I wrote a graphic novel about a porn star.
Before you keep reading, take a moment to ask yourself what that sentence made you feel. Then take a moment to ponder why.
The sequential art industry is becoming more inclusive all the time, shining lights into hitherto unexplored spaces that aren’t always dominated by straight, white men. But there are still some places that comics aren’t comfortable going. One of them is the world of sex work.
There are reasons for that reluctance: One is that the cultural narrative around sex work tells us that all of it is scary. That those who do sex work are essentially broken—or worse, that they have been forced into it against their will. Therefore, we assume that stories of sex work must be deeply upsetting. Not the kind of thing that we want to see pictures of, dwell upon, or look at too closely, aside from tut-tutting and occasionally perching upon high horses to denounce.
Another problem is that we are deeply ambivalent about the idea of sexual imagery—a pronounced problem for sequential art storytelling. There’s a mostly unspoken assumption that, when we see visual representations of explicit sex, our lizard brains take over and leave us drooling, instinct-driven hormone monsters devoid of higher functioning, like the ability to read. Hence the fairly strict delineation between “erotic” comics—which are almost all sex—and “mainstream” comics—which have long skirted overt sexuality in favor of wink-wink, nudge-nudge innuendo and skin-tight outfits that make for pleasing art but don’t push over that imagined edge into howling degeneracy.
The specter of sex workers who control their own bodies, and thus their own labor, is dangerously subversive to our cultural ideas around who should control women’s sexuality.
Both of these assumptions are rooted deep in Western culture’s underlying fear of sex. And both speak to the suspicion and hand-wringing that same fear engenders about empowered female sexuality. It’s no accident that sex workers—often powerful, self-possessed women who have successfully leveraged their bodies for their own gain—are often depicted by mainstream media as broken-down, unfortunate victims. The specter of sex workers who control their own bodies, and thus their own labor, is dangerously subversive to our cultural ideas around who should control women’s sexuality.
These prevailing attitudes about sex and the people who do it for money add up to widely held, rarely examined stigmas that lead us to believe that sex workers are fundamentally different from the rest of us. That there is a yawning divide between “them” and “us.”
But I’ve spent the last decade hearing and telling sex workers’ stories. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed dozens of sex workers—mostly porn stars, some escorts, quite a few cam models, and others. I’ve written about sex work for Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine, Glamour, McSweeney’s, Playboy, Allure, Men’s Health, and many other outlets. I’ve watched hundreds of porn films (as have many of us—I just talk about it openly because it’s part of my job). Hell, I’ve literally written the book on the American porn industry.
And I’m here to tell you that the stigmas that prevent us from understanding sex workers as fully human…are bullshit. I mean it when I say that the only difference between people who work in the sex industry and those who don’t is the willingness to be open about their sexuality. Really. That and, of course, the fact that sex workers live every day with the stigma that dogs their profession. And the very real ramifications of that stigma on their lives, their livelihood, and their safety. Right now, sex workers are more marginalized and therefore more vulnerable than they’ve been in decades, due to legislation recently passed by Congress called SESTA/FOSTA. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that sex workers need understanding now more than ever.
My anecdotal evidence gathering leads me to believe that people are more than capable of encountering erotic visual material without losing their ability to function. That, in fact, interacting with sexual subject matter in a way that requires one to keep one’s head can be a liberating experience.
I can also tell you that, in the course of my writing career, I’ve watched hardcore porn with friends and colleagues, in darkened theaters with hundreds of strangers, at high-profile awards ceremonies, and elsewhere. And not once did everyone in the room devolve into a slavering pack of hedonist maniacs. My anecdotal evidence gathering leads me to believe that people are more than capable of encountering erotic visual material without losing their ability to function. That, in fact, interacting with sexual subject matter in a way that requires one to keep one’s head can be a liberating experience.
All of this is why, right now, I’m Kickstarting the first of seven volumes of my graphic novel, Tracy Queen. Like I said, I’ve been writing journalism about sex work for a decade. And my work has reached far, but not nearly far enough. It’s time for a graphic novel about someone who has sex for a living, but who’s also a complex, difficult, intelligent, often frustrating individual. I know lots of people who are all of the above, and they deserve representation. We can handle it. I promise.
The world of sequential art is largely untouched by stories about sex workers, much less stories where sex workers are the heroes. But there’s something magical about sequential art that makes its characters accessible, no matter how different they are from their readers. And Tracy, though her life is packed with hyperbole, pulp sci-fi, and over-the-top adventures, really isn’t much different from “the rest of us.” In sequential art, I see an opportunity to introduce readers to someone who’s not only funny, relatable, flawed, gorgeous, and deeply human…but who also chooses, for her very own, very valid reasons, to start making porn. And discovers that not only does she enjoy it—she thrives on it.
The graphic novel tells the story of a twenty-something Tracy Queen, whose boyfriend just discovered that she’s part of her grandfather’s organized crime syndicate and dumped her. At the end of a very bad day, she befriends a talking raccoon who inspires her to get away from her grandfather’s stifling control. Tracy realizes she can make money by web camming and dives in, feeling empowered and self-sufficient—but that’s when she realizes how truly repressed women are for being sexual or doing sex work. Soon, she is fighting for her life and those of other women facing predatory men bent on victimizing them. Along the way, she finds herself, her own humanity, and a group of similarly free-thinking sex workers with whom she bands together to fight for sexual empowerment, freedom of expression, and love.
Tracy Queen is far from a realistic depiction of all sex workers. For one thing, she makes a lot of easy money as a webcammer and indie porn producer—that’s very exaggerated. For another, her best friend is a talking raccoon. And of course there’s the cyborg-clone army she creates to defend herself against the forces of sexual repression, using totally junk science I made up. But that’s a whole other article.
Still, Tracy’s story is a necessary port of entry into topics like sexual pleasure, empowerment, and voluntary sex work. Topics that we could all use an excuse to bring up over dinner, perhaps by way of a funny, irreverent, and enjoyable graphic novel. I might be biased, but I think that Tracy Queen is a great way to get the conversation started.