My dream was to be just like Carrie Bradshaw. I mean, come on, every woman with a knack for divulging personal stories, who is also somewhat desperate for attention, with a penchant for asking semi-rhetorical questions about life and love, yearns to be a dating columnist. My fantasy ‘Sex In The City’ column had a more feminist, more punk, more honest bent to it. I’d be a fatter, sluttier, totally unapologetic Carrie Bradshaw. And, for a minute, some years ago, my dream became reality.
When I wrote for VICE, I had a column called “Girl Writer”. It was not weekly, but over the span of a few years I wrote about body image, masturbation, casual sex, and my own sexual adventures like having a sex slave, hooking up with armpit fetishists, and so on. Sure, there are several articles I wish I could update/rewrite now that I’m older and wiser and not trying as hard to be funny, but I’m still proud of most of what I wrote. I wanted to examine dating and casual sex from the perspective of someone who enjoys fucking, but also hates the culture surrounding it. I wrote from the perspective of someone who is sick of being told she needs to change to appease the male gaze. Some of my articles really resonated with people, and for that, I’ll always be grateful. Emails and DMs would come in frequently from women thanking me for voicing what had been on their mind, yet they were feeling like they were the only ones thinking and feeling these frustrations. They weren’t. I wasn’t.
The life of a writer, in a show like “Sex and the City”, is an easy and straightforward existence. Carrie got hired by a newspaper to submit an article every week, and was compensated enough money to pay her rent and bills. In fucking Manhattan, no less. That’s all I wanted: to live comfortably while writing. Except, in the time of digital media, to be a writer is nothing so luxurious – especially if you’re freelance. Still, when I got my “big break” at VICE, I really thought I was on the path to finally having the now-I-can-pay-my-rent dream realized. Especially after that article came out. That’s right, I’m talking about the infamous dick sucking article. Or, rather, the infamous lack of dick sucking article in which I, Alison Stevenson, boldly declared that I was done giving blowjobs. It was world renown. My editor told me it was the most widely read piece the site had ever had. Which begs the question: what did such a proclamation, heard internationally, get me?
Well, that’s being hyperbolic. It got me Twitter followers and a few radio interviews. It got me new fans, and more thank you emails from women who were feeling similarly about the imbalance of expectations when it comes to oral sex with straight, cis-gendered couples. On the flip side, it also got me a lot of hate. I was bullied on a daily basis. I was called fat and ugly and a dumb bitch by strangers (mostly male, believe it or not). Though I endured a small bout of depression, I tried my best to focus on the positives. What I wanted that article to do was to make a point. I wanted to say something about sucking dick that I’ve heard men say time and time again about eating pussy: I don’t like it. The virality of the article only proved my point. Not prioritizing male pleasure in casual sex was somehow a shocking notion, even though men were doing that to women quite regularly and with little to no repercussion. I wanted to further make the point that most women with vulvas need clitoral stimulation to orgasm and, for many women, cunnilingus is a surefire way to help a woman come. Now, even though I do suck dick quite regularly today (sorry to whoever this disappoints), I stand by why I wrote this piece and take pride in the widespread effect it had.
Did I think the article would go viral? Honestly, no. Not the way it did. I had a few other successful articles before, most of which I saw being shared by a few hundred people. Not thousands. The virality was a shock, but even amid the trolling and threats of violence, I was hopeful. In that moment, I thought this virality would lead to something bigger. Maybe the billion-dollar corporation would take me more seriously and let me have greater say in what I could write from now on? Maybe I would get a book deal or at least a literary agent? Maybe someone in Hollywood would see this article’s success, that I touched on something that needed to be discussed on a wider level, and ask me to write a movie about it? Maybe that seems wildly idyllic, but I was viral. Doesn’t that mean something? So many people chase this kind of attention, and for what? There must be some substantial reward from such a pursuit, right?
Well, here’s the reality of what happened after that article. I was in my mid-twenties, still struggling to get more pieces published and barely being able to afford my roach-infested studio apartment in East Hollywood. Since most of my pitches were still being rejected, I was desperate to find other ways to make ends meet by picking up pretty much any paying gig someone offered me. House sitting, cleaning, dog watching, etc. Driving for Postmates and making almost $5 an hour if I was lucky. I also rented out the very apartment I was living in on AirBnb, praying no roaches would come out while a stranger slept on my bed. Of course, I also got some slightly more lucrative opportunities thanks to my minor Internet fame. Random men in the DMs would ask to buy pictures of my feet and some expressed interest in financial domination, which were mostly (sadly) short lived. One time I did a house call in Valencia with a friend who met a guy on Tinder who wanted to be stomped on. I’ll admit, that was a pretty chill way to make $150. Another time, a guy who saw me perform at a comedy show in Covina, asked me over Facebook chat if we could hang out for $100. I wasn’t sure what he meant by “hang out” but, as I was so desperate for that measly $100, I was down to see where things went. I ended up sitting at a bar with him for a little over an hour, encouraging him to get back together with the mother of his child. At one point I had negative money in my bank account because my rent check had gone through despite my having insufficient funds. I tried my luck on a lottery scratch ticket and miraculously won $50. That $50 afforded me some food and gas for the week. Despite all this effort, I eventually had to move out of my studio apartment, about a year after that article came out, because I could no longer afford the rent, and had depleted my savings. Where was this episode of “Sex and the City”?
I know some of you are wondering why I didn’t have some sort of “real” job. Well, save your judgment because this is something I also tried doing. I spent some months working part-time for a website I had never heard of before being hired. Headquartered in Sherman Oaks, the real purpose of the site was to acquire ad revenue. The actual subject matter of the crap they asked me to write did not matter in the slightest and no one under the age of 65 living outside the state of Ohio was bothering to read it anyway. The job was miserable, and I hated every second of it. I also briefly picked up another full-time gig working at a start-up publication for working women who asked me to write their daily newsletter. They wanted me to have a very strong girlboss persona that addressed all women as queens and said things like “OMG! WANT” about a new Goop product or whatever. I donned the persona but not well enough, I guess. I ended up being laid off and couldn’t collect unemployment because I was hired as an independent contractor. Truth is, I was happy to be let go. I preferred cleaning the houses of my more successful industry friends and delivering meals to aspiring actors, because at least that way my schedule could be flexible. I could devote more of my time to what I really wanted to do: writing essays whose subject matter I had real, emotional stakes in.
This too was a “real” job. I put just as many hours into this as I did the other ones. I just wasn’t getting paid for it. I would sit in front of my Chromebook (because I couldn’t afford to replace my stolen Macbook) for hours a day -- simply thinking and crafting pitches. When the publication I primarily wrote for said no to my ideas, I searched for editors of other publications and introduced myself to them and then asked if I could pitch them my ideas. Most of them never wrote back, but a few did. Sometimes they’d even commission me to write something. The amount of work and hours it took for me to get even one article published, let alone for a decent rate, is actually upsetting for me to think about (partially because I am still essentially doing this five years later). That was all free labor. Labor that’s written off as not being “labor” at all because sure, technically, I didn’t have to do it. Technically, I could have given up and simply acquired a stable, salaried job. Sure, you can argue that it was my choice to suffer, but after working “legitimate” jobs during this time, I knew the other route would also be a kind of suffering. A darker, more formidable one.
I resent that in order to dedicate my life to doing something I love, I must find a way to benefit financially from the endeavor. I resent that it’s the goal to commodify our personalities. I resent that so many of us have to choose between following our passion or following “logic”, which will always favor stability over risk. I further resent that the existing institutions that do compensate creatives for their talent also force us to compete for limited spots and opportunities, thus making us more willing to work for little-to-no profit in order to gain favorability. Nothing is just about any of this, and it’s maddening when you see who is rewarded in these industries versus who isn’t.
There’s a reason so many of the successful creatives you know and love also happen to coincidentally come from wealth. If they didn’t have connections starting out, they at least had the advantage of time and comfort. I get that many of them are genuinely talented, sure, but to bitter cunts like myself their success is still less deserved. They could afford to work for free because a parent was paying their rent. They could take greater risks, become unpaid interns, and spend hours poring over drafts of unread screenplays. For me, there was a great stake in everything I pitched. It was harder to shrug off a rejection because it meant I couldn’t pay my bills. To make art your livelihood, in a way that doesn’t repetitively crush your spirit, is a fucking privilege. Too many of the successful artists you know and love today had this privilege and will never admit it.
Reflecting on my twenties now, all I see is the imbalance. How little money I made compared to how hard I worked. I know that there are definitely some things I could have done differently, but that doesn’t change the fact that to pursue a career as a writer and comedian means to constantly give away your thoughts and ideas for free in the hopes that one day it’ll pay off. Social media has reconfigured how one pursues this career. We are encouraged to gain followings and are told that these big numbers prove something about us and our talent. Yeah, there is truth to this but, the reality is, it’s been a distraction more than a career boost. Putting more effort and time into something that only provides a few fleeting moments of uncompensated gratification, all while the platforms and corporations use our content for their own profit. This is pretty much the definition of exploitation. Sometimes, when I cling to wanting those red hearts, and feel like complete crap about myself when I don’t get them, I wonder what the fuck it all means? Is this really what I must do in order to succeed? Is social media popularity really a signifier of one’s talent? If you don’t have it, does that mean you’re not talented?
What I wish I knew, when my viral article hit, is what I’ve since had to learn the hard way: many of the individuals achieving enormous success after virality already have the backing of agents and reps. They had a whole team putting in the work to turn that precious IP into a bigger, more financially rewarding, project. For the unrepped masses, like myself, we were encouraged to put almost all of our stock in attaining large social media followings…without also being told that was only a fraction of what we’d need in order to actually get a tv show or book deal. Some get lucky and are approached by these people, but if you aren’t? What then?
I mean, what’s true and best about this digital age is that you really can have full creative control over what you make, and it is accessible to the entire world. You don’t have to deal with bureaucratic limitations, or suddenly have your project pulled for reasons beyond your control. However, if you want what you put out there to do more than simply exist, but also provide you with means to live, you must put effort into making sure it gets seen, liked, and shared. All the shitty, capitalist, exploitative stuff that creatives didn’t have to do as much before. You didn’t have to be publicists and schemers. You didn’t have to care about something called an “algorithm”. So, I get why we want virality. To virality, hope is attached. Maybe this is the shortcut. But that’s a big maybe. My mistake was thinking greater success was imminent because I went viral for something no one had really gone viral for before (at least not to my knowledge). In fact, it wasn’t until I started an Onlyfans account that I saw legitimate money coming in thanks to my web presence. I’ve managed to obtain enough horny followers in my many years of being a public slut to be making more money as said slut, than I ever made as a freelance writer.
Any success is great, yes. I have had a few of them over the years, but the dream is still to make my living as a writer and performer. I am not there yet, but a girl can dream. When the last editor I worked with left VICE, I was summarily ignored by the new editor they told me to reach out to. A five-year relationship severed because one person left the company. So, once more, I take matters into my own hands. Ergo, this newsletter. I churn out the content I want to write in the hopes that I can one day support myself from this endeavor, knowing full well if it ever happens it will take a lot more unpaid work. The good news is this is work I enjoy doing. I am compelled to do it regardless of how little money I make. When people who read what I write or say reach out to give me a thanks, or tell me I’ve helped them in any way, I am touched and further motivated. While my career milestones come in small chunks between large gaps in time, and those months of not having anything going on are sprinkled with depression and an inability to pay all my bills, I never stop believing in myself. So please, do not construe this as a pity party (but if you’d like to pity me no one is stopping you).
Today, I am trying to put less stock into my popularity and more stock into what it is I really want to do, which is to just put shit out there. With the instant gratification of likes and shares, I have forgotten the importance of patience -- of trusting that things take time, and that success does not have to be instant to be worthwhile. Nothing is fair about how this shitty system works and who is allowed to live off of their art and who isn’t. But if you want things to change you have to say something. You must voice that you’re frustrated and pissed and then just keep on persevering because that perseverance is a gift in and of itself.