Don’t mistake Sarah Katherine Lewis for that other tri-named Sarah. Although Lewis writes about sex (and bacon) in the city, she’s not a slave to Gucci, Dior, or $1,000 shoes.
“I pretty much just care about being clean and covered up,” says Lewis. “L.A.'s all about appearance, and I like confounding the bastards.”
The up-and-coming writer recently made her way to Los Angeles from her hometown of Seattle, by way of Portland, New York, New Orleans, and a rehab stint in the Midwest. Which inspired her third book, My Boring-Ass Rehab Diary. Like her other work it is confessional and irreverent, filled with truth-is-stranger-than-fictional characters, and an attitude that shifts between fierce judgment, and gentle acceptance.
In her debut memoir, Indecent: How I Make It And Fake It As A Girl For Hire, Lewis approaches the sex industry with the anthropological detachment of Dian Fossey, the post-feminist bravado of Camille Paglia, and the smart wit of Dorothy Parker.
In her follow-up book, Sex And Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very, Very Bad For Me, Lewis adds the joy of eating to the business of sex. Highlights include a passage where Lewis challenges herself to see how much bacon she can eat in one sitting [SPOILER: it’s more than one package], a tasty recipe for fried chicken, and further tales of erotic entrepreneurship.
My Boring-Ass Rehab Diary is written as it is experienced, on a laptop in a bedroom in a houseful of 20-somethings, in between group counseling sessions, spiritual outings (both church-y and new age-y), with frequent trips to the kitchen in search of something healthy and delicious. As in her other books, Lewis assembles a cast of colorful characters. And ponders the nature of addiction and authority. Which prompted me to ask Lewis (via Skype) nosy questions about Carrie Fisher, karaoke, and the casting of the film that must be made from Indecent.
Kelly Hughes: What do you think of Carrie Fisher's work, Postcards From The Edge, Wishful Drinking, etc.? Is her recovery sincere, or does she keep falling off the wagon so she can get material for more books and one-woman shows?
SKL *laughing* WOW. And I thought *I* was cynical!
KH : )
SKL I actually never thought she was deliberately going off the wagon to find material to write about...wow! You just blew my mind!
KH I do want to think the best of people, but some celebrities do make a career out of the addiction thing.
SKL I'm not a huge fan of her work--I've read a few titles of hers--but she seems pretty sincere in what she writes about. And that's the thing about the 12-Step movement--a lot of the people involved in it ARE really sincere, and they truly believe that the 12 Steps stand between them and an addiction-related death.
KH Is there a drug equivalent of gaydar? Like you can tell if someone is either a user, or lying about not using anymore?
SKL *laughing* If there is, I don't have it. I don't even have gaydar. Pretty much, a lady has to have her fist in my cunt before I'll get the idea she wants to go to bed with me.
KH You've admitted that you can still use alcohol without being an alcoholic. Do you share that with others in AA? Do they go ballistic?
SKL Well, but see, according to them, I'm just in denial of my own disease. They just feel sorry for me and expect me to die in a gutter clutching a bottle of MD 20/20 any day now.
KH There seemed to be a time when people could be perceived as drunks, and people would want them to cut down. But they weren't expected to totally abstain. Why have we shifted into Alcoholism-is-a-disease mode?
SKL We've decided that there's no room for moderation in our cosmology, and that "cutting down" or modifying our consumption of our intoxicants is either impossible or beside the point when measured against the "disease" of addiction. The thing is, I don't believe addiction is a disease. And no, I don't go to the meetings. So that right there makes me pretty unpopular with all the 2-Steppers.
[KH I think Lewis means 12-Steppers, and not Country/Western dancers.]
SKL I think that there is such a thing as physical addiction. I had it, when I was addicted to heroin. When I stopped using dope, I got very very sick. I was physically addicted to it and it was very difficult to stop using it, etc. But it's not like cancer, which progresses whether or not you want it to or not. It's something you do have control over. Which bumps right into their first step: I admit I am powerless. Hell no, I'm not powerless. If I were powerless, I'd still be a junkie. Clearly, I have the power to make any changes I really want to make.
[KH At this point, my computer screen is paralyzed, and I refresh, hoping I haven’t lost our conversation.]
SKL Hey...did you get all that?
KH Sorry, my Skype froze...
SKL I FROZE YR SKYPE
KH You did!
SKL I BLAME BILL W
KH BILL W? (Clinton?)
SKL Dude...Bill Wilson? Founder of AA?
KH Blame Canada.
SKL TOTALLY Canada's fault.
KH In Rehab Diary, you pondered whether you could go back to your old haunts and enjoy them sober. Wasn't one a karaoke bar?
SKL Yep! And the answer's kind of mixed--yes, I can enjoy all the old places/old things sober. But I also don't currently identify as "sober," or "abstinent." I drink and use drugs occasionally. It turns out that the problem was not my methods, it was the basic suicidality behind my consumption at the time. In other words, I was depressed and drinking to deal with my depression...once I addressed the reasons behind the depression, the drinking took care of itself.
KH Did the rehab help with that realization...
SKL Rehab was awesome! But it could have been a yoga retreat, a stint with Habitat For Humanity, a fancy vacation to Paris...basically, it could have been anything that got me away from my old life and gave me the space to really think about what I wanted for a new one.
KH Some of the leaders pissed you off, but in a way, doesn't that help you determine your resolve?
SKL Well, the "prick tease" one was just a total fucking idiot. [KH: Read My Boring-Ass Rehab Diary for full details.] BUT, he was useful in providing comic relief and the enduring knowledge that most people in the counseling field are egregiously foolish. What was particularly interesting about the total immersion 12-Step experience was in gaining fluency in a language and culture I'd never experienced before, but that's so important to the lives of so many people...I mean, I'd heard all the jokes and had a fairly decent surface knowledge of it, but that was nothing compared to actually living with it for a month.
KH Do you think people go into that field so they can feel superior and pick on people when they are at their most vulnerable?
SKL I think a lot of people go into it because they really do want to help people. I just think that what they can actually do is pretty limited. And sure, some people are just there for the almighty mindfuck.
KH This is a good transition into karaoke. And Seattle. Do you still think it is culturally relevant?
SKL Yes. I mean...I miss the Seattle I grew up in, the small town where everyone knew each other before the big grunge thing hit. I mean...I remember my mom and dad shopping for coffee beans at the first Starbuck's, back when their logo was still a bare breasted mermaid and it was run by a bunch of stoners.
KH OK, favorite karaoke bar in Seattle.
SKL Ooh...Greenwood is THE neighborhood to go to for karaoke in Seattle.
SKL There's the Rickshaw for sure
KH And even lesser Chinese joints?
SKL Also the Yen Wor, which is freakishly awesome in its own way. When I last lived in Seattle, I actually lived BETWEEN the Yen Wor and the Rickshaw on Greenwood.
KH Oh my. And there is no way you can do karaoke in a Chinese restaurant sober.
SKL: Well, there's nothing really new about karaoke, is there? I mean, the Japanese brought it over in what, the 80s? I think it speaks to the human need to be ridiculous. What I love is when it's like 1:30am and it's like, somebody's mom is up there and she's crying and singing "Desperado"...that is so totally the best
KH What's your signature song?
SKL Hm. I rocked "Anarchy in the UK" at Yen Wor. Because, um, you don't actually have to sing...you just kind of yell. Pwned.
KH Are there a lot of similarities between the people at karaoke and the people you met in rehab?
SKL The people at karaoke are much drunker, for the most part…Are you a big karaoke person? Where do YOU go in Seattle?
KH I LOVE KARAOKE!
SKL ROCK!!! What's your song? Are you good, or do you suck? What do you love about it?
KH I first went about 8 or 9 years ago. I went to The Crescent before it was remodeled and discovered by the hipsters...
SKL Oh, old Crescent! Yes love!
KH As for fave songs...I think more than a certain song, I like to, near the end of a song, just start making up my own lyrics and go into a spoken word rant...
KH and incorporate what I see around me...
SKL Oh dude, awesome!
KH And point at people and include them in the story. Sometimes it works. And sometimes they should pull me off the stage with a hook.
SKL Have you heard of the Phil Collins Experience in Portland, OR?
KH No. Do they only sing Phil Collins?
SKL It's this one dude. And he does Phil Collins as spoken word. It is so brilliant. He never breaks.
KH I like spoken word (unless it's at a poetry slam.)
KH Especially if it's marginal...I love bad live theater...So much better than bad movies...
SKL ME TOO...I guess that's what karaoke is, really--it's theater. And because people are drunk and tired, it's usually bad theater. Isn't it?
KH One time at karaoke at Crescent someone threw a lit cigarette at me onstage. Someone was about to sing, but I stepped up to the stage and asked her for the microphone...
SKL What happened...?
KH It was at the time the hipsters were starting to outnumber the old guard gay crowd there. So I looked over to the side of the room where the hipsters all huddled together. And said something to the effect of, "I hope you're all enjoying slumming at the Crescent tonight..."
SKL *laughing* Busted.
KH …basically implying that they weren't respecting the established crowd there. And while I was saying it, a hipster walked by and flicked his cigarette at me.
KH I was ready to rumble, and gathered some of the butcher gay guys in the room to back me up, but it never came to that. But it was a bonding experience.
SKL *laughing* But wait--you're a hipster, aren't you?
KH I’m tall enough, so people can't mess with me.
KH People who don't do karaoke just can't understand all this, you know?
SKL Moment of karaoke beauty: think it was at the Rickshaw: some dude was doing "Major Tom". Everyone was drinking and ignoring him. But when it came to that part--EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THE ROOM did the handclaps. Perfectly on cue. Crisply. It was breathtaking.
KH Nice. It's like, if you can't sing, just do Cher's Dark Lady because everyone will do the hand claps, and applaud for you in the end.
KH I hate Mack The Knife.
KH What karaoke songs do you hate most?
SKL Hmmm. Oh Lord. That "What's Going On" song that straight white tipsy chicks always think they can sing.
KH "I say, hey! hey! hey! What's goin' on!"
SKL YES, that one. DEF Mack the Knife.
KH: I hate people who only know one song, and do it really well, but that's the only song they ever do.
SKL What was your most rewarding song? When were you the most loved/appreciated?
KH Most rewarding? One time at Crescent…I sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic...
KH And got $26 in tips.
SKL WOW! Dude, I've never been tipped for karaoke singing!
KH There were Vets in the house. I knew my audience.
SKL That is AWESOME
KH It was a one, a five, and a twenty.
KH Never repeated that again! And your shining karaoke moment?
SKL Hmmm. Probably "Sweet Transvestite" at the Rickshaw. I used the handheld mike and went all through the restaurant, singing to people and sitting on laps. Especially hipster laps. They were dying because there was this big singing chubby girl on their laps.
KH They can't text during your song if you do that.
SKL: And they weren't sure if I really had a dick, there was that concern too.
KH Keep 'em guessing...
SKL I love when people step up and you think you've got them pegged, then they completely surprise you. This one girl stepped up and I thought it was gonna be another "What's Going On" type thing. Straight, white, skinny...Instead, she does Du Hast by Rammstein. In German. Even though the only copy the house had to play was in English. She did it all by memory. And she KILLED IT HARD. Totally deadpan. It was brilliant.
KH I love Rammstein. I almost saw them at the Tacoma Dome in May.
SKL Oh, right on! My Tacoma beau was at that show. I got a shirt. :)
KH Nowadays it’s fashionable to say that all new music sucks. But I say otherwise. What songs from the last 12 months do you think people will still be listening to 20 years from now?
SKL Boy, I don't know! I don't listen to a lot of brand-new music. I think the newest thing in my iPod right now is "Fok Julle Naaiers" by Die Antwoord, and I have no idea if people are even listening to that now, let alone 20 years from now.
KH Music seems to be important to you. You open each chapter of Indecent with a song title...
SKL Yep--songs I used to dance to.
KH Were you happy with the layout of the book?
SKL I didn't have a lot of control over the layout of the book. They did consult me about the little images they used to separate chunks of text--I think it ended up being like a little skull and rose image, something like that? Kind of tattoo-y? Originally, it was some kind of awful faux-tattoo tribal type design. Thank G-d they listened to how much I hated that and did the skull and rose thing instead.
KH Speaking of, you have quite a few tattoos. What do you like more, your tattoos, or the process of getting them?
SKL It can be awkward to be tattooed by an artist who demands continual conversation while you're sitting in his/her chair. I'm not a very social person and I find constant chatter exhausting, but when you're being tattooed, you can't just get up and leave.
KH If you could redesign Indecent for a new edition how would you do it?
SKL I'd put back in all the text that had to be cut to make my 90k word count. It was pretty significantly cut.
KH One thing I liked so much about Sex And Bacon is that it filled in some gaps from Indecent. And you got to revisit those worlds.
SKL Thank you! You know what really surprised me about my feedback for Indecent?
KH Let me guess...That you didn't victimize yourself?
SKL The comments/questions I got, over and over again, about my personal life during the time period I was writing about. People wanted to know about my relationships! I was really surprised. Why would I write about my relationships in a book about work? It just didn't add up. But I got that constantly. I had to wonder--if I'd written a book about brick-laying and being a brick-layer, would people have asked the same thing?
SKL "First you take the mortar and you put it on the brick..." NO, TELL ABOUT YOUR BOYFRIEND. I mean, I wasn't writing about my dumb life. I was writing about work.
KH "As I put in this mortar, I remember the argument I got into with my son this morning about him not wanting to go to college, so I slam that brick down..."
SKL *laughing* Thing is, *I'M* not very interesting. It was the work that I thought was interesting...that was certainly what I was writing about.
KH You are very protective of yourself. Would you agree?
SKL No, not really. I think if you're really self-protective, you probably don't write books. They open you up to all kinds of judgment that you can't control.
SKL Am working with a writer now (as an editor) and that's what I keep running into: she wants to tell the story, but she's scared of being judged.
KH Sure. But in Rehab Diary, you get very introspective. You took a big leap there. Let me think of how to describe it...
SKL "Oversharing"? :)
KH In Rehab, you talk about your boyfriend. You have a vulnerability you didn't have in the other books...It wasn't You against Everyone Else.
SKL Well, but, a lot of that was cut from my books. *I* was controlling the Rehab Diary. There was no word-count because there was no physical paper and ink to budget for.
KH True. And it seemed like you really respected other people's confidentiality, those who were in rehab with you.
SKL Tried to. Plus, mean nicknames are comedy gold.
KH You have the eye for finding the few potent qualities to sum up someone's character.
SKL Thank you! What a lovely thing to say! I try to. I think everyone does, when they're trying to describe someone.
KH That really is the writer's art. And sometimes it's nice to be the fly on the wall and record what you see. But don't you think part of it (maybe subconsciously) you are also protecting yourself when you write...That you disclose A LOT, but that you still want to keep some things private and sacred.
SKL I think there's a lot to be said for hiding in plain sight.
SKL When you disclose everything, it actually makes you feel safer than trying to control what you're disclosing OR what people are hearing. My approach has always been, You want to call me a thief? Big deal--I already told you that. You want to call me a whore? Yawn, I already wrote about that--what else have you got? I guess my feeling is that if you tell the truth, no matter how bad it is, you win.
KH In Indecent, when you describe that guy at the counter at the peep show place, you are at your Charles Dickens best. You could write an entire book with him as a supporting character, and I would love it.
SKL Oh, Stewie! *laughing*
KH Stewie. Yes!
SKL He was such a fun person to work with. He hated EVERYONE.
KH Your descriptions made me feel his contempt.
When I got to the top of the stairs, a counter was to my left, and to my right a row of doors faced the counter. A tired old gay guy with stainless steel plugs in his earlobes was behind the counter. His head was shaved, his eyebrows plucked bare past the middle of each arch so they pointed up like Spock’s. Was he wearing rouge?
“What can I do for you today, sweetie?” he asked in an exquisitely bored, nasal drone. It was as if he were asking a question and saying I couldn’t care less at the same time. [from Indecent]
SKL What I never learned about Stewie was, why was he there? Why would he possibly be there? How did his life lead him to that?
KH Because he couldn't get a job as a rehab counselor?
KH If (and hopefully when) they make Indecent into a movie, who should play Stewie?
SKL Oh Lord.
KH I'm serious! Start typing, or else I'll do all the casting.
SKL Thing is...they'd never pick the right girl to play me.
KH YOU--Lady GaGa. STEWIE--Louie Anderson
SKL They'd pick someone little and skinny but dark-haired so you'd know she was supposed to be "plain." In reality, what I'd love is if they picked some surly hot chubby chick with lots of ink. Gonna have to go with unknowns here. All unknowns. I see a really, really freak show look for it. Like, all people you'd see in a crappy supermarket. Everyone kind of deformed and scrappy-looking
KH How about the bartender at the stripper bar you worked at on Bourbon Street? Luke Wilson?
SKL Desire...hm. *laughing*
KH Desire. Was that the name of the bar?
SKL I think that was the name I used for the bartender at Foxy's. I get my fake names all mixed up.
KH I once knew a drag queen named Desire. She later changed it to Bertha Control.
SKL *laughing* I'd actually love to see an all-drag production of Indecent. Think it would be pretty well-suited for it.
KH If you could create a Reality TV show centered on a dressing room of strippers, what would you call it? And would you have to stage the cat fights, or would they naturally occur (and how frequently?)
SKL A reality TV show set in a dressing room of strippers would be so incredibly boring to watch. Mostly, strippers just use their dressing rooms to eat, sleep, read, chat, and mess with their hair and makeup. I'd so much rather watch a reality show that pitted strip-club customers against each other...now that would be good TV. Toss in an open bar and a few bindles of coke and those dudes would claw each other's faces off to get to a free lap-dance.
KH Is L.A. making you vapid, like the women on The L Word?
SKL L.A. is surprising in a number of ways. I'm used to people looking a certain way--Pac NW-y. I'm used to good skin, good bone structure, that certain hale and hearty body type...hot strong women, lots of tattoos, etc. You know, the Seattle/Portland type of woman.
KH Yes, not sun-damaged and dieted to death. Good Nordic bones.
SKL So then I'm here in LA. And men and women here are STARTLINGLY UGLY. I mean...it's really, really bad. They're short--like, here, tall is 5'8". And everyone's emaciated, tiny tiny. Orange skin. Capped teeth. Overworked. They're like horrible little dolls or Oompa Loompas. Tiny little baby hands.
KH A lot of short people go into show business.
SKL The dead slab faces from plastic surgery, male and female. I'm starved for physical beauty here.
KH Does it motivate you to want to write about these people? Put a new spin on the state of L.A.?
SKL Actually, maybe. It's more like I have this visceral understanding of something I'd really only understood in theory before.
SKL And of course, here, I'm a total unfuckable outcast, like a big gross eunuch.
KH Don't mince words. : )
SKL I'm like the Yeti--the big white thing that comes from the North and is scary. RAAAAAR
KH Do you feel like you're not 20-something anymore?
SKL For sure. I'm 40! I'm not even 30-something!
KH I'll be 48 next month. But damn it. I'm still going to hipster karaoke bars!
SKL I'm sure neither of us look our age, and we sure as hell don't act it.
KH Exactly. NW genes. Plus, if you keep a few extra pounds, your face looks so much better when you get older. Do you know that great Catherine Deneuve quote...
SKL Totally. Your face or your ass? Luckily, I have a great face AND a great ass *laughing*
KH See, L.A. hasn't taken away your spunk!
SKL You make me miss Seattle.
KH Next time you’re here we’ll do some karaoke. But in the meantime, I want to encourage people to read your work. So let’s do three final questions inspired by each of your books. #1: If you were a madam, how would you set up and manage the perfect brothel?
SKL I don't know. I'm not the biggest fan of pay-for-play intimacy. I picture my establishment as more of a finishing school for people who can't find partners--instead of providing the quick fix of commercial sex, I'd encourage my clients to make themselves more appealing to real-life potential partners. Clients would come in and it would just be a big empty room with signs on the wall reading "WIPE YOUR ASS UNTIL IT'S CLEAN AFTER YOU SHIT," "SHOWER REGULARLY," "TRIM YOUR TOENAILS," and "DON'T BE A DICK."
KH #2: What is sexy in a woman?
KH #3: How come so many people have written books about the sensuality of bacon now?
SKL They're all copying me. Bastards.
KH I've loved talking your ear off. Talk to you soon!
SKL I got another ear with your name on it. Bye for now.
© 2011 Kelly Hughes
Since this original interview, Sarah has moved back to Seattle. And we are working on adapting her book Indecent into a screenplay. In the meantime, I've been talking to Sarah about indie culture in Seattle in the 90s. Here's a few clips from those talks. Plus a new chat that will blow your mind!
by Kelly Hughes
Sarah Katherine Lewis and I are crafting the screenplay for Indecent, based on her true tales of Seattle's sex trade. So I picked her brain to find out what this hipster chick really thinks of the lasting effects of swapping sex for cash.
1. Do you think evil is the right word to describe the parts of the sex industry you participated in? Was there an organized effort to do you harm? Or to withhold something good? If so, who actually performed the evil? If not, could the idea of evil be a different feeling?
Sarah Katherine Lewis: Yes, I think evil is probably the closest word I can come up with to describe the sex industry in general, based on my understanding of it throughout my 15 years of observation and participation. I'm not paranoid or grandiose enough to believe there was any organized effort to do me harm, personally. But just because I don't feel that I as an individual was a particular target doesn't mean I don't think the system is harmful to all of us. I think the sex industry is a lot like racism, in that it's insidiously part of ALL of our lives and oppresses our potential for full, meaningful connection with each other, even if we think we aren't participating in it directly.
There's no way not to live in a world without the sex industry right now, and no matter what our level of engagement with it, we're all affected by it. Like racism, sexism, classism, and other systems that teach us lies about groups of people, it's impossible to take the sex industry one as one unilateral thing--it's ever-shifting and ever-changing. Also, some of the people most affected by it are its most devoted champions--see also the so-called "sex positive" feminists who view the sex industry as an extension (instead of an abridgment) of their personal freedom as sexual human beings. When you ask "Who performed the evil," that's like asking "Who made up racism?" We all did. It belongs to us, and we as a society (arrgh, I hate that phrase--it's so pretentious) but WE AS A SOCIETY continually collaborate in it, even if we don't vend or buy it, simply by tolerating it as a viable set of beliefs about erotic connection. Pretty much, I think "evil" is the right word.
I'm not particularly interested in Christian-style moral condemnation, though--for me, it's more a humanistic thing. What I'm chiefly interested in is telling the truth about something we've generally convinced ourselves is mostly fun and games, an entertainment we can take or leave--that's kind of what I was getting at with the banality of evil reference, and the one about the greatest trick the devil ever pulled (convincing us he doesn't exist, etc etc). There are a lot of people speaking up about how awesome it is to buy and sell in the sex industry, and even more people who by not taking a stand are taking a stand, and I think it's important to make space for voices like mine, so we can all decide what we want AS A SOCIETY. I realize my view puts me in a tiny minority and I realize I have strange bedfellows, especially with the loss of Andrea Dworkin, who was never given her due as a brilliant feminist thinker. But Andrea got it, and was tortured and ridiculed for it. I'm a little scared of being similarly pilloried, but not enough not to want to tell the truth as I know it.
2. How did the venues affect your attitude toward your work? If you had been in clean, upscale surroundings would you have felt differently? If the process could have been more leisurely and polite, would you have felt more validated?
SKL: I think that I was privileged, in that I was able to work in a lot of different venues and in a lot of different roles that allowed me to formulate my deep discomfort with the industry in general. The thing is, no matter how gross/overtly disgusting or glitzy/upscale a venue is, they're all in the business of selling the exact same thing: a worldview in which erotic communication is something that can be bought and sold. As far as "leisurely and polite"
--some of my interactions did, in fact, qualify as "leisurely," and the majority were fairly polite, at least overtly. Bad customers did happen, but they were the exceptions. Again, see "banality of evil" reference--it's not that the sex industry feels like getting hurt or raped every minute of every day (for most sex workers, that is--of course some live with degrees of coercion and cruelty that are unimaginable), it's that cumulatively, the sex industry is damaging to all of us.
I find the argument that something glossy like "Playboy" or hip like Suicide Girls is fine because it's different than, say, Max Hardcore (or whatever other "extreme" porn site you want to name-check)--but my problem isn't so much with the editorial content/working conditions, it's with the idea that people can choose to buy something from each other that is private, and about love. But see, to me, when you're being erotic--whatever that means to you, whether it's getting smacked around or pissed on or licking someone's shoe or whatever--that, to you, is being true to your erotic self, and that is about being a loving human being. Even self-love is loving...it is being an authentic, erotic human, whatever your experience of eros is. I find it problematic that some porn is considered "better" than other porn simply because it's less weird/marginal/scary, and because the production values are higher...this is a red herring. In fact, by making it prettier and nicer, you're allowing others to view the system as less pernicious. This is why I tend to have a particular hate for "women-centered erotica" and the like...it's just another way of selling the same old thing, but selling it in a way that makes it look nice-y nice instead of mean and scary. It makes me so sad that women who are feminists in favor of sex work don't see the essential commonality between the sex work they advocate and the system that endorses alienation from ourselves as erotic beings who use sex to communicate with each other truthfully, with love.
3. Were any of your negative feelings doing sex work based on your drug use rather than your interactions with customers? Would a sex worker who never used drugs before, during, or after her stint in the sex biz feel the same? Was some of this chemically triggered depression from alcohol or heroin use?
SKL: Here's the thing about drugs: they helped me tolerate and excel in the sex industry in a way that not using drugs probably would not have allowed me to. Being a junkie allowed me to be a workaholic. For a long time I was stripping, domming, working at the peeps, AND fitting in 2-3 web/still/video shoots a week. I understand that for some people, opiates are demotivating--but for me, they allowed me to relax into my work, to develop my curiosity, and to attempt new things without much trepidation.
This is one of the paradoxes about my experience in the sex industry--it shaped me in certain ways I like, despite the fact that I can't support its essential message of human utilitarianism. I don't know how another sex worker might feel, whether or not she used drugs. I can really only speak for my own experiences and my own conclusions. For me, drugs helped me to work hard. Kicking was unpleasant, and of course I felt stress when I needed money to buy drugs and wasn't making enough during certain days or periods. But, for the most part, I made enough money to support my living expenses and my habit. Without the habit, I doubt I would have been able to develop my expertise. As far as "chemically-triggered depression" informing my conclusions about the sex industry...no. I began to understand what the sex industry offers as a system BEFORE I was a dope fiend during my first few years in the industry, I continued to develop my understanding about it while I was a dope fiend in the thick of it, and long after I left heroin behind I continued to work in the sex industry and to mull my experiences over, evolving in my thinking about it.
It's possible that being a junkie made me take a lot of chances I wouldn't have taken...I suppose. But I also think I'm a natural risk-taker. I walked into the place I renamed Butterscotch's with no experience in the sex industry, stone cold sober. Fifteen years later, I've done a lot of things that people have found intimidating, outlandish, courageous, and/or just plain stupid. But I tend to think that while the drugs helped, they weren't the prime mover in the decisions I made about my career. I've always been intolerant of work that doesn't allow for personal autonomy, I've always taken chances and risked falling on my face, and I've always had a strong need to understand new places, systems, and people. The drugs didn't make me any less self-aware, or any less interested in what was going on around me. And it's true, alcohol really does make you a better dancer.
4. You've said that the sex industry prevents people from learning how to relate to each other in a healthy way. Is this true? Or maybe some guys just like a controlled anonymous encounter like this every now and then. Is it more about the sex worker getting distanced from nurturing relationships? Or is it all unique to the individual, with some workers and customers content with the arrangement, and never expecting it to be anything more than what it is?
SKL: I think one of the great evils of the sex industry is that it's like Monsanto Franken-food: it not only doesn't nourish, it takes the place of substances that really DO nourish. People who use the sex industry to address their need for erotic truth and intimacy often don't even realize there's an alternative to what they're buying, or even prefer the fake stuff to the real stuff because it's what they know and they've developed a taste for it. It's really, really hard to be honest with yourself, let alone, to be honest with a partner! I mean, what if what you like erotically is not something you want to admit to yourself? What if you're scared or disgusted by it? Wouldn't it be easier to compartmentalize that, and/or to project it onto a convenient scapegoat? Sometimes the sex industry is viewed as a viable option for no-strings-attached physical release, which otherwise would be complicated by unwanted human interaction...blah blah blah blah. I don't buy it.
I have no problem with any of the activities that make up the sex industry: anonymous encounters, erotic modeling, domming, anything--no matter how weird or marginal. I just think we have to remove the profit motive. If, as the pro-sex industry people always say, they love making porn because it's erotic to them, let them make as much porn as they want--for free. They can share it with other people who like making and watching porn--again, for free. Let's drive all profit-driven sex industry work into the ground by being authentically sexual, whatever that expression happens to be! For all the dudes who want blowjobs, there's gotta be an equal amount of people who love giving them, right? Let's truly liberate sex--and here's how: by not making a profit off of each other for being sexual. Once you take that away, people have to start being honest with themselves and each other really fast...we have to decide what we really like and what we really want, and what we're really willing to do to get what we want, and from that, a lot of respect for each other develops that isn't in place now. The whole idea that certain people can be paid for certain kinds of sexual expression is marginalizing and deeply stigmatizing. I want this gone.
5. Do you identify as an outlaw? Meaning, even if you didn't do sex work, you would still do things to set you apart from the mainstream such as take heroin and get sleeve tattoos. Do you really care about the opinions of people who judge the sex industry? Do you really want to be accepted by the mainstream?
SKL: Yes, I identify as an outlaw. Mostly because I'm not good at being motivated by fear--of failure, of authority, of want, or of judgment. But even without the sex work, the drugs, the tattoos, the writing, etc., I am the same person I've always been. I've always been interested in radical truth-telling, and in how we connect with each other. I've always needed to feel free. I've never been good at obeying.
Do I care about the opinions of people who judge the sex industry? Um, do you mean ALL OF US? Because yes, I do care about all of us and our relation to this huge industry we create, finance, and participate in. Do I want to be accepted by the mainstream? No, but I wouldn't mind taking the mainstream's money.
6. Do you regret your journey?
SKL: I don't regret a damn thing, except maybe all the years I spent trying to work straight jobs when I could have been making beaucoup dollars stripping, traveling, and buying myself whatever I wanted. :) Seriously--I wish I'd begun my foray into the industry earlier--it would have given me a longer time to observe, and perhaps I could have written my books a decade ago. But then again, maybe not--maybe I needed to be in the industry exactly when I was in it, at the age I was. Who knows? I don't generally harbor much space for regrets in my worldview. I know it's lame and hippie of me, but I tend to think everything happens for reasons we may or may not be privy to.
7. Would you be the same person you are now without your experiences in the sex trade?
SKL: Yes. And no. I think I'd be as much of an outlaw, but I don't think I'd have as much familiarity with my own and other people's bodies, and therefore would have much more anxiety and "body issues." Thing is, when I take off my clothes I know I'm gorgeous, and I feel confident about my skills in the boudoir so I can enjoy myself, whatever it is I'm doing. Without taking for granted a certain level of mastery, I imagine I'd have much less fun sexually. Though maybe not...maybe it's all about willingness and openness, and for sure I'd still have those qualities.
I have female friends who've never seen other women naked, outside of posed and airbrushed/Photoshopped pornography, and they have some unbelievable anxieties about their bodies based on that. Because I've spent so much of my life watching other women go from real to fantasy and back again, and because I've spent so much time doing that myself, I think I have a pretty healthy idea of normal bodies and what we do to present them for heightened mainstream sexuality.
8. And since it's been your vehicle for writing, don't you also see it as something that has given you a voice? And that you are not just a participant, but a keen observer?
SKL: I write about my experiences. Because so much of my life was spent working, I wrote about that. I'd like to think that if I spent 15 years laying bricks, I'd have a bunch of stuff to say about that, too. Maybe I'd be a controversial voice in the pro-/anti-bricklaying movement.
9. Do you take pride in that you've written two influential books about a world that is still hidden from view?
SKL: I don't know that they're influential. I hope they are. At heart, I want to be a revolutionary. But I don't think I am one yet. I think I needed to write the books I wrote because I had to describe everything at the time, while all of it was freshly on my mind, and that now I have the luxury of reflection. I think I have yet to reach the scope of the audience I want to reach. I want to make a clear, strong call in favor of love, sex, and all the different ways we can be erotic with each other--pointing out the lies of the sex industry is certainly part of that, but it isn't all of it.
10. Do you think prostitution is morally wrong? Do you think sex outside of marriage is wrong? Do you think the only acceptable union is marriage between one man and one woman over one lifetime? If you're placing a moral judgment on the sex industry, how far should that judgment extend? If you think paid sex is dehumanizing, you could also argue that pre-marital sex is dehumanizing because of the lack of commitment. Is it the act itself? The attitude toward it? Or the individual people involved that make a difference? Do we generalize morality for the sake of society, but bend the rules for discrete individuals?
SKL: I want to make this clear: I'm all for fucking--whatever it means to the people doing it, under any circumstances that involve mutual consent, no matter how weird or gross or smelly or scary or objectifying it is. I think when we fuck we are at our most human, and at our most honest. I don't care if marriage or commitment is involved--I know I've fucked people with love when I haven't even known their last names. I think that what's dehumanizing about the sex industry is that it's not about fucking qua fucking, it's about money and financial need and society's need to assign blame and people's need to control each other out of fear or laziness. And that is the most disgusting perversion I can think of.
11. Don't all jobs suck? Doesn't everyone who goes through life feel a certain amount of dehumanization? Don't evil people lurk everywhere?
SKL: I think all forced labor sucks. Economic extortion is a very real thing. I think we have to decide what we're willing to tolerate AS A SOCIETY to have things like cheap fast food, porn, and designer sneakers. Stripping is like a lot of other labor open to people with no official education or professional experience, an industry you can turn to when you are desperate for money to support your family, your rent, your drug habit, or your art. It's exhausting and can be demoralizing. You're vulnerable to abuse from people looking to take their issues out on someone who doesn't have the power to refuse to tolerate bad treatment, and you're victim to the whims of the industry itself, meaning you may make money one week and owe the house the next week. If your look changes or you aren't willing to get as dirty as the prevailing standard of behavior in any given venue, your income suffers--and of course you have no health benefits or unemployment insurance, since you're working as an independent contractor. It's hard, hard work, and it beats up your body and takes a big chunk out of your emotional equanimity. You see people at their worst and you are paid to represent the things they hate the most about the things that turn them on. It can be dangerous work. It rarely pays enough to make what it costs worthwhile, and usually, what you think you're selling isn't what you end up missing at the end of your career. I still have work-related nightmares, and I still have to actively resist viewing people through that particular lens. Sometimes being genuine and intimate feels terrifying and it's easier to think of people in terms of what they want from you, and what you want to get from them. Sure, this isn't unique to sex work--but it's what I know, so that's what I write about.
One thing that IS unique to sex work: no matter what I do professionally in the future, some people will always think of me as an ex-adult entertainer. When you stop working at McDonald's, no one continues to call you a fast food worker (or to assume you enjoy flipping burgers for free on your own time) once you've moved on to a different career. But sex work is uniquely stigmatizing in a way that other unskilled labor isn't--there's an assumption that you're doing adult labor because that is what you ARE, not just that it's what you do. There's the belief that only a whore would prefer a whore's labor, and that if you weren't a whore, you'd restrict yourself to less stigmatizing work.
That being said--yes, a lot of jobs suck. A lot of jobs open to people without job experience or education are dangerous, and a lot of them take a heavy toll on your body and your mind. A lot of children work 12 hours a day to sew t-shirts for Baby Gap, and a lot of subsistence migrant workers are making far under minimum wage so that we can have cheap produce. My point is not that stripping is somehow uniquely horrible, or even uniquely challenging. In fact, my point is that stripping is a labor issue, and that we AS A SOCIETY have to decide how much we're willing to tolerate the dehumanization of others in order to have the things we want for comfort and entertainment. How much is it worth to us to tolerate a culture of sex work, erotic disconnection, and all the lies the adult industry foists on us about our potential for love and sensuality? How much are we willing to look the other way because we feel the issue doesn't affect us, either because we don't know any adult workers or because we don't directly buy sexual service?
Labor that hurts the body and the soul is not labor I can support. Labor that is harmful to the vendor and the buyer--and yes, to SOCIETY--is not labor we should tolerate. Again, why not take out the profit motive and let the chips fall where they may? If sexual performance really is empowering, there should be plenty of people willing to perform it for free.
12. Didn't you feel some satisfaction from what you did? Earning money? Crafting a clever session? Feeling good about your body? Feeling that you had mastered something?
SKL: Doing a good job at anything can feel good, even learning to flip the perfect burger. Mastering a difficult skill-set can feel good. Obtaining knowledge and legitimacy in a niche culture can feel good. And yes, hanging out with other outlaw women is an amazing blessing I will never take for granted. I was gifted by their friendship and by the skills they taught me, and I will never regret that for a single instant. But we have to get bigger than that. This is a bigger problem then whether I, personally, felt aspects of satisfaction with my work. While it's important to note that there can be positive aspects of individual experience with sex work, I think all the positive aspects can be achieved without the motivation of profit. If you like getting freaky with strangers, then go out and get freaky with strangers! If you like dressing up, then by all means, dress up! If you like dancing sensually, dance sensually...if you like beating the shit out of people, beat the shit out of them--etc. Frankly, I'd love to have the experience of being around women's bodies all day again, going from everyday to elaborately hyper-sensual and back again.
But what does any of this have to do with money-making? Sexual pleasure is unique in that when it's real, it transcends any other kind of communication between people. It's direct, real, disarming, and it speaks to the spark God gave us when He told us to love each other...or, I guess, if you're not into God-talk, it is us at the peak of our humanity, loving each other and being loved. I would like to see a real, radical sexual revolution where we fuck each other because we want to, and where industry and economic coercion have no place. I believe in love, and I believe in the possibilities we create when we are erotic with other people. I think what we do when we're sexually honest can change the world. I want us to stop being controlled by money, fear, and lies, and to start getting our heads around the fact that some things are sacred and cannot be bought or sold.
© 2012 Kelly Hughes
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