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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

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NOV 2019 Issue
Books In Conversation

Rachel Rabbit White with Sophia Giovannitti

I’m not a fan of sitting down and debating how the utopia will be “after the revolution.”

Rachel Rabbit White
Porn Carnival
(Wonder Press, 2019)

Rachel Rabbit White is a poet, a Vice “sex scenes” columnist (formerly of Playboy and Thought Catalog), a sex worker, and a somewhat infamous New Yorker. We met through friends in Brooklyn about a year and a half ago, when I began attending her study group meets performance art piece, Sex Cult Book Club, in the immediate aftermath of the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, legislation ostensibly meant to fight sex trafficking, but that in reality endangered the lives of all sex workers on the spectrum of consenting to coerced, forcing the shutdown of online advertising venues and disrupting the ability of workers to screen clients prior to meeting. It was around this time that Rachel began writing the collection of poetry that would become Porn Carnival (2019).

Porn Carnival is Rachel’s first full-length book of poetry, an expansive meditation on both the exhaustion of selling erotic labor under capitalism, and the joyful possibilities of world-building outside of the confines of heteronormative society. She engages with the trap of proximity to money, when access to that money is precarious because it is predicated on a set of demands that quickly become unbearable. She dedicates the book, “To all the fellow sufferers.”

A visionary artist and revolutionary working girl, Rachel is also, without fail, a perfect host. I interviewed her in her apartment; she answered the door in a hot pink Juicy Couture sweatsuit, trailed by her beautiful cat. We poured Rosé and descended into her pillow pit, the area adjacent to her living room’s stripper pole, filled with plush animals. She offered me an oversized stuffed tiger, “for lumbar support,” and we started talking.

Sophia Giovannitti (Rail): Your line “I would rather die than work” appears three times in the first poem of the collection, and it’s also on the crop top you made as merchandise for the book. Is it a manifesto for you?

Rachel Rabbit White: That line is completely, for me, about the dullness of work. It was actually an intrusive thought that I was having on a date, at Dirty French or something. It was the last place I wanted to be, in a bout of depression, having been overworked, and I just kept thinking it: I would rather die than work. That sort of dullness is in all jobs, but there’s this very specific thing that happens in sex work (it happens to an extent in all service work) where you’re performing, and you’re made to constantly act and react in this little theater that’s been created. In that space, when you’re building that little character that is you, but is not you in order to protect your boundaries, there’s no time or room to have any of your interior life. It’s just gone, lost in the face of work. That’s what’s so painful for me in the dullness of sex work. It’s sitting across from these people, these men—these rich men, usually—who you have nothing in common with, your mind going completely numb.

Rail: So, is that death wish hyperbole?

White: There was a time when I was working so much, touring and traveling and feeling like I needed more money in order to pay for the ads that I wanted, in order to pay for the photo shoots to get to where I wanted.During that time I experienced ego death. I had been washing out who I was for so long that I felt like I was dead. But then on the flip side, when I have experienced violence at work, and it’s like, “Oh no, this person is choking me, and they’re not going to stop,” well, what would that refrain be? And it would probably be, “this is how you die, this is how you die, this is how you die.”

Rail: Can you imagine a world beyond wage labor?

White: I’m not a fan of sitting down and debating how the utopia will be “after the revolution.” Social change emerges from political struggle and the unexpected inventions that come with it. The technologies and practices that will help us in our struggle for liberation are still largely unimaginable—even fifty years ago, it would have been hard for anyone to imagine the possibility of sex work without brothels or pimps. But first with pagers, and then mobile phones, and then through the internet and the supportive communities and tools that flourished on it, it became a reality, for at least a small number of workers who had access to these tools. So for me, it’s not so much about imagining how things will be in an exercise of world-building, but about holding on to my vision of what a liberated humane life means, and trying to further it in the best way I can. And for me, a world beyond waged labor means a world where labor comes with dignity, and where it doesn’t feel like work because it’s made lighter by the knowledge that it is being performed for a friend, a comrade. It is so hard to imagine a world without waged labor because capitalism touches and taints everything, but I can imagine my commune. I can imagine a life of queer orgies and poetry and drug use—an extension of my parties—and I can much more easily imagine something that would be closer, like decriminalizing sex work or decriminalizing drug use, which makes me feel hopeful.

Rachel Rabbit White
Rachel Rabbit White

Rail: In Cabaret, one of my favorite poems in the book, you say, “it’s true, sometimes I have to get extremely drunk but it isn’t like poor me, in a strapless sequin dress it’s just these people are all too stupid to have all this money,” and at the end, “if i’ve suffered I surely never felt it”. I love how much your book explores the idea of going elsewhere, through drugs, dissociation, the group text, whatever, and how that’s not bad—

White: Yeah, it’s like, thank god for the drugs! Thank god for the alcohol! The way that I understand the book, and it was the poetry teacher Elaine Kahn who helped me see this, is that it’s about the constant labor required by the working classes. It’s operating this never ending carnival ride. There’s this despair, looking at a future that’s monotonous and dull and full of work. Then there’s finding, in the community, in the “off time,” a sense of play and orgy, and our own decadence. Finding joy in this capitalist hellscape. I feel the left forgets that these are the ways marginalized people and people outside of the respectability of the family care for each other. The orgies and the drug use—this is literally how we care for each other.

There’s this passage from David Rolfe Graeber in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years [2011] where he talks about the contempt the upper classes have for the wasteful behaviors of the poor. The upper classes love to say, “If only the poor were more savvy, more capable of impulse control, they wouldn’t be poor.” But then he looks at what these reckless behaviors were: long dinners, parties, weddings, funerals. What was deemed irrational and dangerous were the ways in which we spend time together, with our friends and families. They look on our celebrations, exasperated, as we stubbornly insist on loving each other.

And yet the response you get is the idea that you are accruing a certain moral debt while doing it. When the article by Kaitlin Philips The ‘Hooker Laureate’ of the Dirtbag Left (2019) came out, the responses were that we’ll be paying for the fun we’re having, the comedown is just around the corner. Someone even said that he expects someone will eventually die of heroin in my immediate circle of friends. And yet, somehow, it gets ignored how the community tries to be responsible about it. For one thing the jeweled barrettes that read “CARRY NARCAN,” we actually carry narcan in our bags. Or how the community constantly puts energy into harm reduction projects, which can often be expensive. That’s the case specifically for narcan—it’s unbelievably costly for activists, because it's the intellectual property of pharmaceuticals, when it should be freely available.

Rail: Right, and that all goes against how in vogue it is to talk about self care—but that’s community care, and what actually feels good. Like, sometimes I don’t want to do a face mask, I want to get really fucked up with my friends?

White: I don’t want to take a bubble bath, I want to take an oxy! [Laughter] Cabaret is interesting because I did write it all in one sitting. It was the first poem I wrote after being in a place where I’d been working so much, trying to build a life where I could write. When I was finally able to write, it was what needed to come out of me. Yeah, I hate sex work, but I’m also, in that poem, I’m still choosing it over my other imagined options.

Rail: It’s so important for sex workers to be able to talk about hating their jobs like anyone else, but so hard to do without people thinking you’re traumatized or need saving.

White: When people talk about “saving” sex workers, they think it means putting them back into a normalized system of production. It’s not about keeping us safe, it’s not about actually empowering us, it’s not about listening to what we need or enriching us. It’s only about putting us into a system where we can enrich someone else. If you save someone from sex work, but then they have to work three jobs to support their family, that’s not better. The abolitionist stance never looks at, “Is this option better?” And the rescue-sex-workers-industry is also really similar to the predatory ways that rehab programs are run for drug users. There’s a lot of rehabilitation places that have extracted free labor from drug users, forcing them to do care work and cleaning work, and all kinds of stuff.

Rail: You talk a lot about being a mom. When did you come into that identity?

White: Being socialized as a woman is being socialized to be a mother. To take on these caretaking roles, and to have this sort of—what’s the Christian idea of love? Loving someone no matter what—unconditional love! As someone who doesn’t see myself ever wanting kids, but realizing that I’ve been groomed in this way, I sometimes feel it well up inside me. This ability to love someone so limitlessly. It’s come up when I’ve fallen really hard in love with someone, and I’m like, I’m pretty sure this is also misplaced mothering? I think that’s when I became a mom, because I felt, I want to give this not to one person, but to all of my lovers, all of my friends, my community. There’s a poem called Infinity Spring [in the collection] and that’s what I call that in my head, it’s this infinity spring that wells up. But what ends up happening in sex work is you employ that. These men take so much of that care work. They want all of it. They want there to be none of it left.

Rail: That’s also how a lot of people get into in-person sex work. You’re not like, I’m really good at sex, you’re like, I’m really good at making people feel loved.

White: Exactly. And so for me it’s kind of this bittersweet thing where I wish I could give all of that to my community, you know? I weirdly don’t have a lot of resentment for that grooming, because with community I feel like I’ve found a good way to have care. But I am resentful that I have to give it to other people who drain my energy. Also with motherhood, I wanted to talk about the next to last poem in the book, Doves. There’s a line in there: “there’s no coming back from motherhood or porn, so why we were only warned about the latter.” That poem was an elegy for a sex worker I knew, who was also a mother and was murdered. It was one of the hardest in the collection to write. I kept thinking about her as a mother, and her as a sex worker, and a person, and a friend, and a family member, and someone fun to party with—how we’re all of these things.

Rail: Is poetry childish?

White: It opens up a sense of play, for sure. The other thing it does that I really love is free you from the tyranny of the sentence, and from the tyranny of certainty. Of having to say what you mean.

Rail: I was thinking about that throughout reading Porn Carnival, because it’s a huge work that you’ve written, from life, but it’s not a memoir, it’s not nonfiction.

White: I love that ability to not say everything. It’s also freeing because it’s truly intimate. In intimacy, we get rid of the structure of the sentence. With your lovers and your friends, you speak in half-talk, or speak in gibberish, in sort of a baby-talk, and you trail off and don’t need to finish your sentences, and they get what you’re saying. In poetry that happens, too—the reader gets what you’re saying because you create this little intimate world.

Rail: You play with gender extremes, embodying both high femme and queer bad boy aesthetics. What is your relationship to femininity and masculinity?

White: Gender dysphoria is definitely a quieter theme within the book. It’s there, and I wanted to make sure that none of those lines got edited out, because it’s a soft theme but integral. It’s something that I’ve known since I was a child. Doing sex work has sort of eased my dysphoria, because it’s just like, okay, it’s decided: you have to be this product. When someone tweeted I was a Megan Fox Bratz Doll—okay, that’s it! I’ll just make myself into this caricature of femininity. I would say that my gender is ambiguous, though. I love femininity, and I love things that are considered feminine beauty and feminine values—sometimes I just want to lose myself in them. But then sometimes I want to fuck the feminine, and then I feel masc? I feel like the feminine is a space in which I find solace, but it’s still ambiguous the way that I play with gender within that space.

Rail: So, has poetry made you gayer?

White: At this point, nothing makes me less gay. Nothing can make me less gay! That’s such a powerful feeling. Every time I take acid it makes me gayer. Every time I write a poem, though, it makes me gayer too. I think poetry is inherently queer because it’s always an invitation. It’s always a seduction, something where you’re inviting the reader in. It relies on the effectiveness of the charm of the writer. You structure these linguistic mechanisms to your voice that you’re using, and it falls on all the readers’ ears. That feels very queer to me.

Then I was going through a phase where I wondered, is every poem a love poem? Maybe for me, right now. So many of the poems I wrote were all written to Andy, who inspired me to write the book. Their texts to me appear throughout, they’re quoted throughout, and at times, too, I adopt their tone, which obviously happens when you’re close with someone—

Rail: Yeah, when you’re in love.

White: So there’s this play there. Maybe every love story worth telling is a gay love story. One that looks outside of the constraints of compulsory heterosexuality, and outside the constraints of the gatekeeping of gender. How do we imagine love and desire without those things? Some of the poems were inspired by this acid trip I took with Andy upstate, and Cece, Andy and I found ourselves for a long time after that entangled in this beautiful lesbian triad. Every time we had sex, I had to go home and write a poem.

I feel like there are so many layers of coming out to yourself, of coming to your queerness when you’re bisexual. During that trip, I was mourning how so much of my life has been defined by boyfriends, because men were the ones who wanted to put a sense of ownership on me. Whereas the women that I dated—it was always this ambiguous romantic friendship, or sexual friendship, where things could just go on and we weren’t going to pinpoint each other. I was mourning, not, the girlfriends I could have had, but the girlfriends I did have! And how they still haven’t, outwardly, seemed to define my life, and how that’s almost myself putting a stop on it, though, or believing the constraints of society. Annelise and I were talking about it in terms of Marie Calloway, because Marie and I were always sleeping together, and were best friends. I don’t think she would have wanted to put a girlfriend label on it, but I’m looking back thinking, um, that was a very serious relationship that I was in with Marie, for years, and we were both just sort of like, Oh…

Rail: Just happy to be hanging out!

White: Just having a sleepover!

Rail: Does luxury appeal to you still, or is it repulsive?

White: God, nothing makes luxury more repulsive than sharing it with the people who live in it constantly and hoard it. I saw this Natasha Stagg quote in an interview recently—she said, “I love expensive things, but I hate to be around the people that can afford them,” which I felt on such a deep level.

I’ve really only enjoyed luxury in the class-drag of sex work when I get to share it with my friends and lovers. Like throwing a party in the fancy hotel room that you had to book for your photo shoot. Or that your client got as an in-call and then when they’re gone, having your lover come over and fucking in the hotel room. It’s such a good feeling! It’s really, truly fun. But I’m very aware that my drive toward sustaining myself, which, in this crazy world of high end New York City sex work then becomes a drive toward luxury, is really my mommy issues. When I decided to professionalize myself as a sex worker, and take it seriously as a job, I was aware that it was me wanting to make my parents proud by doing well. I think every parent wants their kid to do better than them, but when you’re from a certain background, that becomes very important. And that’s such a deep wound that at the time, I knew I would probably regret it in some way, but I couldn’t not do it.

Rail: What sort of power does sex work give you?

White: The only real power I ever got from sex work was being able to share my money.

Rail: That’s a huge power!

White: It is a huge power, and that’s the best feeling, being able to share your resources. That’s the only thing that makes it worth it. There’s a line in one of my poems that’s something Andy said to me—the only thing to do with money is to give it away. I want to blow it all!

The only place where I want to find power now is in wanting, not even wanting less, but wanting nothing. I want to want nothing. As a society, the drive toward security is a distortion we have. It comes from, “you’re never going to have enough,” or “you have to move toward this future.” It’s capital trying to find ways to freeze its structures of power. lt’s like when clients say, “You can’t do this forever.” First of all, that’s really shitty, but it’s also their projection around their own fear of insecurity. But security is such a lie. Life is so brief, it’s just this fucking dancing flame. It’s a really earnest thing for me to say, but I feel like what poetry has taught me is my interior life is the biggest luxury. It’s also the thing that capitalism wants so badly to kill and to control. That’s why the only power is wanting nothing, because all that matters is holding on to your interiority.

Rail: It reminds me a lot of something I read from Charlotte Shane: “I know it’s one type of power to ‘take’ someone’s money. But it’s a better type of power to not want anything they could give you.”

White: But also, to want those things so you can build your community. To find a way to not want, and still have this sense of abundance and care, and giving to your friends and your lovers, would be ideal.

Rail: Were you already anti-capitalist when you started working, or did that position get solidified?

White: I thought I was, and then staring down into what wealth truly is—really, really seeing it, understanding what disparity is and how much money they have? It’s like how people tweet all the time to try to show you how much money Jeff Bezos has. I forget that some people haven’t seen the way these people live. But when you’re around them, and you see what they spend—I mean, I still can’t wrap my mind around how much they actually make, because it’s so wild. But I see what it means, and I see what it affords them, and I see what their lives are like. It’s unfair, and it’s disgusting.

Rail: What is being real vs. being fake?

White: I don’t think there is any authenticity. You have to make your art from whatever you can, and when you have no time because you’re working all the time, then for me the answer is, “well, I’m going to live my life as my art.” I always see this quote on Instagram, this very overused Anaïs Nin quote, that’s something like, “I write to taste life twice.” [Laughs]

Rail: Oh my god.

White: People put it with a photo of a cappuccino or something, and I’m like, but I agree! I always had this distant thing in my mind: if I just write a novel about all of these experiences, then it will be done, and then I’ll be living a quiet little life where I’ll have to actually write real fiction, because I won’t have anything that I’ve lived to write about. But I’m also like, “bitch, you’ll never quit!” Antonio and I were talking about how the obsession with authenticity started with Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Kierkegaard, in his writing, was always about the mask, and taking off personas, which I love. And in Heidegger, there’s the question, can anything be authentic when we’re in this system that doesn’t allow for authenticity? But later, the obsession in America—it’s a pretty recent obsession—simply becomes a marketing ploy. Because marketing goes, no this is authentic, this isn’t authentic, it makes everyone immediately into a skeptic and a cynic. And I think that readers are skeptics and cynics too. Like their questions might be, is this truthful, did the writer really live this? Instead of, is this good art, or is this bad art? And so you asked before, is the poem a whore, which I love playing with, but I definitely think the poem is a hustler. Because the poem has to charm you and hustle you out of your skepticism!

Rail: When I heard you read the other night at the Poetry Project, I was thinking about the way people relate to ownership of topics in our kind of identitarian world, and how an audience’s response to someone talking about an experience that’s considered marginal might immediately be, “Are they allowed to say that?” It made me wonder if anyone was listening who doesn’t know you’re a sex worker, and thinking, “She can’t talk about that!”

White: Well, so I had to have an emergency phone call with Ripley once when I was on the West Coast this summer at that poetry workshop, because the workshop was telling me I needed to put a note before my book that said, “I am a sex worker,” so that people wouldn’t get offended.

Rail: No!

White: Yeah, so people “understand where you’re coming from.” I was asking Ripley, am I completely off base here? I don’t want people to think I’m appropriating some experience. The tone was, “You just seem like this sort of sex positive New York girl. So why would you invoke prison? that seems very distasteful.” And Ripley was just like, “you don’t need to do that...at all.”

Rail: Right, because demanding that kind of authenticity is basically just demanding that people out themselves.

White: Totally, that’s the thing too! And I mean, I’ve already artfully outed myself.

Rail: What do you think of representation?

White: I do think representation is kind of a trap. What’s scary is how liberation movements get gentrified. In Gentrification Of The Mind (2011), Sarah Schulman writes about how the gay liberation movement was totally co-opted, becoming the gay marriage movement. Something banks could back in the pride parades. Obviously, there’s also a gentrification of sex work, which is, basically, Eros.

In Revolting Prostitutes (2008), Juno [Mac] and Molly [Easo Smith] do a really good job of talking about this. They write about the erotic professional as the out-facing figure of the sex workers rights movement, who is about empowerment, and loves their job, and is often doubling from a client facing platform—which is also a problem, because not everyone can afford to have multiple identities and multiple platforms. That in and of itself is a huge privilege. So, because of how media is structured, “representation” in media is often less about telling the truth of groups of marginalized people and their actual lives, but more about constructing fantasies of how they can fit into the current moment. And too often it just becomes, “gay people, they’re just like us!” Or “sex workers, they’re just like us!”

Rail: Right, like, they pay taxes!

White: They pay taxes, they want families, and respectability, and whatever else society promises will give us love. Thinking about that, I would hate for my poetry to be read as representative of a group and not just of me, and my experiences living a life.

Rail: That’s also a demand that’s only made of people in communities that aren’t eligible to the dominant society. Nobody’s going to read a businessman’s poetry and think, “this is representative of all businessmen everywhere,” but people who don’t know any sex workers could read your poetry and think, “okay, all sex workers must feel this way.”

White: Right, so when I hear questions about universality and poetry and representation, it just seems to me that they’re asking about marketing, like, who’s going to buy this book? And so then I was thinking about that question, like who is going to buy this book? And the book is addressed to the fellow sufferer, which to me is any fellow worker, but really any fellow human.

Rail: Are you a hedonist or a pessimist?

White: I’m both super hedonistic and super pessimistic, at the same time. Because of my tragic sense of life—what life is, always, but especially now—I’m not afraid of expenditure, or wasting my life, or this Bataillan sense of living on the edge. I know my life could only have a good ending by sheer luck. So my concern is not to preserve myself, but to never miss an opportunity to do good, or to experience joy, or have lived in beauty.

Contributor

Sophia Giovannitti

Sophia Giovannitti is a writer who lives in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Inquiry, Bookforum, Jezebel, Vice, and Mask, among other places.

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