Tina Horn On Sexting, Sex Work, and The Politics Of Pleasure

Writer, feminist pornographer, and sex worker advocate Tina Horn is a perverted polymath. Cutting her teeth in a woman owned and run domme house in San Francisco, Horn harnessed her experiences as a sex worker and porn performer and director to become, in the words of Jiz Lee, “the Neil deGrasse Tyson of a sexual cosmos.” She’s the force behind the podcast “Why Are People Into That?!,” the author of Love Not Given Lightly: Profiles from the Edge of Sex, a riveting narrative traversing her own life and the lives of sex workers in her community, and, now, Sexting: The Grownup’s Little Book of Sex Tips for Getting Dirty Digitally. Recently we had the pleasure of going deep with Horn, discussing her new book, her favorite sexting emoji, sex work in the media, and the politics of pleasure.

Do you define yourself as a feminist pornographer?

Sure. I’m the winner of two Feminist Porn Awards. I’m sort of like an erstwhile feminist pornographer. I certainly believe in feminist pornography and continue to do writing about it, and write the occasional erotic fiction, which is definitely feminist.

When was your entrance into porn?

I got my start in 2006 doing private, client-based, professional BDSM, fetish and fantasy exploration, which is a long way of saying I was a professional dominatrix. I was a professional switch though, so did the dominatrix thing but was more a professional sexual improviser and improv therapy provider. Around 2008, there was a queer, feminist indie porn renaissance going on in the Bay Area. Good Vibrations was putting money into making movies, there was Madison Young, Shine Louise Houston and Crash Pad and kink.com, and money to be made and community to be had having queer sex with your friends while being filmed. I performed in a couple of movies and then started directing and producing queer porn and started a site called Queer Porn TV, and that project is what won me a couple Feminist Porn Awards. For me, making porn was really just a video exploration of things I’m interested in as a non-fiction writer, journalist, and audio media maker. I’m interested in weird, experimental, non-fiction inquiries into and experiments with transgressive sexuality, such as queer identities, kink desire, underground sexual communities, leather, polyamory, and sex work.

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Although I did some shoots for Kink University earlier this year, other than that I haven’t performed in a whole lot of pornos in the past four years. The last scene that I shot for QPTV was two boys in Bluestockings after hours because I was volunteering there. My pilates instructor and this other hot guy. I was definitely like, “if I never direct another porno, this is a good way of going out.” Like, I was volunteering at this feminist anarchist LES bookstore, I asked the collective how they would feel about me making queer porn there, and they were like, “sure, totally!” So we pulled down the iron gate and there were definitely junkies nodding off in front of the store while we were doing it. So yeah, we pushed the books aside while the boys had hot butt sex.

Did you have a sex positive childhood?

I wouldn’t say my upbringing was of note in terms of becoming the professional pervert that you see before you today, except that there was a lot of respect and dialogue. I wasn’t super involved in queer communities or sexual underground communities until I was like 25/26. My life before that was defined by having a lot of room to breathe, being a voracious reader and consumer of fiction and non-fiction media, traveling a lot, so by the time I began to focus my interests in subjects of human sexuality I guess I brought a lot of different critical perspectives to it.

How did you initially get into kink and BDSM?

To be honest, I really hadn’t explored it very much until I started doing it professionally. I came up in a house, not a dungeon, a collectively run house, that was a place that was a lot about women teaching each other about kink: the different between a square knot and a granny knot, how to focus in on a role play, where the ideal places to spank someone are, how to use a flogger, how to use a cane, how to use a single tail, how to use a cow prod. I learned about that from other women on the job, and god I’m so lucky. The professional element of it gave me a structure to feel comfortable.

Some feminists argue that there is a tension between kink and feminism, that BDSM can replicate patriarchal power structures instead of challenging them. What’s your perspective on that?

In my experience, the more you’re able to state taboos, experience depravity, and look at terrifying, disgusting, abject things in the face, the less power those things have over you. It can be a really great way to make a deeper connection with someone because you’re going on a psychological adventure with them. We seem to understand this everywhere except sex. We understand it in fiction, like horror. There’s no question that people enjoy watching things happen to people that they don’t want to have actually happen to them in real life. We have a context for understanding how that’s entertaining, how that’s cathartic. How that might even be good for society for us to work through that in fiction, whether in a movie or TV show or book or theatre or opera or song.

We totally have a context for it with organized sports. Nobody is confused by people literally punching each other in boxing to try to physically dominate one another — to get it out, to win a medal, to experience glory, to bring pride to your family. Then at the end, more often than not, you’re expected to have good sportsmanship, shake someone’s hand, pat them on the back, and even like go out to dinner and be friends because you’re engaged in this honorable conflict, this pageant of conflict. I’m not saying one of them is a better or worse way for any individual to get those things out, but I need people to respect that sex is one of the places that many, many people get something out of.

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Can sex be divorced from personal politics in your opinion?

Well I think that if you have a critical understanding of the fact that taboo and the verboten hold an erotic charge, then your personal ideologies don’t have to be undermined by the things that you enjoy sexually. They may be figuratively contradicting, but they’re not literally contradicting at all. For example, I’m a feminist, and I frequently masturbate and get off while masturbating thinking about being raped in lots of different ways. Sometimes in an abstract way like being physically overpowered, or sometimes very literal, elaborate stories, like being drunk at a party and being overpowered by six guys. Things that are happening to people as we speak that are some of the most deplorable ways humans behave towards each other are part of my sexual fantasies.

But you’re in control of those fantasies.

I’m completely in control of those fantasies. And if I want to explore anything about those dynamics with another person, I’ll be expecting that that person is bringing the same critical awareness and understanding of consent and how consent works.

Let’s get to your new book about sexting. There’s no way to avoid sexting today, so what inspired you to write about it?

From being a sex worker, I started to teach community workshops in spanking techniques and role play and sex worker self-care. My most popular workshops have always been about dirty talk. I have a background in theatre and literature and I’ve always been highly cerebral and into stories and words. So I had a reputation for that, and then Quiver Press asked me to write a book about sexting.

I love sexting, I even sext with my friends that I don’t necessarily have a sexual relationship with IRL. I love that I can know what turns a person on, and type a word or phrase or idea and feel the shudder of arousal in their body without even touching them.

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What’s the most under used emoji in sexting that should be used?

Off the top of my head one that I really like which says something about what turns me on and the kind of sexual conversations I have is the little boy staring out and kind of smarting a little bit with the lines. It kind of looks like someone being chastised or humiliated or punished. And you should know that when I’m talking about a little boy, I’m not talking about minors but an archetypal figure. With sexting in particular there’s so much intense political shit surrounding sexting with minors, I have to state emojis are not minors [laughs]. Also, it could be like someone getting fucked in the ass from behind…it’s so expressive because they’re looking out and something is happening. As a sex worker I’m very fond of the wad of bills with the wings. The pig one is really great if you’re into being a pig.

You also do a podcast. What kinds of topics do you explore?

My podcast is called “Why Are People Into That?!” and every episode I have a different guest and they pick a subject of sex, kink, gender and/or love, and we try to explore why people like that thing. Usually the person is either into that thing, or have written a book about it, or they’re a medical professional, or a journalist or activist of some kind and they’re an expert in it in some way. The show is conversational, it tends to be pretty intellectual, it definitely tends to be very raunchy, it’s very queer, very kinky, very slut positive.

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As a sex worker and sex worker’s rights advocate do you think that the mainstream conversation is progressing in a positive way?

I think that the Amnesty International statement calling for decriminalization is extremely powerful. The proliferation of indie media is complicating people’s ideas about what feminists think about sex and porn and sex work. I think the Rentboy raid — while devastating to myself because I lost my full-time job and to all of my colleagues who lost their jobs and were arrested and have to go through legal battles — hit very mainstream conversation. As many people have said, if this is something that we can leverage male privilege for let’s do it. Nobody was like, “let’s save the poor rent boys!” People were like, “wait a minute, this probably isn’t posing a threat to anyone, Homeland Security.” The fact that it took that happening to men for people to realize sucks, but we can talk about that later. For now, let’s talk about the fact that people are getting it.

Similarly, the response to Stoya’s accusations and at least a dozen other women accusing James Deen of sexual assault and the mainstream response has been extraordinary. Let’s honor Stoya’s bravery by framing this salacious, sensational circus of a conversation to talk about consent. We need to talk about why sex workers don’t think they can stand up to their abusers. This is why it’s a feminist issue and about the larger context of sex work and how people perceive sex work, and the larger context of women and how people perceive women. I think that’s been kind of amazing. I hope that it all continues to gain momentum.

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Photo Credits: Main image, Maxwell Lander; Bob Coulter; Tina Horn; Ellen Stagg; Bob Coulter