Books

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

Nicole Solomon
Photos by Mary Paynter Sherwin

The sex worker turned memoir author and columnist discusses the egalitarian nature of the sex industry, the devaluation of the body, and why you should just go ahead and eat that bacon if you want it.

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?

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