This Sex Worker's New Memoir Paints a More Poignant Picture of Love Than Any Sitcom
Charlotte Shane turned her memoir-like newsletter about life and sex work into an unflinching collection titled 'Prostitute Laundry.' We talked to the author about how sex work and writing share some of the same qualities.
In early 2014, writer Charlotte Shane began using an email newsletter service, TinyLetter, to send out confessional and crushing missives about love, sex, relationships, and the inner life of an American sex worker—Shane's "dayjob" at the time. Collated under the name Prostitute Laundry, the newsletters quickly amassed a following of more than 5,000 subscribers, and readers began anxiously awaiting each installment so they could devour the next story of Shane's personal life and work.
Soon, these addictive, intimate writings began to feel much like a serial novel, and last year a Kickstarter campaign to make her TinyLetter series into a book, raised $27,842—more than three times the amount she was asking for. It was clear that people were more than willing to consume Shane's writing in print, even though they may already have read it in their inboxes. The subsequently created volume of 57 unflinching entries totals nearly 400 pages of writing, spans 2014 and 2015, and culminates with the author's eventual retirement from sex work.
Prostitute Laundry is not popular because of its graphic sexual content (which there is plenty of), but more so because of Shane's ability to write so poetically about humanity. When she unexpectedly falls in love with an artist who readers will know as her now-boyfriend Max, she writes with such emotion and affection, you hope and pray that he doesn't disappear from her life after finding out about her sex work. Shane sometimes likens her readers to TV audiences, which feels on point as their responses to her work on Twitter and across the internet show a level of investment in her characters on par with that of the romantic leads in a favorite sitcom.
Shane, an east coast native and self-described introvert, has been voraciously reading and writing since she was young. It was while studying creative writing at John Hopkins that she began a career in the sex industry in her early twenties, starting with webcam and fetish work before transitioning to in-person and full-service escorting for reasons she didn't divulge to VICE. In addition to writing about her life and sex work at the now-defunct Nightmare Brunette blog—which she also published as an anthology titled N.B., and crafting her email letters, Shane has also won fans as a prolific sex writer and reporter online, including bylines at Jezebel, Playboy, and The New Inquiry. In anticipation of her upcoming book tour, VICE spoke with Shane about public and private life, the similarities between sex work and writing, and the myth of the "white knight" ending.
VICE: How did the Tiny Letter series take off and become so popular?
Charlotte Shane: The first one was sent to sixty-some people. I'd see that the subscriber list would jump from 200 to 400 within a week, and a lot of times I was clueless as to why. Sometimes people would tell me that another TinyLetter mentioned me. It was probably the summer of 2014, when I was well into the George saga [a pseudonym for the man Shane had an intense, sexual relationship with outside of work who is featured prominently in the book] when it started to feel like it had evolved in a real way and I had an audience and I decided I would try to do a cliffhanger. I started realizing that this was a serialized experience.
How did the newsletter and people's reactions build your confidence as a writer? I have to assume it's a more positive experience than writing for the general internet?
It's been overwhelmingly positive, which is very lucky. I think, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I always felt relatively confident as a writer, since I've been writing for so long. Every time I send a letter, people will tweet about it and reply to it and have reactions much like a TV audience would. Some of these readers are all really invested. A lot of time I feel like I have relationships with them; they don't really feel like strangers.
Do you feel like your readers know you or do they just know aspects of you?
I would say most people do know a lot about me, but there are other things people don't know. I look at the two books I've published, and there's so much I wrote about, but there's still so much I didn't write about. They know part of me. The letters are not a performance; they are sincere and I try to be as honest as I can. But not only am I self-reporting, which is suspect from the start, but then also I'm self-editing, consciously, because I want the writing and storytelling to be stronger.
What are the pros and cons of writing under a pseudonym?
I feel like I get less harassment for it because there aren't pictures of me online. I don't know how to describe the amount of harassment other women get that I don't. It gives you a lot of control over what you reveal and when. Not that I would, but if I tried to get a super straight job, all of this wouldn't come up when they're looking into me. The one down side is that if somebody wants to hurt you, this looks like a point of weakness. Like they could blackmail you or accuse you of being fake or not willing to say this under your real name.
Some of these readers are all really invested. A lot of time I feel like I have relationships with them; they don't really feel like strangers — Charlotte Shane
You have a public persona and a private life. Where does one end and the other begin for you?
The two are overlapping in a way that I want and that I feel I have control over. I would love it if one day I could just be totally out as Charlotte and not care if my face is associated with the name. The biggest obstacle for me right now would be my parents, since they are the only people who don't know, but I have faith that I'll get there. I decided a year ago that virtually any other writing I do for the rest of my life will be under this name. I've built up enough of a reputation and network that it would be self-defeating to start over.
You've written about the financial pressure of retirement from sex work. How do you feel about the transition to full-time writer and author?
I think that I'm focused enough and creative enough that I can figure out a way to make writing sustainable for me. Maybe I'm overestimating my own reputation or abilities—I have a history of inexplicable amounts of self-esteem—but I feel like I spent a lot of time building an audience by writing so much and making it public. Even if I'm not a household name, I feel like I have enough of a portfolio now and I feel more prepared to write books, as well.
When you fell in love with Max, your boyfriend who you write so tenderly about in Prostitute Laundry, and decided to retire from sex work last year, were you at all concerned that people would interpret this as a man saving you from sex work or something akin to that existing narrative?
Most of the people reading the letters seemed to be very sensitive and intelligent. I was always impressed with how they understood my emotional developments and how generous they were in interpreting my choices. I've written about how bogus that "white knight ending" is, and how my current relationship is a great one but still challenging in the ways they all are. And I wrote a lot about how and why sex work was important to me and not something I'm ashamed about or regretful of. So hopefully "now that sex work is done, I can be happy!" was not anyone's take away. I tried the best I could to make sure it wasn't.
"Sex work was important to me and not something I'm ashamed about or regretful of."
Are there any similarities between writing and sex work?
One thing I miss about sex work is that I set my rates and I didn't negotiate beyond that. To me, the biggest parallel is that you have to be confident that what you're selling is worth it. You have to have this degree of self-confidence and a track record. It's really useful as an escort to see what other women's rates are and where you fall among them. I think it's easier to get paid what you deserve with escorting. But publications don't put their rates out there and it can be awkward or hard to know what other writers get paid.
You're passionate about the decriminalization and destigmatization of sex work. Do you think we'll see either anytime soon?
I'm certainly not expecting that we will, but I think the most realistic thing to hope for is that indoor prostitution, not outdoor prostitution, can and possibly will become a little like the equivalent of white people smoking weed; the trafficking angle really complicates things. A younger generation of women right now, some of them are buying into second wave feminism's "sex work is abuse," but I think many more of them can see past that. So many young women have friends who've dabbled in sex work that they can't say, "they're all victims," or "this is institutionalized misogyny."
What type of writing would you like to do from here on out?
There is a book I have in mind right now that I'm sort of working on, which will be non-fiction but not personal writing. I do want to write a proper sex work memoir because Prostitute Laundry isn't about sex work at all; it's just that I do sex work. The emphasis wouldn't be "this happened to me..." or "sex work is exactly like this..." Hopefully it has a more interesting, wider-reaching thrust than, "Can you believe this guy did this and I got this?" It would have insight into what type of connections are and aren't possible between men and women right now.
For book tour dates, or to purchase a copy of 'Prostitute Laundry,' visit Charlotte Shane's website.
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