How It Could Be Different: An Interview with Sarah Katherine Lewis

Sarah Katherine Lewis is a feminist writer and activist whose wit and candor make for delightful reading, even when she’s discussing unsavory aspects of the sex industry or her own struggle with depression. Whether righteously defending Britney Spears, sharing practical instructions for making tomato sauce (lots of cheap wine helps), or investigating the candy bar kinks of a confounding john, Lewis pulls pearls of unexpected enlightenment from her subject matter.

Her two books, Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire and Sex and Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very Bad for Me, are at the same time heavy, hilarious, and rejuvinating reads. Lewis tackles personal demons towards a broader end. She has the courage to ask radical questions and demand more than advertising slogan answers: How we can be happy and healthy and live without exploiting or abusing one another? How can we love ourselves, including our bodies — which we may have been taught to hate?

When not leading workshops on body image on college campuses across the country, Lewis currently works as a freelance writer, blogs, and writes a sex advice column. She can be found online at www.sarahkatherinelewis.com and www.sexandbacon.com.

I had the opportunity to chat with Lewis on St. Patrick’s Day. The recent transplant from Seattle had just come home from negotiating a grocery run without the aid of on automobile in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where public transportation is scarce.

I wanted to ask you about the reception of Indecent and Sex and Bacon. How were they received, and how did you feel about the reception from both readers and critics?

Oh gosh… well, I got great reviews for both, and was very happy and grateful for the good reception, because nobody ever teaches you how to write a book. You just flail around and do it and hope nobody thinks your efforts suck.

With Indecent, for the most part, women got it and loved it. Especially women with a history of sex work, but most blue-collar women, really. There was a huge, almost cultish reaction, and I got a ton of mail from women saying, “Finally, a sex worker memoir is true to my experience!” It was humbling and amazing.

Not that I think I speak for all sex workers (who could?), but to hear that my experience, truthfully told, made someone else feel this huge sense of recognition in a way that no other sex worker memoir had [made me feel great]. I just tried to tell the truth and hope that someone would want to read it. It turned out that a lot of people did, and I feel incredibly lucky because as I was writing it, I was really scared nobody would get it or believe me.

I was thinking about Indecent today, and about how while much of it is very specific to sex work, and the particulars of working in an industry that’s marginalized and demonized as it is, I would imagine that a lot of it would ring true to people, especially women, working in other service industry sectors.

Exactly. The low-wage service industry is all about exhausting, physically demanding, humiliating, and often dangerous labor. Selling the health and safety of your body to pay your rent isn’t a problem unique to women, or to sex workers. It’s much more systemic; it’s about who we view as unworthy of societally-mandated protection.

Why do you think it is that SOME people reacted so strongly to your memoir rather than others? There are a lot of sex work memoirs out there…

I know there are a lot. I’ve read most of them. Their experiences were not my experience. I felt like my experience was completely different, and I thought it was interesting and tell-able, and also, as a feminist, I felt like people needed to know the truth about what the sex industry could be like for some women… I really believe that it’s courageous for women to tell the truth about their lives. It changes things.

It seems like most of them follow a particular formula, feature a particular kind of [straight, white, upper/middle class, college educated, ”unlikely”] protagonist that publishers think is marketable… Which is not to dismiss those writers or their experiences, it just seems like what’s out there is pretty narrow.

I don’t dismiss or belittle anyone in the sex worker memoir field, though most of the time I read their books and kind of go “Wow, I have no idea what your experience was like, it was so foreign to my own…” Of course the whole “I’m beautiful and sexy” thing that a few of them seem to have as a subtext… well, in my experience, you may in fact be beautiful, but it doesn’t matter in the sex industry. I think I have my charms, but I’m nobody’s idea of a porn star. Except that I was.

Can you elaborate on that? The “beautiful and sexy” thing?

I thought the idea of the sex industry being way more egalitarian than most people assume was interesting. The sex industry allows pretty much anyone a fair shot to make money, if she’s smart and works hard. In some ways, it’s the only way for a young female entrepreneur to start her own successful small business, if she doesn’t have access to small-business loans, etc. I started with next to nothing. You only need a decent pair of high heels. Plus the ability to respond to your market, think creatively, take some risks, and market yourself. Looks are the very last thing that matter.

Yeah, I think people don’t get that aspect of sex work. They think it’s the ultimate example of patriarchal beauty standards being oppressively wielded, because they think of Jenna Jameson, not realizing that the vast majority of women working in porn or whatever fields [of the sex industry] don’t look like that.

Yes, and in reality, sure she makes money, but I did too. I wanted to get that message out there, which is why I went out of my way to describe myself and the other workers I met accurately.

Part of it might be that people who don’t interface much with the sex industry don’t see all the layers of skill that are involved with being able to actually make money.

There are some women so heartbreakingly beautiful you look at them and you just can’t stand it. But they rarely make as much money as the tawdry old tarts with loose bosoms and visible roots (laughing). And, yes, skill. But that’s true of nearly all “women’s work” — it’s all similarly devalued as being something we are, as opposed to something we consciously do, with skill. We’re just sluts.

I wanted to ask you about the glove incident in Indecent. [A client became enraged when Lewis refused to remove a protective glove from her injured hand and proceeded to behave abusively. He complained to Lewis’ boss, who reprimanded her.] That passage struck me in that it seemed to speak both to specific occupational hazards of sex work, the lack of support for trying to protect yourself, and lack of labor standards, as well as a commonality with other forms of labor where the workers aren’t valued as much.

Exactly — dangerous labor is dangerous labor, whether you’re cleaning the fry-o-later for minimum wage and burning yourself and then not having the money to take some time off to heal, or being exposed to disease — it’s all the same ball of wax. It’s about using up people’s bodies that are viewed as expendable. Unfortunately, women as a group seem to be in the category of expendable, unless you’re working your way through college, and therefore demonstrably middle to upper class. Blue collar women’s bodies are like migrant workers’ bodies… you just use them up, throw them away, and get new ones.

It’s a systemic issue, not a sex industry [specific] issue, which is what blows my mind about “abolitionist” anti-sex work feminists. They argue that they care so much about women’s lives and safety, but I don’t see them working on campaigns with farm workers…

It’s absolutely systemic, and it’s not just women — it’s about dehumanizing the providers of our intimate labor: food, sex, caretaking. The closer the labor is to us, the more we have to pretend they aren’t real people, because I suspect we can’t stand ourselves for needing and wanting it. Nannies, food service workers, it’s all the same. It’s all about Mommy… we need her to wipe our ass not because she’s getting paid, but because she wants to, right? But then of course her labor is devalued because it’s what she is, a good mommy, so why should we pay for that if she’d do it anyway?

Sex and Bacon

So, how’d you come up with the idea for Sex and Bacon?

Sex and Bacon really was a reaction to the time I spent thinking about Indecent. Indecent was all about the ways we dehumanize each other; the way we perform sexual service and lie about it, when in reality erotic contact is supposed to be about love and communication. The sex industry truly is perverse, in that it takes the semblance of love and warps it into the exact opposite of all love is about. It was an exhausting thing to think about, the way we use each other up. I was sick of it, sick and saddened. I wanted to write about real love. What we do when we love and nourish each other. How we make homes in each other’s hearts.

Tell me about the workshops you do. It seems like they are thematically similar to Sex and Bacon.

Yes, though every one is different. The thing is, most non-sex-working women do not have the experience of realistically assessing their own bodies and those of other real, i.e. non-media-idealized women with love and honest esteem. Sex workers sit around and eat with each other with their tummies hanging out and their wigs off, and then they put on their shoes and go earn their rent money. There’s a sense of “my body is what I have, and it’s enough, and there are parts of it that are amazingly beautiful and parts that I’d change, and so what?“ That’s the really, really unequivocally good thing the sex industry gave to me. I try to bring that experience to non-sex-working women, because I found it to be a revelation. It deeply changed the way I felt about my own body, to be in the industry. Now my relationship with it is markedly different than the ways other (non-sex-working) women seem to treat their own bodies, from what I observe.

How do you do that in your workshops, and what has feedback been like?

Mostly, I just talk. And read from my books. And ask questions. But the ladies who come to the workshops don’t arrive waiting for me to hand information down to them. They come active and wanting to engage and challenge themselves, and so it ends up being a huge facilitated dialogue. We all just kind of… I guess it’s kind of the classic feminist consciousness raising thing. I know that sounds hokey, but to me, it’s humbling and powerful. We sit around and talk about what is hurting us in our relationships with our bodies. We talk about how that could be different.

I think that kind of thing doesn’t happen enough anymore. And that’s the really exciting part, the “how it could be different…”

I know. It doesn’t. We’re all too cool for it, too “post-feminist.” I don’t even understand what that term means. Wait, we won?

But yeah. How it could be different. And do we want it to be different? And what would our lives look like if it were different?

In Sex and Bacon, you give a very simple, practical piece of advice, which is to eat what you want and your body will tell you what it needs. If you want to eat bacon, eat it. Maybe its not as great as eating only meals prepared by Madonna’s French macrobiotic chef, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the realistic alternative, the cycles of self-criticism and punishment and misguided dieting.

It’s amazing how angry people get about that. Even my roommate can’t stand the idea that I prefer my body to self-regulate. That I will not eat when I’m not hungry. And when I am hungry, I eat until I’m full. It drives him fucking batty — he thinks that you have to eat breakfast. But I’m not hungry, and I won’t eat when I don’t want food. It just freaks [him] out on this completely visceral level. He doesn’t understand how my body can be self-regulating without external control. You have to tell it when it’s hungry, and control what it has.

What do you think his discomfort with that idea is about?

I think he’s terrified at the idea of relying on self-regulation. People believe that if they eat what they want, when they want, they’d never stop eating. My father is convinced that if he eats what he wants, when he wants, he will eat 15 pounds of M&Ms a day.

It’s so funny, because this sounds exactly like a conversation I had yesterday. Not about food, but other stuff that some voice in your head says is inherently “bad”. The [real] problem isn’t the thing you want to do — eat M&Ms or whatever — it’s usually the self-punishing voice that beats you up for wanting it and doing it.

Yes. It’s the conflict. The good/bad-ness, the emotional torture, guilt and fear of wanting it again.

That is what leads to unhealthy overindulgence. Whereas if you just say yes, I like to eat M&Ms, and it’s not loaded with judgment, you can do it when you want. You won’t do it forever because at a certain point, it doesn’t feel so great to be eating them anymore… But our whole culture is set up so that we don’t trust ourselves or our desires, right?

We’re supposed to really distrust our desires to the point that if we want it, it must be bad.

We need to force ourselves to do “good” things that of course we don’t want to do. I believe in desire. I think desire is good. Tennessee Williams [wrote in A Streetcar Named Desire] for Blanche: “Death, is the opposite of desire.” Desire is life-force.

What makes you want to write?

In order to write, I need economic security, lots and lots of solitude, and lots and lots of unstructured time. Also, a working computer. All of those things have been a real challenge lately.

I struggle with severe depression, and when I’m wrestling with a bad episode, it’s impossible to write. I can’t even shower, let alone throw down words on a page that are meaningful and succinct! So I lose a lot of time to that, entire weeks and sometimes months of work — just gone. I have a secondary struggle not blaming myself for my disease. I know that depression is a serious medical issue and not my fault, but I still fall victim to the fallacy that if I just tried harder, I could overcome my depression through sheer force of will. It’s totally stupid, like trying to will yourself out of diabetes or a broken leg.

Of course there are innumerable idiots around that will tell you to “cheer up — take a walk; get some exercise; put on a smile,” ad nauseum. Those people can just fuck right off.

Who are your favorite writers?

Daphne Gottlieb, Fran Varian, Gordon Edgar, Bucky Sinister, Stephen Elliot, Jim Goad, Jim Hogshire, Shannon Barber, Kristin Casey, who is an Austin dancer who’s hard at work on her first book and screenplay. Stephen Hapy, Jr just co-wrote a book called The Trickster’s Bible, which is about creating revolutionary art in an oppressive society that values conformity, objectification, and net worth over artistic vision. The list goes on and on.

I do think some of the best writing is currently happening in the so-called blogosphere. Good blogs display a passion and immediacy that’s lacking in publishing, because publishers have a strong economic incentive to take the safe bet and go with established writers instead of controversial new folks who might be saying stuff that isn’t particularly sales-friendly. I’m not slamming book publishers, but these days when I feel like reading something brilliant, alarming, inspiring, and revolutionary, my first instinct is to turn on my computer. I like writers who take chances, occasionally fail, and get right back up again to write — not because they’re honing one precious masterpiece, but because they’re writing about their lives and thoughts as they occur — because they have to, and they’re not afraid to be sincere or angry or technically sloppy.

What are you cooking these days? Any favorite tips you’d be willing to share?

Oh man. I’m living in the Midwest and I’m eating lots of Hamburger Helper. Dude, I so wish I were kidding about this. But I’m broke, and beef is crazy-ass cheap here. Starch is super-cheap here! Nobody’s working, and you can’t go anywhere because of the snow, so there’s nothing else to do but watch cable and mainline carbohydrates. If you’re an agoraphobic with the munchies, this state is for you!

Music references are woven throughout Indecent. Songs are used as framing devices for chapters. What are you listening to these days?

Britney Spears’ new album, Circus. It’s so good! Also, lots of silly industrial. I miss Seattle like whoa, and listening to the music I used to listen to when I lived there makes me feel both lonelier and better, if those two things aren’t in total opposition. I miss going to clubs and stomping around with my friends.

Michigan may be in a condition of total economic collapse, but people really don’t seem to rock very hard here, Detroit Rock City notwithstanding. I hear a lot of Bob Seger here. And frat-boy stuff. Don’t forget, the University of Michigan is right here. Those frat-boys sure do love the whiny melodic stuff. I’m down with pizza delivery ‘til 4am, but man, their music sucks.

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
PopMatters