April 9, 2007

Prostitute Speaks on Sex Industry

Print More

The normally taboo topics of peep shows, pornography, stripping, seduction and domination were all fair game during sex worker Sarah Katherine Lewis’ presentation at Carol Tatkon Center last Friday night.
Lewis, who is promoting her book Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire, has worked in the sex industry for 12 years after first securing a job at Butterscotch’s Live Lingerie Adult Tanning at age 23. Short on cash and discouraged after years of minimum-wage work, Lewis decided to try her luck at the cryptically-named Seattle establishment.
“I pretty much assumed that I was applying for a job where I would wear a bustier and clean tanning beds. I had no idea about the masturbation. I had never seen a man masturbate before and had no idea how that worked. So I learned a lot,” she said.
After reading a graphic and poignant excerpt detailing her initiation into the industry, Lewis opened up the floor for questions.
Lewis, who was raised as a feminist and often frequented the women’s studies section of the public library, claims that she initially saw her position as a sex worker as a means of economic empowerment. But after several years in the industry, the financial benefits began to be overshadowed by the detrimental social and emotional effects.
“I started thinking about love and started thinking about what sex really is,” she said. “I started thinking about what that was actually for, and I thought: it’s to communicate love, it’s to communicate affection, it’s to communicate lust, it’s to communicate trust … And it occurred to me that the sex industry was this disturbing perversion of that … There was no love, and there was no caring; there was no gentleness. There was nothing erotic about it in any way, and the communication was all lies … Frankly, it broke my heart. And that’s when I started writing my book.”
Though she said that sex work is part of the larger problem of commodity fetishism — that is, the reduction of human relations to that of producer and consumer — Lewis also said, “The difference between the ugliness of me not seeing the fry-guy [at McDonald’s] as a human being and a guy who gets jacked off by me not seeing me as a human being … [is that] it enters such an intimate, sexual realm, which is, by definition, something you do to get close to another human being. I think sex work is a really efficient way of alienating human beings from each other.”
Lewis went on to cite the experience of sex workers who have trouble differentiating between sex acts with clients and sex acts with romantic partners.
“I had always viewed the sex industry as both a valuable means of income for women of lower economic backgrounds, though likewise had believed making a human being into a commodity was despicable,” said Kristen Alldredge ’09. “Sarah made an excellent point that, while the sex industry is exploitative of women, it goes both ways. She said she was equally exploitative of the male customers, whom she eventually failed to view as humans.”
Lewis, who is still active in the sex industry, also struggles with her underlying ideology, at times filled with “self-loathing” for allowing herself to be incorporated into an oppressive patriarchal system and at others deciding that “the most feminist thing I can do today is earn the money to pay my rent.”
“When I wake up and I feel the best, I think, a) I’m going to pay my rent and buy food for myself — that’s a profoundly feminist act for a working-class woman, is to take care of herself — and then b) I’m going to use the money I make and the time that I have to go out and spread the word. So that’s how I can be at peace with myself, but it varies.”
According to Lewis, one of her goals in publishing her memoir was to humanize sex workers in the eyes of those who believe they are not worthy of legal protection. As an example, she described the difficulty of working under Seattle law, which allows performers to strip naked but forbids simulated sex acts onstage. According to Lewis, the subjective nature of this statute, combined with law-enforcement quotas, can lead to selective issuing of tickets, which many strippers are wary of contesting for fear of openly revealing their status as sex-workers.
The presentation was coordinated by Ashwin Iyengar ’09, a Cornell Gay-Straight Alliance co-facilitator, and funded by Haven, an administrative network for Cornell’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Questioning groups. Iyengar, who first came across Lewis’ book in the gender and sexuality section of Borders, ascribed Lewis’ appeal to her unique perspective.
“She’s not the stereotypical, ditzy … ‘hooker,’” Iyengar said. “At the same time she’s not like the protagonist in a lot of books I’ve read, where it’s the doctoral student working on her dissertation, and she happens to strip on the side. She does this for a living.”