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Monday, November 11, 2013

65

30 Minutes with Christina Angela

The setup of the prostitution windows in Amsterdam’s Red Light District is counterproductive to the business at hand. To initiate contact with the glass-enclosed females lit by bulbs more hot pink than red, you must approach the storefront and press a buzzer like you’d do at a tony, by-appointment boutique. Potential johns are likely deterred by the droves of onlookers, mostly in groups, mostly inebriated, there solely for the spectacle of seeing a real live sex-worker. Add to that the opportunity to watch a transaction take place and, for gawkers, it’s akin to witnessing a lion-feeding at the zoo. But the Red Light District is less zoo and more broke-down animal park that leaves you with visions of berserk mothers being plucked from their cubs in the wild to be relocated to cages for your viewing pleasure.

Each woman shares at least a fuzzy resemblance with her scantily clad, lace-adorned svelte counterpart the next window over. They're perched on stools, cell phones in hand as if waiting for the bus home. They ignore their fluctuating but ever-present audience. One go-getter—or maybe she’s just new on the scene—stands, posing for viewers with one hand pressed against the pane of glass, the other hand diddling inside the front waistband of her panties. The gesture strikes me as grotesquely masculine: a teenage boy nonchalantly twisting top rows of pubes between thumb and forefinger.

I attempt to maneuver the street, which brims with clusters of randy, intoxicated straight men encroaching upon my personal space and sense of safety. I calm myself with the knowledge that I’m in Europe, and not in some cultural mirage like Las Vegas where me and a friend had anti-gay slurs leveled at us 9 different times in a 24-hour period, eight of which we'd spent sleeping. (We were not holding hands, we were not in drag, we were not chanting that we were there, we were queer, and somebody better get used to it. We were two overtly gay men in town to see Bette Midler, for Christ’s sake: this is all to say that a. what happens in Vegas sucks and b. visibly gay men garner attention, so I must remain vigilant.)

One window in particular is captivating a number of middle-aged couples, adolescents, and elderly shufflers who insist that their companions take a gander at “this one.” She stands out: haggard, blotchy skin, hair the color of a smoked cigarette filter, smeared make-up. Slouching in a chair, wearing a too-small bra and g-string, her high-heeled feet are crossed one on top of the other on the windowsill, which gives her some air of power—a boss with her feet up.

Three young men stand directly in front of her, in hysterics over what they see. She flicks them off while barking at the window.

On impulse I ring the buzzer and she appears in the sliver of space between me and the door. She is nonplussed when I ask if I can pay her for an interview, issuing no questions or guidelines. It’s disappointing to think I might not be the first person to make this proposal, but I hope my intentions are different. I’m not intrigued by the sex work or the "kind of woman" who does it. I want to know how she can bear to sit in that window every night.

The room which she rents by the day is surprisingly cute—a valentine, swathed in slight variations of old-west saloon reds and nursery school pinks. There is a stand-alone sink, even a bidet. The burn holes on the also-red bedspread remind me: “Can I smoke a cigarette?” I ask. “Yeah. You want water or something to drink? I give you free.” We had just deliberated the fee I would pay her. She had quoted me 35 euros but later pressed me for 50. I understand; she is, after all, a business woman. Still, I assure her: “You don’t have to do anything but talk,” and she relents.

Her name is Christina, she says, answering me a few seconds too late. She doesn’t ask my name but guesses that I’m from Washington, DC.  She sprawls out on the bed, propping up her head with her arm, sending a green, rubber, Livestrong-type bracelet—except with the Heineken Beer logo—sliding down as far as it can go to the middle of her thick arm. Her body language is sisterly, as if we’re old girlfriends catching up.

“How old you think I am?” she asks. Without the glass and the lights and the people between us, she loses 10 years. She's 33.

A native of Rio De Janeiro, Christina speaks only the English she picked up on the street, so our communication falters at times, like when I ask her to describe herself physically. “Sometimes it’s good because you help your family, but when you go out it’s not easy because really, I don’t feel good, because this—to be prostitute, no.”

I ask again, in a different way, how she would describe herself physically. “Ah, ah, ah, okay. How I am? I don’t know. I have 150 centimeters.” (That’s 4'11 and a half.) “I have big boobies!” she cackles. Maybe it’s the broken English or the synthetic ponytail sprouting from the crown of her head, but she seems to be channeling Charo; I like it. “Then, I have, I think, nice face. Yeah, very beautiful. And the more important,” she says, “I good girl. I do the job because I have to live and I have to help my family, my mother and my babies. But I really, inside I don’t feel good, to prostitute, to be prostitutes, no. Because it’s very dangerous here.”

Three years ago, a woman who occupied a nearby window was murdered. Last year, a man, a client, attempted to kill Christina in this room. “He tried to—” she grabs her throat. “I stay in the hospital for three days. A friend, she listen to the noise, and she call police. The police find the guy inside the room without clothes and me died in the bed.” The tears I’m expecting to well up in her eyes never materialize, and her voice switches from sorrow to frustration. “The men, they want to take money back, they don’t want to use a condom, they want to do things you no want. They want to have everything from you, you know. Men is crazy.” I know, I tell her.

She fingers her necklace. “It’s Catholic,” she says. “Somebody gave it to me to protect me. This is Virgin Maria and this,” she flips the pendant over to an image of Christ, “is God.”

“Does it work?” I ask.

“Yeah, and the angel.” She points at a ceramic angel hanging on the wall facing the bed. “The angel always there. I like angel. I believe in angel.” She laughs like she knows it’s silly. “Always I have one angel in my room. And maybe that’s why he don’t kill me. I believe in God. Really.” She sighs. "But you know, sometimes say, ‘God why you put me here?’” One rhinestone-studded sandal slips off her foot and plunks onto the floor.

Christina doesn’t smoke weed or slam shots of liquor to bide her time in the window. She talks to pals on the phone—other sex-workers. “We ha-ha-ha to be happy,” she says. And when there’s nothing left to discuss, she tries to shut her brain off. “I no want to think about nothing. I want to think maybe this day I make money for my family and I want to finish, I want to walk home and sleep. Don’t thinking. You have to be concentrated on your work.”

Being concentrated is honing the ability to appear unaffected while people hoot and holler in your face.

“The men, they say something bad, they say, Look at the bitch. The old people and the women, they see you like you are different. Some people, they look like it’s funny and it’s not funny—you no have to be inside here, you know?” I know, I tell her.

The tourists come armed with cameras, of course, pining to snap a few shots of these freaky night creatures to accompany images of the Anne Frank House and the Bulldog Cafe. A friend of Christina’s had to pay a 500-euro fine
for attacking a photo-happy tourist and throwing his camera into the canal.

“And you know what they do with picture?” she asks incredulously. “They put on Internet, and you know it’s not good because all the families see us, what we do here, and my family don’t know what I do here.” She shrugs when I ask what they think she’s doing. “Work in the restaurant,” she guesses.

Christina has allotted me 20 minutes but isn’t watching the clock. I let her know that we’re well past the half-hour mark. She has a request. “Will you write—say, this girl tell me to get all the countries, all the world, to help to stop prostitute. Includes the baby.” She had seen a news segment about child prostitutes. “Tell them that girl say to me she want everyone to help end there to be prostitute. You can do that for me?”

“Of course.”

“You are gay?” she asks—or states. “But you happy?”

“Sure,” I reply, still unsure if she’s asking or telling.

“Because the people, they hate—but you happy. You happy with your life, and your family help you?”

“Yeah.”

“You working?”

“Yeah.”

“In America,” she reflects, “it’s very different because the people, they don’t have conscience. I, I like gay. I like gay.” She takes my hand and shakes it. “I like it because I respect your life, and you happy, I be happy.”

“It’s a deal,” I tell her. She’s still got my hand.

“You feel the same to me,” she says.

“I feel the same to you?”

"Yeah. It’s very bad for you, and very bad for me. The people—they looking at us always.”

"Hey,” I whisper, “is Christina your real name?”

“It’s Angela,” she whispers back.

As soon as the storefront door shuts and I’m back on the street, a man yells at me. “How was it, dude?”

 

Matt Siegel (@unabashedqueer) is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. He has written for The Advocate, Queerty, and has a piece in the upcoming issue of Flaunt Magazine.

Photo via lifeofpie/Flickr



65 Comments / Post A Comment

aphrabean

Please tell me that Angela is not her real name.

j-i-a

@aphrabean I checked with Matt, and he said Angela was fine with the use of her name in this story, just not her actual image.

aphrabean

@j-i-a Jia, I figured you would've checked but since it didn't say anything about that in the article I was worried. Thanks for responding!

j-i-a

@aphrabean o'course gurl

Susanna

One rather crucial thing missing from the article.

The rooms behind the windows are rented out in shifts directly to the women, so (if it's all working correctly) they are freelancers who work purely for themselves.

Am not really very taken by this whole piece – she gave up time (and probably money as fifty euros is not much) to talk to this guy who seems to find her disgusting.

Several years ago I went to Amsterdam on a press trip that included interviews with the head of the prostitutes union, with social workers, a brothel owner, an anthropologist who specialised in migration AND the city council, who are trying to gentrify the red light districts in the centre of town by buying up the brothels and installing artists and designers in them temporarily. The net result of that policy is that the working women are pushed out to more isolated locations. In the trad red light district they and locals can look out for one another.

Elitist and Dull

@Susanna Thanks for giving us a better lens into things! I'm kind of amazed how little I learned about the subject and her life, and how much, by contrast, I learned about the author.

Susanna

@Elitist and Dull I had so much material from that trip, but the article I'd been commissioned to do didn't leave me room to use most of it... But the woman who ran the prostitutes' union said something similar to Christina: men were (she thought, led by the internet and porn) asking for increasingly extreme things. If the girls couldn't speak enough of whatever lingua franca was used, they could end up in a tricky situation.
In her working days she was the sole operator in a village where she was pretty respected and appreciated, and the men were happy to have plain old vanilla sex rather than expecting her to do whatever they didn't dare ask their wives and girlfriends to do. Most of the men in the village were on her client list, and some of the wives would even come to her and ask her to work on something with their men, to improve things in bed at home. She was great fun... But also pointed out that this gentrification was not good for the current working girls, and I think there was also something about the government trying to end funding to the union (I need to check that).
A woman had been murdered the year I was there – outside her room, by someone trying to steal her cash. But it was not a frequent occurence. Am not sure if it's the same woman Christina is referring to. The only other working girl I briefly met had raised and educated three kids on her earnings and was about to retire. Oh, and one of the women working in that particular set of windows was a flight attendant who liked to earn a little on the side.
None of this is to make out that it's all hunky dory. There are clearly also issues with pimps, violence, illegal operations that endanger women. And the history is tied into Dutch colonialism, to boot. I couldn't begin to scratch the surface even with that range of interviews.

LunaLunaLunaMoth

@Susanna Can't wait for your 700 words or less essay on this, Susanna!

Susanna

@LunaLunaLunaMoth The one I did was 800 words in a format more restrictive than a blog :)

ru_ri

@Susanna The piece does say "The room she rents by the day is surprisingly cute." But I don't understand why this is a "crucial thing"? Are you saying because she pays for the room herself she has more agency in her situation?

And FWIW I definitely did not get the impression he was disgusted by her. I found his overall portrayal quite sympathetic; I thought his description of her at the beginning was to explain why he felt drawn to speak with her rather than one of the other girls. Because she was clearly different.

deeteepee

@ru_ri Yes, I agree. I think one of the whole points here was that he identified how both he and the tourists looked at her with how the many people (in Vegas, for example) look at him. So any language or judgement that he leveled against her was also leveled, through his identification with her, at him. But instead of saying that, he dramatized the whole thing. I mean, one could argue about how close the parallel between a sex-worker and visible gay man might actually be, and one could criticize the article on those grounds, but I don't think that in this particular case, the charge of exploitation of a sex-worker by a journalist really resonates.

frumious bandersnatch

Oof, "nonplussed." What do people think when they read that? It originally means the opposite of how it's used here (as in, "confused or taken aback") but has been misused as NOT confused (as he writes here) so some dictionaries now include that as an informal definition. Self-antonyms! Ah! But I feel like it's more viewed as a commonly misused word than something that's meaning could go either way.

I understand language evolves and I'm not trying to be a dick. Which is why I'm asking how people read it. But my general instinct (which could be wrong!) is places like The Hairpin that publish edited content should use the formal/official definition. I at least read it as "ok so she was taken aback by his question and he was disappointed that he startled her oh no wait that she wasn't taken aback?"

Combo note to the editors/curiosity about language.

(I am fine with a movement to invent the word "plussed" to mean what "nonplussed" really means and use "nonplussed" the way people misuse it. "Really" and "misuse" perhaps more inflammatory than I intend, but also words have meanings...)

ETA: Also to get to the point of the piece more, I did feel uncomfortable with him describing her so negatively and then asking her to describe herself. It felt mean.

frumious bandersnatch

@frumious bandersnatch I wrote about this below, but talking about "nonplussed" was meant to be a tangent, not a criticism of the piece. It's a word that's coming to mean its opposite! It was used here in the informal way! I'm interested in that. I'm sorry if it came off as Pin-bashing.

That being said, my main problem (with him describing her negatively and then asking her to describe herself) still stands. But I think it's a good piece, generally! It just misses some... empathy maybe? Like he obviously sympathizes but she's pretty removed. I don't know. I'm reading most of these comments as constructive criticisms, dealing more meatily with some of the issues of language and class and prostitution as an industry than he does.

tales

Wish I'd followed my first impulse and stopped reading at "grotesquely masculine".

Susanna

@tales Yes. The words, "Hairpin, RLY?" come to mind.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@tales One thing that does not strike me as grotesquely masculine: a teenage boy.

Susanna

@Susanna Hey up, sockpuppets ahoy.

Urwelt

@tales I didn't have a lot of the problems other people did with this piece, but that did strike me! Even ignoring the grotesque part, if you think women don't engage in pube twisting, you don't know much about women.

mollpants

Noooooot loving this. Writing is lovely and all, but I can't help feeling that I'd be much more comfortable with this if the interview was transcribed directly rather than adding prose as embellishment (and maybe get a translator or, at least, speak with a woman with a more direct grasp of English to avoid the unfortunate pidgin effect).

I'd have loved to read a direct interview with a woman working in this situation, but this is maybe more self-serving than anything.

Elitist and Dull

@mollpants Thanks. I was reminded of that one gay friend some of us had in high school. The one who went out of his way to point out how gross he thought women's bodies were, and sort of got off on making us feel hideous.

I mean, he basically brags about how fond of him she seems, then turns around and makes gaggy barfy gestures.

LunaLunaLunaMoth

@mollpants I very much disagree, Mollpants. Reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague in graduate school. She was from her Colombia, and her father and brothers had fought in the war, but she refused to write about it because, she explained, she was not the one out there in the battlefield. That was their story to tell. But here's the thing: those people aren't writing essays for Hairpin. They could probably give a fuck about what a few conscious readers and a slew of Internet trolls have to think about what they've done. All things considered, I thought this was insightful and accessible, and to be honest, I feel as though your lack of comfort with her English is more on you than the author...

mollpants

@LunaLunaLunaMoth @LunaLunaLunaMoth I don't have a problem with her English at all. That's not what I'm saying. What I have a problem with is the author's choice to portray this woman's thoughts through his own lens and his own perspective, without bringing in a third party to try and bridge the language gap to gain a deeper understanding of what Christina/Angela is saying on a more nuanced level, and/or by writing out the "pidgin" version of their conversation. (In an English-language written piece, especially a narrative like this one, the person "speaking" in broken English is inevitably going to come out sounding like the less eloquent/intelligent speaker.)

I work at an organization that deals pretty heavily with human trafficking/sex trafficking, and I spend a lot of my time handling media portrayals and cultural biases surrounding trafficked women, sex workers, and the gray areas in between these two extremes. It's true that women like Christina/Angela don't tend to write essays for the Hairpin - but that's all the more reason to give them appropriate platforms for when their voices do make it onto sites like these. Sex workers and prostitutes are used way too often as navel-gazing devices for essay writers and society at large - we really don't need another piece that uses them as literary metaphors to make a point.

For what it's worth, I really did think the prose was lovely, their interaction at the end was nice, and if this was done just a little bit differently I would be a lot more comfortable.

Bricklyn

@mollpants

Thanks for this really intelligent and insightful comment, coming from the standpoint of someone with a lot of insight on the subjects of prostitution (there is a big emotional venn diagram overlapping of trafficking and prostitution) and media.

And I also took something of value from Susana's sharing woman whom she met's story of her varying experience in prostitution, from one of feeling a certain amount of acceptance and even respected public service, to feeling more dehumanized and discounted.

I also appreciated the author's perspective of the crowd... it reminded me very much of this: Conversation With Adrienne Truscott, a Performance Artist Doing a One-Woman Show About Rape

"in a literature course about race, class and gender, a male professor:“two in five women are sexually assaulted.” And there were about 10 people in the room, most of whom were women. With like two guys and him. And as a way to shock us, he was like, "I mean, that means up to four women in this room right now have been raped. How does that make you feel?"

I got so angry,[...] that moment got me so annoyed. I was like, "I'll tell you how I feel. There's two guys, and you, so which one of you is a rapist? Cause if we're talking about this room, one of you had to do it [...] How do you feel?"

Bringing the attention back to the onlooker and the spectacle of the crowd...

Also from the Adrienne Truscott piece (read it to get more context, and not totally co-signing but it's interesting...)

"I hoped that I was attracting a group of four guys out for a night, who are like, "There's a lady with her pants off for free at 10 o'clock. What's to lose?" Those are the people I want at my show."

"If you sat in my audience, and I cracked jokes and interacted with you with my pussy out, you'd probably feel pretty uncomfortable, so who's really getting the attention? Maybe I've actually put all the attention on you, sitting at a show watching a naked pussy.”

I also appreciated the sphere of humanity shared by the author and the subject of the story, Christina/Angela, which was forged thru the poor-showing-of-humanity of those who'd seek to "other" and diminish them, and to what purpose...?

And lastly, I'd like to say I think that very personal writing tends to bring out personal opinions, as a general rule, on the Internet/badlands, and I feel like one thing the Hairpin writers/contributors are likely to encounter is a certain amount of scrutiny that is not hostility, but is: "standards".

I do appreciate discernment, and especially when the comments are constructive and contribute something positive and elevates the discussion.

chickpeas akimbo

@mollpants "Sex workers and prostitutes are used way too often as navel-gazing devices for essay writers and society at large - we really don't need another piece that uses them as literary metaphors to make a point."

Yes. Thank you. This is what bugged me about this piece. It's beautifully written and I do think that the author approached Christina/Angela with compassion, but like... maybe this woman's life isn't just a device to throw the author's story into sharper relief. And yeah, because she's a sex worker, it bugs me more than it would if she were just, I don't know, a girl he met at a bar.

josefina33

This was moving and sad and somehow sweet. Beautifully written. Prostitution may not be sold out of storefronts in the states as in Amsterdam but it's odd we turn such a collective blind eye to the thousands of escort pages, Craiglist ads etc. in each city. Thanks for shedding a spotlight on one tiny face in the sea of 40 million prostitutes around the globe. Great piece.

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

I can't help asking if anyone has read "On Black Sisters Street" by Chika Unigwe, because I love it so much.

Lipstick4all

Really surprised by the comments. Are you so blinded by your desire to trash the article that you're unable to see the connection between the public gaze upon both the author his subject? That she stands out among the others in the windows as much as he stands out among men for his "visible gayness"? I found it profound. Thanks.

Susanna

@Lipstick4all No Matt, not blinded by the desire to trash. Just uncomfortable with the pidgin, the descriptions of her body and the tourism feel.

j-i-a

@Susanna I'm hearing you guys on these comments, for what it's worth, and am hoping to do an interview with a camgirl as another perspective on sex work soon.

klemay

@j-i-a I really appreciate your desire to bring a variety of perspectives to the site, but a cam girl is likely to bring the perspective we're fed everywhere else: that sex workers are all white, middle-class, and can leave the industry if they want to. In reality, there are a lot of women who feel they have no other options, who do a lot worse things than cam work, and who are overshadowed by the women who love their jobs but, more importantly, have other options.

I hope I don't sound hostile here - I love the work you've been doing here on the hairpin. I'm just really frustrated by the way sex work is depicted in the media and hope you'll try not to feed into that.

j-i-a

@klemay oh, for sure. I am trying to get a camgirl from another country to talk to me, actually--I'm interested in the exponential difference in pay scale between foreign camgirls and the top American ones. What you're saying is something I'm super aware of, and one of the reasons I was attracted to this piece. You definitely don't sound hostile! Depictions of sex work are so fraught and so complicated and it's sort of inevitable that any one piece will be seen as more of a statement than a piece about a different subject would be, I'm aware of that.

klemay

@j-i-a Oh, cool! I look forward to the upcoming piece. I just wanted to be careful with my comment because I think you're getting a lot of criticism lately and I happen to love what you've been doing.

mollpants

@klemay @j-i-a Jumping on the anticipation bandwagon for that piece! I think that's an interview that really badly needs to be done, so props.

Lipstick4all

pidgin! i like that word!

LunaLunaLunaMoth

I really enjoyed this piece; on the contrary to what some have said, I didn't find our narrator 'disgusted' with Angela at all. I saw compassion, respect. Also interest.

And not exploitative interest, as I feel would be so common, but a general attempt to learn her as human, rather than a thing we just all walk past when and if we make it to Amsterdam, remaining on the other side of the road because we're too nervous (or shame-filled?) to get too close.

Alsoooooo, I've got to admit I'm baffled by how quick commenters are to whine of sparsity; there's a difference--and a big one--between something made for print and a "web-friendly" essay, like this one. This essay is a boiling down maybe, sure, but I found it evocative and well-considered. How many of you have tried to write an engaging, humanizing portrait about the complexity and complicated nature of Amsterdam's prostitute population? How about in 700 words or less? Can't wait to read em! ;)

nothingcutesy

@LunaLunaLunaMoth I totally agree. I loved that she drew parallels between the way she is treated in her profession and the way he may have been treated as a gay man. I came away from this piece feeling quite positive, but after reading some of these comments got confused (was I reading the same piece?). I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoyed it!

myeviltwin

I liked this piece. I am not sure where all the negativity seems to be coming from these days in the comments on articles. I find the content to be as thought-provoking and well-written as it always has. It's so disheartening to see the comments treating Jia and Emily like they're the evil stepmother or something. The old Hairpin crew is gone; why don't we give the new team a chance instead of being hostile?

mollpants

@myeviltwin Honestly, I really like the new 'Pin team, and have been a fan of a lot of the stuff that's been put up so far! Maybe it's on me for not commenting more when I like something (?). That said, I feel like there are problems in this piece that need to be addressed...it may just my line of work (human trafficking reporting and prevention) that make me so interested in this. I don't want to not point out problematic issues just because I don't want to offend anyone. (that said keep doin yo thang Jia and Emma, you rock, etc etc).

happykitty

@myeviltwin

Are you kidding? I thought everybody was in Jia-love like me?!? I am constantly impressed by her sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

Jia'adore!

roadtrips

Just to add to the debate - there were a few things that I found problematic about this piece as well, which other commenters have already pointed out. I think it's vital to be open to a conversation about writing that addresses various issues around identity, representation, and human rights, and that includes criticisms. I don't think that anyone trashed the piece or are discounting the effort and quality of the writing itself. Sure, there are a few flippant comments, but overall, valid criticisms shouldn't be seen as a total writing off. I'm a little discouraged by a back-and-forth that doesn't allow for any nuanced reading of this piece. Given the brevity necessitated by the site's format, I think that it's really encouraging that a conversation ensued in the comments. Writing about a complicated social issue brings to light a lot of things that can't be resolved in a 700 word essay, which leaves a lot of room for conversation.

TN
TN

@roadtrips Yeah, in addition to agreeing with some of the observations made by previous commenters (both positive and negative), I'm also troubled by how dismissive some commenters are of any critical observations that have been made about this piece. I agreed with mollpants' questioning of the extensive use of direct quotes where the interviewer and interviewee didn't have a fluent language in common, but it seems any point of criticism is going to be immediately reframed as the commenter just being trollish or needlessly negative or being the commenter's own problem instead of a problem of the writing. It seems lately the comment section just doesn't seem very welcome to conversations that include diverse perspectives. That's a shame, because I like that Jia and Emma seemed to have made a conscious effort to shift the balance of the posts to add longer pieces and interviews with a broader variety of voices than what I could find elsewhere. But I feel like I can't talk about these pieces, only compliment them.

ru_ri

@TN I see your point. But my perception of comments lately has been that they are negative in a very closed way (kind of shutting down discussion). The whole "Really, Hairpin?" thing is getting old for me. It seems like a cheap shot, not a way to open productive conversation.

I really love this site--it is not too much to say it has changed my life. It is true that Jia and Emma are different from Edith and Jane, but I still find a perspective on the Hairpin that I don't see anywhere else on the Internet. And they are clearly working their asses off to bring it to us.

I do miss the commenters who seem to have gone elsewhere, who used to add so much in their discussions, and maybe that is what you are referring to with "a comment section that doesn't seem very welcome to conversations that include diverse perspectives." Just for me the balance seems skewed the other way.

But then again (again) I rarely comment myself, so I am probably contributing to the problem.

Anyway, part of what made this piece interesting for me was it was written from the perspective of a gay man, and he was drawing a parallel between his marginalization and hers. That is certainly a perspective that is open to debate--e.g., which of them truly has more choice about how they live? But I am not seeing that debate here; the criticism strikes me as more superficial.

fabel

@ru_ri yeah, I think the "really, Hairpin?" is getting old--- although I do agree with much of the criticism on this piece (BUT I also love Emma & Jia; I think there can be critical views expressed without actually viewing the new owners of this site as the "evil stepmother"(s) as someone said, earlier)

However, the comments section has been super sparse lately, & then the comments that do appear are ALSO sparse (which I get; it's probably people who were never prolific commenters anyway, & now they feel spurned to make SOME comment, but are just really putting their feelers out? The whole "Really, Hairpin?" thing usually results in longer, more analytical responses, so even though it's snarky & objectively unproductive, I can also see it as just being a "does anyone else feel like this?" thing)

Which, obviously, yes. It's been established that many people have been disappointed with content lately, but at this point it's almost a feedback loop of disappointment? like, being disappointed with the posts, then being disappointed in the quality of discussion in the comments section, etc. So, all of you guys (& me! because I also barely comment here) who say they are "contributing the the problem" should maybe just comment more, or something. (Sorry, I started off strong & ended kind of flip, but I didn't want to end without SOME conclusion statement...)

TN
TN

@ru_ri Oh, yeah I do think the "Really, Hairpin?" comments don't add much and many times seem to come from a place of expecting disappointment, and I think that's unfair. I loved Edith and Jane's reign, but I think Jia and Emma are still doing great things, especially Jia's expansion of her interview series. I'm the type who tends not to comment unless I'm confused or concerned though (or I guess there's an opportunity to make a cheap joke), so I concede I'm likely not helping with the problem of the comments section turning into a less welcoming space.

You highlight an interesting part of this piece, but I guess what kept me from more fully exploring that part is how distracted I felt about the fact that once he realized they didn't have a fluent language in common, he didn't make an attempt to bridge that gap or find a different interview subject where the gap wasn't as apparent. It's as if he decided this was good enough. To me that ends up keeping her and her story at arms length and almost makes me feel complicit in perpetuating her marginalization when I read this. The way this was set up with the initially harsh description of her appearance and the gawkers' reactions to her, which IMO deliberately created a picture of someone deserving of only pity/ridicule/revulsion, I had high hopes that the change in setting to a one-on-one interview would do more to contrast that initial characterization of her, to return more dignity and humanity to her by having a real conversation with her. But that ended up falling short of what I was hoping for, because he ended up not giving her the full range of expression she is probably likely capable of in a different language. I think actually a lot of the comments on this particular piece have shared this concern in a fairly respectful albeit straightforward way, but are getting shut down with unnecessarily defensive responses (e.g. the comments about wanting to see commenters try to do better with their own 700 word pieces?). Maybe Jia's interviews (and Logan's on The Billfold, if anyone here is interested and hasn't checked those out) have given me unreasonably high expectations?

mollpants

@ru_ri First off, roadtrips and TN - agree completely with everything you're saying.

ru_ri - I agree that the "new-Pin-bashing," if you will, is super unproductive and not particularly helpful, and I have noticed it. That said, I find this really problematic for many reasons which I've already stated. Like you, I adore the 'Pin and the perspectives it gives under any editors, but I can unequivocally say that I'd have problems with this piece if Edith had published it, and would have voiced them in the comments. I also gotta say that I'm not finding the criticism here "superficial" at all - identity issues in writing should be talked about and critiqued (I think, right?).

To your point about marginalization: hadn't thought about it that way, and I like that perspective - you can like stuff about a piece of writing while also acknowledging that it's pretty flawed.

ru_ri

@TN Thank you for engaging about this! I hadn't thought about how much more nuance we would have gotten without a language barrier.

Now I am thinking about inadvertent miscommunication (often a problem for nonnative speakers) vs. deliberate miscommunication (an advantage for native speakers). What would this interview look like if he had decided to stay in Nevada and interview a sex worker there? Would the picture be more, or less accurate? (I'm not drawing any conclusions at all, just thinking about it idly.)

And another thought--I have to admit that my penchant for inadvertent miscommunication is one of the things that keeps me from commenting more on the Hairpin!)

ru_ri

@mollpants Ah, sorry, when I said superficial I was referring more to details like the usage of "nonplussed" and whether the room was rented daily or hourly, and the assumption (or my perception of the assumption) that the writer, being gay, was repulsed by women in general.

When you said "Sex workers and prostitutes are used way too often as navel-gazing devices for essay writers and society at large," yes, I absolutely agree. And I clicked on this piece not expecting to like it because of that.

Anyway--here's to more thoughtful criticism. I appreciate reading yours.

TN
TN

@ru_ri Thanks to you too for bringing up something that I admittedly paid less attention to than I should have! I understand though, that there are probably insurmountable limitations to what I was hoping to get versus what the interviewer could get. Maybe/hopefully a follow up though with more people from the sex industry will round this out.

frumious bandersnatch

@ru_ri I'm sorry you think my comment was superficial. I actually am fascinated by language evolving and the role sites like this have as intermediaries between unmoderated comments and traditional news media, and nonplussed coming to mean the opposite of what it means is a really fascinating instance that's been rankling for a long time, so this reminded me. But I can see how that isn't clear.

My actual criticism of the piece--that him describing her negatively AND THEN asking her to describe herself--felt mean, still stands.

I guess I'm newer but I actually really like this is a place where people can dive into criticisms and discomfort in the comments and engage in discussion around it. Like, I'm reading most of these comments as places for improvement, not a slamming of the heart of the piece.

chickpeas akimbo

@ru_ri re: sex workers in Nevada, you might enjoy this book: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780449006580

ru_ri

@frumious bandersnatch No apologies! How can I explain this--I like comments like yours! I mean, I, too, am fascinated with the evolution of language (two of the ones that rankle me are "fulsome" and "beg the question"). I was responding to what TN said about criticism being unwelcome here (and by seeming to come down on you, I think I reinforced her point!). I should have just said, more generally, knee-jerk "Hairpin-bashing" that isn't really substantive.

What you say about the author describing "Christina" negatively and then asking her to describe herself, yeah, I don't really get it either. But my perception of his initial description was different from yours, so my takeaway was different.

Anyway, what's way bigger than this piece IS, as you say, the way we can engage in criticism and discomfort here and come out without feeling like we've been through an Internet pencil sharpener. I hope it can be that way for a long time.

ru_ri

@fabel Thanks! FWIW I have found that your comments are always worth reading.
I absolutely think serious evaluation and criticism is great--in fact I think it's a compliment to an author when people take her work seriously enough to dig into it like that. I don't comment much because I am not so confident in my knowledge and critical ability. And also because time. But I want to try and comment more!

klemay

Wow, we really don't like to read about sex workers who don't love their jobs, do we, 'pinners? I, for one, am glad to see a piece of writing that acknowledges that not all sex workers are white, middle-class, privileged women who like, totally love their jobs and can leave the industry any time they want to.

mollpants

@klemay I mean, I for one work with human trafficking and sex slavery as my day job, so maybe I'm the exception but I am very used to reading about women in the sex trade who don't "love their jobs" (to put it mildly!). In fact, I really advocate for that perspective to be put on sites like the 'Pin, because I agree with you that it's missing. That said, this piece is really not a great example of how to do that.

klemay

@mollpants I saw upthread your (incredibly valid) criticisms of this piece, but I felt like a lot of other commenters were not coming from the same place as you.

TN
TN

@klemay To clarify, my comments aren't coming from the perspective of not wanting to hear from a sex worker who doesn't like her job, but primarily as a point concerning the language barrier between the interviewer and interviewee. I don't mean I have any expectation that giving her the ability to communicate in a way she could express herself more fully would lead to her actually saying she likes any aspect of her job, but rather it would permit a deeper examination of the question the interviewer had when he approached her: how can she stand to keep doing this? She was able to convey that she was able to because her family needs the money and she was able to cope because of religion and laughing with her coworkers, but a better effort at overcoming the language barrier could have gotten a richer explanation of the people and faith that keeps her in a job that can be so dangerous and makes her so unhappy.

klemay

@TN Fair enough. I guess I see these perspectives so infrequently that it doesn't always occur to me to expect more/better of them. And then I get defensive when people want to criticize said perspectives. :/

TN
TN

@klemay Yeah, I totally get where you're coming from. I agree that online we tend to see a disproportionate number of personal essays that may give a misleading impression that sex work is nearly always totally OK and fun, and it was refreshing to get a different perspective here. I also concede I might have been expecting too much given the limitations built into the interviewer's circumstances.

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Here are a few disjointed thoughts I have about the communication barrier and the lack of an interpreter for this interview. I'm offering these thoughts because 1) I love this discussion and 3) am grateful to Mollpants, TN, klemay, everyone who's bringing up excellent points and 3) I've been reading the Hairpin every day for quite awhile and miss the robust comment sections and so should really start contributing rather than just consuming. So here goes:

Maybe the lack of an interpreter and the overall communication barrier can be read as a metaphor and therefore enrich our reading of the essay a bit (even thought it's actually probably due to lack of money or foresight)? The author shares his experience of being dehumanized, pointed at and disparaged and tries to tie it to Christina Angela's experience behind the glass by going behind the glass and into a room with her. But, the barriers are still there - language barriers but also their gendered experiences, their sexuality, their economic situations, their nationalities. And so Matt Siegel, gay American man abroad in Amsterdam with 35 euros to exchange for time, can only get to "hear" Christina Angela's perspective at this level of fragmented discourse. This is sort of at the heart of all interviews, in a way, isn't it?

I definitely don't mean to excuse the lack of first-person narratives from sex workers in our society. We need to hear more stories from people who are more often talked about and over.

MattSiegel

I'd like to take a moment to thank all of you for your thoughtful comments. As a writer, it is a luxury to have so many eyes on one's work, and to hear a variety of interpretations. I'm also impressed with the evident mutual respect between the hairpin editors and the commenters. Thanks again for your time.

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