Natalie Brewster Nguyen is an artist, a mother, a social justice advocate, a business owner, a writer and a sex worker. I met her in Tucson, Arizona.
Because of COVID, I interviewed Nat outside on a windy day, in a busy neighborhood, so the sound quality is challenging, but the conversation is powerful and interesting.
We started out talking about George Floyd and social justice.
“Those of us who’ve been political activists for decades and decades have been trying to have this conversation for hundreds of years. In wider spaces, especially in the arts world and fitness world, I’ve been begging people to incorporate this work regularly into things that we do. And it would take me years and years to finally get people to take it seriously. And then if they did take it seriously, once they experienced it, they were like, ‘Ooh, yeah, this is actually really important.’ But before that, it was inconvenient. It’s unpleasant. It is not a priority.
They’re like, we just want to have an acrobatics festival. Or yoga class. We don’t want to have these conversations. And so I would even offer my work for free. I would say, ‘We’ll come and do this work for trade or for free at your festival.’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh, okay, fine. What can you do in an hour?’ And then they’d be like, ‘Well, the schedule was running late. What can you do in 30 minutes? And actually, you know what, we forgot to put it on the schedule. I guess we could give you five minutes. Here.’
So that has been a consistent and frustrating experience of mine, trying to shove this work into white spaces or non-inclusive spaces spaces that needed it. And then after the George Floyd killing, all of these organizations were suddenly like, ‘Oh, we can’t NOT say anything about this anymore. And now we’re scrambling because we don’t know how to talk about racism. And we don’t know how to say that as an organization, we don’t know what to do.’
And so then, my phone started ringing off the hook. And I started seeing all of these organizations sort of scrambling and stumbling to make statements and say, ‘Yes, Black Lives Matter. We don’t accept this, et cetera, et cetera.’ I was getting frustrated because I was seeing these organizations say, ‘We don’t tolerate racism here.’
And I’m like, actually yes, you do. You always have. So you can say you don’t want to now, but you need to actually be accountable for what you have been doing this entire time.
I have seen the world shift and I think there are these big moments like Occupy Wall Street. And the recession was one, where suddenly the average person, who maybe hasn’t been thinking about these issues, hasn’t been important. Hasn’t been a priority because it’s not affecting your daily life. Suddenly something shifts. And a large swath of median people who haven’t been paying attention to these issues suddenly are. So those moments are really interesting and I’m always happy when they happen, because it’s an opportunity for us on this side to say, ‘Great, you’re here now. Don’t stop.’
It’s a really important time to grab those people and politicize them and try to push them further and welcome them. Have them recognize the value of community organizing and be in community. And be accountable to other people.
I’ve been grateful that there does seem to be a large swath of people who are interested in reading about anti-racism. It’s like all the bookstores got sold out of anti-racism books that month. And then it’s like, are you going to keep paying attention?
We talked about protest movements.
Ultimately, I’ve been working with large-scale protest movements for the last 25 years. Since I was a teenager. So I’m used to it, I’m comfortable with it. I see how it works. And I have never had abiding faith in the police or the government. I’ve witnessed police violence so many times I have seen what they do. I know what they do to all of our communities. I’m trying to figure out how to say this in the right way. I’m basically a smash the state anarchist. Not exactly. Because I also believe in reform.
I believe in revolution over reform. But at the same time we have to be working with reform. It’s not either / or. We need broad-based movements. We need to be working on all the fronts we possibly can because we need to be protecting people and saving people’s lives and everything is important. It’s all urgent and it’s all important and we can’t all do it all. So get in where you fit in. You know, pick the thing that makes you feel the most comfortable. That’s the place where you can do the most effective work, whether that’s inside the government working for reform, whether on the streets protesting, whether that’s education and teaching, whether that’s working for climate change or racial justice or whatever it is that makes you passionate.
We talked about her work as a dominatrix and her advocacy for sex workers.
I’ve been a sex worker since I was 19. I started out as a dominatrix, which has pretty much been the through line, but I’ve been in a lot of other sex worker worlds as well. So if you look at sex worker rights, that’s very related to police violence. It’s very related to racial profiling. The people who are criminalized and who bear the brunt of all the criminalization of sex work are by and large BIPOC individuals, folks who live outside, folks who work outside, trans women of color. And we are a subsection. That subsection of sex workers are the people in this country and all over the world, who experience the most violence. So the sex worker community has absolutely no illusion of who the police protect.
It’s not us, and it never will be. So early on, we were really out there saying, ‘Hey, all this violence is happening to us.’ We can’t come to the police because they’ll just arrest us. We’re being raped. Theft of services is happening to us. All of these things were happening and we need rights. Like we need basic human rights. We need to be able to do our jobs and then expect the same protection that other workers are getting and stop criminalizing us.
So sex worker rights have been really important to me for a long time. We were kind of getting together. There’s an issue around sex workers organizing because our job isn’t leaving. We always have to be super, super careful, and it’s really scary to try to organize. You put a critical mass of us in the same place, and organizing as sex workers, we worry about them conflating that with trafficking now. So all of our communication, all of our organizing together, if it suggests that we’re promoting prostitution, then that’s an arrestable offense too.
So just organizing for health and safety becomes this much bigger and tricky issue. So in the seventies, eighties, nineties, we’re trying to get people to recognize that sex workers need rights. And then the anti-trafficking starts. The anti-trafficking movement.
The anti-trafficking movement is this unholy alliance between the religious right and sort of like anti-prostitution feminists. So we call them SWERFs or TERFs trans-exclusionary radical feminists, sex worker exclusionary radical feminists. So these are the feminists who say all sex work is rape. You can’t consent to it.
And so you completely erase the dialogue of consensual sex workers, doing a job that they want to be doing. You also erase the dialogue of the necessary response under capitalism, to poverty. And people make choices that in a perfect world, they might not make otherwise, but they’re the best choices that they’re making, given the circumstances.
So it’s still in some ways consensual. And what they want to paint is this picture of young white girls being exploited by terrible foreign pimps. And so they’re trying really hard to find these perfect victims. They want the perfect victims to complete their narrative.
They are rabidly, amping up the right wing organizations. When they do get arrested sex workers and do these sweeps. They ask, ‘Are you a victim of trafficking?’
If you’re a victim of trafficking, we’re going to put you into a diversion program where you get counseling. You still can’t work. You can’t do sex work anymore, but we’re gonna rescue you. If you say, you’re not a victim of trafficking, we’re just going to throw you directly in jail. So what’s your choice? Obviously I’m going to say I’m a victim of trafficking. So then they get to check their boxes and say, ‘Look, we saved all of these people.’ We rescued all of these people at the hands of the police.
I don’t want to be rescued at the hands of the police, from the job that I’m consenting to do.
Also these organizations are notorious for lying, for falsifying numbers. There are no real numbers. It’s really impossible to study the sex worker population. It’s a moving target and people are afraid to answer truthfully. So with any population like that, it’s, it’s hard to really get action. So they falsify all these numbers. They bring in all these horror stories, they try to pass all these bills because you can’t say no to a bill about sex slavery.
And so, they whip this all up and they create this whole narrative that there’s this increasing problem of human trafficking, sex trafficking. And what’s really happening is actually just an increasing amount of criminalization and arrest, and an increasing amount of visibility. Because now we have the internet, right? So people are seeing Backpage and Craigslist and all these things. And then, they use that as an excuse to censor all of these websites and shut down Backpage, which really just pushes sex work further underground.
So any real exploitation that’s happening is now less visible. And I would argue that sex work is not the problem, and never has been. The problem is, misogyny, the patriarchy, capitalism and domestic violence.
The real fight is to decriminalize sex work and prostitution. I mean, I would also say my personal philosophy is decriminalize everything. I don’t believe in crime period, but that’s a deeply philosophical conversation.
If we look at what’s considered criminal activity on the law books, the list is endless, right? And there are so many things that are put on that list that are no longer enforced. The line is actually like people will be like tough on crime or, you know, criminals or this or that. But actually it’s not an actual line in the sand. It’s a very grey, messy thing where cops and politicians decide what kinds of crimes are enforced and what are not.
It’s very related who it applies to. It’s very related to how much money you have, if you can buy your way out of it. So one person’s crime is another person’s hedge fund. It’s not universally enforced at all. And it is very extremely shown by our prison populations.
We talked about parenting.
I’m a parent also, and this goes all the way down to that level. It’s the way that we enforce these things amongst ourselves and in our family, I teach a lot about internalized oppression and internalized privilege, and it’s the system teaching us how to behave and how they want us to act. How we’re supposed to act under this sort of rule of law that we’re given and how to replicate those things. And that comes down to the ideas of violence and punishment that happen with infants. I don’t believe that punishment is an effective teaching tool.
I am very slowly working on a book that is called Blue Whale. Parenting Hacks from a Dominatrix. To sort of [explore] punishment, as a dominatrix that uses punishment in my work.
Punishment is actually not an effective way to parent. The word Blue Whale comes from directly from BDSM culture. When you have a negotiated BDSM scene, you have something called a safe word. And safe word means we can be in roles and the person who’s being punished can be like, ‘No, no, please don’t hurt me. Oh my God. Stop.’ And that can be part of the role-playing. You’re allowed to say that, and I’m not going to stop because that’s part of our role play. But if you say our safe word, which could be fuzzy purple kittens or whatever it is, then I know that you need me to stop the scene. So it’s kind of something that’s like an out of context word that communicates something immediately.
[That’s always respected.] That’s a negotiation around consent that happens with just about every interaction. Every time you go to do a scene, you have negotiations, this is our safe word. We agree upon it ahead of time. These are our limits.
So I took that ideology directly into parenting and co-created a safe word for my kids, which ended up being Blue Whale. We’ve used the safe word idea in our family since they were tiny. And it’s used in both directions. Where the parents can use it, the kids can use it and they still do it to this day. They’re teenagers now, and it’s really amazing. It’s been one of the most effective parenting tools I’ve ever had. And I just want to share that with the world because it’s such great concept.
They super respect it. So it’s not like any time you’re putting any pressure on them, they’re tossing out Blue Whale. They use it with each other in ways that’s really heartening to see. It’s a way of them being able to wrestle, tickle, push each other’s boundaries and then know that there’s this way to say stop. This is our way of creating a consent boundary.
-When did you start paying attention to issues of race?
-What changed that brought this onto your radar?
-What was the last book you read about racism?
-Do you believe in revolution or reform?
-Natalie says to “Get in where you fit in.” Where do you fit in when working for change?
-What is your understanding of sex worker rights? Are you comfortable with the conversation?
-What are the pros and cons of criminalization?
-Are there ways you have created consent boundaries in your parenting? Or in your relationships?