Cross: Maggie McNeill, Making Law Sexy
July 27, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross Maggie McNeill, sex worker advocate, blogger at The Honest Courtesan and unapologetic whore.
Q. You’re a Louisiana girl from a Catholic family, educated by nuns. No doubt, the sisters would be . . . surprised by your career choice. You make it even harder to reduce you to a stereotype by being exceptionally well educated, with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in library science. That would seem to be a pretty weird background for a sex worker, at least if you believe the media. How did you go from librarian to escort? Were you rebelling against convention? Against the convent? What made a Catholic school alumna and professional librarian consider doing sex work, let alone actually go for it? Was there a freethinker under all that orthodoxy? Were you in fact rebelling against anything, or was there a more prosaic reason?
A. Actually, you’d be surprised how many escorts are well-educated. Among my friends are one with a degree in fine arts, one with degrees in theater and interior design, one working on her PhD in astrophysics, one with a PhD in forensic pathology, two with JDs and an autodidact who has more knowledge of psychology than most professors of the subject.
And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Though modern people tend to think of harlotry as a profession of last resort, for most of history we were the most educated of women; in fact, there were a lot of times and places in which any learned woman could pretty much be assumed to be a whore. Men don’t just see us for sex but for companionship as well, and most professional men want a woman who can hold an interesting conversation with them.
As for me personally, I was never exactly conventional, despite the efforts of parents and nuns; I was always a freethinker and never managed to absorb any negative attitudes about sex. I was fascinated by whores from the time I understood what the word meant, and as a young teen I counted several famous courtesans among my heroines. My very first D&D character at the age of 14 was a cleric who was a sacred prostitute, and I took money for sex for the first time just a little over two months after turning 18.
I sort of dabbled in it for the next two years, not enough to call it a career but enough to keep the rent paid. So when I went full-time over a decade later, it wasn’t exactly a new idea for me; my closest male friend reacted to the news with, “I was wondering how long it was going to take you to get around to that.”
Q. You didn’t jump right into escort work: in 1997, you started off as a stripper. At the time, you were pretty heavily in debt in the wake of an acrimonious divorce. Although you were new to the business and competing against girls who were ten years younger, you made such a success of it you were able to whip your finances into shape in no time. What went through your head that first time you went on stage? Was the librarian in you good with this? And what sort of mad skillz did you have to be such a success? Is there a support network for new strippers, or were you on your own? Is sex work generally, and stripping specifically, such a goldmine any pretty girl should consider it, or does it take a certain mindset? Would you recommend this as a way of paying for law school?
A. At the time, business was booming in New Orleans; a lot of girls were making a lot of money, and my income was really pretty average. Though I’m not really a very good dancer – I’ve often said nobody would pay to see me dance with my clothes on – I’m generally considered an exceptionally attractive woman, with considerable charisma. So while I probably made less money than the young girls while on the stage, I absolutely cleaned up in the VIP room. There’s not really a support network for new strippers; in fact, a lot of the girls are very competitive. But though I’ve never done pageants, I’m the type who would’ve often been named “Miss Congeniality” if I had; I make friends easily, and it didn’t take long before the more experienced ladies were showing me the ropes.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say any pretty girl should consider sex work; it does take a certain mindset (which is a bit different for escorting than for stripping). But I’d say that any attractive girl who’s not afraid of men, her sexuality or her body should at least consider it, especially as a student income (the pay is good and the hours flexible). As for law school…well, the two JDs I mentioned before both worked their way through via sex work.
Q. One day into the new millennium, you became an escort. You started working for an agency run by a madam who preyed on her girls’ emotions, tried to manipulate them, made no effort to ensure their wellbeing and had a not-so-secret crack habit. Behind her back, the girls called her “Pimp Mama.” What made you take the leap? Was it a leap? Did you hear nun voices in the back of your head? And why go to work for Pimp Mama? Are pimps – abusive managers – common in the world of sex work, or a Hollywood fantasy? What were the formative experiences from your first escort job? How long did you stick it out with Pimp Mama? Did you ever ask yourself, “what the hell am I doing here?”
A. The problem with abusers is that they’re often extremely charming; after all, if they weren’t, who would stick around to be abused? When “Pimp Mama” interviewed me she was friendly and reassuring, and it took a little while for her to show her true colors. In all fairness I have to say that she really wasn’t too bad when I started with her; of course, she wasn’t smoking much crack then. It was after she started using it more heavily that her behavior degenerated dramatically. I didn’t stick it out long; I started with her on January 2nd and opened my own agency a few days before Easter (I’m an extremely fast learner).
Abusive managers aren’t nearly as common in sex work as the prohibitionists would have you believe, but they’re more common than they would be if our industry wasn’t forced into the shadows by criminalization. But even the abusive ones are less like caricatures from cops’ fantasies and more like bad managers in any business; they’re not generally beating women, but rather exploiting their ignorance, extracting excessive fees, playing fast-and-loose with the books, pressuring girls to do work they’re not comfortable with, etc.
The number of sex workers with managers whose behavior resembles the cane-wielding, funny-hat-wearing stereotype is very small; most good estimates place it at around 2% in developed countries, as high as 5% among migrants and about 10% for underage girls. But in the past two decades, the number of sex workers who have any kind of management, good or bad, has dwindled; in the US, I’d put the fraction of sex workers who fall into the “escort” category at about 60%, of whom at least 80% (and growing) are independent.
Q. You started a new business in a trade that, to put it bluntly, is illegal. It’s not like opening up a Taco Bell. Along with the established competition, you were (and still are) facing down the law, and the police who enforce it. How do you advertise when selling sex could land you and the buyer in jail? How do you find trustworthy employees? For that matter, why should anyone come work for you when they could be working for themselves? How do you provide security when your business model’s built on twenty-year-old girls carrying wads of cash while breaking the law? And then there’s the potential harm at the hands of clients. Do you vet clients, and if so, how? Can you reliably navigate around law enforcement? In a nutshell, how does an entrepreneur in the sex business handle the countless pitfalls that come with illegality?
A. A lot has changed in just the few years since I started my agency; though there were already independent escorts advertising online then (the successors to those who’d advertised in the back pages of alternative newspapers for at least 30 years before that), there were no smartphones yet and the average businessman still wasn’t carrying a laptop. And since most of the business in New Orleans comes from visitors to town, that meant most of the business came from the Yellow Pages, which meant either working for an established agency or starting one up oneself.
It’s changed a lot since then, which was one of the reasons I closed my agency in ’06; nowadays I advise would-be escorts to set up a website and go independent, because why give someone else money to do the advertising & administration one can do for oneself? Some girls do use bookers to handle that, but they charge a lot less than agencies & are definitely employees of the girls rather than pseudo-employers as agencies are.
Sex workers’ ads take advantage of the fact that paying for company isn’t illegal, only paying for sex. Now, you and I both know that the line between those two isn’t remotely a bright, clear one such as the law pretends it is; lots of clients don’t want what most cops would call “sex”, and lots of sex doesn’t involve the body parts prudes code as “sexual.” And by the letter of the law in most places, it isn’t “prostitution” unless there’s an explicit agreement to trade x sex act for y amount of money, which absolutely no whore in her right mind will ever do. So in a sting the cops either lie and say that such an agreement was reached, or else rape the sex worker and use that as “evidence of prostitution.”
Some people are uncomfortable with my using the word “rape” to describe this interaction; to them I say, “If the shoe fits…” Consent given under false pretenses isn’t true consent, and if non-consensual sex entered into for the specific and intentional purpose of harming the woman (by leading to her arrest, confinement, public shaming, loss of liberty and potential loss of income, housing, child custody and any “straight” job she may have) isn’t rape, I’d like to know what the hell is.
The way I used to find good independent contractors (they’re not actually employees), and the way we used to vet clients before the internet, and the way we avoided cops, were all the same way: intuition. I would not advise anybody who feels she can’t trust her intuition to even consider doing this work under criminalization; it’s just not worth the risk. And even though we have screening methods now which we couldn’t have dreamed of in the ‘80s, there’s still no substitute for good instincts. Mine have only badly failed me a single-digit number of times in almost two decades, mostly in the first year.
Oh, and the idea that sex workers are mostly very young is a prohibitionist wanking fantasy; the average age for starting sex work is about 25.
Q. Are you sure you weren’t sex trafficked? If there’s one thing the government, media and feminists agree on, it’s that you couldn’t possibly have chosen sex work because you made a mature, reasoned choice. If the social justice warriors are to be believed, you were forced into this brutal and demeaning business, either at gunpoint or by the mysterious influence of the patriarchy. On the other hand, the Right thinks you’re a living, breathing affront to Christian values who must be deterred from seducing innocent men. What are you? Victim or siren? What about other girls? Do they lack agency? Are they being exploited? Is abuse as commonplace as the media would have us think? Should our society pity or look down on the women of the night?
A. As I said in my Reason TV interview two years ago, our society “still pretends that there’s some magical, mumbo-jumbo, taboo energy about sex that makes it different from all other human activities.”
I am continually amazed that over a century after the end of the Victorian Era, supposedly educated adults, especially people who call themselves “feminists”, actually believe (and expect others to believe) that all women are passive, childlike creatures with such a naïve, romanticized view of sex that our fluffy, pink little brains couldn’t possibly conceive of doing it for any reason other than loooooooooooooove or animalistic pleasure.
This is especially absurd given that these same “feminists” pretend that it’s better for women to be valued for our intelligence than for our beauty, while at the same time pretending that sexual motives deriving from the hindbrain (love & pleasure) are morally superior to those deriving from the frontal lobes (profit motive). It’d be quite a fascinating case study in cognitive dissonance if it weren’t for the fact that these Froot Loop notions are used to justify sending armed thugs out to deceive, rape, brutalize, rob & cage people.
Because when all is said and done, when all the nonsense about sin and violence and “patriarchy” and whatever is stripped away, that’s what prostitution laws are: the criminalization of a motive for an activity, adult consensual sex, that would be totally legal if performed for any other reason. And in a society where entrepreneurship is held up as the ideal, that’s nothing short of bizarre.
Sex workers often give each other referrals and ask our friends along when a client wants more than one lady, and at such times we sometimes joke about which of us is “trafficking” the other, because the dominant paradigm requires one “victim” and one “exploiter”, even if we’re peers and close friends. Unfortunately, if the cops manage to interfere that joke can become a reality, with one or both women charged with “pimping” the other.
Q. According to feminists, prostitutes are the helpless, hapless victims of men like their johns and the half-pimp, half-slave driver guys who traffic them. Some of the world’s most progressive nations have come up with an elegant fix for this problem: criminalize buying sex, but not selling it. This is known as the Nordic Model. Great idea, right? Arrest the guys who profit off the girls’ sexual slavery. Arrest the guys who buy their slave labor. And as for the girls, they can be rescued and put to work in a clothes factory or something. Are there any flaws with this plan, or is it as foolproof as it seems? What part are you skeptical of? The premise? The execution? Or is this all nonsense?
A. One doesn’t need to be a lawyer to recognize that in treating the two sides of a consensual transaction asymmetrically, the Nordic model tacitly assumes that one of those two sides is unable to give legal consent; i.e. she’s somehow morally or intellectually inferior to the other participant. Compare statutory rape laws, for example: when I was 16 I was sleeping with guys in their 20s who didn’t realize how young I was (I was a university freshman, so they assumed I was 18). If we’d been caught, THEY would’ve been charged but not me, because the law still considered me equivalent to a prepubescent child, unable to give sexual consent.
Under the Nordic model, women of ANY age are unable to consent to pragmatic sex; there was a case in which a 17-year-old boy was prosecuted for trying to buy sex from a worker in her 20s. So basically the law stated that a minor boy is morally superior to a woman of any age. This is called “feminism.”
Q. Should prostitution be legalized or decriminalized? Legalization is an opportunity for the government to regulate a free-market industry. As in Germany, governments that go the legalization route tend to impose lots of expensive, patronizing requirements, including things like mandatory registration or even supervision by social workers. A lot of prostitutes aren’t happy about paying tax, either. On the other hand, they get access to benefits like health care, and the government claims it’s all being done to protect the whores from things like abusive clients or STDs. Do prostitutes need or want this kind of protection? Is the tradeoff worth it? German prostitutes overwhelmingly refused to sign up for a state-sponsored health care program. What’s more important: protection by the state, or protection from the state?
A. Decriminalization, decriminalization, decriminalization. Everyone who’s actually studied the issue and doesn’t have a political agenda to push agrees. Sex worker rights groups, health officials, human rights organizations like Amnesty International, a number of UN agencies, and academics of many different fields all say the same thing.
“Legalization” creates a two-tiered system because the majority of prostitutes (over 99% in Nevada) prefer to work illegally than comply with the always-draconian requirements, and that opens the door to police corruption. In decriminalization, sex work is treated as work (and yes, that includes taxation); in legalization, it’s still viewed as a “crime” for which the law makes exceptions. I described the arguments for decrim, and the arguments against various forms of legalization & criminalization, in my essay on Cato Unbound three years ago.
Q. You’ve been very candid about your experiences with rape. In addition to being victimized by two clients, you were raped by three police officers in 1995. You said it was terrifying, though not the most traumatic experience of your life. Most mainstream Americans see cops as guardians of the community, but the experience of prostitutes has been very different. At your blog, The Honest Courtesan, you’ve written a lot about the horrible frequency and casualness with which cops rape sex workers. They’re a uniquely vulnerable population, and all too often, cops are practically untouchable. What’s to be done? Does America need to fundamentally rethink its trust in cops? When you were raped, you weren’t even a sex worker yet, but an ordinary, law-abiding citizen. How can prostitutes protect themselves against abusive cops when society holds lawbreakers in general, and prostitutes in particular, in such contempt? Why are we so willing to overlook nonconsensual sex crimes when the perp is a cop, but condemn sex workers for freely selling their services?
A. I’m a minarchist, one who believes that while humans aren’t quite ready for anarchy, we should get as close to it as possible. However, that’s probably a much more radical position than most of your readers hold. So while I personally believe the only way to solve police brutality is to completely abolish professional policing (as it is currently practiced) as an institution, I realize that most people aren’t ready for that idea yet.
So in the meantime, I’d really urge Americans to, as you put it, fundamentally rethink the nigh-absolute power cops have been given. If we’re not going to abolish the institution itself, we at least need to abolish the police unions who have made cops invulnerable to all consequences for their actions.
We need to de-militarize them; take always all that damn military hardware and stop teaching them they’re in the world’s most dangerous job, when in fact garbage collectors suffer much higher risks. We need to be willing to prosecute them when they commit crimes, and fire them for offenses that fall short of crimes but are still a breach of the public trust. And most of all, we need to take away all the damn excuses they’ve been given to initiate contact with ordinary citizens, from consensual crimes (such as drug use, gambling and yes, prostitution) all the way down to traffic violations that don’t actively threaten to harm anyone (broken taillights, expired tags, etc.)
If nobody actually complains about something, the cops shouldn’t be driving around looking for trouble. Firemen don’t rove around looking for fires, and paramedics don’t rove around looking for injuries, yet we don’t see huge numbers of buildings burning down & accident victims dying because nobody got there in time. Let the cops stay in their fucking police stations until called out, and they’ll have a lot fewer opportunities to murder black men, execute dogs, rob bodegas and rape women.
And decriminalizing sex work will remove the number one excuse cops use for imposing their unwanted attentions – which can be terrifying even when they fall short of actual rape – on women who have done nothing to hurt anyone.
Q. You’re a highly educated woman, white, from a “privileged” background. What qualifies you to speak on behalf of sex workers? Feminists routinely say you’re not qualified to talk about black prostitutes, transsexual prostitutes, people who outrank you in the victimhood hierarchy. Is your positive experience with the sex trade representative of others? Are you guilty of whitewashing the misery of the profession? Should we dismiss your writings as an unfortunate data point and focus on the story prohibitionists and the media want to tell, or are you a legitimate voice?
A. As I said in that Reason interview, I’m no more or less representative than anyone else. The people who speak out on behalf of any marginalized group who are being denied their rights tend to be those who are more eloquent and have more forceful personalities; that’s just human nature, especially when you consider we don’t get paid for this (unlike prohibitionists, many of whom make quite a nice living telling authoritarians of all stripes what they want to hear).
But I don’t recall anyone ever criticizing prominent voices in the struggles for the rights of black people, queer people or other minorities being dismissed as “privileged” or “unrepresentative”; that asinine accusation is unique to sex work prohibitionists, because their entire argument rests upon the myth of this vast population of enslaved, emotionally-devastated women which simply does not exist.
Women whose stories even remotely resemble the tragedy porn so popular these days are few and far between, and as I argued in my research paper “Mind-witness Testimony,” there are many good reasons to distrust even those narratives as told (for example, the fact that they often change over time to conform more closely with the tragedy porn pattern). There are indeed many people who had a bad time in sex work, but most of those suffered largely due to criminalization; there are a number of very vocal activists among them, though of course they’re ignored by the prohibitionists because their stories, though unhappy, do not conform to the pro-criminalization agenda.
And as I say in practically every single interview or public speech, both sex workers who hate the work and those who adore it are minorities; for the vast majority it’s a job like any other job, with good points and bad points, which people choose because it’s the best option open to them at the time. Sometimes it’s the best of several bad or limited options, in which case how the fuck is it supposed to help someone to take the best of those options away?
Note I said “people” and not “women”, though prohibitionists pointedly ignore that in favor of their “prostitution as male violence against women” dogma. Though it’s true that most sex workers are cisgender women (and indeed, that’s probably why this issue receives the obsessive attention it does from “authorities”, prudes & other busybodies), many are transgender women, transgender men, cisgender men or people who identify as non-binary. And though most clients are indeed cisgender men, yep – you guessed it – a lot of them aren’t. In my New Orleans days I used to see an average of one couple a week, i.e. about 50 female clients a year. That’s a small fraction of all my clients, but it’s hardly minuscule.
Finally, I think it’s rather absurd that people sometimes accuse me of “whitewashing” when, as you noted in the previous question, I do nothing of the kind. I’m very candid about the dangers faced by sex workers, and also about the serious social problems (such as my mother not having spoken to me since 1997, or people losing jobs when a sex work past is outed); it’s just that prohibitionists don’t want to talk about those actual problems because they either result from, or are exacerbated by, criminalization and stigma.
Prohibitionists only accuse me of dishonesty because I won’t support their ridiculous wanking fantasies of international cartels of magical ninja pimps with mind-control powers abducting screaming white girls from shopping malls and bus stops, transporting them around the country in dog crates, and serving them up to hundreds of salivating sex maniacs per week until their genitalia collapse and the diabolical monsters then dispose of them, presumably by flushing them down hotel toilets like unwanted goldfish.
Q. You went on hiatus from the profession after you married your second husband. Since you and he split up, you’re back in the saddle. At this point, you have twenty years of experience behind you. You been through a lot, like surviving Hurricane Katrina (and were the only whore left in town after the storm). You’ve been raped, arrested, dealt with problem clients and employees, run your own business and gone on countless outcalls. Despite it all, you find the time to be one of the foremost advocates on behalf of sex workers and legal reform. What’s in your future? Law enforcement is cracking down on the sex trade, closing down important resources like Internet escort boards and leveraging Big Data to make sex workers’ lives hard. How are you going to “future-proof” the business? And If America decided to stop legislating morality, what would you do?
A. A few years ago I found that my time perspective had receded to a really unusual degree; what I mean by that is, I started looking at things in a more geological time scale. I guess it was partly age, partly philosophy, partly a lifelong fascination with astronomy and partly reading far too much H.P. Lovecraft, but history began to seem like it was going by really quickly to me, and I started saying stuff like “only twenty years or so” in the same kind of tone most people say, “only a few weeks”.
This is a good perspective for an activist, because when one is trying to change the world, absolutely nothing happens quickly and impatience with the glacial pace of events leads to burnout. The sex worker activists of today are working to make the world a better place for our daughters and their daughters; I’ll be delighted if I live to see the kind of massive social shift toward sex work that gay and lesbian activists got to see in their lifetimes, but I don’t expect it. The long view also helps me to stay calm in the face of rising state violence against my sisters and brothers and our clients; I look at history and I realize that such crusades are fads, terrifying and destructive while they’re going on, but ultimately short lived.
The “sex trafficking” hysteria is already starting to collapse and will be over well before the decade is; unfortunately, the laws it spawned will continue on just as the criminalization spawned by the last “sex trafficking” hysteria (which ran from roughly 1905 to 1929) continued on for the rest of the century and beyond. But I don’t think Americans have the patience or gullibility to put up with another crusade of Drug War proportions; though the government is already shifting its resources and rhetoric toward preying on sex workers and clients instead of drug sellers and users (even to the point of mouthpieces making the nakedly-transparent claim that “gangs” are changing from drug trafficking to “sex trafficking” so as to justify using a new excuse to persecute the same minorities), I just don’t see that as having the kind of 40-year legs the Drug War did.
And while virtually nobody wanted to defend drug use until the beginning of this century, sex workers are already building an impressive coalition of allies, especially since Amnesty’s statement last year made it socially acceptable to say in public what many have been saying in private since the ‘70s. Whores will outlast our persecutors; we always have, and we always will. If the cops close down one means of advertising, we’ll find another; I already get just as much business from my social media presence as I do from traditional escort ad sites (which, by the by, are all moving overseas where Uncle Sam and all the little tin “law enforcement” gods will have a much harder time getting their host servers to cooperate in their nasty takedown spectacles).
I don’t have to future-proof sex work because it’s already future-proof; it will exist for as long as men have cocks. And though I don’t think the US will ever stop legislating morality until Washington is as ruined as Nineveh, there will always be whores and other sexual outlaws willing to flout that legislation and fight to bring it down.