Last month, the writer, activist, and sex worker Rachel Rabbit White published her debut book of poetry and threw a costume party in New York to celebrate. (Earlier this month, she threw another in Los Angeles.) While Porn Carnival is White’s first full-length poetry publication, she’s been writing — for Playboy and Vice, among other outlets — about sex, desire, consumption, capitalism, and the uncomfortable meeting place of all these themes for years. On the occasion of her book’s publication, we spoke about the innate pressures of heterosexuality, the similarities between writing and desire, and whether she thinks today’s young people have a new relationship to gratification.
I want to know what your thoughts are on the words associated with sex — how their meanings are so determined by context.
I was recently having a conversation where someone said they hate the word pleasure, and I was like, oh, I love the word pleasure. It’s almost the opposite of the word desire, and yet the two are so close.
In many ways Porn Carnival is a book about romance. It’s about the hope for joy outside the work life but it’s also about the agony of love and the simultaneous hope of love. In between laboring, there is a constant search for community, for orgy, for romance while still knowing that in romance is always a lack, a trap. A lot of people have focused on the despair about work in the book but there’s a maybe more pleasurable despair about pleasure itself.
I am a pessimist about romance and yet, like maybe all of us, romance still has a grip on me. I do think that romance, like all things is tainted by capitalism. And that second wave feminists were right to criticize romance as the site of women’s subordination. But it’s not necessary to defend romance in order to understand its pleasures, the euphoria of falling in love.
Where is the line between experiencing eroticism and performing it? Does that line disintegrate at times?
It can be pleasurable to perform pleasure. Everyone has a different persona tactic when it comes to sex work (the girlfriend, the therapist, the good girl who shouldn’t be here, the party girl, the guys’ girl), but I’ve always done best playing the femme fatale. It’s a role that requires a glamorized distance — tease and denial — and because of that a dominant physicality (I use strip-club moves mixed with with light femme domme energy in order to keep the session in my control). I get pleasure from the routine of femme fatale, from successfully building a fantasy that works for someone, which also allows me to keep my boundaries. But the lines between performing pleasure and experiencing pleasure get blurred in any sex. Because sex and romance are always mediated by capitalism, we are all actors, and it often takes acting to summon up a belief in romance, even if we don’t realize it.
As a side note, though: Plenty of women do the work of sex work without trading sex for money or capital. The work of sexual entertaining, as well as the many emotional labors of sex work. Every woman is expected or pressured in heterosexuality to do the labor that sex workers do, but not every woman is a sex worker. I think sex workers are strangely more equipped, though, to ponder the problem of romance, because we sell sex and love as our job, and have this strange distance and closeness with the theater of gender relations.
Your poetry, too, has a seductive relationship with the reader. As a writer, do you employ fictional identities?
Some art, in order for it to be truly full, requires a persona. My favorite artists are the ones who recognize this and play with persona, making their life blur with their art. I am guilty of this! And sometimes, being self-deprecating, I say that it’s because I lack imagination, the imagination to create completely fictional narratives and not write about my own life — but if I am being honest, not living my life as though I were its protagonist, and then not writing about my experiences, just strikes me as boring.
You seem to be sort of a pleasure mentor for some. What kind of advice could you give someone who might have a fraught relationship with sex or self-discovery?
Sex can be a vehicle for self-expression and it can be a theater; sex doesn’t have to be serious, and sex can be anything. The most important thing I’ve learned is how to make boundaries a part of your seduction, your flirtation, an inherent part of your sex. I think that the first thing to realize to have a good relationship with pleasure is that enjoyment (the consumption of pleasure as a commodity) is not everything, that pleasure is not everything, that our sexuality and sexiness is not all that there is. It’s one of the reasons why I have worked very hard to have a place for writing in my life, this very cruel practice that requires loneliness, concentration, and deferment of pleasures and gratification. And poetry especially comes with very little perks: it doesn’t bring money, it rarely brings fame, and it is even less read than most genres. But to me that doesn’t matter; that’s my space where I gratuitously spend myself and my love for the word and other poets, expecting nothing in return.
What is better, enacting someone else’s fantasy, or having someone enact one of your own?
The best is to find where your fantasy crosses with someone else’s. You make sex from where you overlap.
Do you think that younger generations have very different understandings of gratification (meaning your generation compared to older ones, and also the generation younger than you)?
I don’t think it’s really that different. The habits and the knowledge with which we approach pleasure might have changed, but the underlying attitudes towards it I believe are largely unchanged. Sex fascinates and scares the younger generations in the same way it did the older generations. In the same ways, we want to protect ourselves and those we love from the dangers that come with it. We see our openness to gratification and the practices that requires shrink the more we age into complex life situations with responsibilities, duties, and long term plans. To deal with satisfaction is not an easy task, and it requires freedom, time, and especially money. It is an expenditure, and as such it is not something — unfortunately — that is available for everyone, or at least not to everyone all of the time, or even often.
So, it is understandable that with this inequality of access also comes a whole lot of different approaches and opinions about desire. Varying attitudes are there in every generation, and honestly, I think when people say that today’s younger generations are excessively prudish, or excessively libertine, they’re just projecting their own politics. Young people are young people: eager to grow up and scared of what it means, naive and yet savvy, open and idealistic and reticent and sarcastic. They are moving their first steps into the unknown waters of an autonomous life with all the uncertainties and ambiguities that come with this newly found independence.