The popularity of Ira Glass's public radio program This American Life
is based on one simple insight: Stories are important. Its long-form
structure is a rarity in an era of soundbites and 140-character tweets;
its success depends on people being willing to shut up for 60 minutes
and listen to other people talk about their own lives. The stories that
Glass and his colleagues present are thoughtful, complex, and don't fit easily in the flashy, loud narratives of 24-hour news or reality TV.
But as adept as This American Life has been at bringing much-needed nuance and insight onto the airwaves, it seems that there are still stories that they prefer not to be associated with. Late last year, just before the elections, sex worker and activist Siouxsie Q began producing a podcast in the living room of her apartment called This American Whore. This January, she started to get e-mails from lawyers representing Chicago Public Media and Ira Glass, demanding that she change the name of her podcast or face legal action.
"They're concerned that it is too similar to This American Life," she explains. "And they're concerned about dilution of their trademark or people confusing This American Whore and This American Life, thinking that This American Life is somehow sponsoring my podcast, or something like that, and so in order to protect their trademark, they've requested me to change the name, and to cease and desist."
At first glance, Chicago Public Media's action could sound like a mundane, predictable, and maybe even reasonable request. Organizations of all kinds are required by law to protect their copyrights and trademarks or lose them to the public domain. And the name of Q's podcast certainly evokes Glass' classic show. But a closer look makes CPM's actions against Q seem specifically targeted to avoid being associated with whores, rather than part of a general strategy to protect their brand. Other podcasts with similar titles include This American Life Total, for fans of Magic the Gathering and other trading card games; This American Wife, which has over 60 episodes and directly parodies Ira Glass; and This American Horror Story, for fans of the television show. In addition, PBS airs a weekly series about the environment called This American Land. It's hard to argue that CPM and Glass have been diligent in asserting exclusive rights to use of "This American _____" in media productions.
After three e-mails from Director of Operations Seth Lind in January and an official letter from lawyers representing CPM and Ira Glass last week, Siouxsie Q considered blinking. Was it really worth going through all this trouble, and possibly money, to keep the name? On Feb. 1, she put the question to her listeners via Twitter:
She says the response was unambiguous: "We've definitely gotten the resounding response that This American Whore is worth fighting for."
A blog post by sex worker activist Maggie Mayhem spoke for many: "Our stories aren't often told because they're illegal to talk about and that creates the isolation that can drive you crazy over time.... We cannot access the resources that Ira Glass has to tell our banned, censored, taboo, NSFW stories, but we live and experience every moment. To hear that NPR would threaten a lawsuit to a podcast being run out of an apartment that is telling a story that is just as real and American as all the others but is literally illegal to share in the format of its namesake is disgusting."
The action against Siouxsie Q and its responses does prove the truth of that one simple insight that has made This American Life so beloved in our culture: Stories are important. In this case, the staff of This American Life have stepped out of their usual role of reporting on stories and instead become part of one. To sex workers, it's a story that is as familiar as it is ugly.
"It's less about the name," Siouxsie Q says, "and more about the narrative of people with power telling people without power how they should get their voices out there.... We're trying to get our voices out there, and then for all the people who have all the power... over at Chicago Public Radio and This American Life, who have all this access to things, for them to say 'No, no, no, you need to do what we say, and do it in this capacity,' that's what I think has gotten people fired up."
Perhaps the one thing that best symbolizes the stigma facing sex workers who try to speak out is the fact that even before CPM threatened legal action, the name of Siouxsie Q's podcast was declared verboten by Apple. Do a search in iTunes, and you come up with "This American W***e." Like the stories of sex workers themselves, the word has been tidily obscured for public consumption.
But the consequences of holding the lives of sex workers at arm's length are much more concrete than mere typographical prudishness. Even as she began to face off with the representatives of Chicago Public Media and searching for legal counsel, she was also coping with how loved ones saw her because of her work. In the last two weeks, her partner came out to his parents about Siouxsie's sex work, and with that one admission, everything changed between them. Two people she had come to love and care for suddenly saw her completely differently.
"Once they found out this piece of information about me, they've completely disregarded every other good thing about me because this one thing they see is so bad. ... They assume that what I do is degrading, disempowering, that I must be some drug-addicted woman who's been abused. ... And they really think that what I'm doing is fundamentally wrong."
It's hard to blame the parents of Siouxsie's partner for their reaction; after, all, that's virtually the only story about sex work that gets into the mainstream culture.
The story that Siouxsie tells about sex work is very different from the one her partner's parents have heard: "This American Whore is essentially about my pursuit of the American Dream," she says. "I have found happiness and a better life for myself through porn and sex work and the podcast."
If she does lose the name, it's unlikely that Siouxsie Q will be silenced. But This American Life's urge to distance themselves from her definitely says something about whether mainstream America is ready to hear the stories of sex workers as valid.