The Beatrice Interview

Jill Nagle

Whores and Other Feminists

interviewed by Ron Hogan

"Sex is what academics would call oversignified," explains Jill Nagle, sitting crosslegged on the floor of her San Francisco apartment. "You can play tennis with a friend without worrying about 'what it means,' but you can't do that with sex. You can get paid to do just about anything, but as a culture we have a problem with paying people for having sex." To combat that mindset, Nagle has spent the last four years editing a collection of writings by sex workers who don't see their work as degrading or demeaning. Whores and Other Feminists includes works of theory, testimonials, and roundtable discussions with prostitutes, strippers, porn stars, writers, and dominatrices, including recognizable names such as Nina Hartley, Norma Jean Almodovar, Carol Queen, and Candida Royalle.

RH: What was your initial motivation for putting this together?

JN: I met Veronica Monet in 1991, when I was visiting friends in the Bay Area. I was very impressed with her. She was an out prostitute. She rocked my world. Meeting articulate, strong, feminist sex workers like her was one motivation. Another was the dissonance in my mind between the sex workers I knew as well as my own experiences in the sex industry and how mainstream feminism represented the sex industry as something that can only ever be bad for sex workers.

Another impetus was a roundtable on pornography that Ms. published in their January/February '94 issue. That article clinched it for me. It had Andrea Dworkin, Ntozake Shange, Marilyn French, and others...none of whom said they were involved in the sex industry, except for Dworkin who had been involved a long time ago and had a terrible experience with it. While I honor her experience, it's not representative of all women. So I wrote to the magazine and asked how they could have a panel discussion on the sex industry without including any participants? If you were having a roundtable on lesbianism, would you only invite heterosexual married women, one of whom had a negative sexual experience with a woman? They never responded.

RH: You make the point in your contribution to the book that anti- sex activism is part of a broader system or pattern of oppression.

JN: I see a lot of seemingly disparate movements as being part of white male supremacy. Abortion clinic bombings, for example, are more often than not white-on-white; they're done by white males who go into white neighborhoods. White preachers spout hellfire and damnation against the feminists and the queers that will bring about the downfall of the nation. Of course, non-whites take part in these types of actions as well, but it's overwhelmingly the territory of white males. It's an attempt to keep the sexual behavior of white women in line as a defense against the growing numbers of non- white persons, a natural extension of the European imperialist mindset.

I'm not saying that white supremacy is the only thing informing anti-sex activism, but I do see a connection. And that should put us in alliance with heterosexual people of color, feminists, and other groups targetted by white supremacists, but I think we often get blindsided by other issues.

RH: That's why it's disheartening to see feminists aligning themselves with the religious right on issues like pornography.

JN: You can see the temptation for them to do it, though. A lot of feminists come to that position through having experienced what it's like to be treated as a sexual object inappropriately, whether it's unwelcome comments on the street, harassment in the workplace, rape, or one of the many other forms objectification can take. The reaction is to demand to not be treated as a sex object.

It's a natural -- and I think a necessary -- response. If it weren't for that kind of feminism, we wouldn't have rape crisis centers or battered women shelters. But we also need to see that sex isn't just a world of danger, it's a world of possibilities as well. The point of saying no to danger is to be able to say yes to pleasure. The kind of feminism engendered in what the sex workers I know are doing is going to change the face of feminism if word ever gets out, so I've put it upon myself to get the word out.

RH: It seems, with the high percentage of lesbian and bi contributors to the anthology, that there's a lot of queerness in the sex industry.

JN: Through and through. Perhaps once you transgress one sexual taboo, it becomes easier to transgress others, although I admit that I haven't found that to be true across the board. You do get people who believe that their transgression is okay but that other people's transgressions aren't. But if you're queer, and you have to think about that, you already have the tools for thinking about sex work.

RH: How many publishers did you approach with this book?

JN: I had pretty much had my heart set on Routledge from the beginning. I wanted an academic press, but I wanted one that was a bit "racy." I didn't want to go with a mainstream house because I didn't want them to exploit the subject matter. I wanted this book to be taken seriously as an intellectual work. But when I first approached Routledge they were initially lukewarm about it. As a result, I came very close to signing with another university press, until there had been a rollover at Routledge and the new person assigned to my book called me and told me he wanted to do the book, that he knew what I was trying to do with it. So I asked him what he thought I was trying to do, he told me, and he was right.

RH: How did you go about recruiting your writers?

JN: I went to the famous people first, so that afterwards, when I was recruiting others, I could say, "Well, I've got Annie Sprinkle and Nina Hartley and Carol Queen. How would you like to be in?" Just about everybody that I spoke to was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the project. Even if they didn't have time to participate, or I couldn't use what they gave me, they all said that this needed to happen.

Feminist sex workers have been excluded so many times from feminist discussions. So this time we're not knocking on the door, asking to be included, to have the name of a workshop changed or a special panel included for us. We're doing the book ourselves. We don't have to ask to be included. We're including ourselves.

RH: And you can make just as intelligent an argument for your feminism as mainstream feminists can for theirs.

JN: We're not bimbos! (laughs) The irony is that so many sex workers are like drag queens; they use the trappings of femininity to entertain, to earn money, to seduce and beguile. There's a sense of camp that gets overlooked a lot. Resistance takes many forms.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Susie Bright | Kate Bornstein

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan