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Email Is a ‘Safe Space’ Where Women Can Write Dangerously

Roisin Kiberd

Roisin Kiberd

Charlotte Shane's 'Prostitute Laundry' shows how email is still a thriving format for women writers in the age of social media.

Image: Christopher Sessums/Flickr

Since February 2014, Charlotte Shane has written her memoirs in email form. Published through the mass-email app TinyLetter, Prostitute Laundry records the author's sex work, relationships, and thoughts on her own body. In late 2015 the emails were collected into an ebook through a Kickstarter campaign, and published in May.

Shane's writing is confessional, but quietly so. The letters are personal, so graphic as to make you embarrassed if you read them on your phone in public (the virtual equivalent, it feels at times, to carrying home pornography in a brown paper bag). The format breeds intimacy with the reader, who receives regular dispatches stamped with the author's moniker. And while "Charlotte Shane" is a pseudonym, her 5,000 or so subscribers have never tried to dox her—they are part of a community built on trust.

"Really what appealed to me about TinyLetter was the directness of it… It was like asking 'Do you want this?' and they would have to decide," Shane said over Skype. "There's a level of cooperation and complicity." The medium gave Shane space to work out her thoughts, and her readers the chance to process them. Among the spam and work emails which constitute the average inbox, her writing appeared all the more sincere.

With email, readers consume in silence. On Twitter, they're encouraged to pass instantaneous judgement.

I decided I wanted to interview Charlotte Shane after reading something unrelated to her—a piece in the Guardian asking "Do feminists need newsletters?" The article was about Lena Dunham's Lenny newsletter, created after the Girls creator quit Twitter and said that it "truly wasn't a safe space for me."

Email might be a virtual relic, an anti-social media by modern standards. But it's being hailed as a "safe" creative outlet to replace Twitter, one which gives women freedom of expression away from the trolls with their bad-faith cries of "free speech." With email, readers consume in silence. On Twitter, they're encouraged to pass instantaneous judgement.

In Prostitute Laundry Shane alludes to being criticised online for her sex work, which gradually inured her against trolling. She also founded the blog Tits and Sass—"By and About Sex Workers"— where she saw the comment section invaded by non-sex workers (mostly heterosexual male) the site was never intended for.

Publishing through TinyLetter positioned Shane's work away from public commentary: She could deliberately shun "interactions," the currency of online writing. Even positive discussion ran a risk of turning hollow. "I didn't want there to be a strangely performative space attached to it where people would say things like 'You're so brave' or 'You're inspiring...,' those compliments which ultimately don't feel very sincere or well-thought out," she explained.

Suddenly our inboxes didn't seem private any more, and social media was increasingly censored and commercial.

The age of the retweet builds networked causes and unites marginalised voices, but can also represent "remix culture" at its most lazy. TinyLetter allowed Shane to develop a more nuanced narrative, one not in "real time," like Tweets, but reflected-upon and carefully considered. "Someone who has a confessional public persona should know that you're always editing," she said. "It doesn't matter how convincing the end picture is, whether it's literally a picture or one drawn in words. It's always half-truth at best."

It's worth considering Prostitute Laundry in the context of the year in which it was founded, 2014, soon after the Snowden leaks and the Sony hack.

That same year, Facebook faced controversy over its real name policy, and revealed that it was experimenting on its users in addition to censoring and manipulating their behaviour. 2014 also marked the launch of "creative" social network Ello, and saw Tumblr face accusations of selling out when it was acquired by Yahoo. Suddenly our inboxes didn't seem private any more, and social media was increasingly censored and commercial. Perhaps Shane's letter was part of a wider creative exodus, a search for something away from mainstream social media.

Shane explained her own relationship to email as somewhere between public and personal. "When my boyfriend was away I'd write him emails which were really intimate," she said. "But perhaps there's a divide between 'personal' and intimate. I don't know if I ever put anything in those emails where I thought 'I hope nobody ever sees this or reads this.'"

"It's supposed to mean something when you tell someone your real name. That's what I've always believed: it's supposed to be a gift."

Shane's deliberately curated approach has a precedent, one which is centuries old. Coterie writing was the chosen medium of 16th century English aristocrats, groups of readers and writers associated by friendship and social status. They circulated love poems, drama and political polemics (John Wilmot, "libertine" and second Earl of Rochester, was one of the better-known coterie writers). The audience was educated and often well-disposed towards the author, aware of their in-jokes and feuds. Today, everything from contemporary poetry to fan fiction to zine culture is likened to coterie writing.

Shane has written in detail about her own three identities—her birth name, sex worker name, and her identity as a writer. The pseudonym is essential to sex workers and a familiar "old-web" practice, albeit one Facebook would apparently gladly stamp out. But it has also long been a hallmark of coterie writing, used everywhere from slave narratives to, notably, women's writing. In Prostitute Laundry the persona of Charlotte Shane is porous, and deceit becomes a narrative theme: becoming attached to a man with his own dubious history, Shane refuses to tell him her real name and doubts that he's being honest with her in return. She writes, "It's supposed to mean something when you tell someone your real name. That's what I've always believed: it's supposed to be a gift."

This might render Shane a completely unreliable narrator, but a long and personal email also seems like a "gift," not least from a woman with a price on her time. Shane's letters endear her to the reader she openly conspires with; there's a sense of goodwill between her and her readers, reflected in real life by how quickly her Kickstarter campaign was funded.

Since shifting her focus to writing elsewhere, Shane no longer sends out Prostitute Laundry (she does maintain a new letter, however, called Post-Prostitute, along with a weekly playlist called Prostitunes) but the new book preserves it.

Prostitute Laundry raised the possibility that email is not a "safe space" at all: Rather, it might be a platform for women to write dangerously. The impression of the author having control over who reads their work, illusory as it may be, brings writer and reader closer together. It is at once public and private, intimate and oddly formal. Shane's career points to the clear advantages of email as a creative medium, one where public figures don't have to speak to, or for, everyone.