Q&A Kitty Stryker
The outspoken, queer, feminist sex worker on patriarchy, privilege and giving voice to other women in her field.
Photo credit: Benjy Feen
A lot of people would say that you can’t be a good feminist and queer role model while also being a sex worker. When asked about those people, Kitty Stryker responds with a raised middle finger.
It’s not sex work that makes Stryker noteworthy, it’s that she enjoys success in so many other fields while simultaneously being open about sex work. How does someone go about being a writer, a performer, a public speaker, an activist, a queer feminist and even a contributor to the Huffington Post while coping with the stigma of her day (or night) job? No matter what she’s doing, Stryker’s position is always the same: She doesn’t have to answer to anybody.
“Being a queer woman in queer female spaces, they see my work as catering to male patriarchal values,” she says. “But obviously that’s not true because I haven’t dyed my hair blond, I haven’t had my stomach removed, I’m loud and angry all the time; all of the things you supposedly say and do to be a successful sex worker I don’t do, but somehow I pay my rent every month.”
As a writer, Stryker featured on the Huffington Post, in Filament and Good Vibrations. As a public speaker she’s appeared at South by Southwest and on Current TV. As an activist she works with the Sex Worker Outreach Program USA on their International Day to End Violence campaign and her own Safe/Ward project to educate people about sexual abuse in the BDSM community (which netted her an interview on Salon.com). Whether working in the sex industry or out of it, Stryker has never tried to hide who she is or what she does, even though it inevitably courts controversy.
Her outspoken and unapologetic approach to anything and everything landed her in the Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” section with an April contribution delicately titled “Some People Enjoy Being Prostitutes…Get Over It.” The piece got her noticed, but it also made waves.
“I got about six hundred replies to my first column,” she says, “half of them telling me, Good for you, and the other half saying, Oh my God, how can you do this to yourself, and how can your boyfriend let you do this? I resented the idea that I must necessarily have a boyfriend and that he would have to ‘let’ me do anything. I was like, Oh, well, it’s hard, but sometimes he lets me off the stove…”
The split in reader reaction provides a prime study in why the stigma against sex work should be a feminist concern, Stryker says. Streaks of sexism, chauvinism and patriarchal mindsets run through some of the critical comments. “I can respect a woman's choice to become a sex worker ever [sic] though I still deeply feel it makes her a less respectable woman in general,” one commenter posted (Stryker responded by asking how that was at all respectful).
“I would like to know what her state of mental health is, how many antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications she is on,” said another, on a different column. A third speculated about “metric tons” of antibiotics she must consume (Stryker says she has never gotten a sexually transmitted infection on the job). And of course, many are even less couth.
Her critics have trouble reconciling sex work with her various causes. Stigma, she says, is the hardest part of the job: “You have the same conversation over and over: no I’m not trafficked, no I don’t have a pimp, no my clients are not all assholes.”
Photo credit: Courtney Trouble
Regardless, Stryker doesn’t see any conflicts of interest between sex work and feminism. “How can you possibly be a feminist and not support decriminalizing prostitution?” she asks.
Prostitution arrests in America target the (usually female) sex worker rather than the (usually male client) by a ratio of nine to one. Female sex workers are more likely to be arrested than male ones and more likely to be prosecuted after arrest. In common vernacular, the word “pimp” is often complimentary but the word “whore” is always derogative. These things, Stryker says, are symptoms of patriarchy at work.
How can Stryker so openly flout the law without facing legal reprisal? “I’m white, I’m middle class, and I work indoors,” she explains. “If they can grab a woman on the street who may or may not have drugs on them, that’s way easier.
“It’s the idea of women having sexual agency,” that drives anti-prostitution laws, according to Stryker. “It’s about moral projection. People think that if we decriminalize sex work it will make society fall apart, but greed is what causes society to fall apart.”
“Besides,” she adds, “a lot of sex workers are queer, and making that group invisible is just aiding the repression of them. I’ve found lesbian groups to be the most conscious of class issues and work the most vehemently against them. This is just another front.”
Sex work, according to Stryker, is almost inherently queer. Many of her male clients, she explains, are men who became “trapped in that dichotomy” of society’s traditional gender expectations.
“That’s why they come to queer women,” she says, “because we’re like, Fuck all that. A guy can come to me and say he wants to wear a skirt and heels and I won’t judge him for it. They want someone who’ll hack gender.”
Stryker tells the story of a straight client who asked to live out a fantasy of having a woman force him into gay sex acts. She turned him down flat. When the shocked client asked why, she responded that she thought the idea of gay sex as a punishment was offensive and suggested that the man might not be being totally honest with himself about his sexuality. After a few carefully negotiated sessions, he had a breakthrough.
“He told me, I realized that I do identify as queer, and you taught me that that’s OK. He realized that gender was a construct and he could take it or put it down.”
What about her female clients? Is there any such thing as a female “John”?
“Women in the U.S. don’t think of themselves as clients,” she explains, though they make up about a quarter of her customer base. Some are just everyday women who want to indulge the lesbian fantasies they may never have acted on, but most seek Stryker out for holistic reasons.
“A lot of them were women who had suffered sexual trauma and wanted to learn to be touched without being afraid,” she says. “They come to a woman because that feels safe to them. Some of them are clients with disabilities who didn’t know how to be sexual because they felt like being sexual meant looking a certain way or being a certain way. They feel safe with me because I’m a fat girl, so I don’t fit that definition either.”
Gender, sexuality and sexual identity are never quite what you expect in Stryker’s professional life. In fact, almost nothing Stryker’s work is what people might expect:
“My last session, I spent 40 minutes in a hot tub listening to the client talk about financial problems, 20 minutes having sex, 15 minutes giving a massage, and then I spent the rest of the time just chilling in the hot tub. That’s what my job actually looks like most days.”
That’s well and good for her, but what about the many sex workers whose professional lives are less rosy?
“You can be pro-decriminalization and still be cognizant that there are some sex workers who suffer,” Stryker says. That, she argues, is the very reason she’s so outspoken with groups like SWOP. Anti-prostitution laws put sex workers, particularly poor ones who work on the street, in more danger, she says, not less.
“There was a cop who was saying that if a sex worker approached him after being assaulted that he wouldn’t arrest that person for being a sex worker,“ she says, recounting a recent SWOP meeting in San Francisco. “We tried and tried and tried to get him to put that in writing, but he wouldn’t.”
Stryker admits that she lives “in a bubble”, but at the same time argues that she’s uniquely qualified to draw attention to the needs of the less privileged women in the industry. “Because no one talks to sex workers,” she says. “I can use my privilege to amplify their voice.”
Stryker may have found a way around the Scarlet Letter in the public and legal spheres, but what about at home? It’s hard enough coming out to one’s family as bisexual, but what happens when you add “and I’m a prostitute” on top of it?
“I’ve always been totally honest about it,” she says. “You can’t out someone who has no shame.”
She talks about how a piece in a racy British tabloid quoted her mother as being proud of her decisions. “That was huge, because it told people you don’t have to be ashamed of your child,” if they’re a sex worker, she says.
“Sometimes I think if I came to them and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m joining a cult and once every year they kill one of us,’ they’d say ‘Okay sweety, we support your right to do whatever you want with your body.’” Stryker is quick to add that their attitude indicates respect for her decisions rather than neglect, and that she’s happy and relieved to have parents who support her.
On the other hand, Stryker’s grandmother was horrified when she learned what her granddaughter’s vocation really was. “I’d always told her I was a sex worker, but I guess she never really understood what that means,” Stryker says. “I think she thought I was some kind of burlesque performer.” The two reconciled, and Stryker says she believes her grandmother is, gradually, coming to terms with everything.
Stryker got engaged at the end of last year and says she’s happy to have found stable ground in both her personal and professional lives. “I intend to do what feels right and comfortable to me as I get older,” she says. “That might be moving to another aspect of the work, [or] it might be getting out of sex entirely and becoming a lawyer. Who knows?”
Kitty Stryker as a lawyer? We can imagine her courtroom demeanor: outspoken and unapologetic, always.