Effective PR: spinning sex for sale

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Tue, 9 Mar 1999 03:32:07 -0800

(Reputation Management Oct 1997)

Catherine La Croix holds down two jobs. First, she's a spokesperson
for her profession, chief lobbyist for an industry that employs an
estimated thousands of people. Second, she's one of the highest-paid
workers in that industry: a $500-an-hour whore. She talks with
associate editor Tony Seideman about her mission.
Catherine La Croix has no problems acknowledging she's a whore. In
fact, her immediate admission of the fact gives her the kind of power
most public relations people yearn for: the ability to seize hold of
a conversation at the start and have a good chance of maintaining
control throughout its length.
It's a subtle kind of aggression, but an effective and almost
essential one. As a spokesperson for an outlaw industry, La Croix has
a job that's at once horrendously difficult and outrageously easy. As
a whore-and La Croix prefers the term over prostitute-who is willing
to speak out about her work, she is virtually guaranteed attention.
The trick is to avoid becoming a joke; to not just be heard, but to
have an impact, changing attitudes and, in the end, laws.
In some ways, she speaks like a scholar on the subject of sex for
sale, in others like an angry activist. She is both. "The word
'whore' actually comes from the same root as the word 'gracious' or
'charming,'" La Croix says. "I don't like the word 'prostitute.' In
Latin, it means she who stands for unworthy purpose. That's a
patriarchal insult. 'Whore' doesn't bother me at all. When you go
through the transformation to become out and proud, you take away the
power the assholes have to stigmatize you or put you into a box and
say 'this is what you are.'"
Yet La Croix understands that throwing strong words around is not the
best way to keep hold of the mass media's attention. "I've got to be
careful about who I say it to," she says of the word "whore,"
"because it's really shocking to some. It's such a socially loaded
word." Understanding what the difference between what will shock and
what will move is a crucial part of La Croix's media strategy. The
approach has gotten her some high visibility.
"When I was on Oprah, I didn't get all hysterical, all excited," La
Croix says. "Some people have taken the approach that if they scream
loud enough, you'll have to pay attention to them. Of course, if you
scream at people, they just ignore you. Anything you say is
marginalized. My approach is to go at this the same way I'd present a
business plan in corporate America - talk logically, politely in an
articulate manner. Usually, they will listen to you."
Her voice projects a 90s sensuality. Deep and rich, it conveys words
in a smooth, rhythmic, precise stream. But money and power are
powerful erotic drives in today's corporate-driven world, and La
Croix understands this well. So on her voice mail and Internet site,
sensuality is a context, not a broadcast. Everything is cool, clean,
and sensible; conversations and copy are far more intellectual than
erotic. The tone, phrases and style reflect a clean, clear
professionalism rather than an awkwardly intense eroticism. So when
she slips in the occasional obscenity, the impact is even greater.
La Croix understands that the modern media won't pay a lot of
attention to someone who isn't safe in a number of basic ways. So she
carries her professional presentation right down to the discussion of
her work, quoting fees and price structures with the same bland
calmness that a dentist might describe the cost of a cap or root
canal. La Croix doesn't go into many physical details with the press.
She does, however, freely quote her rate, which is $500 an hour, a
sum that at once scandalizes and invites comparison to the amounts
earned by other professionals.
If all this sounds like a marketing professional at work, it is. "I
started out in advertising and marketing. I got a masters degree in
marketing communications UCLA," she says. She then spent a number of
years working at a Fortune 100 company, before choosing a different
direction, and started putting her body on the block instead of her
For La Croix, keeping her new life secret, under cover, was never an
option. She was far too aware both of the media's power and of the
incredible vulnerability of those who think there is safety in quiet
and concealment. So La Croix became executive director of COYOTE
(Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), one of the world's leading sex
workers' rights groups. (The group's web site can be found at
She is, in effect, chief lobbyist for her industry, its most visible
spokesperson. In that role, she has gotten a lot of media
attention-and learned some powerful lessons in terms of presenting a
message about a difficult business to a doubting world.
Stay on message. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, La Croix's
primary mission is to increase the legitimacy-and thus safety and
earning power-of her profession. "When I was on Oprah.... I was
sitting out there as a businesswoman.... and I am. I've been a
professional ever since I got out of college," she says.
She very much recognizes that talk shows aren't the only places where
looking competent and even managerial is a priority. "I sit on the
University of Washington's School of Social Work academic review
committee, and the first time I went to a meeting there, there were
two women professionals who consider themselves to be 'post modern
feminists.' They looked at me like, well, they expected someone with
too much makeup and too little skirt. I came in wearing Anne Klein.
That's what I wear when I work - the same kind of clothes I wore in
corporate America. They were a little undone."
Disarm through honesty. This is an especially useful approach in
today's talk-show culture. Handled properly, it generates instant
respect simply through the power of the admission. "I'd rather be
detested for the truth than loathed for the lie," La Croix says.
"When someone asks what I do for a living, I say I'm a whore. I'm
already an outlaw - socially and sexually. Being a lesbian makes it
even worse.... I'm a witch, a lesbian and a whore."
Project professionalism. Sleaze, which seems endemic to the sex
business, has no part in La Croix's act. Though La Croix talks a lot
about being an outlaw, her dress, style, and even business approach
all project a comfortable, mainstream image. In speaking the language
of well-educated, trusted professionals, La Croix is polishing her
own image and style.
Use statistics aggressively. There are few better ways to conquer
media skepticism than having facts and figures at your command. The
constant stream of data is impressive and choosing numbers that go
against conventional wisdom is a good way to add power to statistics.
In a typical comment, La Croix says that "90 percent of my clients
are married. If we go to the public and confront the stereotypes,
they find that actually only 15 percent of the sex workers are on the
street. Those girls are there for survival sex - trying to get the
next meal. They are victims. The other 85 percent willingly chose
this profession. There are all levels in this professional hierarchy,
from my making $500 an hour down to the girls in the massage parlor
making 25 or 30 bucks a pop."
Bust paradigms. La Croix knows she has to hammer at conventional
wisdom from the moment she starts a conversation. Showering people
with unexpected insights and information both builds respect and
enables a speaker to keep the high ground. "First, I have to get
people off the stereotypes," she says. To do this, she uses both
herself as an example and as many statistics as she can dig up. "For
example, I have two bachelor's and a master's degree. I was a
professional before... and I'm a professional now. Most women I know
in this business are sharp entrepreneurs. I'm involved in several
businesses - building a legal brothel in Nevada, a lesbian erotica
Detoxify the subject. Sex makes many people uncomfortable. So one of
the things La Croix does is to tell her audience that being a whore
is not really about sex. "People have a difficult time understanding
that in this profession physical sex is a very small part of it.
Attack unexpected targets. La Croix firmly believes that an offense
is the best defense. But she's very careful about who she attacks.
When it comes to managing a reputation, it's hard to do much damage
by attacking hardcore feminist ideologues. "Our worst opponents
aren't the male patriarchs. They're the anti-sex, anti-pornography
feminists like Katie McKinnon, Kathleen Barry, Andrea Dworkin. These
women are not interested in a woman's freedom of choice. The same
women who screamed up and down about a woman's freedom of choice in
Roe v. Wade are telling me I shouldn't use my body in the profession
of my choosing."
Have a definite goal. With all the spinning, twisting, turning, and
maneuvering La Croix does, there's a real risk that it will begin to
seem that she's visible for no other reason but to get exposure.
That's not the case, however. Her stated mission is to "reach a
negotiated compromise-that we decriminalize sex work with certain
regulations." Accepting both decriminalization and the need for
regulations is yet another one of La Croix's strategies.
Compromise when necessary. Unwillingness to shift in response to
public opinion is a definite no-no in the modern media. By starting
with a compromise position, La Croix gains stature as a spokesperson
who understands how the world works and is willing to sacrifice to
make a solution. Though sometimes her description of the situation
sex workers face is not something that would appear in the general
Activists who have called for complete legalization have probably
harmed their cause, La Croix says. "The hue and cry of the sex
worker's case for many years is the call for total decriminalization
of sex work. It's an all or nothing approach. The problem with that
is it gets you just that - nothing."
Cultivate empathy. It's a harsh world, and everybody deserves a
little sympathy. Whores are workers just like everyone else, La Croix
says. "What we want the public to see us as is professionals. We're
just another profession - it's what we do for a living," she says.
Dealing with distasteful situations is just part of life, she says.
"I was a Fortune 100 executive in marketing communications before I
was a whore. Often times, I had to deal with things that weren't
universally popular. But your role as a professional isn't always to
have people on your side - sometimes it's just to have them leave you
the hell alone. I don't demand that every woman in America become a
prostitute. On the other hand, this career is my choice, made without
coercion. So get off my back."
The principle is one that is applied in many disparate arenas:
informed consent.
Note that logic is on your side. La Croix scores points by arguing
that her case is grounded in common sense and logic rather than raw
emotion or old-fashioned rules. "As far as convincing society, it
won't come down to morality. Law isn't - or, rather, shouldn't be -
based on morality or religion," she says. "We can make the case that
we've been here for millions of years, and we're not going away.
Also, we can make a case that decriminalization means fewer workers
assaulted by police, by johns, fewer girls on the street," she says.
Finally, she closes the argument by resorting to that most American
of dispute resolution strategies: focusing on dollars and cents.
"What clinches it are the cold, fiscal facts. I ask 'Did you know
that in Seattle this year they spent 7 million of your tax dollars
busting whores?' I tell them that New York City last year spent $23
million busting whores."
Promoting an unpopular cause is never easy. But La Croix intends to
keep on her current path. For one, her very visibility is a kind of
shield. As a committed, vocal activist, she's too hard a target for
the authorities to touch. The fight is a lonely one; other groups,
including gay and lesbian activists, have rebuffed attempts to build
alliances. So she's building a new organization of her own, a sex
workers' union that will provide benefits and protection.
What's crucial, La Croix says, is to keep the pressure on. To stay in
the spotlight and keep a coherent message flowing. "Being out is
being a media whore - it's a term we use in the movement. Being a
media whore means that there is nothing you can use to hurt me."