It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m waiting for a call from Karley Sciortino, AKA Slutever, author of “Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World” and host of Viceland’s eponymous sex-ed show. Classic. It’s like I’m in middle school again, crushing on a new friend. I remind myself: just because I know about that one time she got doused by a moon cup full of blood while making out with a woman in a bathroom in Bournemouth doesn’t mean we’re friends. But that’s the thing with Karley Sciortino – her voice, it resonates.
From her first blogposts in 2007 about living in ‘Squallyoaks’, a South London squat, to her explorations of kinky B&Bs in her native upstate New York, Sciortino is on a quest for “casual slutty enlightenment,” AKA learning and lolz – and she’s inviting us along. Of course, I’m smitten. It’s by design.
“I just was never great at objectivity when it came to writing,” the 32 year old tells me. “It didn’t feel natural to me. I always felt like my writing was driven by my own curiosity, about wanting to experience something, so it made perfect sense for me —rather than just be like ‘Let me shadow a dominatrix and be a fly on the wall’ – to just do that and then write about it. […] And for the show, I feel like television journalism is really effective when the host is sort of like a surrogate for the audience, right? We see it all the time in stuff like [TV chef] Anthony Bourdain, who puts himself into a world and eats the food. But with sex, it’s often not portrayed like that. As a viewer we’re distant.” She suggests this distance turns the topic into a curiosity rather than something to be curious about. With Karley as host and participant, she’s refusing to demonise or sensationalise going after what you desire and hope for. “[T]he viewer will be able to imagine themselves doing it, [too],” she says.
At the start of each episode of “Slutever” we enter a bedroom with a sleazy Eighties vibe, pink-lit with a potted palm tree. In an episode entitled “Lifestyle Slaves” Karley is shown multitasking on her bed in a negligee: typing with one hand, her hair in one curler, an unused tampon clamped between her teeth and painting her toenails, which are already thick with chipped polish. Her voiceover says:
“[Sigh]. Life is so hard. Between meeting my blog deadlines and performing my gender, I barely have time to get anything done. […] Gawd, I need a lifestyle slave. I’ve heard that’s actually a thing. But who on this flat earth would want that job? And am I a bitch for wanting one? And more importantly, is there an app for that?” Karley goes on to visit a dominatrix and her two slaves who help with household chores and more, asking questions that feel unfiltered, and then puts out a call for a slave of her own.
Sciortino says: “We’ve always joked around about [the pink room] being my brain, playing on the idea of the ditzy blonde woman and also the idea of sexual naiveté.” Just like a warped millennial Carrie Bradshaw, a woman whom the author cites as “the ultimate reference for me”. Unlike when she was “23 and thought it was super-radical to have my boobs all over the Internet,” she now tries to make sure her image as a sex journalist is funny, playful and ironic.
Since her early sex-ed web series for Vice in 2012, she and producer Adri Murguia “always liked the idea of a tongue-in-cheek ‘Sex and the City’ reference” because today “there’s so much more sarcasm around the idea of these grand questions about sex”. She adds that she admires Candace Bushnell, whose columns for The New York Observer between 1994 and 1996 were the basis for the iconic show, describing the journalist as “dark, unapologetic and slutty” – words that could also describe Sciortino’s work.
Her take on sex in pop culture is that women lack diverse sexual role models. “You never see a man having a traumatising sexual experience, ever. Like if he’s literally tricked into sex, it ends up being a joke that he laughs at with his friends. If a woman has a sort of apathetic sexual experience, she’s traumatised. We really lack women in [the] media who represent this idea of a woman who is sexually promiscuous or sexually curious or sexually driven, even [someone] who isn’t somehow traumatised or punished by that behaviour.” Like Samantha on “Sex and the City” or the happy sex worker Sciortino played on Netflix’s “Easy”. She adds: “The idea that women are always the victim of sex removes our agency and power.”
Reclaiming the word ‘slut’ might help reframe how women are able to think about their sexual experiences. “#metoo” is an important movement, Sciortino says, but she worries about how the discourse around it, particularly the idea of sex as inherently dangerous, is impacting how we are able to navigate and interpret our experiences. “So many of my friends are sex workers. I just admire their attitude about sex. They’re so strong, and they have so much ability to negotiate the type of sex that they want. They know how to be responsible about their sexual behaviour.”
In her book, Sciortino carries us through on a wave of charm and humour, and only mentions darker experiences in passing. This is a literary technique she employs to let us know she is the reliable narrator of her own story. When she wakes up after a long blackout in a strange hotel room, you worry – but you don’t worry. Whatever happened, she is asking us to trust her account.
The desire for women to operate with full sexual autonomy led Sciortino to contend with her own cultural baggage concerning the commodification of sex and the assumption that all sex work is degrading. “Because invisibility is such a huge part of being a sex worker, we often don’t hear the stories of women who like what they do.” That includes her own story.
After befriending a glamorous young escort named Madeline, Sciortino, then still in the early stages of her career as a writer in New York, wondered if being a “noodle slave” at a Chinese restaurant made more sense than “financial exchange for sexual companionship”. By her mid-to-late twenties, she’d already enjoyed gigging as a dominatrix, and relished the absurdity of how much more she could earn with her urine than waitressing and writing features for magazines.
Though she had written about her dominatrix work, it took her until the publication of her book – when she felt financially secure and established enough so that her career wouldn’t “spiral out of control” – to speak publicly about the subject. Why? “Because of the, you know, ‘whorearchy’, as it’s often called. Being a dominatrix isn’t thought of as being as being as ‘dirty’ or ‘degrading’ as other forms of sex work because you’re not having full penetrative sex with your clients.” However: “I started to feel hypocritical because I was writing a lot at the time on my website about sex worker rights and being very pro-sex work in general, but keeping that aspect of my life a secret because I understood, to a degree, that we don’t live in a post-shame world. I was just starting [to work] at Vogue [writing her “Breathless” column], and they have a PR team that was not going to be chill about that.” In the New York Times in 2013, she described American Vogue as “actually pretty conservative”, citing “a long email exchange about not being able to say the word ‘sperm’ outside a scientific context”.
“Approximately two percent of adult females in the US,” she writes, “are sugar babies,” which is equal to the “estimated percentage of gay people in America. And yet, no one cares about sex workers’ rights.” Authors Maya Angelou, Kathy Acker and Mary Gaitskill have spoken about supporting themselves with sex work, for instance. Some, like artist and musician Cosey Fanni Tutti, have also used sex as a central inquiry in their creative work. Or there’s the entrepreneur and best-selling author of the 2014 coming-of-age memoir “#Girlboss”, Sophia Amoruso, who in a podcast with Sciortino, talked about her time as a stripper in Portland. Worth considering in this category as well is sex worker-activist and ex-Los Angeles Police Department cop, Norma Jean Almodovar, who in an interview in Sciortino’s book calls women like herself, who have chosen sex work, “practical”.
By telling these stories Sciortino wants to help us get a clearer and perhaps more prosaic understanding of the commodification of sex by doing something as radical as making room for the possibility that a career in sex, like sexual experience in general, can be good, bad and meh, and maybe all at once. “When I’m alone with myself and even judging myself, so to speak, I don’t feel personal shame about my sexual history. I feel excited about it. And even the moments that were sort of less than excellent were learning experiences.” She hopes by reclaiming the concept, “the ‘slut’ label will have less power to harm”.
Sciortino’s vision of a post-shame world is “more of an aspirational way of looking at how women of my generation are approaching the idea of female sexual agency and their own sexual desire. We’re moving in the right direction when it comes to the sexual double standard. I think that women have increasingly less shame around sleeping with more than one person or being kinky or just being horny in general, right?” The answer is up to us.