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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Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.

When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.