This is our truth, tell us yours
I have been considering the fuzzy grey area between performance and performative quite a lot lately. In some ways of course it is a distinction which this blog (and its forerunner) were created to explore. When you have two people interested in exploring sexual power dynamics, who at the same time dislike role play and the presentation of mainstream BDSM as a performance with set rules the debatable lands become inhabited by such conversations.
I do not think it is unreasonable to argue that all work is to some extent performative, in that we have to adhere to social structures, norms, learned behaviours and conventions in order to keep our jobs. Service sector work demands more of an adherence to social norms and conventions than some other forms of work, partly due to the class basis of our society (For example the idea of House comes to mind, his deliberate refusal to conform to certain ways of being, and his rejection of the acceptable language and behaviours of a medical professional are based on his privileges within society). Where a white cis, straight well paid male can perhaps get away with not conforming many others are forced by their circumstances into a performative relationship with their work colleagues and the public. This may slip into being a performance in certain circumstances, for example someone with depression “putting on a brave face”
So performance and performativity within the work place are not unique to sex work, despite the claims of those opposed to sex workers rights. The idea that because some form of performativity is involved in sex work then it is not consensual or does not deserve rights ignores that this would remove workers rights from the majority of people who are not self employed (and indeed many self-employed people who have to come into contact with others).
This being the case there tend not to be nuanced discussions except privately between sex workers on performance and performativity when working. On one side we have the annie sprinkles, the all sex is glorious and paid sex is simply an extension of the non paid sex you would be having (a simplification I admit, but the overall impression you are given). On the other are those who realised that labour rights was a better argument than orgasm rights, but who, in the process very often seem to insist that “doing it right” means never orgasming with a client, being fully aware that sex work is a performance, without any involvement of their authentic sexual self.
The majority of sex workers I know fall between the two, largely from either swinging or kink backgrounds they realised they could make money from something they enjoyed doing. This is not to say they are unaware of the performative nature of sex work, and how it can, upon occasion become a performance. This was brought into sharp focus by a recent booking. A client contacted me who was interested in a D/s booking, specifically age play. Now within my relationship with my fellow traveller here there is a component that the outside world would define as age play. I dislike the term here as it suggests role play (that performance again). However something within me is touched by being allowed to be completely vulnerable. BDSM is not therapy, but it could be said that my inner child has found an unusual way of being nurtured.
With this background it came as no surprise that on hearing of the booking Carter commented that he trusted in my ability to exercise self-care. Children (and by extension littles) are not yet performative, and all performance tends to be opaque, they are by nature too authentic to dissemble. I was intrigued by the idea of a booking that touched upon some of my most private desires and kinks, of how it would feel to be put in that space by someone other than Carter.
It turned out to be pure performance. in a way that straight vanilla sex with a client rarely is. The very concept of submitting was thrown away when I had to insist that certain things were off limits, the performance halted not by breaking the fourth wall, but by stepping totally out of role. It was carter who suggested that actors may understand better than any other workers how this interplay of role, performance and performativity can exist. I imagine an actor in local rep taking the direction of an over ambitious but under talented director in a similar way to I responded to my booking. They might know how the part could be played, they would perhaps, left to their own devices play the role far better, but if they want to be paid, they put up and shut up.
As it is for me, so it is, I believe, for so many others. All sex work is not performance, or performative for them. Or to rephrase it, sex work is not all performance, or all performative for them. Just as the “happy hooker” who loves every moment may be as rare as a cis man who is talented at oral sex so the sex worker who never orgasms, who refuses to enjoy sex with clients, may be just another trope, an outlier on the scale. Which is not to say that being an outlier is wrong, when it comes to lived experience there is no right and wrong, however just as one narrative left so many sex workers outside the conversation we must be careful that the newer narrative does not also exclude. Those working class swingers who take a few bookings to pay the mortgage, or the single mum who works in the run up to christmas may understand that sex work is performative, just as all work is, but that doesnt mean it is all a performance. I worry that our current conversations focus on a narrow politicised group. Outside of this group are many who also need help and support, who are rarely studied, rarely encountered but still exist.