Thursday, June 12, 2008

What's performance and what's play

Yesterday I had this sudden realization that maybe one of the things that allowed me to feel satisfied on some level for so long in public sex spaces, in spite of the compulsory masculinity, the hyper-objectification, the lack of respect, the shame, the rejection of self-care, the absence of responsibility, the drugged-out obliteration, the deification of the grossest aspects of straight male personality traits, and the racist, ageist and body fascist hierarchies -- I had this sudden realization that maybe being a hooker for so long helped me to deal in public sex spaces. When I was a hooker I was already used to performing a certain kind of masculinity, an uncomplicated emotional facade, a clean-cut normalcy, and a certain kind of detachment even in the midst of physical passion: how do I get him off? What time is it? Will we be done soon?

In fact, after 12 years of supporting myself as a whore, I might add that I was familiar with many of the particulars of the gay worlds, norms and responses that most of my creative and political work has always sought to undo. Once I shifted my clothes into something nondescript and potentially masculine, I didn't even have to think about changing into someone else -- I mean I still felt the same things, experienced the world in the same way, it's just that my responses shifted. It wasn't even an act really, it was a role that became routine.

What I learned was how to shift into this role without shifting too much out of myself, a skill that also served me in the general world of gay sexual culture. Before I was a whore, it never occurred to me that I could pass as anything approaching masculine, that I could get so good at it that tricks would sometimes ask whether I was gay, just by subtle shifts in intonation and expression. It's funny, because when I first became a whore I did it because I didn't want to conform to standard models of job behavior, but after advertising “punk boy” as a hooker for several years, that stopped working and I tried borrowing someone's preppy clothes and wearing a ski cap to cover my day-glo hair -- it's just a thing, I would say -- I don't even take off my hat when I take a shower. And it worked -- it confused me, but it did work. Later I got bored of the hair anyway, so it was just the clothes that I had to change. Don't get me wrong: nothing was just about it.

In New York is where I got really good at the performance -- so good that it slipped into my other sexual worlds and I noticed and I thought about it, but still the sex I had outside of work gave me the charges I was looking for. Although, looking back, maybe part of that was just because it wasn't work. Although I was still working. That’s the confusing part, especially now, when I haven't turned a trick in a few years but I still have the skills I just don't want to use them. It's too exhausting to shut myself off in that particular way, I mean performing masculine realness as part of some consensual scene is so much different than passing in order to be that thing that's assumed and consumed. So much different than the masculinity that happens anyway in the midst of sex when I get all aggressive but it's something deeper and joyful and fun it's about feeling not consenting to be silenced.

So now, in the sexual spaces where so much shutting off is required, I find myself exhausted just from being there. So exhausted that I can hardly function. And then I can't figure out what's desire and what's loneliness and what's performance and what's play. I can't even figure out what I want.


Katie said...

This resonates with me a lot re: play parties and the organized BDSM world... I know the situations are totally different but I'm taking a lot of good stuff away to think on. Thanks.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Katie, that's great that it resonates -- thanks so much for writing!

Love --