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Sex Criminals (2013)

ajazmine2Two people who stop time when they orgasm team up to rob banks is Sex Criminals’ basic premise. Written by Matt Fraction with art by Chip Zdarsky, it’s a fairly new comic that’s been getting a lot of attention. The book sounds like it will be a fun sci-fi romp. And it really is. There’s chase scenes and puns and a musical sequence, but there’s more to it than that. It’s about sex and all its weirdness. How awkward it is. How if you have really, really compatible sex with someone after years of feeling isolated by your time-stopping superpowers, it can be hard not to feel like maybe you should spend all your time with that person.

The books centers on two characters: Suzi and Jon. Suzi is a librarian who happens to love sex. Masturbation is a way for her to escape her grief following the murder of her father. She refers to the time-stopped world she reaches through having an orgasm as The Quiet and retreats there when things got too loud. In contrast, Jon mostly uses his power to cause mayhem at a local sex store, Cum World, which he names his time-stopped world after.

Since this is a series about sex, with an issue focusing on a teenage boy’s adventures in a sex shop, the narrative naturally touches on sex workers—in this case, a porn star by the name of Jazmine St. Cocaine. And while I do love this series, and have been recommending it like mad to anyone who will listen, issue two offended me enough that I wrote to the creative team when I first read it a few months ago.

(Panel from Sex Criminals)
(Panel from Sex Criminals)

Jazmine is introduced through Jon’s perspective. He finds a picture of her in the woods, and that is the material he first masturbates and orgasms to. When he enters Cum World (the sex shop, not the time-stopped dimension) for the first time he finds some of her movies. This leaves an impression on him. He also comments, more than once, that Suzi looks a bit like her (and this is indeed the case, with them being drawn to look very similar). Unfortunately, Jon’s fondness for Jazmine comes off less like admiration for the lady and more like objectification.  She’s there strictly for consumption, Jon’s private consumption, in a way that’s very reminiscent of those younger customers  at the strip club who think they’ve fallen in love with you because they haven’t quite learned to separate sexual attraction from love yet. And because we are introduced to her through Jon, the audience also sees Jazmine as a gatekeeper of sexuality, a woman who is the pinnacle of orgasmic possibilities but has no identity aside from that. Jon still holds a flame for his woods-porn girl. When he notes Suzi’s resemblance to her you get the feeling he’s doing it as a genuine compliment.

Suzi does not see it that way. The first time Jon tries it she punches him the shoulder, a reaction that I’ve never seen in response to a guy telling his new lady-friend she looks like a non-porn actress. And when I saw that panel all I could think was, “Suzi, you fell for this guy because he quoted the first page of Lolita to you, but being compared to a prolific porn actress is weird?”

Suzi makes multiple comments disparaging Jazmine. It’s unclear if she sees her as competition or if she’s just anti-porn star, but she’s clearly unhappy about Jazmine being brought up. Yet, she also has an interest in her. She often asks Jon about his “porno girlfriend,” and she wikis Jazmine. This is the point where I started wondering if I was going to have to give up on the book. As Suzi looks up Jazmine’s real name and relevant info, she remarks that the bio “doesn’t say which of her uncles touched her.” And man, my repeated viewing of Game of Thrones has given me a high tolerance for the treatment of sex workers in media, but for some reason it hits me harder when comic books go there. Maybe it’s because I use the cash I make at work, as opposed to a debit card, to buy them and that always feels more meaningful to me. Maybe it’s because comic book writers are more accessible to their fans, and therefore feel closer to me. I took a moment after I read that speech bubble to text a friend to commiserate. Then I read on and, oddly, Jazmine got to defend herself.

Now, I have no idea if this is meant to be Suzi’s conscience or what, because at no other point in this series has an inanimate object spoken to someone, but wiki-Jazmine, breasts out, lips pouted, hand between her thighs, declares, “I’m a real person, y’know. And just because I’m a sex worker, you don’t get to shame me or insult me or insist I came from a background of molestation and abuse. And even if I did—”

(Panel from Sex Criminals)
(Panel from Sex Criminals)

And then Suzi slams her laptop closed and says that with a name like Jazmine St. Cocaine, “taking a little shit was inevitable.”

I have mixed feelings about this page. On the one hand, Jazmine was able to reassert her personhood. And it’s way different for a sex worker to remind people she’s a real person than it is for a consumer of sex work (i.e. Jon) to construct an idea of what a specific sex worker is like outside of their work and then build it into a fantasy world they can insert themselves into.

The weird thing is, after this happens, Suzi takes on Jazmine’s persona. She strikes a faux-sexy pose, says she is “Suzanne DeQuaaluude-Handjob,” and tells Jon she wants him to “ruin” her. There’s a single panel of Jon being way more aroused by this than he expected. He compares Suzi to Jazmine one more time, and Suzi must be okay with that now because they have sex right there in the kitchen.

And while these pages made me upset the first time I read them, upon re-reading they made more sense. Because Suzi is exactly like a lot of women I have met—sexually liberated, intelligent women who happen to shit all over sex workers. Who talk about how they’ll only watch feminist porn. Who feel that sex work cheapens the magic of sexual encounters because it is somehow less pure and fun? Less feminist and empowering? (None of these people have ever given me a concrete answer.) And to top it off, Suzi names Lolita as her favorite book. That’s just the cherry on top for me—that some book about a dude fucking an underaged girl is brilliant, but adults having consensual sex on screen is worthy of a side-eye.

And you put her with a guy like Jon, who spent his adolescence taking in all the free porn he could get, and of course you have this near-couple who wind up using porn as a way to segue into sex. These are the exact couples I see every Saturday at my club—where the woman looks uncomfortable and the guy doesn’t want to seem too interested in any of the dancers because he doesn’t want to make her jealous, so they hang back, refusing to engage with you, and refusing to pay. Because to them, sex workers aren’t real people. If they admitted we were real people working to give them  a fantasy, then they would have to admit they are using other people to spice up their sex lives without, you know, paying us or acknowledging the fact that we are working, as opposed to acting sexual purely for the fun of it. It’s a selfish thing that’s incredibly easy to do, especially to porn actors, who are extra removed from reality by way of always interacting with the viewer through a screen or a photo. And that is exactly why Suzi can’t listen to Jazmine defend herself. Because, in a way, Suzi needs Jazmine to be sexualized just as much as Jon does. If the sex worker becomes real, then you’re going to have to admit that there’s a person that you’re harming with your negative opinions of them, and why would you want to do that?

(Panel from Sex Criminals)
(Panel from Sex Criminals)

Depicting flawed protagonists like this is not an ideal way to present a lesson about treating sex workers like the people they are. A lot of people aren’t going to see that Jon and Suzi are wrong—they’re going to agree with one or both of them. But hey, at least we squeezed in a bit of good in there, letting Jazmine speak up for herself. You know, along with tying a porn star directly to cocaine via her name (some sex workers do drugs, yes, but I hate it when non-sex workers make derogatory jokes about it). That’s slightly better than most examples of fictional sex workers. Slightly.

There’s some artistic issues with this comic too. While Cum World is littered with jokes hidden in the background art, including some truly outrageous parodies, it also includes such titles as “Barely Illegal,” “Not the Life I Anticipated (but here I am I guess),” and “Men Fucking Lesbians (everyone’s having a horrible time).” These are things that could be a commentary on problematic aspects of the porn industry—racist titles, survival sex work, people fucking people they otherwise wouldn’t—but I doubt that. This is a book written by two guys who I’m pretty sure have never worked in porn. So, these titles aren’t so much commentary on the industry as they are common stereotypical views about porn stars, assumed to apply to all porn workers and porn sets.

I reached out to the artist and writer. The artist never got back to me, aside from a “let’s move this discussion from tumblr to email” message, but the writer did send me a message. I explained my side, said I was writing an article, and he sent me back a message that was actually quite wonderful. I never got his permission to quote him, but suffice to say, he apologized. He hadn’t intended to condone demeaning sex workers (after all, the people in this book do lots of awful stuff like, you know, robbing banks, so they really have no leg to stand on) but he understands why a sex worker reading the book would stop reading after issue two. There are apparently plans to develop Jazmine’s character later on, but that’s the problem with serialized work like comic books. You have to wait months to see where these things go. Are Jon and Suzi going to learn that porn actresses are real people? At this point it’s hard to tell. In their world it’s only been a couple of weeks since they met.

I’m really hoping that we get to meet Jazmine (real name Rae Anne) and see her as a real person, beyond the perspective of Jon and Suzi. That the audience, as well as the protagonists, will see a woman who has done sex work and gets to exist beyond her job. Jon and Suzi are well written, highly identifiable characters. Even if there are readers out there who agree with their views now, maybe that will make it easier for them to learn a lesson about respecting sex workers along with these characters, if the creative team is indeed going down that path. After all, this book is already getting a lot of attention for being daring and honest about sex. How awesome would it be if we could also praise it for deconstructing some tired sex worker tropes along the way?



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