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Best Sex Writing 2009 Interview: Susannah Breslin on Eliot Spitzer and prostitution

Breslin discusses why men hire sex workers, the media reaction to the Spitzer scandal, and why the personal stories of sex workers and their customers are important.
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My name is Rachel, and I write about sex (among other topics). A lot of my writing is of the erotic variety, but what really gets me off, in the intellectual sense, is smart writing that treats sex with the respect it deserves. To that end, my latest anthology is Best Sex Writing 2009, which collects the best of the last year's writing from blogs, magazines, newspapers and books, about all kinds of sex topics, from purity balls to sex toys in Iraq to rape fantasies and more, by authors such as Tracie Egan, Mary Roach, Violet Blue. The cover's sexy, but the writing inside is meant to provoke your biggest sex organ--your brain--rather than arouse you. It's for sex nerds and those who want to learn more about the topic of sex from new angles. I had a great amount of helping in shaping the collection from guest judge Brian Alexander, who writes a sex column for MSNBC. I'll be posting a series of interviews here and on the Best Sex Writing 2009 blog (you can read the introduction to the book here) with the contributors to flesh out their pieces and give some insight into their writing process.

Today's interview is with Susannah Breslin, who writes for Slate's The XX Factor, blogs at her own Reverse Cowgirl, among many other things (including being my dating column editor at The Frisky). She discusses why men hire sex workers, the media reaction to the Spitzer scandal, and why the personal stories of sex workers and their customers are important.

What made you first become interested in the topics of porn and prostitution, and specifically the perspective of johns? How did your site Letters from Johns evolved?

I've been writing about sex industries for over a decade, since I visited a porn set in late 1997. The interest in john stories came to me on a whim. There were a fair amount of sex worker stories out there, but not a lot of stories about why men pay for sex. I put out a call on my blog for letters from johns, and the letters started coming.

Were you surprised by the Eliot Spitzer scandal? Are there certain characteristics you've found of johns that make it more likely they'll be powerful men?

I wasn't very surprised by the Spitzer scandal; although, I don't know that powerful men are any more likely to pay for sex than other men. It certainly makes sense that someone with a lot of power and money would see less of a "problem" with using money and power to score sex. Many powerful men lead complicated, demanding lives, and sex workers can provide men who can afford it with a respite: uncomplicated sexual release.

In your Newsweek piece you quote a man who tells you, "I find the idea of paying for sexual acts to be erotic." Why do you think that is? Is it at all related to the way consumers are more likely to value a product that's priced higher?

Frankly, I don't fully understand why some men find paying for sex to be erotic. I know I don't. But I'm a woman. Paying for sex allows men to behave sexually ruthless in a way they might not allow themselves to do otherwise. Some men feel more free to ask sex workers to perform sex acts that the men may not be getting at home: oral, anal, BDSM. Most men worry about female sexual pleasure and having sex with a sex worker can be a pleasurably narcissistic act. They don't have to "worry" about a sex worker's sexual needs in the same way that they may feel consciously or unconsciously compelled to do so with their wives or girlfriends.

You also say, "The fake letters are for the most part easy to identify; they lack detail--and frequently end with scenes in which the sex worker returns the money because the sex was so good." Do many johns have a rescue fantasy about the women they hire? I'm reading this book America Anonymous in which a 20-year-old straight male sex addict winds up hanging out with an escort he had hired, thinking they're going to have a relationship.

Some of the johns I've heard from have rescue fantasies--or romantic fantasies. I've gotten more than a few letters from johns who "fall in love" with sex workers. They're pretty sad. Most of the men are aware the relationship is primarily financially motivated on the woman's part, but these men seem unable to stop themselves from continuing to fantasize that they are in love with the women, even when it's quite clear those feeling are not reciprocated. I don't think any of those stories had a happy ending.

How have the letters you've gotten to Letters from John changed post-Spitzer?

The letters were the same before and after Spitzer; the only difference is the Spitzer story brought johns and sex workers to the fore and opened up the public dialogue. So I got more letters every time the story resurfaced in the news. I'm sure many men "find themselves" in Spitzer.

You're also editing the site Letters from Working Girls. How is that going and what are the most common types of stories you're seeing?

Letters from working girls are few and far between--for a few reasons. Because it's less socially acceptable to be a sex worker than to be a john. Because sex workers are more concerned about getting busted than their customers. Because working girls are too busy living "the life" to sit around writing letters about it.

Collectively, what do you think the two sites say about prostitution in America?

The sites speak about why men pay for sex and why women become sex workers. The reasons are legion. They're lonely, oversexed, desperate, looking for something, curious, adventurous, emotionally in need, horny, bored. There's no "one answer" in sex industries, and I would hope that these stories serve as a testament to that and underscore that black and white debates over sex work serve no one and only perpetuate a fantasy that certain kinds of men pay for sex and certain kinds of women become sex workers. The guy you work with pays for sex, and the girl next door sells it. If you see yourself in these stories, the players gets humanized, rather than stigmatized.

What did you think of the mainstream media coverage of the Spitzer scandal? How could it have been improved?

The coverage of Spitzergate was copious and rife with "othering." Oooh, that guy did something really bad! But it's a story I hear all the time. Why are we acting so shocked and outraged? What exactly do you think rich and powerful men are doing with all their money and their power? Playing checkers?

Are you in favor of legalizing prostitution? Do you think some of the appeal of paying for sex would dissipate if prostitution were legalized?

I don't have a stance one way or another regarding the legalization of prostitution. There are pros and cons to both sides. I'm more interested in the personal stories than the laws.

What are you working on next?

Right now, I'm working on a novel based on my experiences in Porn Valley.