A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed, who is against sex work, and Antonia Crane who agitates for sex worker rights, about sex work and feminism.
In Rumpus Women Volume 1, Cheryl Strayed wrote the stunning essay “Pussy Fever” in which she describes a pussy-crazed cultural climate and time she nearly showed up to be interviewed for a job as an escort. She didn’t show up for reasons she talks about in this discussion that have to do with being a bawdy, audacious feminist. “Locker 29” is my essay about grieving my mother and auditioning at a club in New Orleans after being fired in Los Angeles for touching a client.
Our essays are often mentioned together. They contradict each other but also bleed into each other with twin feminist DNA. In order to have a meaningful conversation that’s neither punitive nor PC, we moved around the mirrors in order to look at sex work, the psycho sexual implications and emotional cost of selling lap dances and sex acts, the component of sexual abuse, the thing about our deceased mothers, riot grrrls and sucking your cock.
Antonia Crane: I very much loved and appreciated your essay “Pussy Fever.” I found it brave, enlightening, kind and generous.
Cheryl Strayed: Thank you, Antonia. The admiration is entirely mutual. I thought “Locker 29” was beautiful and moving. I was honored our essays were pressed up against each other in the anthology.
Crane: At the same time I was conflicted, because while I loved hearing your experience, I disagreed with many of your assertions. I’m no authority on sex work. In fact, I began my live nude dancing career as a lesbian, feminist sex worker in the 90’s when stripping was chic performance art. Because of what it meant culturally and who I was sexually, my experiences have been more enriching and empowering than many other women in the industry. Many women who are stuck in the sex industry are without other viable options and have kids to support. My decision to work as a stripper as a white, bald, punk lesbian, Mills girl looked different. Sure, I was broke and estranged from my family, but it was less out of actual desperation and more of what I will call “constrained choice.” By writing about my experiences, I hope to encourage sex workers to tell their stories and help each other, as opposed to the more widespread attitude that is shaming and criminalizing.
Strayed: I am not an authority on sex work either. But who the hell is? Is there one perfect woman to whom we grant all rights to say what she thinks about sex work? I think it’s interesting that we both feel the need to state our lack of authority on the subject of sex work before we give ourselves permission to talk about it. The fact is, we both have an awful lot of collective authority on the subject—you as a feminist and sex worker; me, as a feminist who was drawn to sex work, but opted not to do it. We’ve both spent a lot of time thinking about sex work. There are many things on which I am not an authority that I write and talk about without first establishing my lack of expertise. So my first question to you is why on this subject does there seem to be so much worry over who has the right to talk about it with intelligence and passion and insight? Why do you think you are not an authority, Antonia?
We are always—no matter what subject we’re discussing—coming from the place we occupy. Whenever I write something I’m simply telling you what I think and what I think is informed, expanded, distorted, and constrained by my life experiences, my biases, my interests and my field of knowledge. There isn’t only one way to think about something. We all have a right to speak from the authority we have. I’ve read your work—on both your blog and here on The Rumpus–and I’ve noticed that you’ve often been challenged by readers on this question of whether you can credibly represent all or any sex workers, when in fact you’ve never claimed to represent anyone but yourself. That sort of criticism is a way of closing down the conversation. It’s what we do when we are afraid of talking about things.
And it was partially for this reason that I was perfectly terrified to publish “Pussy Fever.” I was pretty sure there would be a lot of people questioning my “right” to talk about sex work, because I’m not and have never been a sex worker. I’ve written incredibly intimate things about myself—about sex and grief and infidelity, for example—but writing about why I have issues with sex work seemed to be one of the riskiest things I’ve ever done as a writer. I struggled with it. I talked myself out of doing it. But ultimately, I decided to say what I had to say. I wanted to publicly grapple with a series of questions that have been haunting me privately–as a feminist and woman and human–for years.
My decision to do so has no intent of or interest in shaming anyone for anything. In fact, it’s very much in accordance with your effort to encourage sex workers to tell their stories. I want to hear those stories too—from sex workers and also from those who have something to say about sex work. I’m a story seeker. I think it’s the only way for us—and by “us” I mean the big us, the culture—to make sense of sex work.
Crane: My hope is to write about sex work in a way that’s passionate and thoughtful, like you did in “Pussy Fever.” You’re right about shying away from being an authority. One guy even called me “the oracle of all things whore related” which was intended as an insult, but made me laugh. That’s why I feel like I have to state that preamble, but you’re right. I am an authority on my experiences. Besides, there are plenty of people who’ve never given a hand job for green and they’re quick to state their opinions. People are uncomfortable being uncomfortable. So, now that we can admit the discomfort orbiting the sex work conversation, let’s get squirmy.
Strayed: The oracle of all things whore related? Damn. I want to be that.
But okay, sister: let’s get squirmy.
Crane: In your essay, you state that you’re afraid to sound “uncool” (not progressive? Pro-censorship?) Then you say, “Sex work is bad for women and soul sucking for us all.” And finally, “Sex work has been framed as ‘cool’ by your cultural milieu” and because of that, coming out against it is “uncool in this era.”
In society, you are not the uncool one, my friend. If any professional company googles me, they will disregard me immediately for any job. My family’s eyebrows are permanently raised from my career as an adult entertainer for nearly 20 years. Now, as a 40-year-old woman I feel stuck. My friends have been shrugging their shoulders for years. The LAPD has made their point and thrown me in jail recently. Do you think men want to date me? They recoil from me as if from an open flame. Cheryl, I am a feminist. I am also an OUT, proud sex worker. I also know for a fact that sex work can benefit women personally, politically and economically because it has for me. I also know how scary sex work can be and how frustrating and demeaning it is to be systematically rejected all night, how easily a girl’s self worth can be deflated, the unflattering light that can be shed on our intimate relationships with men who aren’t doling out cash or sexual validation, how hard it is to leave the industry and how high-voltage this topic is for most people.
Strayed: Oh, absolutely, Antonia. I understand that a lot of people in the big, amorphous thing we call “society” have a negative opinion of sex work. I don’t share that opinion. And I don’t in any way doubt the real discrimination those who do sex work face from all the sources you name. That’s the reason I specified that my questioning the excellentness of sex work was uncool in my cultural milieu, which, I should say, is a rather big milieu in my own little personal life. It’s essentially the sea I swim in—artists, progressive thinkers, people who read The Rumpus, people who live in Portland, Oregon—where, as I write in “Pussy Fever,” the sex industry has a lot of leeway because of the way the Oregon Supreme Court has interpreted and defined protected speech in our state constitution. There is no question that the general feeling among what I think of as my tribe is that sex work is something to be in favor of, that it’s lucrative and perhaps empowering to the women involved in it, and that to go to a strip club is an edgy and fine way to spend the evening. So to question any of that feels uncool and impossible.
Part of what’s challenging is even establishing the terms of the conversation. I am so utterly uninterested in the are-you-for-or-against-it debate that’s rooted in a moral code that I find inherently immoral. You say you’re an out and proud sex worker, Antonia, and I think that’s great. There isn’t a thing I’d take away from you on that. The pieces you’ve written about your experiences as a sex worker? They rock my world. And yet, as I wrote in “Pussy Fever,” I think sex work—at least as it’s currently practiced—is bad for women and therefore bad for society. My intent is not personal warfare with a public agenda; it’s to make a personal inquiry of social consequence. I want to understand more deeply what sex work is, what it means to me, to women, to sex workers and their customers, and to those who condemn and praise sex work.
It seems to me we have neglected to have that conversation. “Pussy Fever” was my attempt to have it; to talk about sex work within the framework of my own moral code, which is, at root, a feminist one.
I’ve been a feminist since I can even remember, but I really came of age as a feminist in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was a Women’s Studies major at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. There were these two very strong crosscurrents happening in American feminism at the time and I was influenced and informed by both. One current was the old school, 70s-style feminism that was all about raising consciousness around gender oppression. Women had been screwed by men since the dawn of time. To be liberated meant in large part to inhabit the female body in ways not approved by the patriarchy. “Real feminists” didn’t shave their legs or wear eyeliner. They refused to make themselves pretty for or even available to the male sexual gaze. The second current was, for me, personified by the riot grrrls. Remember them? They were our generational peers, born between the mid-60s and mid-70s. They called themselves feminists, but refused to deny or renounce what they perceived as the positive aspects of constructed femininity. They reinhabited the female body by shoving the male sexual gaze straight into their crotches. They wore push up bras without shirts to cover them up. They put on really red lipstick and wanted to suck your cock.
They were my people. I wanted to suck your cock too. So I got down on my knees. Or kind of did.
I should pause here to say that I’m sure there are feminist scholars out there who would delineate the nuances of American feminism in the late 20th century far more acutely and accurately than I have here and of course there are all sorts of strands that have historical relevance—the influence of gay and lesbian culture huge among them—that I haven’t addressed and can’t and won’t because what I’m trying to do now is simply give you a rough and generalized testimony about my own understanding of how I got where I am on this issue.
So there I was in 1994, stomping around in my motorcycle boots and miniskirt (which, for the record, I still stomp around in). The terms sex-positive and pro-sex were being used a lot then and of course I identified with them. The idea of a new kind of feminism—a new way of being a human—appealed deeply to me. For this tiny window of time, I truly contained a vision within myself of what an equitable, sex-positive world could mean. And it wasn’t this obnoxious free love/group sex/wife-swapping stuff leftover from the 70s. It wasn’t even necessarily libertine. It didn’t have to do with how many people you fucked. It had to do with authenticity and desire and an embrace of sexual diversity. It was, for me, about originality winning out over conformity. About the entire sexual orbit no longer spinning around the gargantuan sun that is the heterosexual male orgasm.
It didn’t take me long to see that wasn’t happening. And so the old school feminist reared up in me. The one who’d been there all along, wondering why all the women still had to look so fucking hot in a such a narrowly defined way that just happened to jive with what the male gaze defines as fuckable. Regardless of what I’d hoped for, pro-sex didn’t seem like a new wave of feminism to me. Progress had been made in some areas, but mostly I felt like the things that were deemed okay under the “pro-sex” banner—educated feminist women like you becoming strippers in droves, for example—were nothing more than a reiteration of the old woman-hating sexual mores and practices of patriarchy, only now women were meant to laugh along.
I didn’t laugh. A lot of women didn’t. But you know what? A lot of women are afraid to say so. I’ve received many emails in response to “Pussy Fever,” in which women thank me for writing what I did because they feel the same way, but remain silent because they fear they’ll be seen as the wrong kind of feminist. The uncool, pain in the ass kind. Like me.
Crane: Remember Riot Grrrls? I lived for them. Feminist identity was at a boiling point in the 90’s. I shaved my head to flip off the male gaze but wore false eyelashes and walked the projects in SF in vintage lace corsets while pursuing a Women’s Studies degree at Mills and nurturing my meth habit. (I got and remained clean in 1995.) Diamanda Galas and Karen Finley changed my life. I worshipped at the altar of Kathy Acker, who raped the male cannon in a way that was terrifying, aggressive and fucking genius. Jenny Holtzer and Barbara Kruger were my rock goddesses who flipped the script on media messages and the objectification of the female body. Then came kinderwhore feminism for which I will give partial credit to Madonna for marching an entire generation of young women off the cliff of sloppy pro-sex discourse and the somewhat helpful fetishization of queer sex. But, like you, Cheryl, I was really more of a Courtney Love girl. I’d masquerade in lingerie and fishnets, simulate sucking your cock behind glass at the Lusty Lady peepshow then go home to my girlfriend.
Women like me becoming strippers in the 90’s were fully armed with an arsenal of post-modern feminist thought. We were not a reiteration of women-hating discourse asking others to laugh along with patriarchy. Sex, desire and gender identity was something that could be manipulated and appropriated. It could be performed, hair-sprayed, glued on and blown up poster size. Like Kate Bornstein said in Gender Outlaw: “Gender identity is a form of self-definition: something into which we can withdraw, something with which we can, to a limited degree, manipulate desire. Our culture is obsessed with desire: it drives our economy” (40). I believe we have the agency to play with our sexual identity and perform it and that is different than getting on our knees to blow Jesus.
It troubles me that you are suggesting that I abandoned feminism to strip because I participated in something “bad for women.” I disagree. Historically, prostitution was a way for women to enjoy independence outside of Christian mores and gender roles. There are many great books that illustrate this point particularly Bataillie’s Eroticism: Death and Sensuality where he describes prostitution as an informed, deliberate rebellion: “The prostitute was dedicated to a life of transgression. The sacred or forbidden sexual activity remained apparent to her, for her whole life was dedicated to violating the taboo” (133). He goes on to mention that prostitutes had “a sacredness” comparable with that of priests.
But we were talking about the 90’s.
When I was stripping at that time, I also marched in the streets to fight for women’s reproductive rights, and for gay civil rights (Act Up, SF), I was a bouncer at a lesbian sex club before I identified as a lesbian. I was bald and wore wigs. The women I stripped with were artists, lesbians, students and mothers and I learned how to perform “high femme” from the most gorgeous, black, trannies you have ever seen.
Strayed: I’m not suggesting that you abandoned feminism. That isn’t anywhere in my critique. I don’t doubt your passion for and commitment to women. In fact—as we’ve noted in our personal conversations—we have an awful lot in common. We were born within a couple of years of each other. We’re both feminists and writers who were drawn to sex work, though we took different paths. We both had drug experiences that informed our lives. All those women you named who were so influential to you were likewise influential to me.
That’s a huge part of what makes this conversation so interesting to me. We’re not talking to each other from across the old tired, boring battle lines. When you say all that stuff about “the agency to play with our sexual identity,” I know precisely what you mean. And so, if you hear me on nothing else, please hear me on this: I don’t doubt your feminism, nor that of any other sex worker. I am not the feminism police! I’ve simply come to a different conclusion than you about what sex work might mean. I dig all of what you said about sex, desire and gender identity being something that can “manipulated and appropriated.” I just haven’t seen that happen in any significant way in the sex industry. I’m doubting that, Antonia. Not you.
You’re right that historically sex work has been a way for women to have “independence outside of Christian mores and gender roles,” but we have a different society now. Sexism still abounds, but women don’t need to be prostitutes in order to be transgressive anymore. The “sacred and forbidden” sexual territory that Bataillie describes as the domain of prostitutes was a counterpoint to the extreme sexual restrictions imposed upon all the women who weren’t prostitutes in his time. I don’t believe there should be one group of women who get to be the high priestesses of sex. The sacred and forbidden is territory I claim for all women. I know you do too.
Tell me more about how and why you got into sex work.
Crane: I started stripping when I was madly in love with a girl so there was no confusion about my desire. I didn’t date men for several years, which made my job easier. Men were not invited to the party. In fact, I was ready to hate every single one of them, steal their cash and laugh all the way to the bank with my fists in the air, but something else happened: The sex industry ruined me for man-hating. My customers were mostly kind, lonely, interesting guys who invested in my art and paid my rent for over ten years in SF. They brought me books and watched me sing in a band for six years and they shared their secrets with me, and hopefully, our interactions helped them to become more communicative about their desires and fantasies. Their donations helped me survive economically and gave me a decent life. I returned to college after a 7-year stripper run, and I paid cash to complete my degree in Women’s Studies.
Strayed: Well, I didn’t pay in cash for my Women’s Studies degree. I paid in student loans. Which, for the record, I’m still paying off.
I’m not surprised you have such a humane and complex perspective on the men who were your customers. That’s the funny thing about human beings: the closer we get to them the harder it is to hate them. I understand—or at least can imagine—why some men pay women to take off their clothes or touch them or fuck them. But I also understand their very power to do so rises from their power. We live in a culture that commodifies women, fetishizes a sexist gender paradigm, and oppresses women as a sex class and so as nice and kind as your customers are, they are doing what they are doing within a cultural context and a social construct that is rooted in male domination.
And so are you. And so am I. It’s a house of mirrors! I’m not interested in condemning sex workers or their customers. I’m interested in moving the mirrors around a bit so we can better see what it means to be human beings and sexual beings in this time and place. What do we see?
Look, I know that when I wrote in “Pussy Fever”: I don’t want sex work to be illegal. I want it to be obsolete. I want a different sort of society I was asking for a lot. I know I’m being a bit ridiculous. And frankly, also a tad imprecise. I think there are some situations in which a cash for sex exchange is not a bad idea. A more accurate statement would be that I think sex work as it’s mostly practiced now isn’t good for us as a society or for women in particular. But if we can intelligently explore, without condemnation, what it means to purchase and sell sexual acts performed by mostly female bodies to sexually sate almost exclusively male consumers, we can possibly find a way of negotiating sex and money in a manner that is bigger and more meaningful and more fully human than what we’re doing now.
Will anything change in my lifetime? Probably not. But let us not forget that it was once preposterous to think that women would be allowed to wear pants. It was once impossible to imagine women would have the right to attend college or vote or own property or hold office or say no to sex with their husbands. I’m trying to imagine something I can’t imagine.
What do you imagine, Antonia? What’s your vision of how we might begin to delve more meaningfully into this question?
Crane: The women/commodity issue is what I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Thank you for marching out: “We live in a culture that commodifies women, fetishizes a sexist gender paradigm, and oppresses women as a sex class.” I know I’m supposed to feel that way because I’m an adult entertainer, but I have never felt like I’m for sale. Which bring me to this: Women aren’t the hot commodity. Sex is. The possibility of sex and the promise of desire fulfillment is the commodity. In one of my chapters I state, “It’s never just about the boner.” What I meant is that I’ve had too many clients want to talk and confess, explore desires, experiment with letting go of control. My conclusion? Men really want to learn how to please women and our multi-faceted feminism has left them very confused about how to do that. I don’t think men want to buy women, I think they want to feel desired by them. A stripper or sex worker is selling a sexual fantasy (probably) informed by our pornified, sexist, racist ageist, fantasies but this is where I become a pain in the ass. I don’t think we should police our fantasies; I think we should play with them and stretch them. Our desires are more complex than we admit. It’s a myth that men are simple. They’re very intricately designed and so are you. In an ideal world, people wouldn’t be arrested for sex; women wouldn’t be charged astronomical fees to work at clubs. Prostitution would be regulated and men would articulate their desires to their partners. Like Dan Savage says in his “Savage Love” podcast, it comes down four words:
“What are you into?”
Strayed: I’m interested in your statement that women aren’t the commodity, but rather sex is. I think it’s complicated. It’s still a gendered sex, in which women are overwhelmingly the sellers and men almost always the buyers, and what’s inevitably happening in that exchange is linked to the way women’s bodies have been conceived, in economic and proprietary terms, throughout time. But I believe you. My questions in response to your observations: Do men want to feel desired by women or do they want to feel desired by women who look like the women in their sexual fantasies? If you’re right that men want to learn how to please women are they going to sex workers and saying: This isn’t about me. This is about you. Please teach me how to get you off?
It sounds like I’m being sort of a smart ass by asking that, but I mean it sincerely. For all their societal power, I think men are incredibly vulnerable when it comes to intimacy and relationships, but I also think they want blowjobs. I used to reject the notion the men had different sexual needs than women because I felt to acknowledge that most men have a more powerful sex drive than most women was to say that women had no sex drive at all—for most of human history, we were, after all, meant only to be interested in love and relationships and conceiving babies. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that men in general are, to put it bluntly, hornier.
Which isn’t to say women aren’t.
Why do you think the sex industry exists? Because of the male sex drive?
Crane: I agree that men are hornier than women and sometimes they do come to me with a shopping list of things they want me to do with them and it is discussed. Sex work is a constant negotiation. There are scientific studies that suggest men are biologically designed to need more sex and less equipped to bond with their sex partners, but I don’t know if I get behind that. If I had the answer to that, I really would be “the oracle of all things whore related.” I don’t know, Cheryl. Maybe the sex industry exists because women are beautiful, sexy, mesmerizing creatures capable of exquisite emotional and physical eroticism and men know that they need us to breathe.
Strayed: Bingo. See? You are the oracle of all things whore related! I knew it.
Earlier you mentioned that you don’t think we should police our fantasies and I don’t either. I think we should play with them and stretch them, just like you do. But this, to me, has nothing to do with sex work. It has to do with the sex-positive vision I outlined above. I believe we can stretch our fantasies the farthest when the exchange is not money for my deepest desire, but rather your deepest desire for mine.
Crane: I agree that a heartfelt effort to communicate our desires to our lovers would eliminate the seedy, grubby, guilty sneaky aspect of sex work and that would be a good thing. So, what are you into?
Strayed: Would you go to bed with me?
Crane: Come over and bring your husband.
I gasped at your perfect description of women who were not afraid to say they were feminists as opposed to the “women who sneered at the world while feasting at the table feminism set.” Are you referring to a particular generation of women?
Strayed: Yes, I am referring to a particular generation of women—ours. The one that came of age when abortion was legal and our mothers were allowed to do things like sleep with people who they weren’t married to and have jobs without feeling like assholes about it. I think the F word has had a come back in recent years, but when I was in my twenties a lot of our contemporaries would say things like, “I’m not a feminist, but….”
I was always a feminist and I always said so. I grew up poor and working class, the daughter of a woman who married because she got pregnant at 19. My mother became a battered wife and then a single mother who supported her three kids on minimum wage jobs and food stamps before she married my stepfather. I had a front row seat to her survival story and I never for a moment failed to recognize that her story was about me. I loved my mother beyond words, but I spent my girlhood promising myself that I would not become her. I would honor her by having a different life.
Crane: This is getting spooky. I was always a feminist and always said so too. My mother also wed at 19 and had my older brother. She was also a tough, educated, working, battered woman and stayed with that man until her death in 2007. In 1998, I brought my mother to the Lusty Lady theatre to show her what I was doing with my life and she said, “It’s silly and it looks like fun.” She was right and she was wrong. I was doing a lot more than dancing behind glass then, but I wanted her to be proud of me. She wanted me to get an MFA and so I did. I have the student loans to show for it. I’m sure she would like to see me make a radical life change now that I want to transition out of the industry, but I don’t know how exactly.
Strayed: Another thing we have in common, as you know, is that we both lost our moms to cancer (mine died at the age of 45, when I was a senior in college). I know in my heart that your mother is proud of you, Antonia. I know that as a motherless daughter and I also know that as a mother to a daughter and a son.
Crane: Thank you. I also know that if little Cheryl looked up at now Cheryl, she would be overwhelmed with love and pride at who you have become. Your Mom is proud as hell too.
Strayed: Thanks, honey.
Crane: So back to women having trouble calling themselves feminists, I have found that the younger and angrier the girl, the more disdain they have for the women who have fought for our civil rights. For example, a lot of pro-sex worker feminists attack Andrea Dworkin and they should be ashamed. Andrea Dworkin dedicated her entire life for the betterment of women. She uncovered the sexual gender paradigm that underlies patriarchy at its most primal level and fought for women’s civil rights. Her heart was in the right place. She also suffered sexual and domestic abuse and that from that struggle and that darkness, her politics blossomed.
Strayed: This is one of the reasons I adore you, Antonia, and also why your column is so great. There is nothing more boring to me than an argument in which each side only makes one point and that point is “you suck.” The progress of humanity is dependent on the people who loved and thought and wrote and created things before us, even when what those people loved, thought, wrote, and created was flawed. Andrea Dworkin took us to a philosophical edge. We needed to go there to get where we are now.
Crane: Unlike Andrea Dworkin, I don’t think porn is inherently degrading. I don’t think sex work is either. It’s a job, no more degrading than scrubbing toilets or selling fishing poles or slinging drinks. My boss has screamed me at while working as a counselor. She never had my permission to scream at me. I give men permission to touch my boobs. Or not.
Don’t women deserve the dignity to make a decision to do sex work outside of political correctness the same way that women can state that sex work should be obsolete?
Strayed: Yes. Absolutely. Women deserve the dignity to make decisions for themselves about everything. I’ve never questioned that. But of course all along we’ve been talking about a very particular kind of sex work—the sort that independent women of free will decide to do. But we both know that a lot of women and children of both genders are in the sex industry because they never had the opportunity to make that choice. They are trafficked or pimped or coerced. They are drug addicted or mind-fucked by abusive relationships or in some other way not agents of their own lives.
What is the relationship between women who make a decision to do sex work and those who don’t? How do we differentiate victimization from autonomy? Are sex workers like you on a continuum that spans that complicated bridge or are you are on disconnected islands? How do we determine who is a victim and who is not? Is a twenty-two year-old woman whose father fucked her from age twelve to seventeen making a dignified decision about her life if she opts to become a call girl?
Crane: There is a bridge between women who have been forced into the sex industry and women like me. The problem with bridges is that they connect bodies but they also separate. For example, on The Rumpus, a woman “Bedelia” wrote in the comments section to a couple of my columns about being gang raped (by cops and others) and sold into prostitution in New York for ten years. She was triggered by my interview with a house mom in New Orleans because she thought I was glorifying the industry that abused her. Cheryl, I was sickened by her story. At the same time, I felt like she was beating me with a stick until I signed her contract stating all sex workers were self-hating 12-year old slaves and I can’t do that. After a tense argument, she left me her phone number and I called her and we talked and laughed for a long time. I want to bridge the gap between us because I know there are more similarities than differences. We are indeed mirrors. A lot of women and men have been driven into sex work by sorrow and I have too, but I have to believe that the next to impossible is still possible. We can get free. Why did you ask those questions, Cheryl? Do you know a lot of sexual abuse survivors who are also sex workers? Have you tried to help them? How can we help them? Isn’t that another thing we have in common-weren’t we both social workers?
Strayed: I’m so glad to hear that you and Bedelia worked it out. I was distressed by her story too.
I asked about the relationship between sex work and the experience of childhood sexual abuse because that’s the heat behind “Pussy Fever.” In that essay I wrote all about the justifications that propelled me to call up that man who ran the escort service and arrange for the interview that I didn’t ultimately show up for and I wrote about the reasons I thought sex work might be a reasonable option for me at that point in my life, but what drove me to it, what actually made me pick up the phone and dial that number, has nothing to do with those things. It has to do with the sorrow and psychological desperation that ruled my life then, some of which was connected to sexual abuse I’d experienced. The pull toward sex work for me felt viscerally linked what was taken from me as a girl. With what I wanted to get back from men. I was a young woman who was attempting to simultaneously cure and destroy herself.
And I don’t think I’m that different. I know I’m not the only woman who reached in that direction for that cure and destruction. I’ve had jobs in social services, working specifically with girls and women, yes, but also I have a lot of women friends and a sickeningly high number of them have suffered sexual violence of some sort or another and so that link between sex work and sexual abuse is important and worrisome to me.
You don’t think porn and sex work is inherently degrading and I’ll nod my head in agreement, but only with the emphasis on inherent. Perhaps we could construct a society in which the sex for money exchange is not degrading, but we don’t have that society now. Even if there are many cases in which the experience is not degrading for you and some other sex workers, the fact remains that a significant portion of it is for many. Not only degrading, but specifically misogynistic. We know that a high percentage of women who become sex workers do so out of either financial or psychological desperation—and usually both. What do you make of that? How do you come to terms with the fact that so many women in the sex industry have been victims of sexual abuse?
Crane: What do I make of the sexual abuse that women suffer who end up in the sex industry? I think it’s horrendous. I wish sexual abuse was obsolete, not strip clubs. I understand women who were assaulted wanting to get even by having sexual control over customers and taking their power back. I also understand the familiar sorrow, which can turn into compulsion. When my mother’s cancer returned and I assisted her suicide, I jumped back into sex work. It’s a knot that may never get untangled and one I am exploring in my writing. There are the Sasha Gray’s of the industry also. She has the reputation of being an articulate, deliberate girl who has publicly stated that her upbringing was stable and without sexual abuse. Is it degrading to suck cock for cash? Sometimes. It can also feel powerful and amazing. Feeling degraded can be titillating. Admit it.
Mostly, the sucking and fucking has made me feel lonelier, which is why I can’t screw for cash. It’s unbearably heavy. I can’t afford it. In my need to erect a partition between my personal and professional life, I don’t suck cock for pay, especially when I’m involved. Not because anyone has asked me to stop, or because it feels degrading, but because I really enjoy sucking my lover’s cock and I’m not going to let work interfere with my pleasure.
Strayed: Feeling degraded can be titillating, but there would seem to me to be a world of difference between being with your lover and play-acting a degradation in which you are entirely complicit—a degradation, in fact, that is designed to bring you pleasure—and the sort of degradation that would come from servicing a customer, which presumably has nothing to do with you or your expressed desires.
I keep thinking of that amazing scene you wrote in “Locker 29,” when you undressed for the strip club manager in an attempt to get a job. The degradation there struck me as huge and not even remotely titillating. Am I wrong about that? What does sex work give you, psycho-sexually? What does it take away?
Crane: Sex workers are always negotiating levels of compliance with a customer. Even when they are dominant, they are being paid. This is where power dynamics and desire gets complex because everyone is different. I have a friend who cries when a customer touches her tits so she never lets them do that during a lap dance. This has something to do with her desires and her own vulnerability. I prefer being the one in charge (paddling, spanking, nipple torture), which is why I said before I can’t do the more penetrative acts for money. Dancing on stage gives me a hit of sexual attention I need and it’s hard to get away from all of that sexual power.
But I’m dancing around the question. The real question is how will I rebuild what has been broken? When I first started dancing, hands crawled across my body like crabs, and I’d cry, but soon I developed an emotional shellac, like the other girls in order to shoulder rejection and be touched when I didn’t feel like it. Nearly 20 years later, I want to melt. I want to feel cared for by someone I am fucking. I want to fuck the person whom I care for. I want to be held by someone who’s not paying me. I want to be moved and be in love and I want to fucking feel something other than isolated. That’s why my book is called “Stripped” because I want to be stripped bare of the shellac and not be scared shitless and run. I don’t want to cringe like a feral kitten when someone I love tries to hug me. And all of that theoretical, post-modern, feminist ideology was great and fun and empowering, but it’s hogwash when all I want to do is sear through the numbness and walk out of the strip club into the sunlight. Can someone point me in the direction of the sunlight?
In “Locker 29” I take the reader through the audition process at Visions, which was horrible and degrading. The manager I described in the essay read it and promptly fired me; had me escorted off the premises by the heat-packing security guards. My book contains at least 3 auditions, but I’ve been through dozens. I’ve been turned away from lots of clubs for being too fat or tattooed. Hired by day and then fired by a night manager. It’s humiliating.
In “Pussy Fever” you watched the dancer and choreographer Linda Austin strip and you compared it to the lack of mystery about strippers. This made me ask is stripping an art form? I can say I’ve been moved and stunned by strippers I’ve seen over the years. I’ve seen an aerodynamic mermaid dance to a choreographed performance that was intelligent, wild and erotic. I’ve been inspired and aroused. To quote you, “there were zings of pleasure.” Mostly, strippers choose their music and costumes. But the sex industry has changed. It has become more what I will call Steve Almond’s “Pornified” and less the anti-establishment performance art that it was in the early 90’s. This movement towards McStripping makes me sad and leaves me empty and it’s the reason I choose to dance in New Orleans, where there is a creative, forgiving atmosphere. We are not just drones flashing a tit and scrambling for sweaty dollar bills, but mothers, daughters artists and workers trying to machete our way into the sunlight.
Strayed: You aren’t just a worker trying to machete your way into the sunlight, Antonia. You are the machete. You are the sunlight. There is no doubt about that in my mind. Like you, I have been moved by all sorts of naked women dancing, in ways both erotic and intelligent. And I have also been saddened, deflated, and emptied out by them. That’s why I chose to end my essay with those two scenes—placing the naked bodies of women dancing up against each other. The point I was trying to make had everything to do with, as I wrote in my essay, differentiating one naked ass from another.
This is what I’m here for. And I know that’s what you’re here for too. I mean, in a genuinely gigantic way. To break it down. To see what’s what. To make us better.
Crane: Fuck Yeah.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin) and the forthcoming memoir, Wild (Knopf).
Antonia Crane is a sex worker and writer from Humboldt County. She was behind the unionization effort in 1995 for Lusty Lady Theatre: SEIU Local 790: Exotic Dancers Alliance. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue HIV counseling for the porn industry at AIM Health Care and has been a sex educator and counselor for at-risk youth and women. She has an MFA from Antioch University. She’s working hard on her memoir, “Stripped: Tales of a Sexual Outlaw.” Excerpts have been published in the Black Clock Journal, Sexology.lit and the Coachella Review. She has received scholarships from College of the Redwoods, Mills College, Antioch University and The Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Antonia edits The Citron Review and can be spotted hanging upside-down from poles in Los Angeles and New Orleans.