Karley Sciortino picked up where Dolly Doctor left off when she started publishing her thoughts, feelings and advice on the internet as Slutever. Only, instead of teaching us that it’s really unlikely you’ll fall pregnant from a dry hump sesh wherein the guy fatefully climaxes, she taught us how to give cool blow jobs, how to #slutwisely, and that it’s really important to not be embarrassed about sex work. She is a pro-sex feminist, among other things, and essentially stands for educating and existing as an ethical and equal participant in sexual relationships.
Now, Karley has immortalised her life lessons on the IRL pages of her book, Slutever: Dispatches from an Autonomous Woman in a Post Shame World, which is as much a confessional manifesto as it is a call to arms. On the back of it is a quote from one of Oyster’s favourite pornographers, Stoya, calling Karley “the mad aunt every proto-slut should have” — so true — and advocating that having hold of the book as a teen would have helped her get a grip on the world and her self a lot faster. We feel their mutual respect for one another’s sexy and safe missions as much as we pore over each of their ingenious oeuvre, so of course we’d have them in conversation about the book, female pleasure, and women having agency in discussion about the do’s and don’ts of sex.
Stoya: How has the response to the book been?
Karley Sciortino: I find it really positive from the people who have read it. I’ve had a really similar response from a lot of friends, which I think is funny — where people will say stuff like “Oh I read your book, and then the next day I had sex with this guy from work that I’ve always want to fuck,” or “I read your book and then I went to a sex party for the first time.” People have quite intense reactions. I’ve had one where it’s like, “…and then I fucked a married guy, and I feel bad about it.” I feel like it conjures some sort of slutty reaction.
That’s amazing. I feel like you’ve made real art somehow. If people are having various intense but new reactions to it, that to me is art…
I love that. It’s funny because I think we don’t think of writing as being art with a capital A. But it does feel to me like it is something that is really personal and I felt with this book that I could get more personal than all of the other writing that I’ve done. I think there’s degrees of disclosure and transparency and I think a lot of times, if you’re someone who writes about your life, or who gives any part of themselves — like with what you do — it requires certain amounts of physical and emotional dedication. I think when you do something that’s personal, people assume that you’re telling it all. People always ask me questions like, “Is there anything you wont say on your blog?” And I feel like I almost don’t say everything. What you do requires a lot of physical and emotional sharing, but you know when you’re giving 75% of yourself and when you feel safe to give 100% of yourself.
And with this book, because it’s in a book and it felt legitimate and removed from just sharing on the internet, it felt like a safer space to be like, “Ok, I’m just going to say some stuff that I wasn’t comfortable saying before.”
Something that’s been in the US news lately is the question of teens accessing porn online. Of course one of the core problems is that if it’s laying around for free all over the place, really easy to find, then it’s super easy for them to access it. And there’s been something rolling around in my head about how valuable the ability is to filter who sees the thing you made. And in a book, someone has to approve that child buying the book that says “Slutever” on the front, so there’s already a barrier there…
Yeah, it’s true, and I also think you can completely lose control of it when it’s on the internet. But you want to kind of curate someone’s experience of something as well. It’s not just about it being taken out of context, shared, ending up in the wrong place and blah blah blah, it’s also about the difference between looking at something on your phone quickly while you’re at work, and picking up a book and being invested. It feels like a safer context in which to share stuff by yourself. In the book I was writing more about sex work that I had done, or break ups or relationships that in hindsight felt like pretty emotionally abusive relationships. Things like that, I wasn’t going to write a blog about, it was going to take time and thought. The book was the right kind of place for that stuff.
That’s really interesting to me. One of the questions I had written down was about the relationship between your identity and the identity of a sexy worker. Because you write about being a sugar baby, but I know in my community some sugar babies identify as sex workers and others are against it…
I do absolutely identify as a sex worker, or a former one at this point, because I was a dominatrix for about a year and a half and was doing the sugar baby stuff for a couple of years. I’ve always kind of supplemented my income — in between and after that — being like, “What could I harvest from my body?” and being on the internet doing a quick Skype session or something. It was always in a way my side hustle. But I think it’s really delusional that sugar babies don’t call themselves sex workers. There are reasons why: one is that it’s strategic, because it’s a classist system, and it allows sugar babies and sugar baby websites to fill a legal grey space. In a way it’s smart because it’s strategic. People allow it to be above the law because this type of sex work mimics monogamy and it also attracts middle class, primarily white women, and rich powerful men. And therefore they’re not as vulnerable as targets to the legal system. But there’s another reason that’s because, within the hierarchy, these women who are on sugar baby websites often fall into the higher rungs. They want to distance themselves from what they think of as sex work and what they think of as degrading.
I feel like we could be having an ‘I am Spatacus’ moment. I really like dragging the conversation out in public in a realistic way. There’s still so much stigma that so many people that definitely are sex workers — even when they don’t identify that way— face. They work with sex and they deal with the same stigmas that we deal with to a certain degree, you know?
I agree, and I really like that women talk about and incorporate ‘sex worker’ in a kind of bad ass, empowered way online. Like, I love Tilly Lawless. But the thing is, it’s always women who feel safe that do it. It’s usually white women, usually middle class or above, and it’s always women who are legal enough that it’s ok. Like Tilly Lawless who is in Australia and Jacq The Stripper who writes about stripping and it’s funny and smart. She’s great, I really like her. That kind of stuff really does redefine people’s ideas of sex workers. That girl Jacq, I think she’s a married lesbian who is funny and smart and a writer who is self-aware. And that’s not what people think strippers are.
I’m in Belgrade right now, and the last time I was here I stayed in an Airbnb and the woman — probably in her 40s, well put together — answers the door, and she looks and my wet hair and she’s like, “You have to blow dry your hair before you go back out, you remind me of my daughter.” And then she asked what I do, and I was like, “Well, I’m a pornographer.” And she’s like, “But you remind me of my… oh…” That has the same sort of effect…
Yeah. I swear to god, you know that whole thing like 15 years ago when people were trying to accept gay people. Maybe 20 years ago. There was this rule, like, “You should come out, because if someone knows a gay person then they’re less likely to be homophobic.” Like if a Southern family has a gay son then they’ll accept all gay people. And I feel like it’s the same for almost everything. Like, “That person’s not so bad and they’re a pornographer.” Maybe all pornographers are just regular human beings who aren’t evil monsters. I think the shift can happen pretty fast.
Yeah, but at the same time, and I think I’m about to use a communist principle, there is the whole “those that can, should” thing. Or maybe that comes from the bible, wow, whatever…
This is about safety? You mean, those that can come out, should?
Yeah, and there’s a wariness of putting pressure on someone who would make themselves too vulnerable because that’s what we’re trying to prevent…
That’s the perfect code. I do think, and I put it in the book, I felt like I could share that. And I’d reached a point in my career where putting myself on a sugar baby website is not going to ruin my career now.
You write for Vogue, right?
Yeah, but actually when I first started my column, I wouldn’t have written about it then, because I feel like their PR team would have been like, “We just hired this girl and now she’s talking about how she’s a whore, so maybe this is not the right hire.” I feel like I had to get to a point where I intuitively knew when it was fine. And I think there are people that view that, you know sugar babying and escorting or whatever type of sexual sale, in ways that are more transaction and ways that are less transactional. Whereas for me it was always transactional: I can like those people and still have the interaction, but I would never hang out with them unless I’m getting a financial contribution. Like, let’s pretend to do this boyfriend thing but I’m not going to come and hang out for no money. So it would be delusional for me to think that this isn’t work.
One of the things that’s commented on by strong, politically active women in Belgrade, is the question of whether feminism is even possible under capitalism. When something is transactional, it’s much more easily politicised. We’re used to talking about worker’s rights, in the West, we’ve had unions and stuff for a very long time. Here they have worker self management so there’s fluency with worker’s rights, but with women’s rights we’re still like, “Hmmm, sluts, not sure about them.”
Yeah I never thought about that. Do you mean specifically sex workers?
Women across the board. I think it’s about seeing the issues we need feminism to prevent, as a symptom of capitalism. Things went weird about sex when money came into the picture, or they appear to have. And have gotten weirder the more we’ve developed economics and monarchy and capitalism…
It’s hard for me to imagine any environment, any political environment, where women wouldn’t leverage their sexual power at all. Even if it wasn’t financial. I think it’s biological to a degree. And who knows how much of this is culturally engrained in us, but I do think that women, particularly in the age bracket where you can have a baby, have a power. There’s a power in that.
Do you know the play ‘Lysistrata?
It’s about these women in ancient Rome and all the men keep going off to war and the women are like, “We don’t like what you’re doing, so no more sex.” It was performed in 411 BC and they withheld sexual privileges from their husbands to force them to negotiate peace. But then that has ramifications…
Oh yes I’ve heard about this before. Maybe it was you that referenced it. What are the ramifications? Do the men just become violent?
The Wikipedia page says it “inflames the battle between the sexes.” But I don’t know if that’s a cold war or a hot war…
It’s kind of hostile, right? If you minimise that, or if you shrink that play down to being about a single relationship, it seems like such a toxic relationship. You never want to be the kind of woman who, if you’re mad at your boyfriend or if there’s something your boyfriend does that you don’t like, you just decide not to fuck them. It represents sex as a thing that women have to give, but that they don’t really want for themselves. So it’s like a negotiating tool.
Yeah, which completely erases female pleasure…
Right. Which I think both you and I have been trying to remind people about for a while.
It’s like, how much are you going to punish yourself, or make your own life less pleasant, in order to punish someone else.
I know. I feel like the conversation around female pleasure has been really absent either way. Especially in the ‘Me Too’ movement, which I obviously support because how could you not. But it feels like in this conversation it has sort of taken on a PSA type of thing. I’ve just moved away from trying to take down powerful men, and crossed over more to the conversation about personal lives. It just seems to be a PSA: “This is what you should never let a man do,” and “This is exploitation, this is abuse.” Women have no agency in any of these conversations. It’s become a portrait of women as damsels in distress, who have no interest in their own pleasure. It’s more about all the narratives that are told and it’s scary.
We aren’t talking about examples of good. I wonder if it’s because we found out the hard way that men that we thought were really good people, or regularly did good things, are also questionable. Or worse…
Yeah, but even that can be a learning experience. I think someone like you and myself can speak to the fact that you need to experience a series of don’ts before you work out what your do’s are. When it’s like, “This is a no, this is a no, don’t do this, don’t do that,” it’s harder to find out what you like, what makes you happy and what kind of person you want to be with, right? As you get older, having worked out what the don’ts are, or the things you’ve done that you didn’t like, the people that didn’t work for you, and sexual situations that made you feel bad, now you are more able to streamline your sexual or romantic choices going forward.
I agree so much. To really know I like this, that this is not what I like, that I don’t have time for this, that this is what I’ll like for two days, this is what I might like for two years. I couldn’t actually describe that until maybe a few months ago even…
Which is so exciting! I feel like once I interviewed you, a while ago, it might have been for Oyster, I don’t know. And you were talking about that period in your life where you were like, “Yeah I used to come to New York and I would just like fuck guys from bars,” And I’d be like “Was the sex good?” And you’d be like “I don’t think that was the point.” [Both laughing] I kind of relate to that. When I was in my late-teens and early-twenties, my attitude towards sex was just like taking everything in. Like, “What is this, what do I like, what’s that, what’s good?” It felt like a completely unrefined, slightly thoughtless approach. But I think, for me, I don’t regret it, because all of those things were learning experiences. I like the idea of it not being about having sex for love always, sometimes it’s just about having an experience.
Yeah, and when everyone is in on that it can be so wonderful.
Exactly. You should never intentionally sleep with someone and lead someone on, just fuck them once when they’re more looking for a relationship or whatever. But I think if you’re bringing someone home from a party or a bar, you haven’t over-promised at that point. I think people should take responsibility for themselves some times.
Yeah, if you’re making assumptions and being disappointed all the time, for your own well-being, look at that and stop doing it to people. It’s unfair.
My friend Zhana Vrangalova, who is a professor at NYU, writes about and researches casual sex and mental health. And she says that the primary reason that people have negative sexual experiences with casual sex is misguided expectations. Where it’s like, “If I fuck that guy at the party, maybe he’ll be my boyfriend.” But, no. You’re looking in the wrong place. This is the wrong approach, if that’s the outcome that you want.
I feel like this is where sexual education can be proactive. That’s a ‘do’ — treat sex like you do everything else. You don’t just shove whatever is laying on the ground in your face for food. You know that’s insane. It’s the same as if you bring a stranger home from a bar and have sex with them with no condom. We should be able to treat sexuality with this concept that there are things you need to do in order to be an ethical participant, or to defend yourself from dangers.
The sex education that I had was just genuinely none. In my school we just had one of those really old school slides with images of just like the worst case of herpes that you’ve ever seen. Like the conversation around agency, pleasure, or how to choose a partner and how to behave with that partner, and how to keep yourself safe was all absent.
Did you have any?
I was mostly home-schooled and by the time that it came up in public school I already knew everything — way more than they discussed. So I just zoned out. I might have even just skipped the class…
So you got some lessons from your mum or your dad?
I was allowed to read lots and lots of things at that age.
That’s good, that’s really ideal.
Yeah I think it was good and nobody really had to have any uncomfortable talks. I developed confidence in educating myself…
I think I’ve always kind of felt like that too. I did go to high school, but I didn’t go to college. I think I felt sort of embarrassed about that in my early twenties, when people were getting jobs and I was trying to be a writer who was more self-taught. But I’m so glad I didn’t go to a college where you’re just kind of indoctrinated into a very specific way of thinking. I think I now am really glad that I developed and taught myself for the most part. I mean, in the world we live in now, you don’t need formal school. Everything you need, all the information you need is just available to you.
Yeah, and in the US, formal school is so expensive that it can put you in a really bad financial position, which is something to be considered.
Oh my god, totally. Not having debt, or not starting my life with debt, was huge for me.
Yeah, me too. And I believe that kind of stress is bad for creative work. It seems like people end up in this impossible position where they have to work three jobs and pay off a loan, and then where do they find time to really make work with depth?
Exactly. I think that it’s definitely something I’m grateful for because if you’re working a full time job, like a day job, to create money in order to support your creative career, it sort of sucks the life out of you. The idea that you’re going to go home at the end of the day and be writing or making a film or whatever is sort of unrealistic most of the time. Unless you’re extremely driven. I think for a lot of creative women that I know and that you know too, that’s where sex work has come in. It just feels like this practical decision. You can work at a restaurant or work in PR or something to make money, or you can do some kind of sex work and make the money really quickly. It’s just practical.
It’s very American Dream.
Yeah, on my dad’s side of the family I come from blue-collar working class. And I see sex work as physical labour in a way.
Yeah, that too. Definitely that too.
That’s so funny, and it’s funny because of the American Dream but also because of the laws around sex work in the US. Sex workers here get paid more a lot of the time. A lot of girls I know who do escorting or dominatrix in Canada or Europe, they make less because it’s not illicit and people can’t charge as much. And that’s funny because it feels simultaneously worse and better. And I do think that sex work should be decriminalised, but I have a lot of friends who are escorts in New York and while they all fight for the decriminalisation of sex work, they’re all like, “Yeah, we will make way less money if what we did was legal.
One of my friends, Chelsea Summers, she said to me once that she thinks pampered house cats are reincarnated sex workers…
To me the biggest danger that I see, from my social group, is getting into it because you want it to be a way to support yourself. Then getting too attracted to the money and not doing any of the other things that you had planned to do, and thinking that the money is going to last forever and not saving properly. Then hitting a wall when you realise that your currency in that world diminishing. My friend compared it, which I thought was right, saying it is exactly like modelling. People have their modelling careers and the money becomes so good that they find it hard to turn down jobs, they stop going to college or they stop doing whatever other thing they were passionate about. They forget that for a lot of them at 27, some of them more in their 30s, that their income is going to diminish and they’re not going to have set something else up. It’s not the kind of job that you can do forever. And if you have no other interests, that’s a problem.
Yeah and it’s mentally unhealthy to be in a position where you’re financially overextended and it puts you in a precarious position with bargaining power. It’s not good.
Right, that’s so true. You need to make emotionally healthy decisions about what sort of jobs you’re taking. That to me is the key to having any longevity in the sex industry. It’s really not getting yourself in the position where you’re taking jobs that make you feel uncomfortable.
I agree so hard.
That’s another thing that you have to learn just by experience. So you know when you’re never doing something again.
Yeah, you still have to find out what you are and aren’t comfortable with. I thank god the photographer was a really wonderful, caring person and also quick — like kept her head in a crisis — when I found out that I’m a little bit claustrophobic. I was wrapped head-to-toe in nylon stockings and then put in a giant nylon tube that was hanging from the ceiling. And once they’d already tied the knot, that’s when I was like, “Hey guys, I can’t do this.” But there’s no way I would have ever found that out in my personal life. The chances of meeting someone that I found attractive enough to do something I have no sexual interest, personally, in — the odds are so slim.
Was the shoot good in the end? Was it worth it?
Umm… the rest of the day was good. But they didn’t get to take any pictures of me up in the thing because as soon as I said I couldn’t do it, they got me down.
Yeah, now you know some valuable information about yourself.
interview Stoya, photography and creative direction Renee Parkhurst, fashion Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo, hair Sunnie Brook @ TMG-LA, make-up Austin Evans @ TMG-LA using MAC Cosmetics, photography assistant Amanda Rose, production Hayley Morgan, talent Karley Sciortino. Shot at STUDIO 461, LA.