Interview: Kristin DiAngelo speaks out for working girls in 'American Courtesans'
'We’re just human, we’re just like everyone else.'
One of the most riveting documentaries I’ve seen recently is James Johnson’s “American Courtesans,” co-written and produced by former escort Kristin DiAngelo who also appears in the film. This moving film takes you into the underground world of American sex workers—an often misunderstood world that is usually inaccessible to the general public. DiAngelo interviews a diverse group of ten women who tell their poignant, endearing, and sometimes harrowing stories. Listening to their tales is fascinating and it may change a lot of the preconceptions you have about people who work in the sex industry. I sat down with Kristin DiAngelo in Los Angeles.
MSN Movies: I was so impressed with the women who are profiled in this film. What an interesting and diverse bunch. Did you have a hand in choosing who would appear in the film?
Kristin DiAngelo: Yes, I chose all of them. It was all me because frankly, a lot of women in this industry tend not to trust people from the outside—for good reason!
Yeah, I guess if some random director went up to them and asked them to talk about their lives on camera, they might be a little suspicious!
That’s why when women do appear on screen, we hardly ever see their faces. Our history with the press has been a little bit rocky, to say the least, so women tend to shy away. Most of the time when you hear from them at all, it’s in response to some political debacle. And then right from the start we’re bad because we’re connected to something that’s gone wrong in somebody’s life. It’s hard to see the other side when you’re always on the defensive. Many of us are also reluctant because we know that if we step out we can easily become a target. My own hate mail from church organizations has recently ramped up a great deal.
Because of this film?
Oh, yeah, you wouldn’t believe it. “You’re going to pay for your sins!” “You’re going to die!” Things like that. You get hate mail, you get stalkers, and, of course, there’s also the risk of getting arrested once you step up.
And yet all of the women in this film, including yourself, appear on camera without any attempt to hide your identities.
I’ll tell you why we did it. If some of us don’t step up and take the hit, things will never change. Somebody needs to say that two consenting adults should have the right to do what they want behind closed doors. Somebody needs to show that we’re not who you think we are—we aren’t demons, we aren’t vixens, we aren’t sexual deviants—we’re just human beings and we’re providing an important service that’s legal in almost every other country but here. If we don’t start talking about this, it’s never going to change.
What qualities did you look for in the women that you featured?
I looked for a broad range. First I wanted professionals who had a lot of time in the industry. There’s no way you can say with people who are decades into this work that they aren’t well versed in the good, the bad, and the indifferent! I also looked for women who were newer, who were from the age of the Internet—that’s a whole different experience. I looked for a range of stories but that’s not hard because there are so many different stories out there to tell. So I just listened to where they’d been, what they tried to do, and where they thought they were going, and I found these women who I thought were good representations and whose stories were compelling. I had many to choose from.
Does it go without saying that you believe prostitution should be legal across the country?
Each of the women in the film has a different take on this. I’m completely for legalization. I believe women should be tested. I believe they should be required to carry condoms, not thrown in jail because they have condoms, which is what’s happening now with the so-called “condom laws.”
Yeah. If you’re a known sex worker and you show up for an appointment with more than one condom, the police consider the condoms as “an intent to commit a crime.” You never have to do anything else, you get arrested right there. California just banned that, I think we’re the first state to do so. That’s because there were a lot of people thrown in jail last summer in California just because they were carrying condoms. Male sex workers, too, they’re the first ones who get hit with this. Such laws are not good for society as a whole, they’re not good for anybody, the sex workers or the clients. And yet we’re not allowed to carry them. There are so many laws that need to be changed. If you’re 15 and you’re held captive and you’re being pimped out or in the slave trade and then there’s a bust, in most U.S. states you go to jail, too. Even if you’re 10, you go to jail!
That’s insane. Is there any movement to change such laws?
You know, I liken it to the gay rights movement. There was a time in this country when we believed that people who were gay were deviant and we threw them in jail for the what they did in the privacy of their homes with other consenting adults.
And those laws are still on the books in some states.
That's true. We went to bars and pulled them out and examined what pieces of men’s or women’s clothing they were wearing. We did so many terrible things. And now we look back on it and we recognize it was wrong. That was “hate” in action. But people don’t call it “hate crimes” with us, they act like we don’t count. You hear activist Norma Jean Almodovar say in our film that we’re called “NHIs” when we get murdered—“No Humans Involved!”
I’m guessing that some states are more zealous in going after prostitution than other states?
Yeah, but you can never predict it because it depends on the political climate at that moment. It has less to do with whether you’re a Republican or Democrat and more to do with somebody in the media who needs to get a lot of attention right away. If you’re a politician, attacking us is a very low-cost resolution to low ratings in the polls!
Have there been any politicians who are courageous enough to take a stand?
No, because they see it as instant death.
One of the preconceptions that I realized I had was that most sex workers had some form of abuse in their past.
It’s not true—we’re representative of the society as a whole. If you look at any profession you’d find the same percentage. If you lined up a hundred women from all walks of life and asked how many were molested as a child, how many were raped, how many had a guy live off of them or abuse them or beat them, I think you’d find pretty similar numbers. We’re just human, we’re just like everyone else!
I was surprised to hear the women talking about their clients with such affection but many also had horror stories of some bad experiences with men.
Yes, that happens, but those aren’t clients, they are predators and the police do little to catch them. But most clients are really wonderful. And you find that you spend a lot of your time just listening to them. You want to hear how that person is, what their day was like, what they hope for in their life. I believe that this work makes us very compassionate, very connected to humanity.
Politically, clients often get the worst end of the stick. They get demonized worse than we do. There was recently a sting out of New York that got 109 men. A woman there was running for re-election and thought this would earn her a lot of points. They put the names of these men on a Wall of Shame, not thinking about how it would affect their wives, their children, their employers. It’s all part of the political game even though it this case it didn’t help that woman at all.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about sex workers?
That we’re not assets to society. And a lot of people think that once you’re doing this work , you can never get out. That’s not true. There are only a handful of us who’ve ben around for decades! Very few people could take this industry in the long-term—you really have to learn how to navigate it.
What’s your biggest hope for the film?
I want to put these discussions on the table. I want to change the way Americans think about people who work in the sex industry. We did this film as an educational piece to try and inform people and let them know that maybe the current stereotypes are not exactly the way our world is.