feature image by Pamela Tatz
Sometimes when I’m set to interview an artist, I experience their work and then have to return to my notes to think up questions. With Chris Belcher, the questions wrote themselves. I spent the entirety of her beautiful and challenging memoir, Pretty Baby, jotting down thoughts and topics I wanted to discuss with her. Like the best memoir, Chris’ book tells the compelling story of her life and uses that life to examine so much about our culture and cultures.
We talk about her process, marketing femininity, sex work hierarchy, and so much more — including the queer party she co-founded in LA!
Drew: I feel like the PR hook for your book is a memoir by LA’s Renowned Lesbian Dominatrix but I really appreciate how much time you spend on the rest of your life and how those other experiences contextualize sex work. Was that always the intended approach?
Chris: When I originally envisioned this book I thought it would be a collection of essays. I didn’t intend to craft a linear narrative, but even in the essay form what I imagined I could do is think about what I experienced as a pro domme and the ways I came to know masculinity in a very different way. I’ve identified as a lesbian since I was a teenager, and I really crafted queer community in such a way that I was not often in contact with cis straight men — until I started doing sex work. I always envisioned this book as something that would allow me to talk about how I got to know masculinity as an adult through sex work and reflect back on how I came to know masculinity from the time I was younger. So I always imagined that the book would have those two elements — the adolescent and adult — but I didn’t know that it would be organized as a memoir. The market determined that kind of form more than anything.
Drew: Oh interesting. Can you say more about that?
Chris: We’re definitely in a moment of memoir, right? There have been beautiful essay collections that have come out in the queer and feminist space over the past few years but I think presenting this as a memoir and presenting this as a bildungsroman really fit what I wanted to do. And it worked. We sold it, right? (laughs)
Chris: Like it was more marketable in the long run.
Drew: Did you start it in the writing process as an essay collection? Was there a self-adaptation phase?
Chris: I pitched it as an essay collection when I was looking for agents and then I worked with my agent Jade Wong-Baxter, who’s incredible, on a proposal that looked like a memoir. And I’m so happy that we did. Some of it is connected to ideas about the essay form and what the essay can do as opposed to a memoir. I don’t think I had a lot figured out when I started writing the book and, through the process of writing, I came to understand my experience in a very different way. I don’t think if I’d just arrived at I’m going to write an essay about consent that I would’ve been able to see the journey that I went through and what that meant in my sex and BDSM practice. I think the memoir and putting myself back into these moments of unknowing and growth and seeing this as a journey as opposed to a destination ended up being much more useful for me. Because I do think when you come at an essay — even though it is a question and you’re trying out different hypotheses — there is some idea that you will reach a conclusion. Memoir doesn’t have to do that. It doesn’t have to neatly tie things together. And I don’t think my book ends up doing that.
Drew: Something I’m always curious about when people write memoir — probably because I do — is how do you navigate what to share and what not to share? Both for other people and for yourself.
Chris: I had to take a look at any experience that I was turning into narrative and think about whether it was my experience or somebody else’s. Was this my story or somebody else’s? There are lots of people who have had these experiences with me, alongside me, whose stories intertwined with mine. I wrote a lot that I ended up pulling back because I felt like a moment was more important or more impactful to the other person who was there and not for me and so it wasn’t my story to tell. That was the question that I asked myself ultimately. Is this important to what I want the book to accomplish and is this really mine?
Drew: And for the stuff that’s yours, is there anything that you decided you didn’t want to share? How do you navigate that personally?
Chris: It’s funny because in the book when I’m writing about my first experience doing sex work, I actually say something along the lines of: I told myself I would never tell anybody about this and I never did. And that’s real. I’ve never shared that experience with anybody at all — even in intimate situations. But now it’s on the page, it’s in the book. And, I mean, ultimately it needed to be there because I was trying to think through the experiences that bring people to this point where they’re negotiating what they’re willing to do with their body, what they’re willing to do for money, what that means to them. And that moment was formative. I couldn’t have written the book without it. And so while it’s not necessarily the most comfortable moment for me to have on the page, I did write it. I had to determine what was necessary to tell the story.
Drew: That makes sense. It’s like the art comes first when pushing personal boundaries.
Getting into specifics of the book, I’m really interested in Jess. She was very recognizable to me — this queer kid in a homophobic space who everyone in the community accepts is queer even though queerness is not something they discuss. Do you have thoughts about what’s going on there?
Chris: There are a couple of figures in my early life that were impossible not to clock as queer. To some extent a lot of stories we have about small town queer life feature someone that maybe doesn’t come out but everybody knows could be. With Jess, I theorize in the book that her gender presentation wouldn’t allow her sexuality to pass as straight. This particular character or person was revered for her tomboyishness, but then there’s a moment where that shifts. She’s no longer just the tomboy who’s great at basketball. She starts to become suspect because her gender comportment doesn’t push her into straightness. For me that was not the case. I did very much try to comport myself in such a way that I wouldn’t be suspected of being anything other than straight. I watched her and the bus driver in my town with fear, fascination, desire, all of it was wrapped up together. And I do think that’s a feeling I’ve heard many a queer attest to.
Drew: Maybe things are changing as there’s more visibility, but I do feel like for a long time there was the queer coming-of-age where your queerness was undeniable and the queer coming-of-age where you could sort of pretend and fit in to an extent. That distinction was really interesting to me.
Can I read your words to you? Is that mortifying?
Chris: No, it’s okay.
Drew: Okay because I loved this: “No matter how many times she told me she still loved me, it felt, suddenly, like she loved me despite, which is a thing that mothers are surely capable of doing but that children are better off not understanding.”
How as an adult do you come to an understanding? Is forgiveness and acceptance of biological family something that’s important to you?
Chris: It was actually through the writing of this book that I started to understand the limits of my parents’ capabilities when it came to protection and understanding. When I started writing the book there were ways — especially in how I wrote my father — that were more expansive. I included more difficult moments where my father’s homophobia prevented him from showing up for me as a parent. And I ended up paring back a lot of that, not out of a sense of protection for him, but because through writing, I started to understand it in a way that allowed me to do some of the work of forgiveness that I needed to do.
I teach gender and sexuality studies at USC, and when I have students write personal narratives they often discuss their parents reaction to their queerness or their gender presentation. And a lot of students I’ve talked to recently have been able to understand what their parents are doing as a kind of misguided protection. That’s not something I was able to do as an adolescent and young adult. So any of what you’re seeing coming through as forgiveness or empathy for those capabilities or lack thereof came to me through the writing process. In that way, writing this book was healing for the queer kid inside me. I don’t think it compromises the art of memoir that it can also do that for those who are writing it. It can be really powerful in that way.
I always envisioned this book as something that would allow me to talk about how I got to know masculinity as an adult through sex work and reflect back on how I came to know masculinity from the time I was younger.
Drew: The book deals with a lot of gender dynamics in spaces that are pointedly simplified. Men are like this, women are like this. I think you manage to be true to those spaces and those dynamics while not ignoring complexities that go beyond the binary. How did you strike that balance?
Chris: Are you thinking specifically in the dungeon?
Drew: Well, yes, but also more broadly like in the restaurant world. I’m so enmeshed in trans spaces, queer spaces, that the idea of oversimplifying patriarchy feels kind of passé to me, but I often remember that in the world at large, especially in straight spaces, some of these things are true. Not that all men are a certain way and all women are a certain way, but a lot of these dynamics that appear in the book are real. Patriarchy does impact cis straight men a lot differently than it does cis straight women. There is a simplicity in certain spaces that the book features.
Chris: I do think there’s an accumulation of experience that allows one to make a theoretical claim about something like heterosexuality or straight culture. It’s not necessarily about men or women, but about the culture they create from what they’re doing in terms of love, sex, and patriarchy. But I would say I am less concerned about collapsing distinctions of difference between cis straight men than I am with queer people. I have no problem theorizing what I see as the issues of straight masculinity whereas if I’m talking about my own community I want to be more attentive to nuance. Our communities are the ones impacted by straight culture, by cisnormativity and heteronormativity, and so we have to be able to observe and define that in order to start to undo some of the injustice that they cause. But I think collapsing difference within queer communities is a much more dangerous space to write in.
Drew: In queer space, how have you observed some of the power dynamics from straight culture seeping in? I really appreciated the section about your college girlfriend and some of the dynamics there but that person was very much the token queer woman in a heterosexual male space. But in spaces that are almost all queer and trans, how do you see some of those dynamics still seeping in?
Chris: I don’t think that queer community is in any way immune to the kinds of abuses that mark the rest of the world. My book does think about abuse within lesbian relationships, and it does think about abuse that happened within the queer BDSM community and fetish community that I built up around me. That is central to my experience. I wouldn’t be able to write the book in a way that vilifies straight masculinity and doesn’t look at the ways my own community has been marked by power structures that are harmful and abusive in a lot of different ways. I think the book is maybe difficult in that it asks readers to grapple with that.
Drew: I do think there’s a real desire for queer community to be an escape in a way that makes the abuse that takes place harder to discuss. People don’t want to engage with it.
Chris: I think there’s a parallel with sex work that makes sense to map onto this discussion as well. There is this desire to think about sex work as unproblematic, as somehow within the sphere of feminist agency, and not marked by all the problems of any other form of labor. It serves a political purpose, especially when we’re in what we think of as mixed company, to not let them know these problems occur. But they do.
Drew: The part about luring the gay man to the glory hole and this idea of having power over a gay man when you couldn’t have it over straight men is fascinating to me. Do you think that’s something that occurs more broadly for cis women?
Chris: You know, when that happened it was 2004/2005 and the queer campus culture was so opposed to everything straight. I never even thought of this boy as gay, because he didn’t identify as such. I thought of him as someone who was clearly interested in having sex with men, but because he wasn’t out, he didn’t feel like he was part of my community.
Whereas the person in the book who showed me the glory hole was a gay male friend of mine. And I think that mirrors many times in the book where gay men and other women in my community showed me the ropes in a sense. We were sort of showing each other how to be queer in different ways. So to me the gay male character in relationship to the glory hole was my gay friend who showed it to me and I exploited that knowledge toward someone I didn’t see as gay at the time.
Drew: There definitely felt like a gender aspect of it too where you’re participating in this traditionally male sexual space in the only way that you could. Is that off?
Chris: No, no. I mean, I think I’ve always been this way around sexual subculture practice. I’m fascinated with those kinds of spaces like dark rooms and glory holes and roadside truck stop porn shops. I’ve always had a fascination with these spaces that are really only accessible to men. And I think through leather community specifically, there are leather dykes who have access to making these kinds of spaces, and I’m lucky enough to be in these communities. At the time, this was my earliest memory of finding out this was a thing that could happen, this kind of public sex culture. I knew that I couldn’t participate in it as a woman but I was really fascinated by it. And I do think there was a kind of masculine gender performance that I was trying to engage in.
Drew: You write about the dominatrix as a refusal of femininity. Do you think the pressure for a dominatrix to have a high femme appearance is a way of soothing that subversion for a cishet man? Do you find in your experience that there’s less of a pressure for that high femininity with clients who aren’t cishet men?
Chris: There are doms who perform gender in all kinds of ways. There are doms who are specifically being worshiped for being hairy or being fat. There are doms I know who very much embody a butchness that I think is part of their allure for clients even for cis male clients, in fact, mostly for cis male clients. As I discuss in the book, women historically haven’t had the kind of finances or power to be able to access sex work. Some of that’s changing, but my clientele was overwhelming cis men. And for me I didn’t go into sex work and go into the role of professional dominant as someone who was presenting as butch — even though that was closer to how I felt at the time. I can only speak to my own experience but I didn’t believe that my butchness was marketable. And I’ll never know because I never tried it. I saw it as a performance that was very different from my own gender presentation. I could embody it and sell it and it felt separate to me from who I was at the time. I could market femininity, and then have my own gender presentation on my off days.
Drew: I want to talk about penises, or, more broadly, cock is the word that you use. You say that cock is always centered in sex work even the absence of it. Can you expand upon that?
Chris: You know, I was writing that in response to my own impulse — especially in non-sex work spaces — to downplay the fact that most sex work for me was about producing an orgasm in a cis man. It might not have looked like the traditional way of doing that, it might not have looked like the way most people think that happens, but that was what I was doing. I think there’s an impulse to say, oh what I’m doing is actually healing or is actually about all these kind of queer sensations, but at the end of the day when I grapple with that the reason I’m saying that is just about respectability politics even within lesbian spaces. When it gets down to it most of my sex work really was about cis male desire and helping that be achieved.
But in terms of sex work being about cock even when it’s the absence, I think about the industries that are set out to subvert it. I think about feminist porn or queer porn de-centering cis male desire. We have the mainstream, we have patriarchy, we have all of that, and then we have our subversion of it. Either way it’s in relationship to the same thing.
Drew: Talking about respectability politics more, at one point you say there’s this idea that sex work becomes more respectable when it’s art. How do you think sexually explicit art — whether it’s unsimulated sex in an art film or some sort of performance art — makes our culture kinder to sex and sex work and how much does it just reinforce this hierarchy that says this is art and this is other sex work?
Chris: I do feel that hierarchy really present in my life. For instance, when I was thinking about what kind of writing I would need to do about sex work in order for it to be accepted within academia. Or, even, in queer art spaces which certainly is less adherent to respectability politics than academia. I thought about a lot of the writers I admire who are working in queer theory or queer studies. You have the critic and you have the object and maybe the object is something like an art film that engages unsimulated sex or nudity or forms of BDSM play or whatever and I think those are respected as art objects. I guess I’m just marking out a hierarchy because artists who are doing that sort of work can move into the gallery space or be in conversations with critics. Whereas we don’t think the same thing about most people who are studying pornography. The porn object exists as an object and the people who are making that work aren’t often considered interlocutors with the critic. Sex work has been an object of study for a long time but we don’t consider sex workers the people doing that studying, or, even, who we’re listening to when doing that studying. I think that’s changing. I think a lot of these things are changing. I do think that people who are doing porn studies now are actually talking to pornographers and performers.
Drew: You talk about lesbian sex as unquantifiable and that it’s just a feeling. I think there’s a lot of freedom in that both in letting go of experiences that we want to let go and also embracing experiences that we want to embrace. Do you feel like that can be applied more broadly to sex in general? And are there limits to that thinking?
Chris: I mean, I think that it can and maybe it should. I talk about in the book that for me a lot of different kinds of bodies and activities could count to me as queer sex. And I talk about certain acts that I engage in with clients that they might have considered sex and I didn’t at all because I was being paid. That to me is the distinction I was trying to make — if I was being paid it wasn’t sex to me — but within the realm of unpaid erotic contact I consider many things to be sex. I think that’s just a product of queerness and not having the one act that we consider to be sex because there are so many different things that we do with our bodies. And I find that really liberating. But in the book, it’s also a problem because if you promise someone no sex and you don’t talk about what sex is it can be an issue when navigating a relationship.
I talk about in the book that for me a lot of different kinds of bodies and activities could count to me as queer sex.
Drew: Okay, the last thing that I want to talk about is Dana’s Night, the LA queer night you co-founded. I’d love for you to talk about how that came about and what goes into creating that sort of queer space and also how you’ve adapted to the pandemic.
Chris: So it wasn’t too long before the pandemic when The L Word: Generation Q came onto the scene. I think it was only about three months before.
Drew: Yeah it was December 2019.
Chris: It’s funny it actually started at another queer party in LA. There were a couple promoters in the city who were screening the premiere episode and I was at one of those parties. Some of my friends couldn’t get in and were stuck waiting in line, so we were like let’s just leave. We went back to my apartment and watched the episode there, and thankfully we did because I don’t think we would’ve caught this if we’d stayed in this crowded bar space. But we immediately recognized Dana’s, Shane’s bar, as The Semi-Tropic. We were like this is lightning in a bottle, we absolutely have to have a queer party at The Semi-Tropic. We went almost the next day down to the bar and pitched the idea. I’d been promoting other parties in LA for some time so I had a bit of a track record to say this is the model that we usually do as promoters. The bar owners were really sweet and they really wanted to bring in more queer community. So we threw our first party in February 2020. Our second party was scheduled to be literally a few days before everything shut down because of Covid. So we only got to have one party. I think that’s where we met actually.
Chris: It was packed.
Drew: It was PACKED. It was a great night. It was crazy.
Chris: Yeah people loved it. I think what we wanted to achieve with this party is there’s a sense the representation on screen is trying to get closer to what Los Angeles actually looks like. So it feels really special to be able to go with a group of queers to the space that you’re seeing on-screen and actually be able to feel yourself as part of a community that’s being represented in a very literal way. We definitely wanted to embrace the sort of meta elements of the show and the party. But then we had to pivot immediately. We did Dana’s Night as a weekly virtual watch party. We rewatched the first season of The L Word on Zoom or whatever we were using back then to be together apart. And we did that through the first season. And when we were able to come back safely we started throwing parties that are outdoors and that follow regulations. We just had our Pride party. It was a massive success. I think it was the best party we’ve ever thrown. I just hope we keep doing it.
I should also mention that at the season two premiere party, we had cast members show up without us asking. It wasn’t like a Showtime promo. Rosie O’Donnell just showed up! Like here she is! She’s hanging out! It was incredible. We had no idea they were coming. There was a commotion outside and we were like what’s happening. I told my friends, get out of this booth, everybody pick up your drinks, get out.
Drew: This is Rosie’s booth now!
Chris: Exactly. But yeah it was amazing that they heard about the party and came to the party. The highlight of my queer party promoting career.