Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Charlotte Shane, Prostitute, East Coast

Now in her late twenties, Charlotte Shane has been a sex worker for nearly a decade; she started out in the web cam world, then moved on to fetish and escort work through an agency. She currently works as an independent prostitute with a roster of regular clients. Her compulsively readable blog, Nightmare Brunette, came to my attention after she penned a fantastic piece in Salon. “We’re taught from an early age to keep an eternally vigilant (and critical) eye on our appearance, and it takes a strong, studied will to refuse to pose the questions many of us have had running in our head since puberty,” she writes. “There’s something almost merciful about finally having the clarity of a number, and once you’re an escort, you’ve quite literally put a price on your sexual powers.” She also contributes to sex worker blog Tits and Sass. We talked about what her clients see when they look at her, the similarity between prostitution and the military, and why it might not matter what she looks like. In her own words:

Alone, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1896

On Looking Closely
The way someone usually becomes dear to you is not because of how they look, and that’s true for me and my clients as well. It could be I’m just lucky, but my clients love imperfections—they pore over them. I have a huge scar, and they’re always like, “Oh, I love your scar.” They’ll kiss it. They love it because it’s human. I’m sure there are men who hire escorts and they just want the most attractive thing they can find. They want things, and a person is a thing for them, and they want the thing to be announcing its attractiveness. But I don’t think most men want that. You know those articles that are always so hysterical about men watching porn who don’t want real women now? Do you know any men like that? The men I’ve spent time with usually genuinely love women. There are some neurotic guys with strict preferences, or they’re afraid or women or whatever. But usually they seem really delighted to be around a female. They like the way bodies naturally arrange themselves, and they like finding out about how our bodies are different from one another. But the idea that a man is going to get between your legs and see your labia and be like, Eww, I’m outta here—who does that? Why would you ever want that person around you? I’m sure that if I had particularly large labia that I’d have men poring over that.

There are certain signifiers that people look at, and they won’t look too closely beyond that. That’s one of the sad things, actually, that people don’t look very closely at other people. But if you’re in a situation like I often am, where I’m the only person they’re looking at—just by virtue of asking for money in that situation, you’re kind of asserting your appeal. Sometimes that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Most of these men are not coming in thinking, I can’t believe I spent so much, she’s obviously not worth that, I’m going to be disappointed. They’re excited; they’re happy to be there and they respond positively. Part of that is the context: If I were wearing dirty jeans and had a messy ponytail, those guys are not going to be walking by me on the street going, Oooh!

Kelly was my stage name when I was working on web cam, and when I’d see myself on camera and I’d be like, Kelly looks really hot! She was another person. I’d have massive amounts of makeup on, because under the lights and on a camera, you have to wear a lot. And I’d be wearing a wig—not a particularly nice wig, either. But I thought she was a total babe. My most astonishing moment was going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and taking off the wig. I looked like a transvestite: melted amounts of massive makeup, my hair all flattened out because of this wig. That was instructive in terms of understanding that whatever the dominant aesthetic is at the time, you can approximate that. Lots of people are going to respond positively, whether or not it’s a look being performed by someone I would say is actually beautiful or actually sexy.

On How She Looks
When I was thinking about this interview, I wanted to say that how I look is irrelevant. But obviously that’s not true. If I were considered conventionally ugly that would not be irrelevant. It’s more like there’s a base level of attractiveness, and if you satisfy that, what you bring beyond that becomes irrelevant. I don’t think what I bring to the table on a date is my looks; I don’t think that’s what I’m there for. Maybe if I were better-looking, I would be there for that. I’m attractive enough for my looks not to be a disappointment, but I don’t think that anyone would see me for how I looked alone and want to pay me just for that.

I’ve only had one client who regarded me in that way, when I was working at an agency about five years ago. He and I just didn’t get along. It wasn’t that he was mean or that I was rude—it’s just that sometimes you connect with somebody, and sometimes you can’t. The third time I saw him, he told me something like, Well, the only reason I’m here is because of how you look. He didn’t put it in a cruel way; it was like he knew we weren’t connecting on a deeper level, but he liked the way I looked anyway. It made me like him more, because it was clarifying, and in some ways it let me off the hook, because I wasn’t doing a very good job with him—I wasn’t my shiniest or brightest. And that idea of being liked solely for the way you look can be true for anyone. One of my friends—who has been doing this much longer than I have—is a firm believer that no matter who you are, what you look like, and what your asking price is, there’s somebody in the world who will pay it. There’s somebody who will find you irresistible. Which I think is absolutely true.

This will sound terrible, but sometimes when I’ve met other women who do this work I’m surprised that they’re not better-looking. That sounds like this really terrible judgmental thing—but really it’s that in my mind, everyone who would do this is basically a supermodel, and that I’m a visitor to this world. I always feel like a woman who’s in this line of work is not me: I have stretch marks, I have scars, I could rattle off all the things that are wrong with my face. But when I meet other women who do this type of work I’m always anticipating to be blown out of the water, even though that’s not really what this work is about.

The weird thing about this work is that you start to think that every single male is attracted to you. Which is not a good way to operate in the world. I take male attention for granted, when a lot of times it might not be there. But I’m not that type of woman who thrives on keeping that kind of attention. I think for a lot of women it’s unwelcome, but for some it’s a part of how they navigate their life. It’s how they relate to and play with or use public space. I’m not like that. But I was in the airport yesterday, and I was thinking, “Oh, everyone’s looking at me,” because that’s how I feel after meeting a date. It’s sort of in a cocky way; it’s not in an ashamed way. Then when I would break my avoiding-eye-contact stare and start to look at other people, I’d see, “Oh, he’s not looking at me,” or maybe I’d see he was looking if I wasn’t looking too closely at him. And that’s a weird attitude! That’s not how I am all the time. But when I first started interacting in person, I did feel very powerful. It was this knowingness I had, this new boldness that might attract attention.

On Quantifying Appeal
In our culture, the majority of messages directed at women or created using women say: You’re valuable for how you look. So of course you want to feel like you have value in the world. I think it’s natural for most women to say, “I want to know how much I’m worth in this world”—and that means, “I want to know how much my looks are worth.” There aren’t as many messages that are like, “We need you right now to be curing our diseases and protecting our environment. We need you for defense.” I think a lot of men join the military not just for money for college but because they feel like they need to contribute something, and that’s where they’ve been told their value might be. So for women, we’re told we contribute by being attractive. How attractive am I? Am I attractive enough? Should I be more? Could I be more? There’s a desire to quantify your appeal.

I don’t like to talk too much about money because I worry about glamorizing this work—but I charge a lot. It’s ridiculous, given that I’m just basically a normal person.  The pricing isn’t particularly logical, and it’s certainly not like I did a rigorous calculation of my value. I mean, I’ve made a list of where I think I’m strong and where I think I’m weak, in terms of giving somebody what they want. Even then looks aren’t a part of it—I mean, I might say, “I’m too careless with my makeup,” but usually it’s more like, “I’m not as punctual as I want to be.” But I always charged more than the average—not a whole lot more, just a little. You can tell from your volume of business if you’re undercharging; some women don’t mind undercharging because they always want to be busy and have a lot of options, but if I find myself really busy I’m like, “I’m undercharging.” That’s why I kept jacking up the price—and curiosity, too. Like, would somebody actually pay this for me? Seeing what you can get away with, I think that’s really what it is.


  1. Fascinating!

    "That was instructive in terms of understanding that whatever the dominant aesthetic is at the time, you can approximate that. Lots of people are going to respond positively, whether or not it’s a look being performed by someone I would say is actually beautiful or actually sexy."

    Yes! At a glance, it's easy to pass for a certain desirable stereotype. With a little styling, nearly anyone could approximate Hot Blond Chick, Goth Girl, Foxy Hipster, Sexy Librarian... insert preferred type here. You can quote or channel despite any number of perceived imperfections.

    "You can tell from your volume of business if you’re undercharging."

    Yes, true in all kinds of fields.

  2. I take male attention for granted too. So far, it's been fairly constant in my life. I'm sure there will come a time when I don't have it anymore. I think this because I see other women, yes, older women, who don't seem to get attention for their looks. But this is ok, I think. Part of being human.

    " I charge a lot. It’s ridiculous, given that I’m just basically a normal person. " <-- my favorite line.

    Charlotte, I love the way you acknowledge your humanity.

  3. Rebekah, I was intrigued by that aspect as well, the idea that it's about signifiers of a "look," not inherently having any particular quality. (Not that Charlotte doesn't have a special quality of her own--she does; it's more that in the web cam guise she received a lesson in how to angle certain signifiers in a very direct manner).

    Aurelia, I've heard some women who have "aged out" of the male gaze say that they missed the attention, and others say that it was an enormous relief. I think of this scene in "Six Feet Under" when Kathy Bates shoplifts a scarf, saying something like, "Women our age are invisible, we may as well capitalize on it." I think most of us have a pretty complicated relationship to being looked at and I don't think there's an easy answer to whether it's desired to be gazed upon. We'll see!

  4. There was a blog I followed sometimes on
    I wonder if its the same person your talking to. She used to but up the most beautiful pictures of people, mostly naked, and it always amazed me how similar how choice in music and books were. So much that I'd sometimes made the effort to go and buy the books she said she liked if I haven't already read it. I went online today and couldn't find it anymore.

  5. How similar *our* choices were :)

  6. Hi Nasiha--Yes, that's the same Charlotte! She took down her Tumblr for the time being, but her Wordpress blog ( is still up and running. It's writing, not images, but it's still her voice if you're wanting more of it.

    Thank you for reading!

  7. I've been reading NB for several years. I'm also a man who regularly has sex with expensive prostitutes like Charlotte. In her comments above she speaks directly to my experiences, and my rationale: "But usually they seem really delighted to be around a female. They like the way bodies naturally arrange themselves, and they like finding out about how our bodies are different from one another."

    In her NB blog the voice is both more opaque, and more direct. Painful, often, in the longing--sometimes for a deeper connection to her client, sometimes for a deeper insight into herself. Remarkable reading.

  8. Anonymous, thank you for reading here. Charlotte's work is indeed remarkable. It's interesting to hear your thoughts as well--because prostitution is underground in many ways it's not something we hear discussed in frank terms, instead lapsing into cliches that most of us get from movies.

  9. Autumn: I think that's why I am so nourished by Charlotte's writing: she's the closest thing I have to a conversation partner on the subject. The encounters I've had with prostitutes--probably 300 or more individuals, and a number of those many times--add up to thousands of little discoveries about their bodies and my own. I may be in the minority, but I pay a lot of attention to her responses. We don't get there every time, but my most fulfilling sessions mean she climaxed. I'm a lifelong endurance athlete with sexual endurance to match. I find that once she sees I'm not a fast finisher, we can shift into a different erotic gear. It's not love, but Eros is in the room.