Capri Anderson, Charlie Sheen, and the Prostitution Dilemma

One question keeps coming up in the increasingly ugly story of Charlie Sheen and porn star Capri Anderson: Is she a prostitute? Tracy Quan on how both sides are playing with the taboo.

Newscom; Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

Not only is Charlie Sheen suing porn star Capri Anderson, who filed a police complaint against him Monday, for extortion, but his handlers are trying to discredit her by saying she has sex with strangers for money.

Anderson, though, has made a point of denying she's a prostitute. On Good Morning America, she said she had been expecting $3,500 to appear at a New York dinner party in October, after which she consented to "a little bit of romance" in Sheen's room at the Plaza. In a Nightline segment, Anderson revealed that Sheen was banging on the door yelling "whore" while she hid in the bathroom.

Way to put yourself on the wrong side of the culture wars, both of you!

We don't know what happened in the room that night, but TMZ's updates have been more consistent with Capri's version of the event than Charlie's.

Does it matter whether Capri is a prostitute? To what extent is she colluding in her own stigmatization? In the case of Sheen and Anderson, both seem to endorse (in her case unwittingly) an outmoded and nasty idea, that the prostitute is somehow less human than other sexually active people. Actually, Sheen's handlers take us right back to biblical times, suggesting that a man can pay for sex yet trample on a woman's integrity by calling her unchaste.

Let's be clear. Verbal and physical abuse are not the norm when men pay for sex, but Anderson's allegations about Sheen—who has a long history with both prostitution and domestic violence—are instructive. Civilians fantasize about having paid sex with the rich and famous, but many a professional hooker secretly longs for a steady clientele of anonymous dentists or suburban entrepreneurs. It's often safer to work in the middle of the market. In my experience, mid-level prostitutes are more comfortable with what they do for a living and less frightened of words that a high-profile porn star, escort or dancer will shy away from.

The Sheen media strategy is as cynical as it is old-fashioned, given that prostitutes in California have turned the right to sell sex into a mainstream political issue through ballot initiatives in two recent elections. ( Proposition K in San Francisco, 2008; Proposition Q in Berkeley in 2004—both failed, but are signs of something growing.) Women have been challenging the sexual double standard for at least a century, while prostitutes have built a global movement during nearly four decades.

Using prostitute as a slur is a lot like suggesting that gay people are child molesters, and reacting to such a slur with a denial is almost as immature as invoking it. Way to put yourself on the wrong side of the culture wars, both of you! We can see how this might happen in Charlie's mixed-up universe, but how did Capri—an X-rated performer—end up there as well?

I spoke to Seranna Shutt, an Australian escort with links to the American sex workers' movement. "So," she asked rhetorically, "it's OK to have sex for money in front of the camera, but not in private?" Actually, this is a conversation sex workers have more often than you'd think and yes, it can get snarky—though Seranna and other activists have worked hard to reduce cattiness and promote solidarity.

In the softer regions of the sex industry, she told me, prostitution is often the biggest taboo, even in the parts of Australia where it's legalized. "When I was a nude dancer, I had to keep my work as an escort quiet," she explained. "For the dancers, it was such a taboo to actually touch or have sex for money." In other words, changing the laws about prostitution might help us to overcome this stigma—but it's never going to be the magic bullet.

If it seems strange for some women in the adult industry to perpetuate prejudice against prostitutes, consider the number of people engaging in prostitution who insist on coy euphemisms like escort, provider, hobbyist, or sex work. As desirable as these terms can be—and I use them myself—we still need to hear the word prostitute and come to terms with it. If we don't address the underlying feelings we all have about prostitution, calling it sex work or escorting (or a "paid appearance," like Capri) won't solve the problem.

The accusation of "whore"—from a drugged-up dinner companion, from a Hollywood actor's publicity machine—continues to resurface. Although the word is increasingly adopted by defiant sign-waving activists, "Whore" has the power to hurt us at a deep level. If you have worked in the sex industry, it's painful to watch Capri Anderson being publicly insulted.

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Former escort Natalie McLennan, author of The Price, is angered to read about Capri "being put down as a person of low morals, who has no credibility." Charlie Sheen, she adds, "should not be casting stones."

Reactions to "prostitute" and "whore"—whether on the part of Capri, her adversaries, or her industry sisters—point to a problem that continues to bedevil American sex-worker activists. Which is: In much of the U.S., to be called a prostitute is to be accused of breaking the law. If you work in the legal or quasi-legal parts of the industry (such as dancing or porn), the temptation to distance yourself from the oldest profession is real and recent. (Historically, porn and prostitution were treated the same.) Politically astute prostitutes often look at the legal status of porn as a harbinger of progress. The smartest X-rated performers and dancers have long understood that turning your back on prostitutes' rights is its own punishment—a sell-out that will come back to bite you on the ass. At the end of the day, prostitution laws have been used against people in the "soft" areas of adult entertainment and they probably will be again.

As painful as it is to be called a prostitute or a whore by those who don't wish us well, the sex worker who can deal with this is often better at protecting herself from a situation like the one Capri found herself in last month. "It gets complicated when you're in Escortland and being paid by the hour, as opposed to what's called prostitution," Natalie concedes.

Actually, a working girl who isn't ashamed to be in prostitution would probably have been more comfortable asking Sheen for her $3,500 fee upfront. To me, it seems likely that Capri went to Sheen's room in order to keep him in a good humor, so she would eventually get her payment. It's a familiar dance that many of us know how to do, but you have to pick your customers wisely.

Natalie adds that "with someone like Charlie Sheen," an escort might offer "a certain amount of respect by not demanding to be paid in advance."

For those of us who proudly trade sex for money, Sheen's celebrity status would not be a reason to cut corners. In fact, a real hooker might want to get paid upfront by the celebrity—while allowing that ordinary, unknown dentist to pay at the end of his session.

Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.

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