What do you imagine life is like for a person who writes about sex and performs for a living? Maybe they wake up in slippery red silk bed sheets, sandwiched between two sleeping bodies with one more draped snoozing on the end of the bed as a footrest. Maybe they feed their cat some kibble and refresh the human-sized hamster water bottle in their caged slave’s enclosure. And then, they confirm their agenda for the day: a latex costume fitting in the morning, lunch and gallery hopping with a porn star pal in the afternoon, then an hour or two of writing about gangbang etiquette before jetting off to an exclusive, invite-only orgy in a penthouse, and as the sun rises, and they are safely installed back in their tasteful home, which smells like cedar and leather, they pour themselves a glass of champagne and toast their extraordinary life. Here’s the thing. The fantasy is not far off. Versions of many of these things have been part of my life at one point or another, though the only cage I ever had in my apartment was for my chinchilla. But the story of what this lifestyle is like is, like so many aspects of my work, based on fantasy, mediated by the wishes and desires of the imaginer. But what is the fantasy, exactly, and what purpose does that fantasy serve?
I know it’s gauche to say this, but I like my jobs. And that’s part of the story that I sell. Writing about sex sounds cool, and it is. It’s a spicier beat than domestic trade agreements, pharmaceutical legislation, or the local candidates for comptroller in an upcoming election. Sex writing can be educational, informative, and humanizing, as much as it can be prurient and salacious, so it can have that I’m-doing-this-for-the-good-of-humanity, sanctimonious feeling (a feeling I chase as much as any high). And writing about sex used to be a surefire way to get viewers on your work before our tech overlords put their whole pussy into tanking and shadowbanning sexual content on their oligopolistic platforms.
Sex writing can be educational, informative, and humanizing, as much as it can be prurient and salacious...
Writing about sex and performing sexuality in nightlife leads most people to imagine that all sex writers have dynamic, high-octane sex lives, with willing partners lining up for their shot at a breathless evening together, with orgasms that break as fast and heavy as Pacific waves, and critically, with money to pay for it all. Money to buy the finest fetish gear, to jet off to conferences and covens alike, to afford leisure time to lay around in the afterglow enough for artistic inspiration to strike. Class is often the biggest unacknowledged fantasy in all of this projection.
I was working retail at a sex toy store during the 50 Shades of Grey craze, and I really had to lean in on my media literacy training: are you really fantasizing about being a 24/7 submissive, or do you just want to live a life where you don’t have to worry about bills? The BDSM toys we sold to our customers could provide a physical sensation, which could carry with it an extension of the make-believe that could take our customers into their private reveries, but reality was always waiting in the margins. Like, chances are, your Dominant is a project manager who lives in a studio in Queens and is taking the subway home after topping you, which is fine and normal! It just isn’t the story about power and wealth that 50 Shades sold so successfully. And the same goes for the sexy, sexy sex writers among us. I started writing and publishing work about sexuality while still in my retail job, still getting handouts from Mom and Dad, and still living with four roommates. I stashed my amassing sex toy collection in a plastic tub from the Container Store, which I shoved in my overflowing closet next to a cracked, hand-me-down IKEA shelf. That’s not to glamorize the struggle, either. I am privileged; I was mostly just messy, lazy, and cheap. But still, my existence was far from the glamorous story of me that might move more units.
Like most forms of labor, sex writing doesn’t care when you’re having a bad day or when the country or the world is.
And then, like most forms of labor, sex writing doesn’t care when you’re having a bad day or when the country or the world is. Testing and reviewing butt toys during the aftermath of the 2016 election was a form of torture that I would not wish on any hardcore masochist. Everything I did for a living felt useless and ornamental, and I thought every day about quitting. I could barely tolerate any form of touch. I resented customers, fans, and eager readers alike: how dare they turn their attention toward such trivial things when the world around us was being systematically dismantled and sold for scrap? A butt plug plugs your butt. Shut up, leave me alone, who fucking cares? I could lie to myself about the radical, transformative potential of my opinions on pussy eating etiquette, but then there was the sound of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in the background as I typed away on my precious little Google doc, and my body recreated my trauma response from when I was 26, 22, 11. What, ultimately, was the point of all of this? I chastised myself for having one of those fake jobs, the kind of work that indicates unsustainably good market conditions, the first thing to go in a recession: cruise ship entertainers and me.
Miraculously, my writing about sex has led me to the place I dreamed about since my childhood: a book deal.
Eventually, I quit my sex toy retail job for the high-paying, easy street work of queer mental health. And miraculously, my writing about sex has led me to the place I dreamed about since my childhood: a book deal. Another fantasy, a 1-in-1000 chance of ever getting such a thing, has fallen in my lap (or into my grasping mitts) with all of its attendant gossamer delusions. I’m Jo March, Carrie Bradshaw, and Hunter S. Thompson, baby. In equal measure, I carry stacks of deckled paper wrapped in cloth ribbon through the streets of New York. I run to my next media interview in a ‘so stupid, it’s smart’ combo of thrifted statement pieces and designer couture. And I wipe ketamine dust off my ten-year-old laptop to report on the underground.
In reality, the navel I’m gazing into is a deep well. In reality, the breakup I’m going through feels like it is rearranging my organs, and a retinue of good friends are checking in with me daily to see if I have eaten or slept. My family is not sure how to support me around the publication of this book, as private as they are, and both of my parents handle their advance copy like it was a friendly but mildly radioactive Chernobyl dog. The money from my book deal has vaporized, and student loan repayments are starting up again. My best friends worry that the book is going to change me and that I am going to leave them for a more glamorous social set, another slew of projections that I have no idea how to contend with. I have to remind myself that I am proud of achieving this milestone in my life and that this is what I wanted. I schedule a half-hour period into my calendar for a couple of weeks, where I will practice gratitude. I give myself til two minutes before my next marketing meeting with my publisher to lie face down on the floor and feel like shit.
I’ve spent so long working in the fantasy space, assuring people of the validity of their own desires, that I have much less to say about reality.
I’ve spent so long working in the fantasy space, assuring people of the validity of their own desires, that I have much less to say about reality. I’ve tried folding reality up and turning it back into fantasy, which used to work and doesn’t anymore. One of the first songs I ever did a burlesque number to was “After You Get What You Want, You Don’t Want It,” written by Irving Berlin and popularized by Marilyn Monroe, the American queen of fantasy and projection. I performed the act dressed as Monica Lewinsky, strutting and preening, teasing an unmoving man in a suit wearing a latex Bill Clinton mask. I tried and failed to get his attention by removing my gloves sensually, by grinding against his lap, and by unzipping my already stained dress. Just out of his eyeshot, I threw a vicious temper tantrum until my next music cue. And at the end, when my breasts were revealed and dangled in his face, the response I got from Bill was to pull out a cream pie and pie me in the face. Ta-da. Have I always told my own fortune – is my life now what it feels like to get what I want? Was this all more fun to strive for than to achieve?
I suppose the goal of much of sex writing is to normalize, but talking and writing about sexuality continues to resist normalization.
I suppose the goal of much of sex writing is to normalize, but talking and writing about sexuality continues to resist normalization. Sex is, among other things, deeply pedestrian, but to treat it as such sometimes makes it harder to find a wide audience. Fantasy is easier to sell than reality, and it’s easier to live or to pretend to live. My life is sexy and fun, sometimes on the pages or on stage or in stolen minutes or hours between deadlines, difficult conversations, and, to my dismay, personal growth. Soon, a bunch of strangers will have access to more information about my life than ever before, and reality, for better and worse, is going to shift. Hopefully, it’ll bring a different set of problems and new things to want.
My ex thought my graying hair was sexy, the hair I pin up to get my ink black wig to sit straight. I think about that backstage at my burlesque gig until it feels like my stomach is full of loose change, and then I push it down. The audience is waiting, and they’re ready for a good story.