SFSX (Safe Sex) is the Sci-Fi Sex Worker Comic Book You’ve Been Waiting For
Welcome to Brain-Throbs & Blow Jobs, a column highlighting the great minds and perspectives of Bay Area sex workers through interviews and photo portraits by Maxine Holloway.
I wouldn’t be the perverted queer whore I am today without San Francisco. The city’s history of rich sexual subcultures made it possible for me to live outside conventional norms. During the tail-end of what I would consider SF’s cultural “Glory Days,” cute sex parties were ample, meeting new friends on a porn set was common, and the internet made it not only easier but safer to sell sex.
I met a kindred spirit, Tina Horn, during those Glory Days. I cast her as my sexy fairy-godmother in a porn. As the cameras rolled, she wore wings as we fucked on film on the basement stairs of Viracocha store on Valencia Street. We shared an affinity for making heady, “feminist”, story-driven smut and became close buds after that.
As the tech industry boomed, new legislation passed, and rents spiked – the Bay experienced its most rapid wave of gentrification. Our lives became more difficult and riskier. I remember feeling like a superhero as I made my pussy squirt on stage performing at an underground live sex show, but also being secretly worried the cops would raid us. After a crackdown on Craigslist’s “casual encounters” section, I took BART to Oakland, so my friend could show me how to use the latest online escort advertising platform, Red Book – the website later shut down and seized by the FBI. The high cost of living caused many kink, leather, sex, and community spaces to close thier doors. Viracocha changed owners and no longer allowed art-smut filmed in its basement. There was a lot of fear and sadness as our subculture dwindled.
Recently, Horn took this heart-breaking story arch and built a graphic novel inspired by the people at the forefront of sexual gentrification. Horn’s SFSX (Safe Sex) takes us through the story of a group of queer sex workers living in a dystopian fantasy of San Francisco. They fight to keep the Bay Area magic alive in an underground club called the Dirty Mind while battling the government’s oppressive policies and technology that threatens the culture and life that they love. For me, this story reads as part fantastical hero-saga and part historically accurate diary.
Horn sat down with me to talk to me about how this story came to life and gave me a few juicy glimpses of what we can expect in the upcoming book.
Maxine Holloway: Tell me about your time living in the SF Bay Area:
Tina Horn: I lived in San Francisco and Oakland in the ’00s, basically the decade of my 20s. My only ambitions were to play in punk bands, make dirty zines, and bicycle around, spending time with my awesome friends. A lifetime of reading both fiction and nonfiction about sex cultures gave me the notion that I could work in fetish and fantasy exploration in dungeons, which led me to perform in and later directing and producing porn. I found those gigs to be very conducive to my rock-n-roll lifestyle. This was also around the time I was coming out as queer and getting turned out as a leather slut by Bay Area sex rebel subcultures. Honestly, I was having the time of my life, which you know, Maxine, because you were there for a lot of it!
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City and spent my 30s as a journalist that I became much more conscious of the global effects of whorephobia, and devoted myself to organizing and speaking out about sex worker rights through my work across mediums.
Safe Sex the comic comes from both of those sides of me: the side that lives for sweaty dance parties with backroom orgies and the side that wants people to understand what’s at stake for the most marginalized among us when sexual freedom is under attack from police, tech surveillance, and conservative policymakers.
MH: How did your SF experience shape your SfSx story?
TH: For many mainstream writers, kinky sex is a metaphor for something else, like an unhealthy descent into depravity. But for me, kink is a culture, with all its wonders and flaws, made by people through art, experience, and activism. The Bay Area was the first place to make that fantasy real for me.
It’s in the details of the locations, like the SF Armory and Sutro Baths, and the pro-dom in-jokes, and the porny sartorial choices. But it’s also in the story’s ethical framework: how good and evil human behaviors are situated.
In Batman’s stories, the criminals are the bad guys who supposedly prevent Gotham from thriving. In the San Francisco of SfSx, the outlaws keep the color, the magic, the vitality of the city alive. The supervillains are institutions like the state, the church, the police, and the tech corporations who prevent people from surviving and thriving.
MH: Your characters feel so familiar – like a group of close friends you would see hanging out on the patio of El Rio. Tell me about your cast of characters:
TH: I knew from the start that SfSx would be an ensemble because the ultimate message of the series is that friendship is the reason we survive.
Avory is a manifestation of my mid-30’s sex worker burnout. The awareness of how tired I am of fighting. Her arc is a lesson that giving up and assimilating is not going to lessen anyone’s load.
Jones’ ordeal is this nightmare: how does it feel when your comrade and loved one becomes conservative, fully betraying the cause? And what would it take to break you?
George is my bisexual fantasy boyfriend: a solid and compassionate man, not a perfect person but an ideal ally.
I wanted Sylvia to be the voice of reason, the person who’s like, “I have been through too much to put up with your nonsense.” She’s hurt by Avory because nothing means more to her than friendship. She’s the story’s moral compass.
Casey is Sylvia’s co-member of a Greek chorus, the new Dirty Mind leader who is also tired, but unlike Avory, Casey has never let her people down.
Denis represents younger nonbinary people who have grown up in this dystopia and want to serve the movement. Their backstory, what they went through in Reformation (essentially conversion therapy), is also a chance to show the hypocrisy of the conservative plea to “think of the children!”
Nick: an exec early in the development of the series told us to be greenlit, we needed to add a character that “the average comics fan” could relate to (translation: straight cis white guy). Now, I’m dubious that sci-fi lovers have such limited imaginations, but when you’re trying to get past the gatekeepers, you learn to compromise. So I said, “Well, can he be a john?” They said sure, why not? And now I LOVE Nick, and I love the dynamics he creates with all the different characters. You gotta know how to use notes like that to your advantage.
Dr. Powell is based on Michael Weinstein of AHF, and Judy Boreman is based on Catherine Mackinnon. That’s pretty much all you need to know about the villains.
MH: This story tells the dystopian tale of sexual censorship. But it feels eerily similar to the censorship and policies many sex workers are currently experiencing. Can you walk us through some of those similarities?
TH: Every person in this dystopia has to wear a Halo, a Fitbit-like bracelet that functions as phone/wallet/keys. You use Halos to file Paperwork, reporting on your own sex life to the government, contributing to your Purity Score. The lower your Purity, the less access you have to nicer tech that makes your life easier, and the less detail you have to divulge in your Paperwork. Purity Scores are an institutional privilege, a combination of financial credit and online clout. So this is a critique of class and how the disenfranchised are kept that way while the rich get richer through tech invasion of privacy through consumerism. Reformation, and the chip in Denis’ brain, affect their ability to experience physical sensations and what is done to Jones: conversation therapy.
The raid early in the book is just literally what policing of transgressive sexual spaces looks like, from Stonewall to Rentboy to the massage parlor in Flushing, Queens NY, where Yang Song worked.
The Dirty Mind being colonized by Pleasure Center represents the gentrification of San Francisco’s sex culture.
In the underground, Sylvia has been hard at work, hacking and hustling (to borrow a phrase from the name of a great sex tech activist group)! She’s invented tech to suspend the Party’s surveillance so the Dirty Mind and their paying customers can enjoy getting their rocks off in peace. She can make dittos of other people’s Halos and has glamorous sunglasses that project GIF composites to trick facial recognition software. The Dirty Mind also offers cruising contacts, an augmented reality hanky code, which frankly I just thought would be cool!
Just as a tease of SfSx: Terms of Service, which comes out in Fall 2021, we’re also making a creepy literal real-life version of Shadowbanning, which is maybe the most Black Mirror the book has gotten yet.
MH: Tell me about the goodies at the end of the book:
TH: In comics, we call that “backmatter.” It’s a chance to show the behind-the-scenes process of just how hard the visual artists work to make comics what they are.
This is where working with editor/designer Laurenn McCubbin is a dream come true. Laurenn and I met through the Oakland feminist porn and punk zine scene back in the day, so it was the most natural thing in the world for us to evoke the aesthetics of analog mixtapes and zines that you produce by ripping off the machine at your temp job. By the way, copies of Broke-Ass Stuart are in my zine archives, and it’s the reason I discovered the Brown Jug in the Tenderloin, among many other local treasures!
The journalist in me couldn’t help myself from using this platform to sneak in content for my own little magazine, interviewing organizers like Red Canary Song, and commissioning artists like Laura Chow Reve to make one of her Radical Road Maps explaining the real-life connections between LGBTQ rights and sex worker movements. It’s a chance to educate and showcase while we thrill and entertain.
MH: What do readers have to look forward to in your next season?
TH: SfSx: Terms of Service is the follow-up to SfSx: Protection, which was just nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. It features all your favorite characters and settings from the first book and some new ones as well. This time, the Dirty Mind faces an incel-like movement led by Wilder, the cop who Avory stiletto’d in the eye in Issue 1. The theocratic government regime The Party supports these men’s rights activists with a new social program focused on the “redistribution of intimacy” and the invention of tech with both cyberspace and robot components they call Wetware. Avory has to figure out how to use this tech to her advantage from the inside of the Pleasure Center. And the Dirty Mind is trying to use the chip in Denis’ head to infiltrate the Pleasure Center with highly emotional consequences. And we’ve got some cute hookup side plots and screwball bimbo humor to insert some levity into these dark situations.
The great thing about working in comics is that the incredible illustrator of this book, G Romero-Johnson, and I get to collaborate on design ideas: for example, with Wetware, we’re combining the WAP video, TRON, and slimy horror movie monsters.
We’re trying to deepen the themes and tones people responded to in the series so far: Queer feelings, institutional horror, political satire, explicit hot kinky sex scenes, and sex worker family.
MH: You recently launched a kick starter. How can fans support, and what are the perks?
TH: Despite being a DIY artist my whole life, this is my first ever Kickstarter! Working with Image comics offers an ideal amount of cred and creative freedom, and it does mean we have to make the book ourselves before they publish it. Kickstarter has become a really popular way in the comics world for fans to build community around a book by supporting it. So you can pre-order the new upcoming book SfSx: Terms of Service, get copies of our previous books, and get exclusive swag! We’re offering limited edition risographs by G Romero-Johnson, a new enamel pin designed by Laurenn McCubbin, posters of the two iconic Issue 1 covers, Zoom parties with me, and even getting yourself drawn into a cameo in the Dirty Mind.
We hit our Kickstarter campaign goal in under two weeks! To me, this speaks to the ways both my sex culture communities and my comics communities are hungry for more of these stories and prepared to support indie creators! We now have another two weeks to make as much for the book’s budget as we can, which means more digital zines for backers when we reach stretch goals, and frankly less hustle stress on me and the rest of the team.
If you’re reading this after the campaign is over and you still wanna support the book or my work, get at me online, and I’ll show you how.