by Guest Blogger: Kitty Stryker
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute.”
–Rebecca West, “Mr Chesterton in Hysterics: A Study in Prejudice,” The Clarion, 14 Nov. 1913, reprinted inThe Young Rebecca, 1982
I, like most feminists-in-training, have seen this quotation before. I heard it before when I was young and just beginning to come into my own with feminism. But only recently did I learn that “or a prostitute” was part of the sentiment expressed. Lovely — ’cause prostitutes and feminists are on opposite sides, right?
Well, guess what, Rebecca West, Andrea Dworkin, and Julie Bindel: listen up. I’m a feminist and a prostitute. Yup, I peddle in sex and sexual expression. I spread my legs for money, too, sometimes. I wear red lipstick and high heels and talk dirty. Sometimes I wrap my body in corsets and leather. Sometimes I wear Converse sneakers and jeans. I run my show the way I want it to be run, and I don’t roll over and play feminine fantasy mistress.
As a pro-domme I never had sex with my clients, something pretty typical of professional BDSM, which isn’t full-service sex work. As a prostitute I rarely did kink with my clients, because my clients were kind of nervous about doing kink with someone who didn’t advertise specifically for that. In London I ended up deciding that my ideal was to ditch both idealized models and be a kinky girlfriend experience, allowing me to do what I really liked: a bit of both. My job satisfaction increased dramatically with that assertion of my agency and my refusal to indulge the dichotomy, something that feels safe for other sex workers but felt stifling to me. In this piece I say “pro-domme” and “prostitute” interchangeably to embrace all three of my experiences in the profession; of course, other workers’ limits vary.
Do I sell sex? Yes. Do I sell a perfectly manicured, patriarchy-approved, domme dream figure? Um… no.
Looking over the comments on my last piece, I was amused and saddened to see that people thought that I was glamorizing the work, and yet I was someone no one decent wanted to be around. I haven’t found that to be true, of course, but that stigma is part of what keeps sex workers marginalized and at risk for assault, rape, and murder. Abusers know they can get away with hurting sex workers, because society says sex workers have no self-worth and are isolated. I was told multiple times that sex workers have a lifespan of 34 years — maybe it has something to do with the way people treat sex workers as less than human, including within the comments on pieces about sex work. And some of the worst comments have come from other feminists, women who feel they have a right somehow to gaslight me, tell me I’m worthless, and treat me like an enemy, not like another woman, and all so that we “think of the poor victims” instead of thinking how those funds are misappropriated by people in power to line their own pockets. Funny that.
One of the major complaints I’ve run into as a feminist and a sex worker is that I’m adding to the objectification of female bodies as commodities. One excellent and now ex-blogger Bitchy Jones used to write a lot about this, about how professional dominatrixes ruined femdom for female dominants by feeding into the passivity of “my pretty is my worth.” Or, to quote:
Dominant women are beautiful. And that’s why the guy gets on his knees. That is what he worships. Her beauty. I don’t just mean in porn — I mean the whole “story” of femdom runs along these lines.
It’s pretty interesting that, where men have decided to allow women to have “power” for their own wanky needs, that this is the kind of power they choose to give her. The power of being desired. A completely passive power.
And I’ve told you before dominant sexuality is all about *desiring*. Dominant sexuality is active — not passive.
*Wanting* not being wanted.
*Demanding* not being demanded.
But the beautiful Amazon thing is woven into the fabric of femdom (black PVC — since you ask).
This particular beauty myth — it’s the whole *dominatrix* industry really. That f*cking web of misogyny. It’s wrapped in this your-pretty-is-your-worth shit. The way prodom/fetish modelling/fetish art/fetish f*cking cabaret twists my sexuality to fit it into their saleable-commodity box, by telling me it’s about beauty, still hurts me over and over though.
Now, I get what she’s saying here. Definitely. That said, I feel like it’s a myth that’s been making the rounds, that you have to fit a certain type of beauty to be financially viable as a sex worker. I have not found that to be the case, and, looking at other pro-domme websites, there are a lot of body types and ethnicities, along with a variety in ages, and of all the types of sex work where you have face-to-face contact, pro-domming is probably the least likely to judge you on your looks; instead, you’re likely to be judged on your reputation and skills.
I think that in our consumerist society, we tend to judge people on what we think they’re worth an awful lot, whatever their profession. I mean, I can’t show up to the office wearing whatever I want, not having brushed my hair or teeth; no matter where you work, looking presentable is generally required. I don’t think that’s limited to sex work. But sex work is older than consumerism. It used to be sacred. And honestly, if I was in an environment where my housing and food needs were taken care of in a quality way, and if I didn’t need money to get by the way we do now, I’d be a sacred whore, doing it for the energy and the exchange, not for the money.
But I don’t live in that society. I need to put food on the table. If I want to be able to improve my life and quality of living, I need to make moola. I choose to do sex work, where I set my price and hours and vacation time myself (particularly in the U.S., where we have one of the lowest vacation time minimums in the Western world). I say, “This is what an hour of my time is worth to me,” and if a person disagrees, they call someone else. That’s OK. It narrows down whom I see into a bunch of folks who appreciate me in ways I would never be appreciated in the office cubicle world. And I have the control. I get to decide how I want to budget, whom I see and when, whom to be polite to, and whom to decline.
I didn’t have that right when I was an admin.
As an independent sex prostitute (something that offers me a lot of privilege, as does being white, educated, and middle class) I get to decide whom to see, so during my sessions, we tend to explore queer sexuality.My sexuality, mind; most of my clients are straight men, or at least thought they were when we started! And rarely, if ever, has it been about penis-in-vagina sex; men don’t come to me for that, because I demand more out of them. (And Bitchy Jones, it’s not that I don’t like sex; I do, but really, I need sex to be more interesting than just PIV to be hot for me, partner or punter.) I expect them to challenge their assumptions of what makes male and female, what is appropriate and what isn’t. We discuss and explore power: who has it, and how, and why. I enjoy demonstrating that penetration is not a male act, or even something only men enjoy. I enjoy discussing sex, and gender and class. I like to help men in positions of power rethink femininity and feminism. My work is intellectually stimulating and challenging, and it uses my brainpower more than any other job I’ve had.
And yeah, I also like sex, and I like sex with men. How does that make me less of a feminist? As a sex worker, I set terms, I create clear and defined boundaries. Sex work has taught me how to say “no” and stick to it, including in my relationship with my fiancé. I don’t see how that can possibly not be empowering for someone like me.
I am sick and tired of having to explain that, yeah, I do all that and I support women’s rights. Yeah, I do feel empowered. I put on my lipstick not as an expression of femininity but as a queer femme. Don’t take that agency away from me. I put on lipstick not because I feel less sexy without it or because men insist (I don’t see the sort of men who would, though they do exist). I put on lipstick as an accessory, a piece of armor that tempts and marks me as “other.” Lipstick is just the beginning of how I mark you as mine. It is part of my ritual. It is as much a part of calling down the Goddess for me as my bath or meditation before a session. My makeup is part of my process, and no, it’s not for the client. It’s for me. Who has the right to take that from me?
Over and over again, the people who seem to think they have the right to tell me to shut up and sit down areother feminists. Crazy, I know, that one group of women who claim they want to give women a voice make an awful lot of effort to hush women who have opposing opinions, particularly marginalized ones. It’s not the first time privileged women have silenced other women “for their own good.”
Last year I came back from Burning Man to find in my inbox an article written by the incredibly pompous Julie Bindel in G3 (a free U.K. lesbian mag) about how lesbian strippers are leading women to “act like men” and be abusive or some such. “Even lesbians who don’t give a toss about feminism should at least care about women being abused by other women!” she cries in an inflammatory op-ed piece. Included in her wrath, of course, is how San Francisco made things like lesbian sex workers, S/M, and porn acceptable when it isn’t and can never be. I can’t help but think she must not have come to San Francisco ever in her life. What would she say about the unionized Lusty Lady, the activist Scarlot Harlot, queer indie porn studio Pink and White Productions, Dr. Carol Queen, the Sex Workers Outreach Project? To suggest we are in need of rescue or insulting our intelligence seems distinctly anti-feminist to me.
I found out one possibility of how Julie would respond when I traveled to Edinburgh and ended up at the feminist gathering Ladyfest. My couch host was running something called “A Dialogue on Sex Work,” and I was going to tag along and learn a little on how things around sex work were going within the feminist community in Scotland. They had broken off of the Ladyfest schedule, as the money raised from Ladyfest was going to Zero Tolerance, which seeks to eradicate sex work completely (including pornography) because of their belief that it’s violence against women by nature. Expect a post deconstructing that idea soon!
Anyway, it turned out that the speaker from London hadn’t gotten a ticket yet, so they asked me to speak. With three hours to prepare, of course I said yes.
So I stood there, in my Lusty Lady T-shirt, speaking out about being a sex worker, a punter, a watcher of porn, and a feminist. Only one women seemed like she wanted to rip me apart; surprise, surprise, she was from Zero Tolerance. She asked me if I felt that I, as a white, middle-class, privileged woman, had a right to speak for sex workers. I pointed out that maybe she, as a white, middle-class, privileged woman, didn’t have the right to speak for all feminists. I also suggested that perhaps minority women, particularly sex workers, didn’t come to these events since A) they never hear about them, as the advertising isn’t anywhere near where they are, and B) they’re working women and are a bit busy trying to survive! I suspect many feminists forget just how privileged “feminism” is, how white, middle-class, and cisgender people have pushed out everyone else.
Frankly, it doesn’t really matter whether someone else wants to “approve” my feminism. I don’t need anyone’s approval. That’s what women’s rights taught me. I may get misrepresented by the media. I may get slagged off by moralistic people. But I will demand acknowledgment. I am a feminist, and a whore.
And I exist.