A Queer Memoir About Sex Work That Interrogates Power, Gender, and Heteronormativity
In "Pretty Baby," Chris Belcher unpacks her work as a dominatrix making men feel worthless, shameful, and weak
Chris Belcher’s searing memoir about her work as a professional dominatrix isn’t exactly a comfortable read. Not because of the subject, but because Pretty Baby asks more of the reader than many memoirs. Like the best art does, this book invites introspection and interrogation of both our own lives and society at large.
Belcher grew up in small-town Appalachia before moving to Los Angeles to attend a PhD program. Her girlfriend at the time was a professional dominatrix and soon, to stay afloat, Belcher became one too. Despite a warning she shouldn’t brand herself as as lesbian dominatrix (men would think she’d only want to see women), she did (as the word lesbian never stops men from trying). As a pro-domme, she was paid to make men feel worthless, shameful, and weak—manufacturing experiences that echo abuse women encounter in their daily lives. But sex work isn’t without danger. Belcher found herself in various unsafe situations and had to contend with the ever-present risk of her doctorate program learning about her work as a domme—particularly when a jealous client wanted to expose her as an act of revenge.
Pretty Baby doesn’t simply recount Belcher’s journey into sex work, but in true academic fashion the book examines larger issues, like how our patriarchal, cisnormative, and transphobic society feeds the need for dungeons and dominatrixes. It asks us to consider our understanding of power, gender, sexuality, safety, and consent—and to question how context may alter or complicate these things. Pretty Baby is a must read for anyone interested in seeing the cultural conversation about gender and sexuality pushed further.
Rachel León: Your book was blurbed by Saeed Jones, who said you don’t simply hand the reader your story, but “demand that we interrogate ourselves in the process.” I love that, and it’s very true. I attribute that quality to how the work seems to blend art and academia. How did your work in academia influence your approach to writing this memoir?
Chris Belcher: I was drawn to academia because I thought that feminist and queer theory would help me understand sex and power, and what I found was that professional work in sex was what helped me understand the unjust power dynamics inherent to academia and academic labor. Academia’s respectability politics, in particular, are hostile to sex workers, and low-income students, low-wage workers, and anyone who doesn’t have the privilege to prioritize their intellectual lives over their material circumstances. And so, while sex work was a viable option for a broke grad student to pursue financial stability, I knew that I was supposed to be in school to write and think about sexuality, not to perform sexual labor. These are the issues that I hope the book demands we interrogate.
When I was still in school, I thought that I might write about sex work in a way that could validate it for the university. I could turn labor into art—or into feminist politics—when it was neither: it was labor. From that place of capitulation, I wasn’t yet ready to write the book. But once I finished and started the more precarious work of an adjunct professor, I felt that I had little to lose, and started writing work that would allow me to be both the object of study and the critic, the exhibitionist and the voyeur. Memoir allows for both, and in that way, it’s similar to the work I most admire in feminist and queer studies.
RL: Coming out is centered in this book, both coming out as a lesbian, but also as a sex worker. At one point you talk about closets and how we perceive them as safe. Could you talk about the risks of staying closeted?
CB: I didn’t really “come out of the closet” as a lesbian when I was a teenager, but rather was “found out.” I didn’t feel closeted, as much as I felt I was experiencing my queerness privately as a source of joy and pleasure, and I simply wasn’t ready to share it. I don’t think that closets must be spaces of shame, though certainly they can be. But closets, and the secrets they keep, can be exploited. And so in the book, the second closet I found myself in—the sex work closet—did contain a secret that was marked in many ways by shame, even if it wasn’t my own, and that shame could be used against me. I realized at that point the real risk of staying closeted: that someone else could control my narrative. In its way, writing the memoir was a refusal of that control.
RL: Let’s talk about shame. I loved the line: “Shame moves us simultaneously in two directions: revulsion and empathy.” Later you write about how shame was discussed in academia “like it was something that happened naturally: always on accident, never on purpose.” The shame clients seek for catharsis is manufactured and transactional—do you think that affects the experience of shame?
CB: Much of what goes down in the dungeon is a manufactured and transactional version of affects and experiences that cannot always be safely or spontaneously produced in everyday life: fear, humiliation, pain, pleasure, anticipation and so on. I don’t think that precludes those who pay for the experience from catharsis, nor from transformation, but I also don’t think it’s a sure bet. Some of us encounter art that changes us, or read work that changes us. We might pay for that experience, but I don’t think that cheapens the transformation. And other times we are not moved, or changed. I was changed in many ways by the scenes I enacted with clients in the dungeon, and in other ways, I strived to be able to feel what they felt, and found myself unable. I continue to seek transformation through BDSM practice with lovers and in queer community.
RL: The prologue opens with a scene that clearly illustrates the danger of your work as a domme. And the first chapter begins when you’re ten. I’d love to hear about your decision for these openings.
CB: If we fail to acknowledge the potential dangers inherent to sex work, we cannot fight for that which would make the work safer: primarily, destigmatization and decriminalization. I started the book with a prologue that highlighted the potential dangers I faced, choosing to do work that put me into situations where I was alone with strange men, but the book then opens into my youth and coming-of-age, where the threat of men and boys was also present. I wanted to show that the threat of patriarchal violence is with us no matter if we are doing sex work or just growing up as girls in America.
RL: There are different types of sex work, which you touch on, mentioning the hierarchy of sex workers. And there are varying levels of danger: in different roles, and with the identity of the sex worker. You note the higher risk of getting in legal trouble for sex workers of color, and how there can be an expectation for touch put on trans femme dommes. Was it important to you to highlight how privilege plays a role in just how dangerous it can be for some sex workers?
CB: I wanted it to be clear that my experiences in sex work were shaped in every way by my whiteness, by being cisgender, by having access to higher education and the class mobility that could confer. In 2021, I co-edited We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival, a book that brought together various sex working writers with diverse backgrounds, experiences in the industry/trades, and experiences of marginalization. Especially after working with these writers and reading their work, it was important to me to highlight my experiences working alongside POC and trans sex workers, because these experiences highlight the ways that my identity kept me safe in ways that more marginalized workers can’t count on.
RL: You had cis male and male-presenting clients who wore dresses in sessions. Sometimes they did because they saw femininity as degrading, but sometimes it was because the dungeon was a safe place to express their true gender identity. Do you think our society’s transphobia and cisnormativity feeds into the need for dungeons and dominatrixes?
CB: Stigma toward non-normative desires of all kinds fuels the need for professional BDSM. It’s not the only factor, but it is why my sex worker friends and I would refer to the money we could make touring “the repressive regions,” primarily the South, which was often more lucrative than sessioning in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Certainly, someone interested in rope bondage might want to be tied by a professional, even if they play at home with their partner. Or it might be easier for some to pay a professional for casual play that only requires payment and courtesy, not an ongoing emotional connection that a lifestyle partner might expect. But in general, I saw countless clients who kept their fantasies, whether about femininity or submission, from their partners and others in their lives. And specifically with AMAB [assigned male at birth] clients who told me that they knew themselves to be women, but did not “transition” and now use the dungeon as a safe space to embody their truth, transphobia does play a role in the need for dungeons and dommes.
RL: Prior to becoming a domme you favored a non-feminine presentation and write how masculinity gave you a way to say “fuck you” to men and how you saw power in subverting hetero-patriarchal expectations. But the work required you to adopt femininity, and after you started accepting money from men you realized money was more powerful than the “fuck you” of having armpit hair. I wondered if you could talk about the shift of power where you’re taking from men, rather than them taking from you.
CB: When I was younger, I believed I could remove myself from a patriarchal economy of desire, and that butchness was the way to do it: to literally make myself undesirable to men. But I moved through the world as a butch, and I was still sexually assaulted and harassed by men, I was still compelled by patriarchy to fear them. When I found my way toward femininity for pay, it was a performance that helped me take from men, and that was revelatory to me, as someone who men had simply taken for themselves. I think this might be surprising to folks who’ve held onto the notion that women who sell sex are selling themselves. Femininity didn’t feel like who I was, any more than butchness did. It was a tool that I used to do a job. And I came to enjoy it outside the dungeon, and to understand that it could be hard and strong, or soft and vulnerable, same as butchness.
RL: The book also explores how you came into your sexuality as an adolescent. You wanted to lose your virginity partially as a thirst for the power you saw sex could bring—so you were clearly aware of the connection between sex and power from a young age.
CB: I think that most girls get an education in sex and power way too soon. We are bombarded with purity myth messaging, where virginity is powerful because sex is something only boys want and you have the power to withhold it. And we are told that you can get a boy and keep him if you do have sex, then slut shamed if we take that bait. I was aware of this at a very young age, that there were two roads to take, but it wasn’t until I was older, in middle school and high school, that I started to understand that neither option would keep me safe. The girls who had sex were treated like sluts, and those who didn’t had their self-worth wrapped up in denying their own pleasures and desires.
RL: The book dives into the issue of consent and how the word “no” can be a disruption to femininity. I thought we could wrap up talking about consent and context.
CB: BDSM, when practiced responsibly, can be a liberatory experience for women and those who were AFAB [assigned female at birth] in particular, who have been socialized to say no when we mean yes, or to say yes when we don’t want to. In BDSM play, scenes are pre-negotiated, we have safe words to withdraw consent at any moment. There can be a real sense of safety, one I haven’t always experienced in other forms of sex and eroticism. And yet, for BDSM to be practiced responsibly, everyone has to feel comfortable accessing these tools of consent. In the book, I narrate various instances where my safety was compromised, and I tried to be honest about the fact that these tools must be learned, social scripts around femininity must be unlearned, and that process was difficult for me. It was also complicated by the fact that sex work is part of the service industry, money and sexual desire are very different motivators, and they have different relationships to the concept of consent. The difficulty of these concerns, and the fact that sex workers deal with them on a daily bases, is why sex workers should be our teachers when it comes to questions of safety and consent.