies. Venture capital-backed U.S. companies include some of the most innovative companies in the world. In 2013, VC-backed companies account for a 42 percent of the R&D spending by U.S. public companies.

With a wealth of multicultural women entrepreneurs and evidence to support the performance of diverse companies, why does this funding gap persist?

According to Kristin Hull, founder of Oakland-based Nia Impact Capital and Nia Community, many traditional investors consider women or minority-led businesses as a category in their portfolio, like gaming tech or consumer packaged good. Hull, who focuses on building portfolios where financial returns and social impact work hand-in-hand, argues gender and ethnicity are not a business category and investors who dedicate a specific percent of their portfolio to diverse companies are the ones missing out.

“We are doing this backwards," says Hull. “Adding diverse, women-run companies actually de-risks an investment portfolio."

Hull points to research that has found women are more likely to seek outside help when a company is headed for trouble and operate businesses with less debt on average. What's more, a study conducted by First Round Capital concluded that founding teams including a woman outperform their all-male peers by 63 percent.

Ximena Hardstock, a 43-year-old immigrant from Chile experienced this bias first hand before she raised $5.1M for her tech startup. “How do you get an investor to notice you and take you seriously?" says Hardstock. “White men from Harvard have a track record and investors are all looking for entrepreneurs that fit the Zuckerberg mold. But a woman from Chile with an accent who started a technology company? There is no track record for that and this is a problem so many women of color face."

Hardstock came to the U.S. from the suburbs of Santiago when she was just 20-years-old. Alone with no family or connections in the U.S., Hardstock worked as a cleaning lady, a bartender, and a nanny before she began teaching and working in education. “I had a lot of ideas and Chile is still a very conservative country," she says. “Most women become housewives but I wanted to do something different. So, I moved to the U.S."

Hardstock went on to earn a Ph.D. in policy studies, served as vice president of Advocacy for National StudentsFirst and worked as a member of Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty's cabinet. Her experience working in both education and government exposed her to a need to simplify the process of connecting lawmakers with their constituents. As a result, Hardstock founded Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company that enables organizations and individual citizens to connect with policymakers via email, Twitter, Alexa and Facebook using their mobile phones.

Because venture capital and private equity are not necessarily meritocracies, Hardstock initially struggled to get in an audience with the right investors despite her company's growth potential, her experience, and her education. In fact, it wasn't until she won a competition at SXSW in 2015 that she could get an audience with a serious venture capitalist.

While it may seem like symptoms of a bygone era, both Hardstock and Hull say the path to investor relationships is forged in places where many women of diverse backgrounds are not – ivy league organizations, golf courses and late night post-board meeting cocktails attended mostly by White men of means.

The history of venture capital has never been very balanced, according to Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity at Atlassian software development company and co-founder of Sycamore, an organization aiming to fix the VC funding gap for underrepresented founders. “White and Asian men have built the venture system and for generations have been seeking out people like themselves to invest in."

Personal and professional networks are critical for founders to connect with investors, but many multicultural women don't have access to the networks their White peers have. According to a study conducted by PRRI, the average White person has one friend who is Black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races. This common situation makes getting that all important warm introduction to established VCs very challenging for multicultural women founders.

“Is the ecosystem of your network equivalent to your net worth? Absolutely," says Hardstock. “For us, we have to build our own ecosystem and recreate what happens on the golf courses and at the Harvard reunions."

To Hardstock's point, most multicultural women with entrepreneurial aspirations lack that Ivy League network. According to reporting published in The New York Times, Black students make up just nine percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans. This gap has been largely unchanged since 1980.

While notable female investors such as Arlan Hamilton, Joanne Wilson, and Kathryn Finney are actively working to close the funding gap for women of color, only seven percent of current senior investing partners at the top 100 venture firms are women. Less than three percent of VC funds have Black and Latinx investment partners. Without an influential network, Hardstock and entrepreneurs like her are left screaming for a seat at the table.

When Black, Latina, and Asian women founders do get in the room with the right investors, they have to work harder to get the investors to relate to their products and services. “Entrepreneurs solve problems they understand," says Blanche. “When multicultural women entrepreneurs present their businesses to a homogenous group of male investors who may not be equipped to understand the idea, they may pass on an amazing business."

Take, for example, the founders of Haute Hijab or LOLA. Founders of both successful startups would have to explain the market for their services to a table occupied mostly by men who may never have considered that Muslim women want more convenient access to fashion and have never considered women might prefer to purchase organic tampons.

This lack of familiarity typically means reduced funding for women and a host of other consequences.

As one recent study pointed out, even the way investors frame questions to women can impact funding. According to the Harvard Business Review, female founders are often asked “prevention-oriented" questions focused on safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance. Male founders, on the other hand, are often asked questions focused on hopes, achievement, advancement, and ideals.

When all of these factors are considered, a side letter may not be enough to begin to close the funding gap.

Both Blanche and Hull say real change can be made by democratizing information and education on impact investing. Both women say educating investors and MBA candidates about impact investing is the best way to overcome current bias.

Blanche's organization, Sycamore, produces a newsletter for new angel investors who want to help close the funding gap while making money in the process. Hull's firm has an internship program for multicultural girls from Oakland to expose them to the worlds of investing, entrepreneurship, business leadership, and financial literacy.

“I'm excited about the changes I see," says Blanche. “I see more firm employing the Rooney Law on an institutional level, an increase in smaller firms looking at underserved communities, and the democratization of institutional funding."

Hull adds that as long as multi-cultural women-led firms continue to show returns and outperform or perform on par with companies founded by White men, the investor community will rethink their portfolio strategies.

This piece was originally published in 2018.