There is already something nostalgic and tragic in this first handful of panels. We know that Avory is remembering something, that the coloring denotes not just joy or the glow of neon lights but also something too good to last. Bisexual lighting derives its name both from the fact that it employs the colors of the bisexual pride flag — pink, purple, and blue — and from its tendency to show up in film and television when bisexual or queer characters are present. Examples include the film Moonlight, the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror, and apparently, SFSX. Its reemergence as a trope in popular culture is also attributed to a heavy nostalgia for a 1980s aesthetic to which dramatic lighting is central.
We get this nostalgia at the beginning of SFSX. The reader is warned on the first page that it is “a decade into an ongoing takeover of American civil life by the ultra-conservative religious organization The Party.” On page two, we join Avory as she is fisted with voyeuristic abandon at The Dirty Mind’s “sex worker appreciation night.” But by page three, the doors of the Dirty Mind have been ripped off their hinges and cops in riot gear have stormed into the party, announcing that they are “here to rescue you from yourselves!” Avory and her boyfriend George steal off into the night, abandoning their friends to the batons and cuffs of the Party police.
SFSX was conceived of and written by Horn, a dominatrix, porn-maker, journalist, activist, and host of the “indie slutty kinky queer sex worked centered sexuality podcast” Why Are People Into That?! (YAPIT). It’s drawn by Michael Dowling, whose previous work includes Unfollow for DC and Death Sentence for Titan. I had the chance to sit down with Horn to talk about SFSX before we headed to a fundraiser for the nonprofit Third Wave Fund’s Sex Worker Giving Circle. Horn is a cultural dynamo in the world of sex education and advocacy. Image Comics’s advertisement page for SFSX refers to her as a “[n]otorious kink writer.” This is Horn’s first comic. Despite being a lifelong comics reader, she says, “I had never thought of writing fiction or comics before.” But then she was cold emailed by Vertigo Comics’s associate editor Amedeo Turturro, a fan of YAPIT.
Given the opportunity, Horn pitched a story that seems like a perfect amalgamation of her work and genre interests: “What about sex workers in an American dystopia?” Horn worked with Turturro to develop SFSX’s story of a tight-knit community of friends and lovers in San Francisco who find themselves trapped within a near-future hellscape of puritanical bureaucracy. SFSX is triumphantly a comic about sex workers by a sex worker. Where gritty action adventure comics generally stick to familiar, often tragic stories about women, queers, and sex workers, SFSX gives us nuanced stories and different outcomes.
Horn imagined “a world where the religious right gets the America they say they want” — a reminder, of course, that one queer’s dystopia is a Proud Boy’s utopia. Horn’s dystopia is not quite the dystopia we are living in in 2019, but for those familiar with Horn’s reporting and the work of advocacy organizations like the Red Umbrella Project, it’s easy to see how the book’s dystopia emerges — and how it may already be taking shape for sex workers and trans people, in particular. Horn notes that she wanted to make the satire “evergreen,” so that when the dystopia catches up, the satire stands. “Sex Workers in an American Dystopia” could be the title of a contemporary nonfiction piece.
The first six-issue arc of SFSX was written before SESTA-FOSTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) exploded into the awareness of sex work activists. This law, passed in 2018, makes website publishers culpable if third parties use those sites to promote or advertise sex work services. While supporters have hailed the bill as a blow against human trafficking, sex worker advocates have noted the ways in which it primarily targets consensual sex work, arguing that it increases violence against sex workers by criminalizing the online tools that sex workers have used to find and vet clients more safely, to build online community, and to bypass and avoid human traffickers and pimps. SESTA-FOSTA seems to many critics to be a moralistic attack on sex workers, effectively trading the actual physical safety of those who do sex work for the appearance of protecting vulnerable populations. The double-speak of SESTA-FOSTA advocacy nestles comfortably into the Party’s moralistic despotism.
Horn’s dystopia contrasts deep assimilation by privileged members of marginalized communities with the demonization and policing of these communities’ most vulnerable members. It features unlikely bedfellows in the form of TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) who sign on to the Party’s politics, the intense management and disciplining of private space and bodies, conversion therapy, and the gentrification of queer spaces, especially in the Bay Area. (This last evoking the arguments of the Gay Shame campaign “Queers Hate Techies.”) The book’s concerns with assimilation feel particularly relevant in the aftermath of 2019’s World Pride in New York City, in which rainbows and smiling LGBT influencers were used to sell corporate products and events, while queers were admonished to keep their sexual and political demands at home and out of their parades. Similarly, episodes like the quick slide of feminist scholar Nina Power from making TERF-y comments on social media to appearing as a friendly guest on a right-wing podcast has recently demonstrated the thin line separating TERF/SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radical feminist) politics and outright fascism. And the intense surveillance of deviant sexuality doesn’t seem far off in the days after Backpage and Craigslist personals, along with the Facebook Queer Cruising page, have all been shuttered, and in which harassment campaigns like #ThotAudit scrape and compile massive databases of sex worker info to report to payment processors like PayPal.
Of course, the Orwellian policing of sex workers is not new, but has a longstanding history deeply tied to the targeting of transgender women of color, the violent policing of working-class Black and brown communities, the privatization of public space, and the disciplining of private behaviors. In the mid-2000s, activists in Washington, DC, organized around “No Prostitution Zones,” a form of broken-windows policing that targeted evidence of sex work — the most commonly cited example being having condoms on one’s person. Such tactics not only made community members — regardless of whether or not they were engaged in sex work — more vulnerable to arrest and violence from police, but also disincentivized the use of safer sex methods in populations at heightened risk for exposure to HIV. Trans women, particularly Black trans women, still report being arrested for “walking while trans.” And even as places like New York and Washington, DC, are poised to decriminalize sex work, the trans community mourns Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island because she couldn’t pay $500 bail on charges related to an NYPD sex work sting.
This is the dystopia that we live in now — the predecessor to Horn’s nightmare America. Ten years into the Party’s rule in SFSX, “things are so extreme that people are not even able to work on the street.” In this respect, Horn’s dystopia might seem to ignore the way in which the intense policing of some currently coexists with a neoliberal diversity regime that is more than happy to commodify the body in ways short of actual exchange of sex for money. But in fact, Horn’s characters like Boreman, the second-wave feminist Party spokesperson, leverage precisely this complicated relationship. Tired of unrealistic representation in the media? Want an out from the commodification of sexuality? Want body positivity? Why not just abolish transgender people and sex workers?
Horn recalls picking up a book by Alan Moore on how to write comics and coming across the advice, “if you’re going to write horror, you should think about what actually scares you […] what really personally scares me and not just what I think would be scary to the audience or what is a fun scary genre thing that I like but what really fucking scares me, what makes me feel out of control.” In Horn’s case, this advice led to nightmarish medical scenes, reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, in which a character wakes up strapped to a bed while a scrubbed-up doctor hovers above him.
Horn has also emphasized the place of BDSM in her story, pointing out that people often misunderstand BDSM and “don’t appreciate what consensual torture can mean for queer liberation and sexual liberation.” Contrasting this with SFSX’s scenes of medical horror, she writes,
I believe that for kinky people, being tortured non-consensually is tantamount to sexual violation. Jillian Keenan has written really profoundly on this subject: because she is a spanking fetishist, her experience of childhood corporal punishment was one not just of assault but sexual abuse. I wanted to explore that: what does it mean to be non-consensually tortured by the state when you are someone who is aroused by playing consensually with power and pain? As a sadomasochist, I think about that a lot when I’m enjoying violent fiction. I’m constantly thinking: “Oh, I could take that, I could endure that, because I’ve got so much practice in processing pain for my own purposes!” But what if I’m wrong? How privileged am I, that most of my experience of physical pain has been enthusiastic and arousing? How does being a practicing sadomasochist help me to better understand violence, and in what ways does it make me incredibly naive to the realities of violence? That terrifies me, and it’s where a lot of the horror elements of this story come from. What I’m learning about writing fiction is that you gotta put your characters through a lot of horrific shit in order to figure these things out for yourself.
SFSX also includes more subtle terrors: the fear of slipping ever further into conservatism with age; of seeing members of her community assimilated, Borg-style, into the machinations of power; of being betrayed by one’s own community. In this respect, the main villains of the story are not the leaders of the Party, but rather more familiar figures: the second-wave feminist who espouses body positivity and women’s liberation as thinly veiled and then not at all veiled code for transphobic, anti-sex worker ideology; the “Human Rights Campaign same-sex marriage gay man” who wants “to protect their specific identities and communities so much that they’re prepared to further stigmatize other people that could be their allies […] or could be part of their communities and throw them under the bus in order to get their rights.” Horn explains, “Those were the people that I wanted to make the main villains of the story in order to also tell a story about the effects of horizontal violence and what is happening when we’re doing the work of the oppressor for them.” If it seems heavy-handed to assert that fascism might assimilate normative gay identity in this way, one need only recall Milo Yiannopoulos’s appointment as grand marshal of the Straight Pride Parade supposed to take place in Boston.
After the raid on the Dirty Mind that opens SFSX, Avory may find herself temporarily safe from the Party, but the color scheme of her now Dirty Mind–free world becomes largely beige. The Party takes over the space previously owned by the club — a clear nod to San Francisco’s Armory, long-owned by the porn company Kink.com — and converts it into the distinctly Orwellian “Pleasure Center.” The erstwhile site of consensual orgies now hosts the Party’s central bureaucracy and mysterious reeducation programs, into which some vanish without a trace. The story fast-forwards to three years after the raid, with Avory and George now married and trying to carve out private space for their kinkiness and queerness while maintaining a public appearance of respectability.
Under Party rule, a social credit system called the “purity score” mandates access. George, who is white and has a high purity score, holds down a desk job within the Party bureaucracy and gets to file his Purity paperwork via his Halo — a Fitbit-like device that seems primarily to monitor sexual activity. George’s Halo flashes “Intercourse with Wife” when he files his reports — as it does not escape Avory — “immediately after every orgasm.” Avory, who is Afro-Latina and whose score is garbage, is unemployed and has to go to a DMV-like purgatory, waiting in endless lines to file endless paperwork. Having a low score also means being more vulnerable to surveillance: the higher your score, the easier it is to get around the rules, to operate outside of the eye of the Party. The lower your score, the more likely you’ll have to turn to sex work and other forms of employment outside the system in order to survive — and the more likely you’ll get caught doing it.
Avory and George pass as a straight couple, and take advantage of this privilege to survive. Horn asks,
What are the consequences of being tired [of fighting] and the choices you make because of that? What does it mean to take advantage of that passing privilege when you see the opportunity and in what ways does taking that opportunity for you mean that you are leaving your friends and community or identity in the lurch?
Outside, Avory and George are all khakis and heteronormativity. In the bedroom, they are all dirty talk and Louboutins — still kinky but in a way that is quiet, toned-down, constrained.
But the Dirty Mind lives on. Horn says she wanted to create a utopian space within the dystopian world, a community of resistance that persists post-raid in a world designed to destroy it — a roving space that squats wherever it can for however long it can, a safe space for workers and clients and freaks of all stripes.
What if we could have a space that was both a queer dance party and a leather bar, and had spaces for people to rent to see clients, and had studios for producing porn and for screening porn, and an archive and library and also to have a strip club and to have all these things under one roof, integrating the whorearchy.
An in-community term, “whorearchy” describes the privilege and vulnerability of different types of sex work via proximity to clients and police. Those at the “bottom” of the whorearchy are more subject to police and client violence and do less socially acceptable or less legal types of work, for example outdoor sex work. Those at the “top,” like porn performers, strippers, and dominatrixes, are less vulnerable and have more access. This stratification is notably slippery in terms of types of work — many if not most sex workers might do all different kinds of labor at different times — but accurately identifies the extent to which privileged sex workers are often white and cisgender.
The Dirty Mind is a limited utopia, and SFSX is a contained dystopia: the whole story takes place within San Francisco, and is centered around the Dirty Mind family. Because of this, we do not, at least early in the series, learn much about the Party’s broader agenda or precisely how it came to power. Was it elected to hold power by the will of an American voting public terrified of sexuality? We can, perhaps, imagine its stance on immigration, on public schools, on welfare. But the only worlds we see are those of the evil purity crusaders confiscating Hitachis and brainwashing former leather daddies, the middle-class drones trying to make it through with their Halos and the missionary position, and the righteous kinky gender rebels living outside the law, fighting the power one forced feminization scene at a time.
By the same token, I would like to see more attention paid to characters other than Avory and George as the series progresses — for example Casey and Sylvia, Avory’s friends who didn’t get out and don’t want to, who are still running the Dirty Mind as an underground safe space, not only for kinky sex but for people whose identities have been criminalized under the Party’s regime. But Horn promises we will see more of Casey and Sylvia in future issues, and in any case the series’s limited focus also has the effect of containing the horror, making it somehow more bearable. There is something to be said for a series that can take this subject matter and use it to craft a page-turning narrative, rather than contributing to the existential terror of the real-world dystopia queers and sex workers are staving off day by day. An action adventure horror comic with didactic layers, Safe Sex feels deeply relevant. And honestly, I live for the scene of Avory, escaping from the police, jamming the heel of a red-bottomed Louboutin into a cop’s eye.
We should all be thankful that Image Comics has given the series a new home. Not too long before Vertigo was shuttered and folded into DC Comics, Horn was informed that DC was shelving SFSX, essentially canceling the project. Horn tells this story as an object lesson about the importance of protecting queer content and ownership over intellectual property. “Luckily,” she says, “I had a great lawyer.” Horn was able to take the series to Image with the help of editor Laurenn McCubbin, who also illustrated the classic sex work memoir Rent Girl by Michelle Tea. “The work I’ve followed in the past 10 years, they’re all Image books, so that makes me feel like I’ve actually landed in the right home for the project I’m trying to do now in 2019.”
JB Brager is a comics artist and teacher. They are a Sagittarius sun, Aquarius rising, Aries moon, and have a PhD in Gender Studies. They identify as a late bloomer.