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Photography by Kenyon AndersonStyling by Shayna ArnoldInterview by Nell Whittaker

Charlotte Shane’s Prostitute Laundry began life as a newsletter, first sent out in the winter of 2014 to a small audience. After gaining 5,000 subscribers in the following months, it drew the attention of mainstream outlets including the Washington Post and NPR, and was published in book form in 2015 by Tiger Bee Press, run by Shane and her partner, Sam Dakota. It will be published for the first time in the UK in May 2023 by Serpent’s Tail, with an introduction by Katherine Angel.

The book is a lucid record of Charlotte’s experiences as a sex worker in New York, and a study of sex, wealth, power and attraction. Melissa Gira Grant, who has written widely about sex workers, notes that “prostitution itself is a technology, a communications system, as much as and at times more than it is a system for organizing sexuality”. It is an idea exemplified in Prostitute Laundry, in which sex work is the basis for a sustained and careful examination of human behaviour. Shane’s form of ethical inquiry is underpinned by her refusal to accept the immoral and coercive aspects of both work and interpersonal interaction, as well as her profound interest in the individual. Prostitute Laundry offers an alternative to liberal politics of fear and vulnerability, and forms a portrait of a life lived in complexity and beauty.

Nell Whittaker There’s been a gap of eight years between the book’s initial publication and this one. In that time, a couple of important things have pretty much ceased to exist in the exact way they do in the book. One of those is sex work, which is now both more mainstreamed through sites like OnlyFans and also more legislated against, with the introduction of (ostensibly) anti-sex-trafficking laws like SESTA-FOSTA in the US and the shutting down of Backpage in 2018. The other is writing on the internet, which doesn’t now support the kind of space that the book was born from – essentially, something public yet private. How vital were those contexts to the production of the book?

Charlotte Shane I’m so grateful that I started when I did, because if I were trying to begin either sex work or writing right now I would really feel daunted. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t figure it out – sex workers are very tenacious, perseverant, clever people – but when I talk to people who are trying to establish themselves professionally as sex workers, it seems so arduous. A lot of advertising venues are gone, so they’re trying to use social media, which is really hostile to them. Some of that is specific to the United States, but phenomena like shadow banning are definitely not. When I started escorting, I just paid to place an ad. I didn’t have to be posting constantly on Instagram or Twitter or TikTok to try to get attention in the hope that eventually I’d reach someone who wants to hire me. It’s so gruelling and extractive to have to be present online all the time like that. Everything feels frantic and bad right now when it comes to marketing for sex workers. Internet writing is not any better.

NW Yes – we’re speaking two days after Bookforum announced it was closing or being closed.

CS There were many more blogs when I was learning how to write professionally. Exposure now is rightfully denigrated as a form of non-payment that pretends to be payment, but there was more to it back then. You could build a little portfolio of writing you’d done at semi-reputable sites, and sometimes you got to work with an amazing editor, and from there you could get paid jobs. Now I feel that if I wanted to build my reputation as a writer, I don’t know what I’d try to do – go viral on TikTok repeatedly and then convert it into Substack subscriptions?

Sex means you’re participating and observing at the same time, and getting a lot of information through a single event

NW You have described the book as representing an “existential investigation” or perhaps a sustained inquiry into heterosexuality. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

CS When I first started the newsletter that begat the book, I was so unhappy. I tend to think of the book as being a very happy book, describing a time when I was travelling constantly and where there was never a dull moment. But, especially in the earliest days, I was so unhappy. I was in a dysfunctional romantic relationship and really burned out on sex work, which is work I’ve almost uniformly loved for two decades and suits me better than any other job I can think of. There was an unfortunate moment of collision where my personal life was unfulfilling and sad and lonely, and work was too repetitive and emotionally draining. I was sexually burned out, so I resented all the sex I was having at work. For most of my adult life I’d loved sex, often even at work, because I found it so exciting and interesting. Sex for me has always been about the pleasure of discovery. I guess I have an anthropological mindset about life in general, which a lot of writers do, I think. Sex means you’re participating and observing at the same time and getting a lot of information through a single event. It’s very animal, canine even, to think, “I would love to know more about this person. I think I should have sex with them.”

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NW Jennifer Doyle says that “sexual promiscuity brings its own form of intelligence”. That rings true in your writing.

CS The way I’ve told myself the story of my life is that I became enraptured by a particular version of masculinity when I was a teenager. I had these friends who were in some ways very stereotypically masculine – rambunctious, reckless, athletic, crude – but who were having sex with each other while not identifying as gay. It was a clique that was borderline a cult, but I was – and still am – totally devoted to those boys. There was an intimacy and lack of privacy that I found intoxicating. We all knew when somebody did anything sexual with another member of the group, and we might have teased them for it, but nobody was ever ostracised or punished. If there is a hedonistic Eden, that’s what I had, and I knew I couldn’t live without it; I couldn’t go about my life having siloed relationships and being embarrassed by sex or treating it like something that should be secret. The best solution I could figure out was sex work, because I thought, how do I get access to men in intimate capacities straight away? I’ve written a lot of essays about the fear that women are supposed to have around men and in my early twenties in particular, I was trying to figure out, should I be afraid of men? Are men hateful? Does sexuality make them the worst version of themselves, and is straight sex always a site of abuse and damage for women? I think that what comes up in Prostitute Laundry a lot is disappointment with men, not a fear of them. Men pretty regularly give themselves permission to behave in certain ways with women – to be selfish, be dishonourable, to be cowardly. I think the gap between what a person seems to be capable of and what they actually do is something I fixate on in all sorts of contexts, but particularly with regards to sexuality. I think a lot about climate change in that context, too. Human beings as a species, without question, have the capacity to mitigate climate change. But is there any version of our future in which the human animal won’t eradicate itself? What happens to people that prevents them from acting in a way where everyone benefits, which can be even less effort than acting in a way that causes suffering? Over and over in Prostitute Laundry I find myself with a man thinking, can’t we figure out a way to do this that doesn’t feel the way it feels?

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NW My opinion on this changes a lot but, at the moment, my disappointment with men often comes from their lack of interest or curiosity, which stems from shame.

CS I think you’re right. Cowardly is the word that comes to me, which feels cruel and judgemental, but it seems an obvious question – why does treating a woman you’re sleeping with decently feel scary to you? I can’t think of any form of self-recrimination that’s more powerful than shame. When I saw a lot of clients who had very specific fetishes, they’d often have inordinate amounts of shame. When I met foot people in person, for instance, and they wanted to sniff my foot or put my foot in their mouth or whatever, it seemed like such a tremendous point of vulnerability for them. But it’s one of the most innocuous forms of physical interaction you could have. I guess it’s a standard function of patriarchy, that the most sensitive guys are the most prone to feeling ashamed and then shame inhibits them from manifesting how they care or adopting appropriate ways of communicating. It’s a cliché, the image of the man who hires a prostitute and then spends the whole session crying, but it’s a cliché for a reason. For so many men, sex is the pretext for intimacy and the only route to tenderness. There’s a group of clients who are addicted to novelty and they virtually never see the same person more than once, but most clients, in my experience, are men who will see the same woman over and over, recreating the monogamous, committed relationship they’re supposedly escaping from in the space that’s supposed to be a relief from that. They do it on their own! They’re devoted to their wives, but they also want the relationship to have a lot of sex and when they get that, it’s an emotional release and a bonding ritual, and so they recreate their married life. I don’t think I’m saying anything revolutionary, but the public conversation still treats men’s experience of sex as totally bodily or all about the ego. It’s supposed to be a very feminine behaviour, to use sex as a tool, to use sex to get what you want, but men use sex to gain access to their own emotions, and to connection. I use it that way, too!

NW The book contains some ugly moments as well, and you have written often elsewhere about sexual violence. On the whole, I feel we’re still stuck in that conversation where the most important thing a woman can do is “reclaim the narrative” or “tell her story”, but your work looks to do something else.

CS For many, many years, people have been mad at me online because I wasn’t victimised enough or damaged enough, which is a ubiquitous criticism from anti-sex-work lobbyists against anyone who’s advocating for sex-worker rights. It’s mostly women who have been the most vicious to me about this, who claim that my inability to admit how badly damaged I am is proof of how damaged I am. I find the discourse around how women are or aren’t victims right now really interesting, because I remember feeling so invigorated by Camille Paglia in the 1990s when I read her saying, “I think a woman can be raped and it’s not the end of the world for her”, which was sacrilegious at the time. Jenny Diski’s essay about her rape was also amazing to me, and Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory [2006]. If a rape – in the legal sense – doesn’t feel like rape, that doesn’t mean that you’re negating it, it only means that the way you have experienced and continue to think about it is not in line with the ways that you’re supposed to think about it, and what you’re supposed to want for yourself or the other person. There are myriad ways you can feel about and respond to sexual violence. You don’t have to identify as a victim to say that what somebody did to you was wrong, and you don’t have to be utterly ruined by it for it to be wrong. The things in my life I feel most violated by aren’t the times when someone penetrated me without my consent. It’s totally predictable that post-#MeToo when women talk about interpersonal dynamics and exchanges that have harmed them, the response is that these women don’t understand what actual violence is, and they don’t have any perspective. It’s all part of a silencing project. Fear is one of the only tools that women are given to advocate for themselves, though even then we’re only permitted to ask for external forms of protection. We’re allowed to say, “We’re afraid, therefore, we need more cops, or harsher prison sentences, or more surveillance.” If you speak out about actual harm that was done to you rather than your amorphous fear, you’re much less likely to be taken seriously, and you’re far more likely to be denigrated and called a liar. Fear is the safe place to sit in, that borderless space – it’s “I’m afraid” and not, “Somebody actually did what I was afraid of. Here’s his name.”

NW Tell me about the new book.

CS It’s nonfiction, or memoir, but it’s not written in real time like Prostitute Laundry, which wasn’t even intended to be a book; it was an accidental book, or an incidental book. This one is more explicitly trying to organise what I learned from sex work, and it’s a little more about why I started doing sex work and what it was like at various stages. It was incredibly glamorous and thrilling at times, and you get so accustomed to having all this cash on hand, and it could be really sexy, very fulfilling and emotionally rich, utterly fascinating. It could also be incredibly deadening and demoralising and bleak. It’s everything at once, which a lot of jobs are, though I do think it’s an unusual, arguably completely unique, job.

NW Would you ever write a novel?

CS I used to be so disdainful of fiction but actually now, yes, I really want to write a novel. It sounds so fun.

NW I ask because Prostitute Laundry has a novelistic structure, as well as so many moments where language is used with such precision and imaginative lushness.

CS Nothing much was happening when I started the newsletter, and you can tell from the first few days that nothing’s going on; I’m just travelling for work and thinking about my relationship. Then it really starts to gather momentum. I don’t think it would have been that way if I hadn’t been writing through it, because writing in real time intensifies and develops life somehow. It’s almost magical, or mystical. When you’re writing about your life, and putting close attention on it, your life starts to light up in very curious ways.

There’s an ending in every beginning and arguably neither are real

NW I got stuck on a moment in Three Conversations, a pamphlet you published in 2016 with author and videogame designer merritt k, where you say that those conversations represent “catharsis and futility”; then in Prostitute Laundry, you quote Anne Carson on erotic desire, “Foiled. Endless”. I’m thinking of the endings of both your books, too, which give some kind of sense of the body and soul as vessels for experience, of coming and going away again. What is it that’s enriching about futility or endlessness?

CS Impermanence is the ultimate terror and the ultimate comfort. And it seems to be the only absolute truth about the human condition – and all life, the world, the known universe – that everything changes and nothing lasts. But it seems like something lasts, because there’s material – energy, matter – that creates forms, and that material somehow endures even though it goes through state changes. So there’s endlessness inside of impermanence. Does this sound insane? I think the best metaphors, for me, involve water. I can kind of think of myself and my life (and every life) like the reach of the ocean up onto the sand. The water falls back the moment it surges up. It never gets there and stays there. Even if you dig a pit in the sand it seeps out. So there’s a kind of failure, so to speak, inherent in the achievement; there’s withdrawal inherent in the arrival. Or you might say achievement just isn’t possible, if achievement means permanency, or any sort of finality. There’s an ending in every beginning and arguably neither are real. No one can control anything, but we try to exert our little influences anyway. This is a very hard truth to hold onto, but I like returning to it and trying to grasp it. My brain does that almost-there ebb and flow, too. ◉

All clothing by Plan C and shoes by Maryam Nassir Zadeh.

Make-up by Mika Shimoda /Photography assistant: Davis Fowlkes

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