Image: Palacio Nacional, Mexico City by Diego Rivera

“Cate Swan” came to Chicago a little over a year ago with nothing but a suitcase and thirty-five dollars. “I had no job, no connections, no friends, nothing.  I was totally broke, and my family was totally broke, so they couldn’t send me money”.

This situation wasn’t unfamiliar to Cate, “I guess I’ve always been sort of a bridge and tunnel girl…lived in one place until I could get to the next place.”  She spent part of her childhood homeless, sleeping in a van with six siblings. “We weren’t just poor. My Dad was on the run from the IRS,” after his construction business went under.

Cate saw the “gypsy” life as a legacy, “My Mom said it was a curse.”  She wasn’t afraid to do what she had to do to get by. “I’ve never had any fear of the law,” she said, so Cate turned to the Adult Services section of Craigslist.  “I had a lot of shame about it. My first session, I was a total bitch to the guy. I kept qualifying it, ‘I’m not whore!’  I don’t even remember where I learned this was something to be ashamed of.”

Then Cate met “Sissy” on a splosher job (a “really fun,” messy food fetish). “We hit it off immediately. We bought a bottle of tequila and rode the train…she was so open about everything…she just oozed sexuality…she lived in this punk house where everyone was wild, she was wild…just a total bad-ass.” Sissy introduced Cate to sex-positive feminist literature (Whores and Other Feminists). Cate learned that, “There was a time when whores were revered…it was a calling that they took very seriously.”

Cate enthusiastically explored the sex industry, “I’ve been a dominatrix, a kink burlesque performer, a fetish model, an escort in the BDSM party circuit, a webcam performer, and for a very very short time a peep show performer.” Her worst job was a brief stint in a dungeon- she hated the uniform and didn’t like her boss, a woman who pressured her to gouge customers.

Cate prefers to be her own boss; chose clients, set rates and rules.  “I don’t provide sexual services, no penetration, exchange of fluids, nothing like that,” she explains. Some things she did, like strap-on play, she admits may have been “technically illegal.”

Cate says, “I am many things and I’m many different people. I’m a lover and I’ve been loved, a writer, a singer.” As we talk, a recording of her haunting howls echo through the Pilsen apartment.  “I wanted a job that would allow me to write and to make art, I didn’t want to be held down by a job where I’d be working my ass off, with a lot less dignity.”
When asked about safety Cate says, “I worked the night shift at a hotel once and that was a helluva lot more unsafe.”  She says there’s a prejudice that, “People who are into BDSM must be psychopaths, rapists and serial killers,” but you can’t account for taste. “There’s no normal sexual attitude, at all, whatsoever, I can state that with absolute confidence.”

Sex work has done more for Cate than just supply an income- she says it was therapeutic for her. At age 17, she was drugged and raped by an acquaintance. “I don’t like to say I lost my virginity, I won’t give him that, but it was my first sexual experience. It was pretty violent, I woke up in a puddle of blood.” It wasn’t until years later, working at a women’s shelter, that she realized that it wasn’t her fault. The trauma of the assault rendered her incapable of having sex with her boyfriend without being intoxicated, though she didn’t want to have to be drunk.

“I knew that there was something wrong with me, because I’ve always been obsessed with sex my entire life, I’ve had a morbid curiosity about it since I was really little. I’m not kidding, I think I started masturbating when I was like 3. I’ve always been a voyeur, I’ve always been a pervert,” she claims and attests to stealing books like The Joy of Sex from her mom and entering chat rooms as a kid. Her parents were very open, “We talked about everything,” including the tragic- her mother spoke honestly of being molested by her father, an affair with a teacher that ended in a forced abortion, her first husband’s rape attempt. Cate says she saw sex as, “A beast I needed to conquer,” to get to the bottom of “the guilt and shame”.

Cate tried therapy, medication. Nothing helped; the relationship ended. She met, “This really gorgeous guy, model gorgeous, funny and charming and I was really flattered he was interested in me,” she says, but when he, “Couldn’t get it up, I went to bed feeling terrible about myself.” Then, he told her he had a fetish- he wanted her to pretend she was unconscious. She noticed him bracing himself for a disgusted reaction, but she was fascinated, “Teach me, tell me more!”  She says it was, “The most exciting experience of my life…it was my awakening.” Cate found that pretending to be powerless made her feel powerful. “You’re put back in control of the situation. The reason it was traumatic is because you weren’t in control. If it’s a fantasy, you can say stop and you can say go. Every circumstance remains the same except that you are in control of it.” Sex work gave her a similar sense of power, a sense of value- “I don’t think any therapist would advocate just charging money for it,” she laughs, but it helped her, perhaps by reinforcing her ownership of her body.

After our interview, Cate called me to say that she is retiring from sex work. She says that for her, “The journey is over.”

The decision to quit came during a matchmaker-style escort job “with this client I can’t stand.” She felt it had become just something she was doing for money; it stopped feeling like a choice.  The work can be draining; she wants to take a step back and recapture a sense of innocence.

“I wouldn’t take the experience back for anything in the world. It’s taught me a lot about myself. It fucked me up a lot, it’s also inspired me a lot. It’s made relationships harder but it’s also made the possibility of relationships in the future easier.” She says she’ll spend more time at her other job, teaching writing to kids.

Cate Swan says she always be an advocate for sex workers. She sees it as a worker’s rights issue. “I want women to know that it’s a safe, fun option that can be an adventure for you.” She sees sex work as a calling, something that helps people. “People that feel like freaks can come to [a sex worker] and for an hour they’re not. I felt like a freak before I did this…But we’re all freaks, and we can be freaks together.”

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