CatalystCon: In the room with sex workers and elephants

Yes: it returned from an extended stay at MY HOUSE.

Adult conferences, where like-minded people gather to discuss topics such as the business of porn or the politics of sexuality, can sometimes amount to nothing more than preaching to the choir, full of self-congratulation, or worse: places where both critical thinking and the loins-level enjoyment of sex go to die. But this weekend’s inaugural CatalystCon in Long Beach was a refreshing, well-organized, and thought-provoking event filled with challenging ideas that didn’t shy away from difficult topics.

Organized by New York-based writer Dee Dennis with a skeleton staff, CatalystCon featured more than 50 speakers (including myself), representing sex work (and sex work-adjacent occupations) in myriad forms. Sex educators, porn performers and producers, dommes, academics, legal scholars, activists, sex surrogates, webcammers, marital aid purveyors, and most of the City of San Francisco had a chance to be heard over three days of seminars and extracurricular get-togethers.

And because of the eclectic nature of sex work in general, most speakers and attendees carried at least three of the above titles.

Prior to the conference, however, the great L.A. institution The Pleasure Chest hosted a combination anniversary celebration and Catalyst kickoff party in West Hollywood. It was great to see so many Angelenos and contortionists in the open air after a stifling hot summer. Not only that, but I caught up with Jiz Lee and Penthouse Pets Ryan Keely and Heather Vandeven, who are always a pleasure (chest) to see.

Contortionist!

I was happy that female stiltwalkers were about to offer eye-level eye-candy, even if the Glory Hole at the center of the party was cruelly misnamed.

“You mean I don’t put my junk in the hole?” I asked because I am America’s Beloved Porn Journalist.

“No, you put your eye in it and watch people do stuff,” I was told.

“Then that, Madam, is not a glory-hole but a peep-show.”

Still: Open Bar.

Media Risks

Downtown Long Beach is a beautiful urban area, with miles of waterfront paths winding around its Aquarium, the Queen Mary, and a buzzing hotel and restaurant district. Unfortunately I overshot the Hilton and crossed an ominous bridge to the blighted, horrifying, and aptly-named Terminal Island, a port from which God has turned His face and where diesel trucks fucked right there in the street. I re-oriented myself just in time, and made it to the conference with three minutes to spare before speaking.

Terminal Island and the Sepulveda Fire

My panel was Media Risks: Who Wins? and I shared the dais with publicists Brian Gross, Dusty Marie, and Adella, each of whom has been marketing adult material for a decade or more. Former journalist Sherri Shaulis now handles AVN’s novelty coverage, and she and I spoke about being on the receiving end of press releases and how we lived with ourselves.

This panel was most like the ones I’d sat on before, but the publicists decried their competition who sent press releases “fraught with hyperbole” (Adella) and stressed that, in an atomized market, PR needs to be “relevant to the media you’re pitching” (Dusty) and not one-size fits all.

I also learned that some publicists will discourage their clients from giving too much away, such as nude photos. Marie counsels her clients that “You are valuable and so is your product.”

Since I am lucky enough to get paid to write what I like (though I know that I wouldn’t have a job if I were beginning in this business today), I said that the most important thing to me, with rare exceptions, is the personality of the individual performer over whatever project she is in. I said that my interview technique had evolved via difficult lessons to telling my subjects beforehand:

  • I will never print anything you tell me is off the record
  • You can tell me you don’t want to talk about something and I will respect it
  • But don’t lie, because that makes us both look bad

…because no amount of restricted information will ever tarnish the fact that porn performers are fascinating just for being porn performers.

I felt that I hogged the mike a little because I had a lot to say, and would have voiced my disagreement with the No Nudity in Press Releases/interviews clause; I would never interview Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan without getting him to stop my hound from eating Ikea couches, or pretend I am interested in chef Gordon Ramsey’s views on Syria (except in relation to bread), so I am not drawn in by the “mystery” of a clothed 18-year-old pornstress.

What she does is not the sum of who she is, but what she does is Nudity. I don’t interview comedians expecting not to laugh.

It was a lively and fun panel, after which I spent filling my head listening to some very thoughtful and engaging speakers on other panels.

Dennis had made most seminars 70 minutes long, which is longer than most adult seminars, and she left 20-minute spaces between them for the inevitable shmoozing. She received more than a hundred seminar submissions and could not accommodate them all, so attendees had to choose from five events happening at the same time.

“Scheduling was the hardest decision,” Dennis said, “but the conference would be a week long if we went one after the other.”

For this reason I had a painful choice between attending Nate Glass’s solo presentation about his work with Takedown Piracy or Teaching Porn, in which four doctors of philosophy shared their experiences including porn in their college syllabi. I chose the latter because I don’t have to book office hours with Nate or bring him apples.

Teaching Porn

Moderated by Lynn Comella of UNLV, Teaching Porn opened with a discussion of how a tenured professor from Appalachian State University had been suspended for screening the anti-porn documentary “The Price of Pleasure” by Gail Dines.

It should perhaps not be shocking that the professor, Jammie Price, was suspended because three students said she was showing “inappropriate” material, conflating a documentary about porn with porn itself. Filmmaker Gail Dines was outraged by Price’s suspension, writing in Counterpunch that Price’s treatment was a violation of her free speech and that it served to “scare teachers into adhering to the hegemonic discourse.” What Dines did not say in her article, of course, was that she produced the film.

Joining Comella were Shira Tarrant of California State University Long Beach, Constance Penley of UC Santa Barbara, and Kevin Heffernan of Southern Methodist University in Dallas (Heffernan noted that SMU would soon be the home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library). Despite the Appalachian incident, each professor credited his institution with robust thinking, and in turn expected her students to think soberly and analytically about porn as a social and cultural reality.

“If there is discomfort,” Tarrant said, “I ask (my students) to do the adult thing and remove themselves or speak with me.”

Tarrant does not include “The Price of Pleasure” in her syllabus, calling the film an example of “pedagogical violence.” This is an achingly beautiful term that crystallizes much contemporary political discourse.

That said, Penley (whose course regularly features guest speakers from the porn world down the 101, including Lee Roy Myers and Axel Braun) remarked that a side effect of the “horrible state of sex education in this country” occasionally turns her course into a “big old sex education class.”

Penley mentioned the unraveling of a scene that happened to include anal sex in her course, causing a student to say: “I didn’t know you could do that.” (This statement caused a shudder and some self-righteous clucking from the audience, like when I tell my foodie friends that I really enjoy visiting The Cheesecake Factory.)

The assembled professors made the case that it was simply odd not to teach porn. From a pop culture perspective, as a film genre, as anthropology, within feminist theory, or simple human sexuality, they said, porn just couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be ignored.

While no professor felt his or her job was threatened due to pressure from students, the university, or the community, there are occasional speed bumps.

“Some students thought we would be watching Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera videos in class,” said Comello, who said she sometimes encounters students who are porn-resistant. “But we were watching ‘Bend Over Boyfriend.'”

Later in the semester, Comello reported that one of her most dubious students told her “this class has fundamentally changed my relationship to my sexuality.”

The others agreed, expressing a desire to screen content that challenges mainstream thought, such as the concept of heteronormativity, the idea that everything other than monogamous male/female relationships are deviations.

A by-product of her class, Tarrant said, “would take what (students) take for granted and make those things strange.”

Again, CatalystCon was a collection of like-minded people. There were no real dissenting factions there, which may have made things both more interesting and uncomfortable. But even in the “challenging heteronormativity” tangents there was only democracy; no one said the alternatives were better, just that it’s healthy to have as many perspectives as possible. Ah, college.

Throughout my own intriguing career in porn I’ve identified several Elephants in the Room—subjects that everyone knows are significant but that no one talks about—and a couple came up at the conference.

Kevin Heffernan was the lone male professor on the panel, and he addressed the suspectness of men teaching pornography. What are his motives? This resonated with the way I feel every time I go to a porn set to … write about it.

I was so glad that Heffernan acknowledged this awkwardness that I forgot how he responds to it.

Myself, I’ve evolved a theory that this business is universally exploitive, but not always traditionally so. While men remain the primary consumers of porn and, as producers of most of the material, the most remunerated, porn is one of the only businesses in which women are compensated more than men for equal work—at least in terms of performing. I also feel that I must work twice as hard as my esteemed female counterparts to be taken seriously as a porn writer, simply because what seems hot, arch, and free-spirited in women is often dismissed as creepy—or nothing more than pervy—in men. I must also make a point of letting people know I’m happily married so that no one thinks this is my only option for this spectrum of gratification. I don’t think women have this problem, but they face other ones.

How To Be An Ally to Sex Workers

The next panel I attended was How to Be An Ally to Sex Workers, moderated by San Diego-based phone sex operator Sabrina Morgan and featuring Dee Dennis and Tizzy Wall. It was as if the Baby Jesus Himself had led me to this and it was, for me, the most informative session. Dennis played the role of a person who, until five years ago, had had no problem with polyamory, fluid sexuality, BDSM, multiple partners, etc., as long as they were free, and invested the word “prostitute” with a fine spray of judgment.

“Then (sex worker activist) Audacia Ray called me out on this,” Dennis said, “saying, ‘Why do you use prostitute instead of sex worker? What changed (in your open-mindedness) when money became involved?’ I asked her to educate me.”

Morgan described sex workers as a “marginalized section of society that is glamorized and vilified,” and spoke eloquently of the simple things any person can do to reframe sex work as the job that it is.

“There is no ‘universal sex worker,'” Morgan said. “The most respectful thing you can do is understand that sex workers have good and bad days on the job.”

This was such common sense that I am embarrassed to say it was a revelation.

When you say you had four rude, non-tipping tables in a row at your job as a waiter, or that you have a huge pile of paperwork (and your boss is crazy!) at the travel agency, or that the bottom is falling out of your gig as the Republican nominee for U.S. President, no one says, “WELL DON’T YOU THINK YOU SHOULD QUIT?”

Tizzy Wall, a Bay Area dominatrix, referred to many sex workers as “people trying to make ends meet.” Knowing this economy, you would not think to tell your friend to stop being a waitress just because she had a bad day, especially because you know from experience that everyone has bad days on the job. Your own judgment creeps in when you take the first opportunity to say “THEN JUST QUIT” to a sex worker when she reports a tough day at the office.

I asked the panel what was the best way to ask questions that weren’t front-loaded with judgment.

Wall said, “Never ask me ‘What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?’ I hate that one.”

She also reminded the audience that “intent is not magical,” which I think is a great way to remember that you can still sound ignorant if you don’t ask questions humbly, the way you would do with anyone else whose work you respect and are curious about.

“[When she found out I was a dominatrix], a woman leaned over to me and said, ‘I don’t want to be rude, but I have questions,'” Wall said. “I liked that approach. She asked, ‘What do you like about it? Does it turn you on?'”

Both Wall and Morgan suggested that the job was what it was, and that Hell Is Other People.

Wall continued, “I don’t feel demeaned by my job, but by the people who want to make me feel like shit about it.”

“And you can’t make Dead Hooker jokes around me,” Morgan said.

Morgan is spearheading a campaign to demystify sex work, encouraging more people in that field to say, “I’m a sex worker and this is what my life is like.”

Long ago I fixed computers as my day job, and I grew to loathe people expecting computer help outside of work. I preferred instead to arrive at the willingness to assist on my own.

There is an Emily Post understanding of not hitting up friends for the fruits of their labor. You wouldn’t ask a doctor buddy for free medical advice, you wouldn’t expect to drink for free at a bar that your friend tends, and you wouldn’t ask a friend who happens to be a sex worker for a free blowjob.

Unless it’s cool with them. And I think this is another aspect of respecting sex work as a job.

But sex work goes so much deeper. I can tell Dead Lawyer jokes, but I can’t tell dead hooker jokes because there’s real danger out there.

There is an evocative line in the Jonathan Richman song “True Love Is Not Nice” that goes “…it brings up hurt from when you were five years old.” This suggests another Elephant in the Room.

How do you not think sexually about your friend who is a sex worker?

A buddy of mine who happens to be a mechanic just changed the spark plugs in my truck. He offered to do this for free. I went out and got him a bottle of Jameson’s and will carefully select some gay male erotica from my junk drawer (entendre intended) for his wife. A pharmacist friend volunteered some advice about migraine relief. Later this week I’m having a Skype call with a chef friend who will teach me how to make soup. We all have friends like this.

And I’d be a rotten liar if I reported that I’d said no when friends in the industry asked me to manually check out their breast augmentations, clit rings, or vaginoplasties. The secret is knowing that it’s a gift, disconnecting it from expectation, and regarding it as a very professional courtesy.

But sex is such a basic need, and for some: such an elusive goal. It is also a service that people have forever felt sketchy about commodifying, as it brings up such ancient feelings in both the provider and the client. I think being an ally to sex workers must also include the understanding that we don’t understand everything.

Ducky Doolittle

From there I walked across the hall to where a woman named Ducky Doolittle was giving an orgasm lecture that was obliquely (and tastefully) an ad for the Aneros Evi G-spot stimulator.

I had heard the name Ducky Doolittle before, but I didn’t know what one was. Unlike Kate Middleton, whom I just found out this morning is to be the Queen of England, I didn’t even know Ducky Doolittle was a person. Reader, if you have the opportunity to see Ducky Doolittle speak, take it. She is delightful.

“I’ve masturbated my way to the top,” Doolittle says. In a presentation dense with facts, ribaldry, and personal anecdotes, Doolittle explained squirting, the role of Oxytocian in dating assholes, and why it is very unlikely you will pee during sex.

“And if you do,” she said, “So What?”

Born with a collection of birth defects that affected her legs, Doolittle said early surgeries left her with the inability to control her bladder, so she needed to learn Kegel exercises from a young age. Her early physical setbacks corrected, Doolittle said she was left with amazing PC muscles.

My favorite quote was her description of Morning Wood.

“It’s a perfectly good erection,” she said. “You can totally hop on that shit.”

How To Lose Your Virginity

After a much-appreciated cocktail party hosted by Minneapolis marital aid retailer Smitten Kitten, at which I had the pleasure of meeting Savannah Darling of the great collective sex worker advice blog Fairy Whore Mother, I finally got to see a rough cut of Therese Schechter’s long-in-production documentary “How To Lose Your Virginity,” in which Schechter breaks down the commoditization of virginity throughout hisotry and talks with several individuals whse viriginity is in question, up for grabs, off limits, or for sale. I was interviewed for this doc in 2007 but I am too much a presence to be captured on film, so my scenes were left in the digital abyss.

Schechter got to attend a “Barely Legal” shoot with Erica McLean, and that was one of several great sequences in the film, which Schechter hopes to debut commercially in 2013.

Bawdy Storytelling

The final event I attended was a raucous installment of Bawdy Storytelling, hosted by Dixie De La Tour.

I’ve been to several of these events in San Francisco and Los Angeles and I appreciate that performers are held to a higher standard than just having had sex and being willing to talk about it; the Sex Boor is just as bad as the Monty Python-quoting Boor and the Politics Boor.

Bawdy Storytelling

That’s why it was so much fun—especially after a day where I was asked to think more than I’m usually required to—to see engaging performers weave sex into their narratives so joyously. Hot werewolf Allison Moon described a Furry lesbian party in which the evening became a fox hunt, Reid Mihalko told a fascinating story about one-upping his brother, Rachel Kramer Bussel broke down her crush on and two degrees of separation from Monica Lewinsky, and National Treasure Carol Queen stood up there and delighted the audience with what it was like to be Carol Queen.

My favorite line of this Bawdy Storytelling came from “Sex Nerd Sandra” Daugherty, who reminded us all that “if your eyebrows aren’t wet, you’re not doing it right.”

CatalystCon East, March 2013

I would not change the format of CatalystCon, and am looking forward to its Washington D.C. iteration in March. Dennis was pleased with the turnout of this weekend’s inaugural event (tickets were a reasonable $125), and said the biggest obstacle was the quintuple-booking of seminars and the difficult choices that laid on attendees.

“Good problems to have, though,” she said.

I think this is a good summation of sex work in general. Problems arise when people forget that something so simple and basic to human nature requires critical thinking and the respect afforded to any job. The conference recharged my battery to the point that I will apprach going to the set of “Breaking Bad XXX” with an open mind.

Previously on Porn Valley Observed: Love Army San Francisco; Porn & Philosophy or—The Myth of the Gape; A Porn Valley Odyssey; Kelly Shibari’s Libertarian Bukkake
See also: CatalystCon, Slate story by Amanda Hess—How Porn Wants You to See It

4 thoughts on “CatalystCon: In the room with sex workers and elephants

  1. I must admit that the first thing I did upon opening this post was do a quick scan for Audacia Ray’ tits.

    That said…good post!

  2. I think I have the World’s Largest Collection of Audacia Ray Nudes but that is actually one I’d never seen before. Thanks Gram: you’ve always been there for me.

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