For my birthday this year I treated myself to a seven inch dildo in bisexual pride colors.
It’s one of my favourite toys in my collection now, but the first time I used it the feeling of contact with my prostate was so intense that I could only keep pressure on it for a second at the most before being completely overwhelmed.
That’s exactly what reading SFSX in trade for the first time was like. It amplified every part of my life being reshaped by HRT into an unbearable intensity that stretched out what should have been an afternoon read into a week-long journey punctuated by crying fits.
When I finally got Tina Horn’s sex work dystopia in my hands (thanks to a friend’s insistence that I check it out), I was immediately lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that it seemed like I knew who everyone involved in the comic was except Horn.
A forward by Morgan M. Page? Merch design by Jacq the Stripper? A variant cover by Katy Skelly? Even an issue drawn by the artist who drew my first published script in comics? I felt personally targeted before I even got to the first page. I just didn’t understand what I’d been personally targeted for or by until it was way too late.
I never really stood a chance either. The opening raid on The Dirty Mind — the ultimate fantasy of a BDSM club and queer porn studio that forms the physical heart of the series — already tore me to shreds. It was giving me a vision of a world that I’d stood on the threshold of for years, now being ripped apart. At the same time, in the real world iconic places I’d always dreamed of visiting like The Stud were being shut down in the face of the pandemic and SESTA/FOSTA. Which still felt like an open wound. And yet, I wouldn’t find out until much later how close to biographical that sequence was for Horn, who worked for Rentboy when Homeland Security and the NYPD raided them in 2015.
I did, however, recognize the exterior shot that Michael Dowling drew of The Dirty Mind, converted into “The Pleasure Center” by the comic’s authoritarian regime as a re-education and torture facility. Dowling clearly based it on the iconic San Francisco armory that BDSM porn producer Kink.com occupied from 2006-2018, which amplified my tortured nostalgia into oblivion because of what a unique, ambivalent, and ultimately beautiful place that building holds in my heart.
Kink.com, which displayed an exterior night shot of the armory in front of all their videos, was the first studio that I ever saw film scenes featuring trans women performing with cis women under the dubious series title “TS Pussy Hunters.” Despite the less than flattering title, the series produced a lot of imaginative and wonderfully hot scenes that gave me my first affirming view of my own sexuality as a queer trans woman and helped set the precedent for Brie Mills’ groundbreaking Transfixed series for AdultTime and the rapid expansion of trans women’s participation in mainstream studio porn as performers and directors.
It’s been a long journey to get to the position that trans women performers can achieve in porn now and an example of what that journey has looked like came from Chelsea Poe, a trans performer. On Twitter, Poe openly reflected on the seventh anniversary of when she first filmed in the armory and how, at the time, it seemed unimaginable to people that a trans woman could be a conventional bottom in BDSM due to industry gatekeeping. Which seems a world away now that she’s well so well established in the scene, alongside Natalie Mars — the breakout trans performer of the moment — known at least as much for her fetish work as more conventional studio fare.
Lack of visibility in BDSM porn was definitely a barrier for me in being able to imagine myself in those spaces. But beyond visibility, trans women’s participation in BDSM and leathersex — whether in the context of a romantic relationship, casual play, or a client-provider dynamic — can carry its own unique challenges with it. It can make finding a partner who we can connect with on a deep level feel a lot like seeking a trans-competent therapist.
For me, that meant finding another trans woman as a partner who could not only affirm my gender and understand my body, but also could tease out fetishes in me that, to me, play dangerously with taboos that trans women face — in a space where I had complete trust in her to navigate it with care.
So getting to see a Black trans woman character like SFSX‘s Sylvia fully immersed in that world and having a lovingly queer leather family is an incredibly powerful thing to get to experience. Especially because she’s allowed to be beautifully sexual, have a penis that’s drawn with care and affection, and is even depicted getting fisted.
It’s astounding, just truly astounding.
So seeing the building I dreamed of shooting and being shot in for years not just closed down (as it is in real life), but occupied by a viciously misogynist and homophobic government using it as a torture facility? To say it was heartbreaking is an understatement. But I understood the necessity of that acute and specific pain.
In her introduction, author and sex worker rights activist Morgan M. Page called SFSX a consensual slap in the face, and that’s exactly what it is for anyone with a stake in sex work, porn, public sex, and online freedom of speech.
Which is to say, everyone, no matter how much they want to disassociate themselves from some of those concerns.
It’s not a competition to determine who feels the sting the sharpest. We all feel it in our own unique ways and mine was as a trans woman cartoonist who came into my sexuality through porn, and a sex work client on the cusp of starting to shoot my own porn and claim a leather identity for myself when I read it.
That slap didn’t just sting and make me feel just how much this world is hurting that I desperately want to immerse myself in. It refracted me into almost all of the major characters in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Trans Girls Hit The Town’s Cleo and Winnie gave me an incredible way to see myself and my sisters through either one as time goes on, but I could see pieces of myself in each of the characters — and that challenged me in startling and difficult ways that are going to stay with me for a long time.
Sometimes it’s pleasant and bittersweet, like Avory/Simona describing all the skills that she developed in sex work that would be incredibly useful in the civilian world — if she had any way of accounting for them that didn’t involve disclosing how she got them. I don’t have direct experience with that yet, but a lot of what she describes, like video production and editing are skills that I started picking up and honing for drag that I’ve now started transferring into making porn and juggling between the two. So I get it. I can see the path ahead of me.
Other times it’s incredibly painful and startling revelations about my past — like the parts of myself I see reflected back by Denis, the non-binary character unable to feel pleasure because of a device implanted in them by the regime’s most vicious and talented torturer. On the night before the climactic attempt at rescuing Sylvia and Avory from the Pleasure Center (while everyone is pairing off for sex), Denis tells Sylvia “I don’t know how it feels to get turned on anymore, or come. But I do know how much I want to make you feel good.”
That sent me spiraling into a revelation about the lies I told myself about my sexuality while I was socially transitioning, prior to HRT and sleeping with cis women and AFAB non binary partners who couldn’t conceive of me as anything but a man in bed (even if they said the right name and used the right pronouns). Instead of confronting the ways that I was disassociating during sex with people who were never going to meet my needs, I convinced myself it was okay to just think of myself as a kind of service top.
That’s not what played out between Denis and Sylvia, but it’s the kind of revelation that can result from metabolizing the work of someone who has the kind of vast and tender vocabulary for sex, desire, intimacy, and consent that Tina Horn and her collaborators put on full display in SFSX.
The two characters who I think about the most often in relation to myself are Avory’s former clients: George, who she married in order to escape persecution by the regime, and Nick, who she enlists. As much as I’m nominally a sex worker, my experience and positionality within sex work is still far more on the client side of the exchange, so the pair serve far more effectively as a marker for that positionality than any of the sex worker characters do. George is a fascinating deconstruction of the savior myth, of a client falling in love with a sex worker and “rescuing” her in a narrative like Pretty Woman.
Instead, Avory and George share an intimacy that was forcibly consummated into marriage to protect the pair from the regime, placing stresses and burdens on their relationship that didn’t exist prior to the raid on The Dirty Mind. It’s a fascinating piece of storytelling that’s allowed to live in a messy ambiguous space that neither falls into the cliche nor closes off the relationship into a coldly transactional one. It’s one of the most clearly visible ways that Horn shines through as a deeply necessary voice in how sex work is portrayed in a medium where depictions of it have been dominated by the likes of Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, and Chester Brown for decades.
The savior fantasy is far from anything I want for myself on either side of the dynamic as a baby sex worker who frequents other queer sex workers, but I do relate deeply with George. As someone who started out as a shy and reserved client who fell hard for a provider who took the time and care to open me up to a whole world of desires inside myself I never knew I could access or want for myself, that side of George is an easy fantasy to live in. And that’s even after he’s been horrifically tortured. He then heartbreakingly explains the difference between sadistic state violence and the love and trust necessary to make someone vulnerable to the kind of pain that Avory inflicts.
Nick, on the other hand, is the check on that beautiful fantasy side of George. Nick is the client who doesn’t manage his entitlement to Avory or recognize how much of her work is in managing and centering his emotions — even when he interacts with her outside of a client-provider context. Nick isn’t violent, abusive, or coercive. He’s just prone to the kind of self-centered behavior that it’s easy for a client to fall into when they take the fantasy space they occupy in a session for granted. In truth, we’re all prone to that.
It’s a key sex work skill to make a client feel like the world ends at the bounds of the session, but it’s a key responsibility of a client to maintain some awareness that it’s a fantasy that takes careful management to maintain. Especially at such a fraught time for sex work with the massive shift to online platforms today, the legal and regulatory precariousness of those platforms, and the hyper-competitive nature of a flooded market.
It’s completely understandable that Nick would be jealous that he wasn’t the client who Avory married to escape the regime and that he would want to have sex with her after such a long absence. But it would only take the bare minimum of self-restraint and situational awareness to recognize that he doesn’t need to vocalize that jealousy or proposition Avory while she’s on the run and fearing for her husband’s life. Again, it’s in these small details — even more than than the big moments and imaginative set pieces — that Horn truly thrives and sets herself apart from writers who don’t have the intimate understanding and experience with sex work that she does.
But Horn’s impact on comics, and the direct market in specific, doesn’t simply move forward or move them forward. To the keen eyed reader SFSX’s depiction of sex work, kink, and BDSM reanimates comics’ past in much the same way as her work on Pose Season Two as a BDSM consultant for the scenes in the uncannily named Hellfire Club — a New York sex club that really did exist in 1980s Meatpacking District NYC.
Horn’s evocation of leather culture and leather family in particular was also the site of a deeply personal set of revelations about just how deep my engagement with it and kink has been without truly knowing it, because I was never properly told what it was I was looking at. It started out innocently enough when someone exclaims “Get your leathers on!” and I just kind of chuckled because it’s the bridge to that one Yeah Yeah Yeahs song.
(If you really want to know how oblivious I’ve been this whole time, my favourite Rihanna song is exactly what you think it is. I don’t know what to tell you.)
But it was the opening flashback to the second issue that I kept coming back to, Jones telling Avory that “in the culture that turned me out, leathers should always be passed along. It sanctifies someone’s role in a family.” SFSX isn’t a primer, an explainer, or a voyeur’s guide into someone else’s world. It’s written for people who know, or know enough to know that they want to know more. And it’s that particular depiction of leather family that filled in a puzzle piece about the leather and kink imagery I’d been devouring for decades without understanding what it was pointing to.
I’ve made a lot of self deprecating jokes over the years that I’ve felt a lot like Jean Paul Gaultier, skimming designs off fetish designers who belonged to a world he was only gliding through, when I tried to articulate my engagement with leather and BDSM. But that was never really true. The reality was that I was grasping at something that was just out of reach.
What I recognized in Jones’ speech and her gifting the leather jacket to Avory was how Grant Morrison adapted that same dynamic into the core cell in The Invisibles, switching who was the leader based on who was “wearing the leather,” a device I’d never thought to connect back to the leather scene and it pushed me much, much further into Morrison’s work.
Again, I’d always known about the stylistic continuity between the fetish and leather inspired costumes in The Invisibles and Frank Quitley’s costumes for New X-Men, but I couldn’t see the true subversive intent behind it or the way that it remade Emma Frost’s entire journey as a character until Tina Horn and Michael Dowling showed it to me in its natural environment. Morrison and Quitley, for one glorious, shining moment, presented the X-Men to the world as a leather family. A significant step towards Morrison’s reconstruction of the bondage motifs William Moulton Marston originally imbued Wonder Woman with and the capstone of their reconceptualization of Emma Frost.
Because once you understand the culture and customs behind Quitley’s New X-Men designs, an entire kink journey opens up in Emma Frost in the shift from her original white corset and marabou feather cape get up in the stuffy, normie, misogynist Hellfire Club to the white latex cutout costume she wore alongside Quitley’s pointedly eroticized Wolverine that emphasized his hairiness by depicting him constantly shirtless in suspenders and conveniently wet. It completes a sexual dynamic as far one could possibly get from Sebastian Shaw. It opened up an even deeper well of love and connection with the character in comics I cling to the the hardest and changed the entire meaning and context of the fact that I have a knock off holographic vinyl Louis Vuitton bag in my closet waiting to get harvested for my own riff on Quitely’s Frost design.
None of that happened because Horn set out to set the record straight, to make comics that talk to comics like Moore, Morrison, or Ellis. It happened because that’s what happens when people like Horn can come into comics with the opportunity to bring the full weight of whatever parts of herself she wants to bring to the medium to bear — and people like me get to see it unmitigated by the typical gatekeepers who have kept kink and BDSM in the margins of the medium for decades.
What almost fascinates me as much as all the things that SFSX chooses to be is what SFSX chooses not to be. SFSX depicts leathersex. SFSX smashes open the way that leathersex is depicted in popular media and where it exists on a continuum with state violence and torture.
But SFSX is not the experience of leathersex. It is a distinction for me that begins with Alan Moore’s statement that “Promethea isn’t the report of the magical experience. It is the magical experience.”
It’s a lofty statement that I fully believe because Moore and J.H. Williams III set out to tell the story of a young woman’s magical education, but they pulled the story into what they intended to be a sublime experience that could empathetically guide the reader into their own experience of that journey through Williams’ art. I think that they achieved that aim to wondrous effect, and I think that there’s a deeply important correlation to be made between the distinction that Moore drew in the intent behind Promethea and Stjepan Sejic’s staggering achievement in doing the same with BDSM in Sunstone.
Sunstone, like Promethea is a story about a journey -into BDSM- and like Promethea, Sunstone isn’t the report of that experience. Sunstone is the BDSM experience and the distinction is a lot more easily understood relative to Promethea because it’s tied to visceral emotional experiences that are far more easily identifiable than Moore and Williams’ invocation of the sublime.
Sunstone is, on its face, the story of two women who meet online and fall madly in love with each other as the emotional boundaries they try to build into their BDSM practice slowly crumble, but Sejic structures the ebb and flow of the story and the emotional responses he expects from his readers the same way that BDSM play or leathersex scenarios are.
Just as leathersex and BDSM create a safe space where otherwise difficult, dangerous, or taboo acts can be explored, Sejic conscientiously creates a space within Sunstone for the readership to undergo extreme emotional catharsis as they read the ups and downs of Lisa and Ally’s relationship — ups and downs that Sejic carefully structures to elicit those responses. When Gordon explains the freedom he found in his sessions with Avory saying “I could get lost in the middle of it, knowing someone I love would guide me to safety,” he’s not just describing the integral importance of discipline and aftercare to BDSM and leathersex. He’s also describing Sejic’s authorial voice in Sunstone and the level of trust that he has had to cultivate in his readers in order to justify and manage the deep emotional investment that many of us make in the series.
Because pornography, beyond the legal definition of it, doesn’t exist on a Kinsey scale of Peppa Pig to a gangbang video of Art vs Porn. It isn’t a line in a sand or on a continuum of artistic depictions. It’s a set of sensory appeals that are frequently appropriated out of depictions of explicit sex to achieve a desired set of responses in the audience. That transference in Sunstone isn’t strictly accurate to those sensory appeals in leathersex and BDSM in that Sunstone doesn’t explore abjection the way that they do, but the mechanics of it are plainly visible.
I wrongly — but maybe not naively — expected SFSX to follow a similar pattern because it’s something I deeply cherish about Sunstone and have worked hard to execute in my own way in my own comics. There’s no loving presence to guide us to safety if we get lost in SFSX. There’s no aftercare in SFSX. SFSX isn’t leathersex, it’s torture — a point that Horn and her collaborators go to great lengths to emphasize given the ways that mass media conflate the two or irresponsibly portray BDSM in films like Fifty Shades of Grey.
That absence isn’t accidental or misrepresentation. It’s the most pointed social and political message of the series.
The absence of aftercare to guide us out of the comics’ distressing conclusion is what defines the dystopia that SFSX operates in. When Gordon asks “How do you find your way out with no love to guide you?” in a failed escape attempt, he’s setting us up for the emotional conclusion of the arc. Horn, by extension, is compelling us to feel that absence, to force us to imagine a world without sex work and sex workers, where queer, BDSM, and leather communities have been smashed by the intertwined forces of religious repression and surveillance capitalism.
SFSX is far from a joyless experience. Instead, it’s an experience where joy can never fully be free of the violent persecution that has taken over the lives of the characters, and so lurks in the gutters of every page. Even the third issue, a guided tour through the reconstructed Dirty Mind, a romp orchestrated by artist Alejandra Guttiérrez that breaks out of the sharp lines and tight panelling of the rest of the series to give us a respite from the oppressive atmosphere that aesthetic creates is bounded by the same surveillance capitalism technology that operates as the backbone of the regime.
Despite all the whimsy and imagination that goes into all of the various environments and their fetishes within the reconstructed Dirty Mind, there’s constant reminders of it being a strictly capital, commerce controlled space that don’t exist within the flashbacks to the original Dirty Mind before the raid. It seems impossible to imagine Avory playing with Gordon off the clock as she did when they first met, or Jones and Sylvia sneaking away to have sex in a storage closet in this new version, and it’s a testament to just how much Horn knows how to modulate the experience to keep it from falling into pure misery without ever offering a clean respite from the nightmare outside.
But conversely Horn knows how to amplify those dynamics in the other direction, and use the warmth of the flashbacks to amplify the terror of the present. It’s another manifestation of how her grasp of the continuum from BDSM to torture and state violence fuels the comic and has a textual mirror within the comic with the device that blocks Denis from being able to feel pleasure. The device, controlled by the regime’s head torturer, turns out to be much more complex, allowing him to make Denis feels anything he wants, from nothing to extreme pleasure and pain. It’s a fascinating example of how horror and torture in fiction serves to inspire BDSM and leathersex scenarios in real life because it’s easy to see how a device like that, while used for torture by its developer, would have incredible potential for consensual play if it existed for real.
That interplay between the horror of the present and the pleasure of the past become most torturous comes when Sylvia is forced to kill her girlfriend Jones, brainwashed past the point of no return by the regime juxtaposed by the remembrance of their having had sex together in the same room years before Jones’ abduction during the raid.
What amplifies the sequence beyond being simply tragic or exploitative into the most arresting and remarkable page in the series is that the last panel of the intercut flashbacks depicts Jones fisting Sylvia. Any reader can understand the pain of love and intimacy curdling into a violent end, but by choosing fisting as the specific sex act to depict that loss Horn and artist Jen Hickman have reserved an exquisite and exclusive level of pain to the segment of the readership who are into fisting.
It’s a remarkable choice that reverses the polarity of how queerness and queer sex are typically depicted in mainstream comics: constructed to open up straight readers to a more empathetic view of sexuality beyond the bounds of their experience. Which is a fine choice and a worthy goal in many instances, but by going this route, Hickman and Horn have gifted queer and kinky readers with a segment of the story and Sylvia’s arc we can empathize with on a unique level instead of the reverse dynamic where the unspoken presence of the straight interloper hangs over the story.
It’s a particularly important and daring decision given the deep prohibitions around fisting that keep it out of the spectrum of sexuality depicted in mainstream pornography due to stigma and a payment processor fiat that can only attract a small, yet deeply committed resistance to that censorship. It also stands out significantly in an era of comics where simply depicting sexuality and the public reactions to those depictions completely override the context of its usage.
For example Saga has earned an incredible amount of attention and controversy over its use of nudity like its depiction of breastfeeding and getting itself temporarily dumped off of Comixology on Apple devices for an inset image of a blowjob. But for all the attention they got, their usage never went far beyond depiction for depiction’s sake. And, of course, that commitment to anatomical depiction over sophisticated storytelling hit its nadir in Saga with the literally infantilizing full-page splash of a naked trans woman with a penis, leaving much to be desired in terms of a genuine challenging of how comics portrays sexuality.
Sylvia being fisted represents an incredible watershed moment in representations of trans women in comics, taking us out of the typical presentation of being voyeuristically sexed while remaining sexless into being sexual beings with fully realized and transgressive desires of our own.
It’s the moment in the comic that I wish I could see expanded into a much longer sequence that the comic and I along with it could live in. It’s one of the reasons why the brief flash of it and its context within the story draw out such an exquisite pain in me. Getting to see something so unprecedented that reflects such a unique and powerful aspect of my own sexuality presented in a context that necessarily snatches it away. Yet that’s exactly why it’s there, and why it had to be fisting.
The first time that I truly came to understand the unique power of fisting as a sex act was watching a video of a trans woman performer attempt to describe the appeal of getting fisted mid-act. The way that she related the total vulnerability it placed her in left me with a completely different kind of arousal than I’ve ever experienced before as a new understanding of just how intense the power differential in the exchange is coupled with the level of preparation, patience, and intimacy it takes to reach that pinnacle.
Anyone with that understanding and perspective on fisting can perceive a much more profound loss between Sylvia and Jones, watching that pinnacle of vulnerability and control dissolve into violent death in the span of a page. It’s a horrifying gift to receive that evokes Gordon’s lamentation of how to endure a pain you didn’t ask for, but the exclusivity of it creates a unique intimacy.
To me, it’s the clearest and sharpest recognition of how and why Horn diverges from Sejic and my own ambitions. Why she withdraws aftercare to make us understand what’s at stake in the loss of sexual freedom and the campaign to eradicate sex work that discards sex workers as collateral damage. Because there’s no moral or ethical obligation for fictional depictions of BDSM to maintain the ethics of healthy play in what emotions creators work to elicit in the audience.
In actual BDSM practice, the capacity of it to explore the extremes of sensation, taboo, and abjection is contingent on the ability to maintain it as a safe space. In fiction, that capacity is amplified many times over by its simulated nature. It’s a vital distinction to make at a time when the pressure for depictions of queerness in media to present clean, clear, and affirming morality is at an all time high. Which in turn has the capacity and the habit of pushing the challenging and vital works that SFSX operates in the tradition of to the margins.
SFSX is vital reading for any number of reasons from pushing the frontiers of what’s achievable in depictions of sexuality within the direct market to conveying an understanding of the threat posed by the convergence of surveillance capitalism with the puritanical regulation of sex. However, its most necessary audience in my view is the wave of people who have entered online sex work for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Longtime activists have noted that the influx of new sex workers, the media hyperfocus on platforms like OnlyFans, and the intense economic pressures of the pandemic are pushing longtime activists and organizers who typically represent the needs of the most marginalized full service sex workers into obscurity or outright invisibility. Sex work is a fraught world that carries with it complex dynamics, hierarchies of privilege and stigma, and an entire network of associated risks that can be difficult and dangerous to navigate.
SFSX is a fantastical representation of that world, but presented in a welcome basket alongside non-fiction works like Revolting Prostitutes, Coming Out Like a Porn Star, Thriving in Sex Work, and We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival, the recently released essay collection co-edited by Horn it carries with it the potential to inculcate an understanding of the urgency of pushing for the full decriminalization of sex work and the realization that the only way to pull through the combined pressures of the pandemic, the legislative onslaught of SESTA/FOSTA, the threat of a Section 230 repeal, and the dormant threats of SISEA and EARN IT is solidarity and mutual aid among sex workers across its entire spectrum.