Years before I ever self-identified as an activist (I usually considered myself “an army of one”), I emailed Michael Connelly complaining about his book Chasing the Dime. A client had given me a Harry Bosch book and I really enjoyed it. When I discovered Connelly had written a book about the murder of a callgirl, I bought it immediately. I finished the book only because I’m a stubborn cuss. Then I hurled it across the room, with great force; and dug up his email address.

I complained because the callgirl who was the driving force behind the entire book was dead before page 1. She was murdered by an advertising mall that reminded me of CityVibe. (I’ll assume Connelly’s research led him to create a company that was a combination of CityVibe and Eros with a whole lot of stereotyping thrown in. Believe me, I don’t think the CityVibe folks go around murdering their Verified Escorts, no matter how flaky the girls are.) The girl even did some BDSM scenes for online consumption, which included the horrors of having hot wax dripped onto her torso by her female modeling partner and the obvious faking of facial expressions for money. I asked Connelly why he felt the need to murder his callgirl, why couldn’t she have been alive at some point in the book, why did she have to be such a victim?

His assistant replied that Connelly was building sympathy for the character. I immediately shot back, commenting that not only was that lazy writing, people are capable of being sympathetic while alive, even callgirls. I never heard back and honestly did not expect to. Why would his assistant waste time arguing about a fictional dead callgirl with some partially-fictional blonde escort in Dallas?

That exchange has always stuck in my mind. Connelly has obvious fictional talents; I enjoyed his Harry Bosch book and millions of other people have enjoyed that entire series. The main character in Chasing the Dime wasn’t very sympathetic, should he have been killed too? On the other hand, this character was so intrigued by the callgirl that he solved her murder. That doesn’t happen too often in real life. Obviously the cops were less than concerned, which reflects reality precisely.

That the only way an experienced crime-writer like Connelly felt a sex worker could ever possibly be a “good girl” is to be a dead girl is profoundly disturbing to me. Millions of people read his books and they’re absorbing his message: the only good hooker is a dead one. The only way they can feel sorry for us is if we’ve paid for our sins with death. Even the mundane details of the girl’s life (she drank milk! she has a good credit rating! a cute little house! a pet! a family who misses her!) are presented as exotica. As if she is somehow completely removed from all normal human existence, as though she was created, lived and worked in a vacuum. Her murder was her only connection to the “real” world in the book.

For Connelly, the problem is that he could not have sympathy for her as a normal, living human being.

23 thoughts on “sympathy for the she-devil

  1. It does sound like lazy writing full of cliches worthy of your average TV fare. Connelly was a reporter for the LA Times and this may be a clue as to why… 😉

    If you want to read the truth, you’ll probably have to write it yourself, Amanda (hint: you got the chops!). This way the public would be exposed to something else than fairy tales a la ‘Pretty Woman’ or dead-hooker-who-had-it-coming cautionary ones.

    There’s truth at the core of every cliche, but it takes a truly gifted writer and/or someone who paid their dues in the field they portray to dig below the surface and deliver the real goods.

  2. Amanda,

    Have you heard the expression; “Dog bites man is not news – man bites dog is news”? In order for Connelly to generate sales of his book, he had to have the callgirl killed off very early because she was just a normal girl earning a living and not the sterotypical addicted, homeless, std infected callgirl. Also, remember Sidney Biddle Barrows- the “Mayflower Madam”? Her fame came about, not because of being a madam in NYC, but because of her family background – that was what made her story newsworthy.
    A couple of historical facts that might or might not be germane to this post as well as the previous one:
    The US Constitution was ratified in 1788.
    The Twentieth Amendment was ratified in 1920.
    If my math is correct, it took 132 years for women to earn the right to vote.
    In addition, the Fifteenth Amendment which was ratified in 1870 prohibited denial of the right to vote based upon race, color or previous condition of servitude, but did not mention anything about denying voting rights to women. WOW – 50 years after former slaves were permitted to vote (theoretically), women earned the right to vote.
    Just as wrongs in the past have sometimes taken forever (it seems) to be corrected, it is going to take a long time for sex work to be accepted as something that should be decriminalized. It should have happened years ago, but it didn’t.
    I believe it is going to take blogs like this one and you and/or someone of your literary ability (or several someones) to continue to push and push with sound reasoning, provocative thoughts, and words to make the necessary changes and move the mind set of the general public.
    Will it happen with the snap of a finger – of course not, but it can happen sooner rather than later if it can be shown that decriminalization of sex workers is the right thing to do as well as addressing the safety concerns and protection of minors and other victims. The “invisible majority” has its work cut out for it, but YOU can accomplish what YOU seek. At least, I hope you can because when you do, people will wonder why it took so long – IMHO.

  3. I don’t want to speak for her, but from previous discussions Amanda seems to think that laws have to change first, and then public opinion will follow.
    I think that while it does happen that way (in the case of lawsuits against the government, for example), in general politicians rather sit on bills and wait for the “wind” to pick up before pushing them. Pols are self-serving; few have the militant gene and take up unpopular causes. Now if it’s in the zeitgeist, they see an opportunity to look good and/or raise their profile.

    So everything that helps shape public opinion lays the ground work for legal progress. And this is where people like Amanda come in.

    Sex work is one of these issues where a behavior that is so widespread and harmless can’t be kept illegal without everybody looking the other way. So today’s society hypocrisy has to be shoved in the public’s face.
    Laws exist to protect society against deviant and harmful behavior, after all, not against what everybody (and their judge, and cop, and politician) is doing.

    I could be wrong, though; it wouldn’t be the first time!

  4. Hobbyist,

    I agree with you and do not believe you are wrong, but if you are, it would probably be the very first time. I would prefer to see sex work decriminalized at this time instead of trying to make it legal. After exposing the hypocrisy of continuing the illegality of sex work, it will be easier to legalize it.
    Politicians do tend to sit on their “bills” and wait for the public to push them. IMHO, a vast number of politicans tend to believe that the sole purpose of government is to protect politicians.

  5. Thanks, Larry! People are going to start thinking we’re the same guy behind two handles, though… lol

    And you’re right, Amanda made me see the light on that: the best scenario for all is decrim, not legalization, of course.

  6. We aren’t the same person? I am shocked and will have to go into counseling on Monday as I thought we must have, at a minimum, been separated at birth! Maybe we can come out of the “closet” along with some of Amanda’s “invisible majority”.
    Have a great weekend as well as a great 2011.

  7. Hobbyist — I’m no fiction writer. Not even close. I would very happily promote quality sex worker fiction though!

    The truth in the cliche is that sex worker deaths are overlooked and their lives undervalued. I think Connelly understands this in a vague way but he certainly didn’t do the concept justice.

    Larry — I wasn’t aware of the Mayflower Madam when she got busted, but I have read her book about those events. She was pretty savvy in using the media to her advantage as much as possible — also newsworthy in its own rights at that time.

    Thanks for your kind words.

    About decrim — it is a two-pronged effort: public awareness and pushing for legislative change. There are a LOT of details that go into both (especially public awareness) but we have a model for legal efforts thanks to New Zealand.

    Though it seems counter-intuitive, it is CRUICIAL to change the laws first. Public opinion will not change enough till the laws are changed. Too many people can successfully argue that sex workers are criminals. Change that and suddenly the public MUST deal with sex workers as citizens with full rights just like anyone else. It changes the conversation entirely. This is obvious from other countries. America won’t be different. Our legal strategies are splintered because there is no such thing as a federal law against prostitution (at an individual level). We have to turn this to our advantage. Public awareness can easily be done at a national level though, and that doesn’t have to change.

    The biggest part of public awareness (in my one-track mind) is coming out and creating grassroots awareness of the sex workers in our midst. This is probably the biggest sticking point for all sex workers.

    It’s even harder to find sex workers who are out and willing to talk to the media. I’m not patting myself on the back here, it’s not easy, it reaches into one’s life in unexpected ways. I knew I would have to do publicity when I decided I would write my books. Once I started down that path, there is not much turning back. That was a bigger decision than coming out to my family. Little wonder there aren’t many sex workers willing to be out to the media.

    I do see some change in the arguments around arrest. The economy has especially brought out those who wish police would spend their shrinking budgets on something other than arresting women in lingerie. I like that common-sense sort of thinking. I want to encourage more of it.

    XX

  8. For years, I used to take notes on every film I saw that involved a prostitute of some sort, and with the exception of a few, nearly all carried the same message. the prostitute gets “punished” in some way, whether it be raped, murdered, or assaulted. I think most writes lack any sort of creativity in writing sex worker characters…they figure they must be a victim of some sort. that said, violence and crime make for good “stories” and most writers use violence to drive their writing. And we wonder why violence permeates our society so much? Because it’s interesting to read about.

    That said, have you ever seen the film “The Dead Girl”? Very similar story. I unexpectedly really liked that film though I didn’t think I would.

  9. Then, there’s the epitome of rescue stories: Pretty Woman. She’s really a “good” girl, she’s not cut for it, she just needs the right guy to come along…

    To be fair, I don’t think there’s too many groups or professions that are immune from lazy and stereotypical depictions in most works of fiction.
    I’m not saying this is right, just that sex work isn’t specifically targetted for misinformation.

  10. Au contraire, my esteemed erudite brother – Klute is the epitome of rescue stories. Or am I the only one who regularly reads Amanda’s blog who is old enough to have seen that movie in a theater? All forms of fiction are subject to stereotypical depictions, but most are about professions or ethnic groups in which the viewing/reading public believe that the “bad” characters are the exception instead of the rule. In works of fiction depicting sex workers,the “good -compassionate -saved” sex worker is perceived as an anomaly.
    Place Amanda’s CV and her photo among several street prostitutes’ CV with several non-sex workers’ CV and photos and see if anyone in the general public picks Amanda as a sex worker!

  11. Forgot about Klute, but it’s a generational thing, you’re right (I’m no spring chicken, but I think I saw it on TV as a kid and don’t remember much. Amanda did talk about it somewhere here). 😉

    I was specifically thinking of cop stories, to be honest, where the righteous hero is invariably fighting a group of corrupt/racist/fascist colleagues (there’s your cliche), while he (more and more she) is the squeaky clean aberration.
    But police officers and other G-men aren’t the only ones romanticized, misunderstood, and generally hated.

    I love The Matrix movies, but it’s clear, and this kind of echoes Amanda’s previous entry, that to the writers everybody good is a racial/sexual minority with alt looks, while everybody evil is a white male in a suit. Can’t get any more manicheist or PC.

    Let’s not forget that most movie villains of the past 20 years or so have been European white males (often French!), probably because few like them and they don’t have a lobby to pressure Hollywood into stopping the insanity… but I’m taking everybody away from the real topic here.

    Just wanted to show that your average writer doesn’t:
    1. Do much research and/or
    2. Respect his audience…
    …and therefore very often resorts to tired cliches and other received “truths”.

    Amanda, you’re going to have to tell us one day why you think you can’t do fiction, because you’re a terrific writer whose imagination is probably rich from all those travels and experiences!

  12. [Note to self: keep disagreeing with “Larry” so he appears to be a different poster from “Hobbyist”, especially if you’re going to slip French words in his mouth!]

  13. Tamara — Thank you!

    Serpent — I have a shit list of media too. Have never seen “The Dead Girl” and not sure I want to. There’s also a recent Bosnian film that is basically dead-hooker porn: the focus of the whole film is about the torture and dismemberment of a prostitute. Sickens me (no, I have not seen it).

    American society IS violent compared to a lot of other societies and we seem to have more issues with female sexuality than a lot of other countries.

    Hobbyist — Prostitution might not be the only profession to have stupid steretypes, but it IS a profession where these stupid stereotypes spill over into real life and causes real deaths. That’s the big reason why I have a problem with common media depictions.

    I identify with several things that have stupid stereotypes (like being Texan) but I take it with a grain of salt because being Texan isn’t enough to get me killed (usually).

    As for my imagination: I can think of things, but I lack the ability to flesh it out, have ZERO skill with dialogue and I tend to write in an awful lot of sex scenes so I doubt my fiction would be taken seriously. But thank you. 🙂

    Larry — I reviewed Klute on here! I didn’t take it as a rescue story so much as the beginning to a bad romance. But I LOVED the character Jane Fonda built.
    http://www.texasgoldengirl.com/afterhours/two-classis-movies-about-the-classis-career/

    Interesting experiment you propose. I would love to do that somehow. I’ve often wanted to give a talk and plant sex workers in the audience, then see if the audience can pick out the sex workers. I’m betting they would never get any right.

    Hobbyist and Larry — Though I never bother to look, I’m fairly sure your IP addresses are different. So no worries.

    XX

  14. Too many sex scenes? You’re right: that would never work. 😉

    Otherwise, I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but as sure as familiarity breeds contempt, stereotyping leads to dehumanization, and that often encourages or “justifies” violence.
    But I know that some groups will never get any sympathy, and it just keeps reinforcing their “us vs. them” attitude… and round and round we go.

    Oh, and Larry, my friend (and not at all the same person): a true “erudite”, even ESL, would’ve written “manicheAN”, but thanks anyway! lol

  15. Hobbyist – Haha – just trying to keep up with you and your eloquence. BTW – “Larry” is Larry.

    Amanda – Don’t you believe that John Klute was Bree Daniels security blanket when she was being stalked? And, at the end when Bree left NYC to go live in Middle America with Klute, wasn’t that the right way for that movie to end because he “rescued” her?

    I haven’t read all your posts, but I have not found anything that I have read that was not thoughtful and/or thought provocking, unreadable or showed ANY lack of writing skills. And sex scenes in a book/movie are always a good thing.

  16. Amanda,

    Without any collusion whatsoever, I believe Hobbyist and I are trying to see who can like you the most, but only for the month of January. In February, we are going to see which of us can make you upset the most. LOL and XOXO

  17. Hobbyist — Well, I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for cops. However, a dead cop raises a LOT more concern in society than a dead hooker and cop-killing is not a socially-condoned act (though some subsets of society don’t see a problem with it). The media-stereotypes about cops don’t lead to quite the same results as they do with sex workers.

    One thing I AM fairly sure of is that police stations aren’t crawling with well-dressed Playboy models posing as arrested hookers. Or did I get that one wrong?

    Larry — She probably liked him being around, he did the strong/silent thing well. But I don’t believe this film was much promoting a “happily ever after.” Though…what other way would it end? I doubt that story would end any different today.

    Thank you for the compliment on my writing. As for sex scenes…it really depends on the quality of the writing and/or the actors. But no, it’s usually not a bad thing. My fictional attempts are generally just porn dressed up with an idea.

    “but only for the month of January. In February, we are going to see which of us can make you upset the most”
    Ha!!! Oh, we’ll trade words again on some issue. Right now, I’m focusing outwards a bit, at least for the next several posts.

    XX

  18. Amanda, as I’ve done before I’ll pass on a discussion on cops… it’s just not the right forum. And to get into the nitty gritty, I’d have to disclose too much about myself and my experiences, which I can’t afford to do.

    Suffice it to say that I wasn’t trying to start a comparison between unfairly treated subsets of society. Most cops can defend themselves very well. Or lose their shit and beat someone to a pulp. Or eat their gun. Anyway, they’re big boys with weapons and they have options. 🙂

    But it’s amazing the number of people who stop looking beyond the uniform, like some do with skin color. Not everybody would take a potshot, but many wouldn’t care. “They are trained”, “that’s the life they chose”, “live by the gun, die by the gun”.

    Look, I’m just amused at people who see others as “privileged”, by virtue of anything (race, gender, wealth, station in life, real or perceived slights perpetrated by people in the same profession or class), and therefore not worthy of any empathy… unlike them, of course.
    Privileged folks can be dismissed. Their humanity doesn’t matter. Wasn’t it just the object of a justified outraged entry of yours?

    Life is a sea of shit and we’re all in the same boat, poking holes and throwing each other overboard. And back to that Guy Bedos skit again: “A little compassion! A little tolerance! A little understanding…. FOR ME!” 😉

    Larry, my man, you don’t stand a chance for February… 🙂

  19. Hobbyist — Fair enough. And yes, I will say that there are always those who feel cops bring a violent death on themselves by being cops, even if the death was an ambush situation.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head: privilege = not worthy of empathy. That’s exactly the problem. Only in this case it’s not me I’m talking about since I’m identifying as an activist. However, the messenger is already getting shot on Twitter.

    I’ve GOT to find that Guy Bedos skit!

    XX

  20. That was clumsy wording. What I was attempting to say is: people think “violent death” is as much a part of the job description for cops as sex workers.

    XX

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