By Oliver Morrison
Dragonfly, 39, has worked in massage parlors and strip clubs. She’s had a collared slave for a year and ran a dominatrix dungeon. Once she even handcuffed a quiet European man in heels to a cross.
But when it came to getting on stage and telling her story, she wanted some extra protection.
“I just needed the community to help me tell these stories,” said Dragonfly. “There’s a lot to be said for standing up on the stage with other people who identify as a sex worker.”
The event was a reading held by the Red Umbrella Project, an advocacy group for sex workers. Six members of the group, including Dragonfly, were reading from a recently published memoir, Prose & Lore, at the downtown bar CultureFix.
This is the third in a series of books that is intended to change attitudes about sex workers and, ultimately, change laws that they say unfairly target them. Audacia Ray, 44, started publishing books that feature the writing of sex workers and holding readings in 2012 in her role as director of the Red Umbrella Project.
In addition to storytelling, Ray said that the group advocates politically and successfully trained 150 sex workers last year to tell their stories to elected officials. Their testimony helped build support for a bill that passed in the State Assembly that forbid using condoms as evidence against sex workers. Police confiscate condoms of suspected sex workers, Ray said, which discourages people from carrying and using them.
Wednesday’s reading was held in the back room of a West Village bar. A few authors paused briefly because they were emotional, or read in strained voices, and the crowd became attentive and quiet. Others read in loud, dramatic voices and punctuated their stories with jokes.
Dragonfly was loud. She told a story about a sex shop that was unusually strict about laws and regulations. “’We’re not a rub and tug,” she read in the voice of her boss. “They can go to Chinatown for that. This is Westchester.” That line received one of the bigger laughs of the night.
Dragonfly believes that storytelling is a tool to destigmatize sex workers. “They really illuminate the humanity that each of us have, even as sex workers, in a society that is often going to say that we are unimportant or unintelligent, that we’re irrelevant, that we’re disposable, that we should be ashamed.”
The title chapters in the book reflect the variety of stories and tones the authors took in their readings. There are the innuendo chapters: “Matters in our hands”, “Slipping In”; the political chapters “Damaged Goods” and “Outlawed State”; the business chapters, “Real Sex and Real Work” and “Money and Remorse” and then the outright bawdy chapters of which, probably only “Choking a Horse” is publishable here.
The last book in the Umbrella Project series sold 500 copies, said its spokeswoman, and they are ordering more.
When a fan after the show commented on how Dragonfly looked younger than almost 40, she said, “It’s because I’ve lived my life unapologetically and happy.”
But she doesn’t use her “government issued, family name” because not everyone reacts well to what she has done for a living. She started stripping when she was 18 at the University of Texas to pay for school at the same time she was preparing for her debutante ball.
And now she says it is irrevocably a part of her identity. For example she said she asks herself now, “if a roommate just moved out, should I get a new roommate or should I turn that room into a dungeon?”
She said that the skills she used as a sex worker have already brought her positive attention from her bosses at the sales job she started three weeks ago.
“I’m extremely assertive and direct and outspoken,” said Dragonfly. “But of course I haven’t told them and I can’t put that on my resume.”
“One of my colleagues made a joke that it’s as if I showed up from the heavens and started cracking the whip,” said Dragonfly. “But they don’t know that I was literally cracking whips.”