“Sex Workers Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Respectable’ to Be Worthy”

Our “Shameless Sex” columnist chats with retired sex worker turned journalist Tina Horn about being a “professional lover” and drawing inspiration from Tina Turner and Truman Capote.

Love Not Given Lightly: Profiles From the Edge of Sex (ThreeL Media) by Tina Horn is unlike other sex-work memoirs you’ve read—and not just because it takes its title from a famous Velvet Underground song (“Venus in Furs”). What sets it apart is the way Horn (a name she gave herself), a 32-year-old “retired sex worker” reflects on her domination-for-money past, applies a journalist’s eye and a poet’s flair for language with the very wording she uses to describe the heart of her tome: love.

Yes, this is a book about sex work, and the commingling of sex and money are front and center in these five profiles—of FTM porn performer James Darling; Sage Travigne, owner of the Gates, the house of domination where Horn got her start; escort Bianca Stone, who capitalizes on her body hair; Nigel Matthews, who pays to spank women (and is the only client Horn covers); and rent boy Quinn Cassidy. Horn also recounts her time as a professional domme in all its role-playing glory: “I was a jukebox of hits: a lusty space alien, an exploited babysitter, a naïve niece, a sultry librarian, a specialized therapist, the captain of a slave ship, a corrupt governess, and a bossy lesbian girlfriend.” But she doesn’t simply trot out her whip’s greatest hits; she uses them in service of painting a broader portrait of life as a sex worker than we often get to hear.

Horn is correct, and compelling, when she calls these profiles “love stories” in her introduction. She writes, “I learned early on that the best way to give what I gave at work without draining myself was to find love with my co-workers.” Horn weaves in her experience without letting her story overshadow her subjects’, creative souls who don’t follow a well-worn path, but forge their own, whether that means running a porn website, setting rules for a dungeon, or learning about BDSM by paying a professional. 

A keen, objective observer, Horn reports not with a message or a mission or a single life-changing realization—the hallmark of a neat, tidy memoir—but with the goal of digging beneath the sensationalism to uncover the uniqueness behind these “professional lovers.” I asked Horn about the origins of her book and her byline, what makes an ideal client, and her advice for those considering going into sex work.

 

How did Tina Horn evolve? And what did you learn about yourself by being her?

When I started doing professional BDSM at the Gates, the dungeon I profile in the book, I named myself after two of my femme icons: Tina Turner and Audrey Horn. I wanted to embody everything I admire about Tina Turner: her showmanship, that fact that she is unapologetic about the darkness she endured. And on Twin Peaks, Audrey Horn (played by Sherilyn Fenn) was just the kind of sultry feminine seductress I had a difficult time being in my more androgynous real life. In the book I try to have some verbal and existential fun with the question of persona: Is Tina Horn me? Is Ziggy Stardust David Bowie? Is Bruce Wayne Batman? In the end, I think it’s most accurate to say Tina Horn is an abstract but nevertheless useful tool I created, to make money, to adventure, and to experiment with an overtly feminine side of my sexuality. She is like a disguise to go undercover to satisfy my reporter curiosity about human desire, about power, about economics, about community. 

Honestly, it’s more of a psychological struggle to define my boundaries now than when I was using Tina to get naked and depraved in exchange for cash. When someone says that name to me, something happens in my brain that I conditioned in myself for back when I was seeing six clients a day. In this animalistic way, it concentrates my mind, locks a part of me away and becomes vigilant of people’s behavior, both intoxicated and hyper-observant. Because that’s what I had to do when I was dressed in lingerie and stilettos, stepping into a room with a strange man and closing the door behind me. 

Why did you decide to include profiles, instead of writing a straightforward memoir?

Frankly, I figured the world has enough memoirs of middle-class White girls who got into sex work for the anti-establishment thrill of it all. The book began as my thesis for a master’s in creative nonfiction. My amazing thesis advisor gave me a collection of New Yorker profiles and told me to study the form, so I was experimenting with techniques I was learning from Truman Capote and Lillian Ross. In my first few years at the Gates, I made sex-worker zines, and they were almost never narratives about my sessions. They were Marxist analysis or feminist analysis of being a self-employed woman, or philosophical meditations on everything I was learning about BDSM. They were about my perspectives on gender and power; so for the bigger project I wanted to ask the amazing sex workers I knew how they felt about those subjects.

Did you have any concerns about revealing aspects of sex work that sex workers generally prefer to keep to themselves?

I did. I agonized over them in a way that often paralyzed the process. I wanted to show people in all of their dimensions but also be fair to them and respect the trust they put in me, especially since the world is not kind about sex workers telling their stories. Sex workers shouldn’t have to be “respectable” in order to be worthy of basic human rights. And they shouldn’t have to whitewash their stories in order to tell them. 

Fetishist Nigel, who hired you and other women to spank them, seems like the ideal client, in that he has his desires, but is also inquisitive and respectful of boundaries, and seems to genuinely care about what the women are getting out of the sessions. Is this true? What can other clients learn from someone like him?

He definitely is, for the reasons you describe. Here are some things other clients can learn from Nigel: 

1.  Treat your correspondence and logistics (time, location, compensation) with the escort/pro-domme/cam model/dancer in a professional manner, as this is a business transaction where you want to make a very good impression.

2.  From there, proceed as if you’re going on a date with someone you really want to impress. Shower, dress well, take your time, turn off your fucking phone. Show up relaxed and ready to be present.

3.  Demonstrate respect, trust, and deference to the escort. Allow her or him to guide you and run the show. Be clear about your own desires and boundaries.

4.  The number one way to be more like Nigel is this: take a good long look at yourself and what turns you on, then figure out with a professional how you could explore and experiment with your desires.

You tweeted recently, “How different would the world be if female escort ads were as explicit as male escort ads?” What can female sex workers can learn from male sex workers?

I tweeted that because I recently started working as the Business Development Representation for Rentboy.com. So I look at hundreds of advertisements for male escorts and masseurs all week long; this is after mostly working in female and trans sectors of the industry for ten years. The world of male escorting certainly seems to regard itself as a boys’ club in which both clients and provider are sort of in the same class. Two main differences I’ve noticed are that most male ads say something about being attractive in their text. I’ve found that women have to be much more coy and humble. Countless male escorts ads will say, “I’m extremely attractive with a beautiful cock,” whereas a female escort might say, “People tell me I’m not too bad looking ;).” And the biggest difference that I was tweeting about is that male ads are much more hard core and explicit. Women can’t get away with this; they have to be withholding, alluring, teasing. If a female ad depicted the advertiser bending over spreading her asshole, it would seem like she was giving it away for free. Whereas with a man, it seems to be saying, I’m being totally upfront about what I’m offering. One couldn’t hope for a clearer illustration of sexist double standards.

How has the landscape for sex work changed since you started?

This is a big question, so I’ll give one personal example that’s been specific to my own experience. When I was working at the Gates we had this rule that really influenced me: “Mistresses don’t get sick.” This meant that we didn’t refer to our mundane lives with our clients; our sex-work personas existed only when you paid for our time. The culture was: You turn your outside hypersexual persona on when the client arrives, and when the client leaves you go back to being “yourself.”

Social media has changed that. Now I meet sex workers who are the age I was when I started, 24, who do cam shows from their bedrooms, Instagram their vacations, tweet about where they are at all hours, vent their personal drama on Facebook, Snapchat their off-the-clock sex life. More power to ’em, especially when they figure out how to diversify their income. But I just can’t do it; I have this “Mistresses don’t get sick” psychological block. The thing that made sex work sustainable for me was the fact that I could compartmentalize. 

Do you have any advice for someone thinking of getting into the field now?

My advice for people curious about sex work:

1.  Be realistic about your own expectations. Reports of exploitation are greatly exaggerated, but just like anything else it will affect and influence you. Be aware that whorephobia/sex worker stigma is real, and will affect your life.

2. Have another source of income. You will most likely burn out on sex work eventually to one degree or another and need to take a break or possibly retire. Also, when your life is all about sex, sometimes you forget how to relate to people whose lives are not wall-to-wall naked butts.

3. Collapse the whorerarchy. Don’t say shit like, “I’m a porn actress, I’m not some kind of whore.” Give something back to your sex work community, especially those who are more affected by stigma than you.

4. Find a community of support, people who understand the absurdities and agonies of sex work.

5.  Read sex worker writers: Annie Sprinkle, Melissa Gira Grant, Conner Habib, Carol Queen, Jiz Lee, Siouxsie Q, Audacia Ray, and the Red Umbrella anthologies Prose & Lore.

Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) writes widely about sex, dating, books, and pop culture. She’s edited over 50 anthologies, including The Big Book of Orgasms, Cheeky Spanking Stories, Women in Lust, Fast Girls, Best Sex Writing 2013, and others, and teaches erotic writing workshops. Follow her @raquelita on Twitter and on her blog, Lusty Lady (lustylady.blogspot.com).