Matt Bernstein Sycamore
His book of whores talking about clients, Tricks and Treats has been flying off shelves. HOOK sat with this activist/author in Provincetown to talk the changing (and not so changing) tide of whore activism.
HOOK: Why did you write the book?
Matt Bernstein Sycamore: I have been a whore for about 7 or 8 years and everything I have ever seen written about sexwork has been by an outsider where it’s been dramatized, glamorized, or sensationalized. One reason for the book is that I wanted sex workers to take charge of the scrutiny and to take charge of everything around. Instead of having outsiders look at us, I wanted it to be from sex workers of all different kinds — male, female, transgendered — from escorts to street workers to a sperm donor to a phone sex operator, an outreach worker that does a little extra outreach. All different kinds of sexworkers to focus on our tricks instead of the other way around. I really don’t think you can look at sexwork without looking at the consumer. No one ever talks to them because they are so busy hiding their identities and they usually hold access to the power mechanisms that keep their identities. That is first. I wanted sexworkers to take charge. No outsiders. No therapists. No police officers. No sexworkers. Just whores. Second, I wanted all different kinds of sexworkers together to expand the notion of sexwork instead of limiting it. Third, I wanted to shift the gaze and focus on tricks.
HOOK: Why do we not focus on clients?
MBS: One reason we don’t focus on clients is that they are often men in positions of power. If not white men, then straight men, who hold a certain amount of power and their power depends on keeping their identities hidden. That’s one reason. Another reason is that the stigma all sexworkers face carries over to them. Another reason is that it is not quite so sensational. People get excited about depraved, decadent, sick hookers but they are not as interested in themselves, which is the trick side of it.
HOOK: What can sexworkers do to improve their knowledge of clients?
MBS: Communication between sexworkers is important and really rare in my experience. The more sex workers can politicize their own identities, the more likely they will get all the information they can to keep themselves safe, and happy, and informed.
HOOK: How do you feel about the term sexworker?
MBS: I think sexworkers is a useful term for including all different types of se work. Me personally, I use whore or hooker or callboy or “ho” (laughs), but, I think sexworker as a euphemism can be annoying. I do think it is more representative. It has the potential to really encompass a lot.
HOOK: What is the best part about the work you do?
MBS: The best part is being able to structure my own time. The best part when there is a lot of money, is the money. The part I like the least is always being on call and never knowing when you are getting money. Crazy amounts of money in a short amount of time and then it i s just dead. It is also hard to figure out each city. I bet if I lived somewhere the whole time for 7 years, either everyone would be tired of me or I’d be rich. Each city is so different. Like SF is all skewed in the tricks favor cause so many people working. The rates are much lower. But if you figure out some niche than you can work anything.
HOOK: What do you mean by niche?
MBS: Like I used to do 2 boy golden showers and ads that said, “HUNGRY 19 YEAR OLD” or “LICK MY TOES, PAMPER MY FEET.” And people will work something. People in their 50s. You can have 700 piercings and you can work that in SF. Unless you can make it seem rough in NY – where it’s all about mainstream college boy or big muscle tittie queen. (fakes a panic) Oh don’t tell them I said tittie queen! – I mean big muscled man! (laughs) In Boston, similar to NY – although when I lived in Boston , I did this whole punk freak thing that worked. NY is weird because in the summer, it is dead. People leave to Fire Island. Some to other islands. You think there’d be enough there – but both summers were dead.
HOOK: Where are the street workers anymore?
MBS: It depends on what city. Across the country – in most major cities, there is such a crackdown on most public sex or sex industry in public spaces. Most places where people have traditionally worked have become much more dangerous for people to work like Polk Street in SF or Halsted Street in Chicago. Esp. for boys, street work has been shut down in some places. Of course, it still exists, but it has become much more marginal.
HOOK: What are the big barriers for guys to talk about the business while women seem to be ramping up their activism?
MBS: One reason there are more women talking about is that it is part of feminism for some women. And for men, it is much less likely they will politicize it. It is weird because I feel like it is getting worse. In NY, I know few guys that work. They are only out in certain circumstances – but they are like ‘Shhh, don’t tell them my real name.’ That type of politics is very limiting. There is a surprising amount of stigma in the gay culture. It makes no sense.
Like for example, I have met people in the backrooms of bars in NYC and the context of meeting them is they are sucking 50 people’s dicks and they’ve never met these people before. We go home together and at some point they say, “What do you do for a living?” and I say, “I’m a whore,” and they freak out. They say, “I could never date someone who is a whore.” I am like, “What were you doing on your knees in the backroom? What are you talking about?” (laughs)
Part of it is the assimilationist nature of mainstream gay culture. All about being normal. And of course it doesn’t matter how normal you are inside – just how normal you look. These people can be in a monogamous relationship and go to a backroom as long as no one knows about it. If you come out front and tell them you are a whore, then that challenges that whole notion of what it means to be good and gay.
‘Good gay’ needs to jump off a building. I came into sexwork as a radical activist where I’d already politicized everything. I had politics about race, class , gender, and where I was comfortable living life as an outsider. That is the best way for me to live as a sexworker. When I am not around an environment like that as when I was in NY and definitely Boston, I feel much more isolated and not as secure. Obviously, I think that is not the case with most sexworkers.
Ideally, sexwork would be something empowering. I feel like sexwork has a unique way of seeing things. All different types of sexworkers. I feel like sexworkers have gone an incredible distance that enables them to take things apart. In addition to sexworkers exchanging some sexual act for a place to stay or money or whatever.
HOOK: How do you tell your parents?
MBS: I’m not close to my parents. At the same time, I have told them everything. Not that they dealt with it well. I think I just told them like I was telling them anything. I don’t speak to my father although I did then. It is not important to me how they view my life. It is not an issue.
HOOK: Do you want to be closer to your family.
MBS: No. (laughs) I don’t speak to my father. I was sexually abused by my parents. When I first started processing and remembering and getting all that together, I confronted them and said that until he could come terms with sexually abusing me, I didn’t ever want to speak to him again. And he never will. I guess there is a slight chance. For me, I have never really been close to my parents. In an ideal situation, I would love to have these great wonderful supportive parents, but I don’t see that ever happening. At least in terms of them. For me, family is about the people you chose, the community you create. My family is my friends.
HOOK: One of the big criticism of a lot of the coverage of the sex industry is that we link something bad in the past to becoming a sexworker.
MBS: Right right right. Now that I am doing this new book, I think it is very complicated. Dangerous Families: Queer writing on Surviving Abuse, I expect people will ask how this is related to my other book. The connection is me. I am the connection. I am a whore. And I am survivor of sexual abuse and that’s why the two of them get together. I think it is really complicated.
I am actually struggling with ways to talk about sexwork and sexual abuse together without feeding into people’s ignorance about both. The standard assumption is the relationship between being abused and being a fucked up mess so you become a whore to reenact that abuse over and over and over again is simplistic. I am sure there are people for whom that is the case, just like there are people who reenact other abuses in their life through their job with AT&T. For me, a lot of sexwork is helpful through the abuse to teach me about boundaries, being in control of desire.
I would say there are links. Just like everything in my life is linked to being a survivor. I think it is too tempting to say there is no connection or direct connection. I do think there is a connection. It is just that it is a lot more complicated and often sexwork can be helpful in dealing with abuse, just like it can be for anything. It is like saying all sexworkers do drugs. Sure a lot of sexworkers do a lot of drugs but so do a lot of Wall Street workers. They are high stress jobs.
I feel like people neglect looking at the condition under which people are working – they want the generalization. When I was on my book tour, this woman came up to me and she had done some research. She had found out that 100% of sexworkers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I was like “100%? What kid of statistic is that?” Obviously not a valid statistic. I asked this woman if she thought it was higher for married people? The thing for her that she couldn’t get was that it has a lot to do with the conditions of your work – like being homeless on the street, hungry, no food, addicted to heroin, and your 15, then you are probably not going to be empowered in terms of sexwork. You are also not going to be empowered if you are a Wall street worker by day and at night going to terrible places doing a dark secret thing. I don’t think either of those two groups will be empowered by sexwork.
But if you are someone like Carol Queen who came to sexwork in her 30s as a radical feminist and is a sex radical and who politicizes everything in her life – this can be very empowering. An outsider is being part of that. This girl couldn’t get it. I was like, “I know I have post-traumatic stress disorder, but it isn’t from stress work. It’s from people like you!” (laughs)