Posts Tagged ‘sex work’

2012 6 Nov

Clarisse Thorn Talks Porn: Censorship, Sex Workers’ Rights, & More

A writer named Justin Cascio just interviewed me for an article about porn. I enjoyed answering his questions, so I thought I’d share my answers with you, too.

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The Worst Part About Censorship is [scribbled out]How do you define pornography?

A famous lawmaker was once asked to define porn. He said: “I know it when I see it.” That definition makes me uncomfortable because it’s so unclear. Unclear legal definitions only serve the interests of people in power, and they create a bad environment for everyone else. Unclear definitions force creative people to guess whether their work will fall into an illegal category, and thus they create what activists call a “chilling effect” on free speech. This means that people censor themselves even when they aren’t doing anything wrong, because they basically don’t want to go anywhere near things that might be illegal.

It’s especially important to note that anti-porn legislation and censorship has consistently been used to silence a broad array of people, including sex writers like me who create theoretical or political material. Here is one very mild example: I get tons of emails from people who can’t access my blog because I’m censored by their university or whatever. That’s messed up; I mean, for God’s sake, I’ve lectured at some of these universities! If we must legislate porn differently from other types of media, then it should have a clear legal definition.

However! For everyday folks who aren’t lawyers or judges, the definition of “porn” is quite fuzzy. (Definitions are often fuzzy with sex-related issues.) I don’t see a big difference between porn and erotica, or between porn and romance novels for that matter — except that they have different target audiences. In that sense, I suppose that I think of “porn” as “visual media showing explicit sex, which is usually (but not always) aimed at stereotypical heterosexual cisgendered men.”

I’ve been talking about my new anthology a lot lately, but I want to mention it again because it’s totally relevant here. I just collaborated with an amazing tech writer, Julian Dibbell, to create an anthology called Violation: Rape In Gaming. The anthology collects different essays and perspectives about sexual assault in all kinds of games — video games, roleplaying games, etc. (I also wrote an introduction that explains different types of games, so if you’re not a gamer, you can still understand the anthology.) I think that this volume really gets at the heart of some porn-related issues, and hints at some of the definitional problems; if you’re interested in problems of porn, you should definitely check it out.

What is the ugly side of the porn industry, and how are regular users responsible?

The important issues of porn are the same as the important issues in all types of sex work. Did the participants consent? Are they working in a respectful, safe environment? I recently read an excellent article about cam girls by Sam Biddle, and I love that article because it talks about both the super-empowered wealthy Western women who make great money and live a fairy-tale life … and also the women, often in the Third World, who are clearly unhappy and exploited.

One thing I particularly appreciate about that article is how it points out that exploited cam girls are much harder to speak with directly than rich, self-employed cam girls. I firmly believe that there are many sex workers who freely chose and enjoy their jobs, but the following facts must be acknowledged:

1) Less privileged sex workers — people who are at a disadvantage because of their race, class, gender identity, or whatever — are more likely to be exploited and abused and silenced, because their disadvantages will be used against them. For example, a poor person is obviously more likely to do work that they hate because they’re desperate for money.

2) Less privileged sex workers are less likely to have the time, education, or knowledge to effectively articulate their experience. Sidenote: please check out the Speak Up! trainings, which are intended to educate sex workers on how to deal with the media, and help sex workers describe their own experience.

3) As a result of these factors, the discourse is often dominated by privileged sex workers. This is a serious problem. The activist Audacia Ray, who is a personal hero of mine, has an article about this. When you look at porn, this means that a lot of the sex workers we hear from around the online gendersphere — maybe most? — are having an awesome time.

And I certainly think that privileged sex workers should talk about that as much as they want! Shout it from the rooftops! But I also think we must be cautious about drawing conclusions based solely on those voices. I particularly appreciate privileged sex worker writers who both love their jobs and make an effort to highlight less-privileged voices.

So, what are a porn consumer’s responsibilities? I would be absolutely thrilled if more porn consumers would boycott porn whose employees are exploited. I acknowledge that it’s not always easy to tell whose employees are exploited, and whose aren’t — especially given the three considerations I listed above. Years ago, I published a two-part interview with a BDSM pornographer named Tim Woodman, and the most interesting part was the second half, because that was where he responded to audience criticisms from the first half. Tim received questions like: “If some porn models are being paid hush money, then how are consumers supposed to know which porn is okay?” And his answer was, honestly, that it’s often difficult and nuanced. (The male feminist writer Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote a response piece called “I Can Never Tell.”)

I have often thought that it’s past time for “fair trade sex work,” where ethics becomes a selling point. I have also often thought the most feminist thing I could do would be to open a brothel where the employees are treated well. Honestly, if it weren’t illegal in my home country, I might have done this already. (Which, incidentally, highlights one of the problems of making sex work illegal: making sex work illegal mostly chases away ethical people, whereas unethical ones don’t mind so much.)

In the meantime, there are feminist pornographers who work really hard to put out ethical porn. I couldn’t possibly name them all, but it’s worth checking out the Feminist Porn Awards, as well as the documentary Hot ‘n’ Bothered: Feminist Pornography. Here’s a nice piece called “The Five Hallmarks of Feminist Porn.” And for those with an interest in BDSM, I recommend the challenging documentary Graphic Sexual Horror — it really gets at the meat of these issues.

Extra credit: the male porn star Tyler Knight has some excellent writing about his emotional difficulties, like this piece. Just in case you were thinking that everything is peaches and cream for male porn stars.

Can porn use become a problem?

Anything can become a problem. I don’t have time for people who claim that sex-related stuff is more likely to become a problem than other stuff that feels good.

When I’m with people who are capable of starting the conversation from an agreement that “sexuality is not necessarily bad” and “people have different sexual preferences,” I sometimes have interesting conversations about porn use being a problem. But you have to start there.

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2012 17 Aug

S&M, Open Relationships, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” and Me

LarssenCover2I just finished reading the third book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy — it starts with the world-famous The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, then continues with The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. They’re good books: incredibly detailed procedural mysteries starring a charismatic middle-aged journalist and a brilliant girl hacker. Actually, they’re a bit too detailed for me — at one point I realized I’d just spent half a page reading about the brands and styles of apartment furnishings that a character purchased at IKEA. Seriously. And no, it was not even a little bit important to the story. So I skimmed a lot. But I guess some people like that, and there’s plenty of other stuff about these books that I like.

Larsson, the author, was apparently a feminist anti-racist journalist who did some pretty interesting work himself. He clearly had a lot of revenge fantasies against men who abuse women, and he liked creating powerful female characters, but those aren’t my favorite parts of these books. I do enjoy how he represents some subtleties of how abuse happens. For example, he shows quite clearly how disabled people (or people who have been designated disabled by the state) are vulnerable to abuse by those who are in charge of them. (Apparently the movie version is more graphic than the books, when it comes to rape scenes; I haven’t seen it.) But those aren’t my favorite parts either.

Mostly, I like how he represents S&M and open relationships.

I’ve said before that if I could get my dream representation of S&M in the media, then I’d want a couple who does S&M … and it ain’t no thing. This is true in the Millennium novels, and I love it. The characters have relationships, some of which are awesome and some of which aren’t. Some of them break up, some of them don’t. The author doesn’t bother being graphic, detailed, or generally concerned about the S&M. It’s not portrayed as a sign of dysfunction, anxiety, or self-esteem problems. It’s just something that the main characters do, and it’s not even a big deal.

Better yet: one of the characters is raped and later does consenting S&M with a consenting partner, and it’s still okay! Amazingly, we have an author who truly gets that consensual S&M is different from abuse! (As I pointed out in my piece on S&M and the psychiatric establishment, there are even people who use consenting S&M experiences to work through past abusive experiences. That doesn’t happen in any of the Millennium books, though; I just wanted to make a note of it.)

LarssenCover1I’ve been thinking lately about how, for me, S&M isn’t something that I personally obsess over anymore. I mean, of course I think about it. I’ve got so many years of experience doing S&M, researching S&M and teaching about S&M that I have a kind of S&M-lens that fits over my vision at all times. I believe it’s really important that we think clearly about S&M, and I think that S&M theory is relevant to a lot more things than most people think. Yet it’s not a thing for me, you know? It’s just something I do. I remember that a few years ago, I knew some experienced S&Mers who told me that they felt this way, and I was like “huh?” Now I get it. And it’s awesome to see it portrayed.

And open relationships. Larsson never uses the term “polyamory,” but there’s an ongoing open relationship between the journalist character and a colleague, and I like that, too. I also like how Larsson doesn’t downplay the difficulties. Jealousy is a problem more than once, and it’s dealt with in a variety of messy ways. In my upcoming erotic romance Switch Seductress (I plan to release it next week!), I’ve been working to portray both functional polyamory and problems that can arise during polyamory. It’s not easy to do, especially when you’re aiming to be accessible to a general audience, and Larsson gets my heartfelt applause for trying.

The books made me think a lot about where I want my relationships to go. I’ve written before that ideally, I’d love to someday have a primary relationship with one person who I live with, raise kids with, et cetera. I’d also like to have secondary relationships with other people when that happens. In the Millennium books, the journalist has a relationship with killer sexual chemistry and extreme intimacy, which is nonetheless a secondary relationship: his partner is married to another man. I want that.

But one thing I’ve been wondering lately is: how much can I develop a relationship like that before I have a stable primary relationship in place? I’m not asking whether people in general can do this; I’m wondering about it for myself. This year a relationship fell apart with someone I care about a lot, mostly because he’s not primary relationship material — and yet he’d be fantastic secondary relationship material. In theory, there’s no reason not to date him, but it’s just that if I don’t have a primary relationship in place, I can’t seem to prevent myself from wanting to escalate the relationship I have with him. It’s difficult and painful territory; and I’m not sure what to do about it, except stay away from it for the foreseeable future.

How much does it even make sense to have a secondary relationship with someone I’d consider having a primary relationship with? But on the other hand, if a man isn’t primary relationship material, then why is he worth having a secondary relationship with? There are so many contextual factors shaping the answers to these questions, and personal factors too: how much chemistry do we have, how bonded do I feel, what’s going on in the rest of our lives.

I guess we’ll see how it goes. Stay tuned, folks, as always.

Final note: Larsson gets into sex trafficking a bit during the various plotlines, and so I’d be interested to know how sex worker activists would review the story. All I know about Sweden is that they have a particular set of laws around sex work that some feminists claim are awesome; but I also know that many actual sex worker feminists (and people who study sex work) believe the laws are harmful and bad. It’s one of those situations where certain feminists who are Utterly Appalled by certain types of sex have made legislation that affects the lives of women who are actually having those kinds of sex. And in these situations, the bogey of sex trafficking is often held up as a banner for why that legislation is necessary, even though the legislation is hurting women. So when I see super-dramatized representations of sex trafficking, especially set in Sweden, I kind of automatically feel skeptical. But maybe in this case, I’m jumping the gun. (If you’re interested in learning more about the complexities of the trafficking debate, then I can’t recommend this paper by Bridget Anderson and Julia O’Connell Davidson enough. It’s incredibly nuanced, detailed, and smart.)

LarssenCover3Larsson died before these books were published, and apparently he planned more. That’s pretty clear from the sudden ending of the third, which left loose ends. I’ll also say that the first book, as is so often the case, is just generally better than the other two. Still, they’re all a fun read:

1. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

2. The Girl Who Played With Fire

3. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

(Full disclosure: the above Amazon book links contain my referral code, so you’re kicking me a tiny commission if you buy through one of those links. If you don’t want to do that, then search for the books on your own.)

2012 7 Jun

“The S&M Feminist” NOW AVAILABLE, plus: reading tomorrow in Berlin!

At long last!

I’ve learned from my previous experiences. This time, I’m releasing all formats of The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn at the same time.

* Click here to buy it for Amazon Kindle for $5.99.

* Click here to buy it for other ebook formats at Smashwords, also $5.99.

* And click here to buy it in paperback for $14.99.

* Also! If you’re in Berlin (or you know someone who is), I will be reading from The S&M Feminist and answering questions at Schwelle 7 on Friday at 8pm. Here’s the event on Facebook. I have totally gone international!

For this collection, I included all the articles that readers requested, and many more; I’ve written quite a lot since I started in 2008. There are 48 pieces in all, plus introductions describing the context in which I wrote them and thoughts I’ve had since writing them. Plus cute “study guides” in case you like that sort of thing! I recommend S&M resources, too, and have a glossary of common S&M terms.

The amazing adult sex educator Charlie Glickman, of Good Vibrations fame, has already posted a great review of The S&M Feminist. Excerpt:

Clarisse isn’t afraid to talk about her own experiences with BDSM, relationships, and sexual politics. But she’s also not afraid to explore some of the issues around consent, violence, and safety that a lot of the kink cheerleaders would like to sweep under the rug. She brings a refreshing honesty to her writing that is often lacking. Add to that a deep commitment to feminism and sex-positivity, and you have an amazing combination.

The tension between kink and feminism is a tough one to hold onto and most people end up firmly in one camp or the other. What makes Clarisse’s writing phenomenal is her steadfast refusal to avoid doing that. The clarity with which she discusses both sides without resorting to caricatures or stereotypes is simultaneously inspiring and challenging. If you’re interested in either or both, I can’t recommend her enough.

Thank you, Charlie! And on Facebook, the writer Alyssa Royse said:

I’m not especially into S&M and struggle with the word “feminist.” But Clarisse’s writing about autonomous sexuality is second to none. She can help you find peace and power in your own ideas of sexuality in a way that few can, simply by being brazenly and powerfully true to herself, in the gentle way that only someone who isn’t trying to please anyone else can be.

Now just for completeness, here’s the full book description:

Clarisse Thorn is a sex-positive activist who has been writing about love, S&M, sex, gender, and relationships since 2008. Her writing has appeared across the Internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, Feministe, Jezebel, The Good Men Project, and Time Out Chicago — and this is a selection of her best articles. Also included is Clarisse’s commentary on the context in which she wrote each piece, the process of writing it, and how she’s changed since then. Plus, there are “study guides” to help readers get the maximum mileage from each section!

Clarisse has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including museums and universities across the USA. In 2009, she created and curated the ongoing Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s historic feminist site, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. In 2010, she returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable S&M institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. For anyone with an interest in activism, S&M, polyamory (open relationships), dating dynamics and/or sex theory, this book is guaranteed to give you plenty to think about.

Yes! Buy it! Kindle. Or Smashwords. Or paperback. And tell your friends. Your lovers. Your reading group. Your local dungeon. And anyone who’s anywhere near Berlin. (San Francisco, I’m coming for you next ….)

2012 1 Jun

A Sugar Baby Leaves The Business

This is a slightly longer version of an article that was originally published at Role/Reboot. It also appears in my new collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn, which you can buy for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

* * *

Previously on Role/Reboot, we ran an interview with my friend Olivia, a 25-year-old graduate student who had just started having sex for money through a “sugar baby” website called SeekingArrangement.com. In the interview, Olivia covered a lot of topics. She mentioned that she usually feels powerful in her relationships with her clients. As she put it, “When I show up, I don’t feel like — here is this rich, powerful person who is about to bestow wealth upon me. I feel like — here is this person who is a bit sad and lonely, and maybe I can make their day better.” Olivia also noted that her negotiations can be delicate, because some men are quite squeamish while discussing money. And she explained that she’s married — but it was already an open relationship, and she doesn’t see having sex for money as different from the other kinds of sex that she and her husband were already having with other people. To deal with it, they’re sure to communicate clearly. As Olivia said, “We just have to talk about it.”

In the months since that interview, Olivia and I have hung out occasionally to talk about her experience with sex work. She’s traveled across the city to meet me, and often bought me coffee; non-judgmental social support for sex workers can be rare, and I’ve seen more of her since she started the job. Although she really enjoyed the work at first, there were tough times too, especially after the novelty wore off. Recently, Olivia decided to stop seeing clients. We talked it through and she gave me permission to write about it. (She also reviewed this article pre-publication.)

Obviously, there were logistical complexities from the beginning. Taxes were a nightmare. Olivia wanted to pay them, but it’s not the easiest proposition. Then there was the question of paying off her debts. Some were simple enough, but then there were loans co-signed by her parents, and there was no way she could make any headway on those loans without talking to her parents… so Olivia had to maintain the fiction that she couldn’t pay.

That was nothing compared to the complexities of feelings and communication, though. I’ve already shown you how hard it was, sometimes, for Olivia to talk about money with her clients. There are other, subtler problems that are hard to handle with empathy: for example, creating the Girlfriend Experience persona.

I’ve talked to sex workers who enjoy creating a “sexy dreamgirl shell” on behalf of their clients. One of them said to me: “I create that persona for my boyfriends anyway. It’s nice to be paid for it.” But as a feminist sex writer who’s spent years working to understand my own sexual authenticity, this freaks me out a bit. I think it would feel terribly toxic and inauthentic for me.

It often felt inauthentic to Olivia, for sure, and that got harder and harder. “These men are very invested in believing that I’m super into this,” she told me once. “I have to keep up the front, and make them feel like I’m interested all the time. It’s literally my job to do that. When they tell me how happy I am, or when they inform me that I’m enjoying myself, I can’t really contradict them, even if it’s not true. Some of them use words like ‘magical’ to describe me, but the person they’re describing is not really me. Sometimes I think these guys pay me because in a non-professional relationship, a woman might push back when he says those things. She might contradict his idea of her too much.”

In fairness, Olivia naturally fits one glam stereotype of the middle-class sex worker: the sexually adventurous young student. It’s such a widely-promoted stereotype that experienced sex worker activists speak derisively about it, and some escorts lie and say that they fit the profile when they don’t. Presumably, clients enjoy believing that a girl is a sexually adventurous college student because it capitalizes on images of “sexy coeds” — and convinces the client that she’s not being emotionally harmed by the work. (I’ve often thought that it’s way past time for “fair trade prostitution,” where sex trade ethics are made into a competitive advantage. I’ve also thought that the most feminist thing I could ever do would be to open a brothel where all the sex workers are treated well. Too bad it’s illegal.)

Of course, SeekingArrangement.com actively encourages the idea that a “real relationship” can emerge from these arrangements. (In our previous interview, Olivia pointed out the SeekingArrangement blog post “Sugar Baby & Sugar Daddy: The Modern Day Princess & Prince?” Another interesting one is called “Sugar Babies Do Fall In Love.”) While some guys on the site really do just want to pay for straight-up sex, some become emotionally invested in the women whose company they buy. And we can tell from Olivia’s experiences negotiating payment that a lot of guys don’t like thinking about how they’re paying for it.

Bottom line: more than one of Olivia’s clients were into her for real, and she felt more and more uncomfortable about it as time passed. One man took a surreptitious photo of her and hung it on the center of his otherwise-bare refrigerator. Another client made faux-offhand wistful comments such as, “If you weren’t already married, haha….”

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2012 17 Apr

Can We Make This More Complicated?

Things aren’t black and white. Life is complicated. I’d like to think that these are obvious truths, but how do we express them, how do we understand them, how do we work towards them? Especially while identifying as part of a movement that is, arguably, a blunt ideology … such as feminism?

Some of my most valuable feminist experiences arose from being trained as an advocate for sexual assault survivors. Advocates are called in for crisis counseling and to help survivors understand the options they have for dealing with assault. My training instructed me to foreground three themes while interacting with a survivor:

#1. I believe you.
#2. It’s not your fault.
#3. You have options.

The point is to help survivors cope, and help them find resources. But while these principles seem clear, it’s never even close to un-complicated. A survivor’s story is never reducible to stereotypes or easy choices. The advocate’s role is to be there and listen without judgment — to try and help find a path through a thicket of pain, confusion, stigma, medical problems, and legal issues — and to support the survivor in their choices even if the advocate doesn’t agree with them. The point is to understand, not to judge.

I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of activism I am best suited for: understanding, communicating, building. Telling stories, where appropriate (and keeping confidence, where appropriate).

Of course, there are plenty of people that it’s very difficult to feel empathy for, as a feminist. Rape survivors are a group that feminists are expected to have empathy for, and expected to recognize as having complicated stories; we all know that’s crucial. On the other hand, I recently published a book about pickup artists (a subculture of men who trade tips on how to seduce women), and I’ve taken heat from feminists who feel that I’m over-sympathetic to those guys. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not an “advocate” for pickup artists in the same way that I want to advocate for assault survivors. But I believe that there’s value in empathy here, too.

As one of my feminist friends observed while we discussed the pickup artist book, I am arguably providing a valuable service by giving the men in that subculture a non-judgmental space to look at feminism. Also, by giving them — as my friend put it — “space to be ambivalent about some of the problematic things they do.”

When trying to encourage a person to question what they’re doing, it helps to understand that person first — and to offer them a sense of that understanding. I think there are a lot of icky things about the pickup artist community, and some terrible people in it. But it’s not black-and-white, and there are decent guys who learn the tactics too. If a guy is trying to learn tactics for seducing women, is he doing it out of loneliness? Or perhaps out of desire for a strange revenge on the “opposite” sex? What about both? How would these different motives change my interactions with him, perhaps even enable me to influence the way he thinks about women? With me, could he have the space to heal the damage he himself has retained from our broken social norms around sex and gender? And how does understanding his perspective make my own richer — how does it make things more complicated?

* * *

One of the exciting things about being an Internet writer is that my old writing never goes away. It’s always there, cached and mirrored and easily found by both friends and enemies. Obviously, this is also one of the most un-exciting things about being an Internet writer. It’s rare that I completely disagree with an older article that I’ve written; but there are some old articles that make me feel self-conscious, because I understand the complexity of those topics much better today, and my opinions have become much more nuanced.

An example would be the way that I’ve written about BDSM and abuse. I write a lot about my experiences with consensual BDSM — Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism — and I’m a feminist, but BDSM has always been a controversial topic within feminism. Sometimes it’s been controversial enough that BDSMer-feminists have been silenced: an editor at the iconic feminist magazine Ms. once threatened to leave if the magazine published an article by a masochistic woman, and thereby successfully buried the topic. Sometimes it’s been controversial enough to inspire non-consensual violence: a group of radical feminists literally attacked a lesbian BDSM club with crowbars sometime around the 1980s, claiming that they did it in the name of ending violence against women.

So being a BDSMer-feminist makes for defensiveness, and I began from a defensive position. My first post about BDSM and abuse was called “Evidence that the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse,” and outlined initiatives within the community that oppose abusive BDSM. Around the same time, I remember making comments I now regret, comments that I believed were critical but were actually harsh towards survivors — or comments that gave too sunny a view of the BDSM community, which is far from flawless. My next post on the topic, eighteen months later, was more empathic and complex. It was called “The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team,” and outlined how I would personally create an anti-abuse initiative that was friendly to alternative sexuality abuse survivors.

Now, these posts seem simple to me, but I was growing out of my defensiveness. I started feeling like I was genuinely moving the conversation forward when I wrote a post called “Thinking More Clearly About BDSM vs. Abuse,” in which I wrote specifically about examples of abusive behavior within the community, and used radical feminist theory about abusive relationships to reflect on how a non-abusive BDSM relationship could look. Building bridges; creating synthesis rather than antithesis.

Women with strong and different sexual desires exist, and especially with the Internet, we can’t be permanently silenced. (Although even on the Internet, there are still some attempts; my comments are often deleted on sites associated with radical feminism, such as the Anti-Porn Men Project, though I do my absolute best to comment inoffensively.) But I try to push aside my self-righteousness, because I really don’t want this to be a fight where all I do is scream “BDSM can be feminist!” I want to acknowledge and deal with real problems, like how BDSM might be used as a cover for abuse and how we can deal with that. I want to be established in cooperation, not resistance. I want to move things forward; I want to make things more complicated.

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2012 9 Jan

One Blurred Edge of Sex Work: Interview with a “Sugar Baby”, Part 2

(This interview was completed for and originally published at Role/Reboot.)

* * *

Sex work is a controversial and polarized topic, and there are many perspectives on it. My position is complex — but for me, when it comes to how we actually interact with sex workers, one important factor is whether they enjoy their jobs. I am absolutely in favor of giving better options to sex workers who do not enjoy their jobs, and I am horrified by the idea of a person being trafficked or coerced into sex that they don’t want to have. But I also know people who have sex for money 100% voluntarily, and I do not want to deny their experience.

My friend Olivia, a 25-year-old graduate student, recently started advertising her services on a “Sugar Baby” site called SeekingArrangement.com. I think it’s important for more people to understand these kinds of experiences, so I asked to interview her. Many people have pointed out that once a person starts thinking about the definition of “prostitute”, it’s a bit difficult to define what exactly a prostitute is. Some of my sex worker friends have asked the question: what exactly is the difference between a person whose partner buys her a fancy dinner after which they have sex — and a person whose partner buys sex with money? Olivia has thought at length about this, and I’m grateful to her for sharing her perspective.

Please note that Olivia is exceptionally privileged. What you are about to read is a portrait of what the sex industry looks like for a person who is very privileged: she comes from a white upper-middle-class background, she is not desperate, she is being paid a lot of money, she does not have a drug addiction. Many other peoples’ experiences in the sex industry are different.

The interview went long, so we posted it in two parts. Part 1 is available if you click here. In Part 1, Olivia told us that she usually uses the site SeekingArrangement.com to find clients; she described the nature of a “sugar baby” site, and she talked about some things she’s learned about gender roles. Now for part 2:

Clarisse Thorn: In Part 1, you mentioned that you feel powerful in your relationships with these men. But there are issues of your safety, right?

Olivia: I think there are issues of safety anytime a person meets someone they don’t really know, especially if they plan to spend time in private. And especially if you’re dealing with topics as sensitive as sex or money. There may be more issues of safety with this because some people really do believe that money can buy them anything. But for the most part, when I meet people they seem very respectful.

Things I do to increase my safety are that I tell my husband and my friends where I’m going to be, I tell them exactly where I am. I’ll do things like take down a client’s license plate number and text it to my husband. I’ve been thinking maybe I should look at each client’s driver’s license too, and text the client’s name and driver’s license number to my husband. I think some clients might feel threatened by that, though.

The most important thing for my safety is that I’m willing and able to walk away from situations. I’m not desperate — I won’t starve or die if I don’t do this work. I meet all my clients in public first for a meal, and if someone sketches me out, I leave. I’m not so desperate that I’ll get into a situation that scares me.

I guess I am at risk if I meet a really crazy person who wants to chop me up and put me in a dumpster. But I could meet a person like that during a normal night at a bar, too.

The major risks that I see include that I might catch an STD — but I use protection. I might end up alone with someone who believes that the money he’s paying actually gives him the entitlement to do whatever he wants to my body, but I’ve never encountered anyone like that. The thing is, as I said before, I haven’t met anyone who I think would actually describe themselves as paying for sex. The terms on which I continue to see these men are probably less explicitly negotiated than an escort’s terms would be. I don’t have flat rates, for example.

I’ve heard escorts complaining that people who use sugar baby sites are unprofessional, and I think that from an escort’s perspective they probably are.

Clarisse Thorn: If people are unwilling to actually talk about sex for money, it must be hard to negotiate your encounters. Do you have a set of steps for negotiation?

Olivia: I haven’t been doing this for very long. It’s varied so far. Usually, I meet them for some kind of meal, and we chat. We have a perfunctory conversation, like — “How was your day?” Then one of us will say something like, “Tell me a bit more about what you’re looking for. Why are you on the site?”

Then we’ll explain our deal to each other. Like, he might say: “I’m divorced, I’m looking for companionship.” At some point, money comes up. I am always extremely vague when I talk about money. I’ve found a good deal of variation in how squeamish people are about money.

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2012 5 Jan

One Blurred Edge of Sex Work: Interview with a “Sugar Baby”, Part 1

(This interview was completed for and originally published at Role/Reboot.)

* * *

Sex work is a controversial and polarized topic, and there are many perspectives on it. My position is complex — but for me, when it comes to how we actually interact with sex workers, one important factor is whether they enjoy their jobs. I am absolutely in favor of giving better options to sex workers who do not enjoy their jobs, and I am horrified by the idea of a person being trafficked or coerced into sex that they don’t want to have. But I also know people who have sex for money 100% voluntarily, and I do not want to deny their experience.

My friend Olivia, a 25-year-old graduate student, recently started advertising her services on a “Sugar Baby” site called SeekingArrangement.com. I think it’s important for more people to understand these kinds of experiences, so I asked to interview her. Many people have pointed out that once a person starts thinking about the definition of “prostitute”, it’s a bit difficult to define what exactly a prostitute is. Some of my sex worker friends have asked the question: what exactly is the difference between a person whose partner buys her a fancy dinner after which they have sex — and a person whose partner buys sex with money? Olivia has thought at length about this, and I’m grateful to her for sharing her perspective.

Please note that Olivia is exceptionally privileged. What you are about to read is a portrait of what the sex industry looks like for a person who is very privileged: she comes from a white upper-middle-class background, she is not desperate, she is being paid a lot of money, she does not have a drug addiction. Many other peoples’ experiences in the sex industry are different.

The interview went long, so we’re going to post it in two parts. Here’s part 1:

Clarisse Thorn: Hey Olivia, thanks so much for being willing to talk about this incredibly complicated topic. Could you start by defining a sugar baby site? What is it?

Olivia: I use the site SeekingArrangement.com. I don’t actually know how many sugar baby sites there are, but I get the sense there’s more than one. It’s very hard to pin down exactly what it does. I guess it connects people, usually with a big age gap, who are interested in exchanging some kind of material goods or financial resources for some form of companionship that is often sexual — but not always.

As far as I can tell, the site’s founder is very against the claim that this is prostitution. He puts out a lot of publicity claiming that this site has nothing to do with prostitution. At first I thought that he was trying to evade legal consequences, but I think he actually probably believes that. The site has a blog that he controls, and you can look at it to get a sense of what he’s thinking. One post I think is really interesting is called “Sugar Baby & Sugar Daddy: The Modern Day Princess & Prince?“, which compares being a sugar baby to a kind of “happily ever after” princess fantasy.

So far, no one I’ve talked to seems remotely interested in hiring what they see as a “prostitute”. They seem to want to be having sex with someone they find very attractive who is also someone they feel like they can respect, whose intelligence they respect. For example, someone I see occasionally — the last time I saw him, he gave me money at the end and he said that he felt good about giving me the money because he knew I wouldn’t spend it on, quote, “a designer handbag.” He seems to think that I am reasonably ambitious and have my shit together, and he seems to feel more comfortable giving me money because he knows it goes towards my grad school costs and credit card debt. My ability to write with proper grammar, without overusing emoticons, appears to be my biggest sales point. Men have told me this outright.

That guy also mentioned feeling more comfortable because he thinks I’m from the same social class as he is. There are a lot of class issues coming up in these encounters, I think. Being white and from an upper-middle-class background may help me get clients. My background has also given me a ton of confidence that puts me at an advantage when negotiating. I do not think I radiate “take advantage of me,” and I (nicely) tell guys who start doing that to go away.

The guy I was just talking about — he also mentioned that he feels like he doesn’t want to have sex with someone that he doesn’t feel at least a little bit connected to. There’s a distinction between meaningless sex and casual sex. I think these guys want casual sex — maybe they aren’t at the point where they want to deal with having a partner, or they’re really busy at work, or they already have another partner — they want casual sex but not meaningless sex.

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2011 9 Oct

BDSM versus Sex, Part 1: Divide and Conquer

Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

This post is about the political side. Several days after I wrote this post, I followed up with a post about the bodily side. But first ….

The Political Side of BDSM versus Sex

“BDSM versus sex” could be viewed as a facet of that constant and irritating question — “What is sex, anyway?” I’ve always found that the more you look at the line between “what is sex” and “what is not sex”, the more blurred the line becomes.

For example, no one can agree about what words like “slut” or “whore” actually mean. As another example, recall that ridiculous national debate that happened across America when Bill Clinton told us that he hadn’t had sex with Monica — and then admitted to getting a blowjob from her. Is oral sex sex? Maybe oral sex isn’t sex! Flutter, flutter, argue, argue.

It is my experience that (cisgendered, heterosexual) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis, het) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. I suspect this is because women face steeper social penalties for having sex (no one wants to be labeled a “slut”), so we are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “don’t count” as sex … whereas men are usually congratulated for having sex (more notches on the bedpost!), so men are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “count” as sex. (Unless they’re Bill Clinton.)

So we already have this weird ongoing debate, about what “qualifies” as sex. And you throw in fetishes such as BDSM, and everyone gets confused all over again. A cultural example of this confusion came up in 2009, when a bunch of professional dominatrixes got arrested in New York City … for being dominatrixes … which everyone previously believed was legal. Flutter, flutter, argue, argue, and it turns out that “prostitution” (which is illegal in New York) is defined as “sexual conduct for money”.

But what does “sexual conduct” mean? At least one previous court had set the precedent that BDSM-for-pay is not the same as “sexual conduct for money” … and yet, in 2009, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office decided that “sexual conduct” means “anything that is arousing to the participants” … and then decided that this suddenly meant they ought to go arrest dominatrixes. It’s not clear why the Manhattan DA did not, then, also begin arresting strippers. And what about random vanilla couples on a standard date-type thing, where the woman makes eyes at the man over dinner, and the man pays for the meal? Sounds like “sexual conduct for money” to me. Which could totally be prostitution, folks, so watch your backs.

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2011 8 May

Towards my personal Sex-Positive Feminist 101

There’s an aphorism from the early 1900s literary critic André Maurois: “The difficult part in an argument is not to defend one’s opinion but to know it.” Even though I identify as an activist and genuinely want to make a real impact on the world based on my beliefs … I often think that much of my blogging has been more an attempt to figure out what I believe, than to tell people what I believe. And sometimes, I fall into the trap of wanting to be consistent more than I want to understand what I really believe — or more than I want to empathize with other people — or more than I want to be correct. We all gotta watch out for that.

But I’m getting too philosophical here. (Who, me?) The point is, I am hesitant to write something with a title like “Sex-Positive 101”, because not only does it seem arrogant (who says Clarisse Thorn gets to define Sex-Positive 101?) — it also implies that my thoughts on sex-positivity have come to a coherent, standardized end. Which they haven’t! I’m still figuring things out, just like everyone else.

However, lately I’ve been thinking that I really want to write about some basic ideas that inform my thoughts on sex-positive feminism. I acknowledge that I am incredibly privileged (white, upper-middle-class, heteroflexible, cisgendered etc) and coming mostly from a particular community, the BDSM community; both of these factors inform and limit the principles that underpin my sex-positivity. I welcome ideas for Sex-Positive Feminism 101, links to relevant 101 resources, etc.

This got really long, and I reserve the right to edit for clarity or sensitivity.

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2011 17 Mar

The Sex-Positive Documentary Film List: 2011-2012!

SEX POSITIVE
pro-SEX, pro-QUEER, pro-KINK

a FREE documentary film series for people who like sex
curated by Clarisse Thorn and the awesome Sex+++ Committee!

+ Join our Facebook group, and invite all your friends!
+ Join our Google Groups mailing list to receive updates!
+ Want to volunteer to help out? Join our volunteer mailing list!

* * *

OFFICIAL FILM LIST: 2011-2012
2nd Tuesdays at 7PM
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted

Sex+++ is a film series and discussion group that’s open to all, where we discuss sex, culture, and sexual fun. When I started the series in 2009, I thought it would only last 9 months (here’s the original film list) — but Sex+++ ended up succeeding beyond my wildest dreams!

This year, we’re exploring some new themes:

+ Activist Sex (how sex and activism intersect),
+ Sexual History (how sex has been viewed in the past),
+ Love And Sex (how romance and relationships shape sex),
+ and Sex Everywhere (how people think about sex outside the USA).

You can RSVP by phone if you like: 312.413.5353. If you RSVP, we’ll save you a seat — and if the venue fills up, you’ll definitely be able to attend! In other words, RSVPs are not required, but they’re in your interest. Please note that we unsave seats at 7PM.

* * *

MARCH 8, 2011: “Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance” (1992) + “Jane: An Abortion Service” (1996)
#1: Highlights Margaret Sanger’s pioneering strategies of using media and popular culture to advance the cause of birth control, and discusses some of her early-1900s arrests and trials.
#2: Tells the story of “Jane”, the Chicago-based women’s health group who performed nearly 12,000 safe illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973 with no formal medical training.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

APRIL 7, 2011 — THURSDAY: “A Jihad for Love” (2007)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, April 7 rather than the second Tuesday in April, because the filmmaker is coming into town for a talkback!
+ Fourteen centuries after the revelation of the holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, Islam today is the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing religion. Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma travels the many worlds of this dynamic faith, discovering the stories of its most unlikely storytellers: lesbian and gay Muslims. After we screen “A Jihad for Love”, Sharma will talk about his more than a decade of work and experience in countries like Egypt, where he filmed in secret, without government permission, during Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.
+ Note that there will also be a brown bag lunch with Parvez Sharma at noon on April 8, on the topic of race and identity.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sex Everywhere

MAY 10, 2011: “Sister Wife” (2008) + “The Love Bureau” (2009) + “Muslims in Love” (2010)
#1: A fundamentalist Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage explains how she feels about it.
#2: Profiles a modern-day mail order bride service that specializes in matching Eastern European women with Italian men.
#3: Shows devout American Muslim young people pursuing love and marriage, searching for alternatives to arranged marriages common to traditional Muslim culture.
+ themes: Love and Sex, Sex Everywhere

JUNE 14, 2011: “Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papi’ and Wil” (2008)
A unique, sexy, thought-provoking and above all touching portrait of an interracial, polyamorous, transgender couple. The film involves several personal interviews and three explicit sex scenes: the first with Papi’ and Wil; the second involving an extra partner; and the third an S&M role play scenario.
+ themes: Love and Sex

JULY 12, 2011: “Outrage” (2009)
Examines the issues surrounding closeted homosexual politicians and their hypocrisy in voting anti-gay on measures from HIV/AIDS support to hate crime laws — and how they have harmed millions of Americans for many years.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

AUGUST 11, 2011 — THURSDAY: “The Canal Street Madam” (2010)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, August 11 rather than Tuesday. It will also take place at the Everleigh Social Club, 939 W. Randolph St., rather than at the Hull-House Museum, because we are partnering with the Sex Workers Outreach Project on their upcoming sex worker film fest!
+ “The Canal Street Madam” follows the story of Jeanette Maier, a New Orleans madam whose clientele included a number of powerful, high-ranking politicians. When she was busted by the FBI and torn apart in the press, they escaped censure, so after her trial she set out to fight back against a system that silences the powerless and protects the elite.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

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