We chatted with the Albuquerque-based sex worker and activist for our Valentine’s Day issue to learn more about what it’s like working as a sex worker these days, how our expanded understanding of human sexuality has shaped sex work, and whether our society has come very far in accepting sex work has a legitimate career.
So, how did you get into the sex industry?
Sera: I was in my 20s and I lived in Maryland, Baltimore. I wanted to move to New Mexico for graduate school – I wanted to move somewhere – and that eventually became New Mexico. ...I was kinky, and this is, like, the year 2000 so things are not as accessible – communities, events, connecting online. I had dial-up. I was one of very few people in my not too wealthy community – pretty broke community – that even had a computer.So, I met somebody online who knew somebody else, who knew somebody else, who connected me with Kelly Payne in Staten Island, and she’s a spanking video producer and does in-person sessions. So part of it for me was I was going to meet other kinky people, and that was the drive. I needed money, and I wanted to not feel so alone. Those two things came together. Meeting this person, Kelly Payne – who I ended up doing videos for (and) I apprenticed under – I went from there to meeting somebody else because Kelly was in New York.
I found somebody locally – Vendela Zane – who was at an established respected pro-domme who let me work with her and learn from her over the next nine to 10 months until I moved out here.
What kind of reactions do you get from people when you tell them about your work? Are people shocked or are they pretty chill and intrigued by it? Or do you tend to avoid telling people about your work?
Sera: I don’t consort with people often who would have a bad reaction. I have a pretty nicely tailored life at this point. I’m almost 43. I went from being a phone sex girl to owning the company. ... You know, I’m that well-respected that I have haters (laughs). I don’t ever like to be dishonest unless I have to for my safety. So if it comes up, I’ll say something.Actually just this week, Wells Fargo, I bank with them, everything is complicated, and they asked me to come talk at one of their Evenings in Business. I was very excited, because I don’t get opportunities like that. But then I took a deep breath and was like, ‘And you know what I do?’ because my banker had left and I’ve been passed on to somebody else recently. And they were like, ‘Yes.’ I was ecstatic – like, you actually want to give me a platform? I will take it, Wells Fargo.
Generally, the reaction I get ... is people want to tell me how much they want to do phone sex or how they think they’re great at phone sex. That’s really annoying. Nobody who is a published poet wants to hear about the poem you wrote in ninth grade, you know. I don’t want to hear about your phone sex with your boyfriend. I do something very different from what they’re talking about.
How do you explain those differences between significant others having phone sex versus what you do?
Sera: I can be pretty aggressive, as you can probably tell already (laughs), so I’ll just re-steer the conversation. But if someone was authentically engaging with me about it , what’s distinctive is that I’m the professional and I always have to keep professional boundaries.It’s a power differential versus a relationship in which you’re engaging together. ... I’ve had clients with me for the entire 17 years I’ve done this. I have clients who go through divorces, who call because they’ve lost a pet, who lose a parent.
I definitely get emotionally engaged, but I’m a professional. It’s always my job to take their need and repackage something back to them that helps them.
I had a client, he’s in his 80s, and he had an old lover die. He had been deeply in love with this woman, and he spent two hours reading me their old love letters and talking about her. It was magical. I actually was able (after) to give him even better fantasy (play) because I feel more connected to that person.
But if you don’t want to listen to your partner wax philosophic about their ex for two hours, that’s a little different.
How long did it take for you to feel like you really like you honed your craft?
Sera: About 10 years, and I actually distinctively felt a shift when I really mastered the art of phone sex. Clients I’ve had for a long time commented on it. They would say, ‘You’ve always been good but something’s different.’And part of it is I got more confident. I would say I put in my 10,000 hours both in doing phone sex and being part of the BDSM community and engaging with alternative sexuality in so many different avenues. I did that Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing. You can do it faster or you could do it slower, but it’s the 10,000 hours.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you went from working for this company (People Exchanging Power) to owning it? What was that journey like?
Sera: I came to work here in 2002 when I moved to New Mexico ... and I did this very much on the side until I finished graduate school. Then I decided to do phone sex full time. I also always did book editing on the side, up until a handful of years ago. In 2014, the then-owner approached me about buying the company and she had an offer. We over time refined that offer and I took ownership on December 8 of 2015.Do you have any favorite aspects of your work?
Sera: I will say that I feel off-kilter if I haven’t done a call in a few days. So, even if something else is more immediately engaging or pleasurable – like giving a talk to a certain group of people or something – phone sex, that’s the meat.When somebody calls me and trusts me, and I can take them somewhere that helps them release their stress or anxiety or makes them feel safe. Anything where I get to help people feel safe and less ashamed is the best part of what I get to do with my life.
What are some misconceptions that people have about you and your work?
Sera: That we’re all sitting in some kind of warehouse going ‘OOO’ and ‘AHH’ talking about blow jobs. Different companies are different. There’s not many companies left that do exactly what we do. To my knowledge, there’s nobody left who does exactly what we do ... our ladies all use their real pictures. They’re authentic about their interests and their areas of expertise. And, you know, we dial it up. Like, I’m not that into feminization, but I’m very knowledgeable about it. One of our rules is you cannot lie. You cannot pretend to know something you don’t. You have to be honest about what you do and don’t know.A lot of the misconceptions is that all phone sex is the quick 900-number. Those services exist for a reason. People have needs that are being met. But that’s not what we do here at PEP. We engage with people who get vulnerable with us, who are looking to engage with somebody for not just one or two calls, but sometimes just 15 or hundreds or thousands of times.
What’s your best advice for people that are new to the BDSM scene?
Sera: Make friends first. I actually have a stock thing I say about this, because I say it almost every time I teach. My biggest piece of advice can be distilled down to never let your desperation override your common sense. I talk to people about how most of us in this community have had these desires for so long.People come into this community between the ages of 25 and 80, or even older. You’ve had these desires for so long and they’ve been unsatiated and you felt shame, and you’re finally shucking it off and taking these steps out. And you’re so hungry that you can make some really poor decisions about your own safety and emotional security.
So, if you find friends first, these are people with whom you can learn the lingo, you can bounce ideas off of, and then if and when – and it’s when – something goes wrong in a scene, in a relationship and play, then you have people to talk to. Make friends first.
What do you tell people about learning and having boundaries and being safe?
Sera: For anybody who is female identified, or was assigned female at birth, or in some way socialized female, we’re taught from the get-go that we’re not supposed to have boundaries if they interfere with anybody else’s desires.There’s a lot to overcome there. It’s daily practice. It’s hard to go to the doctor and say, ‘No, that’s not quite what’s wrong. I don’t feel like you’re listening to me.’ It’s even harder when we’re trying to get a need met that the entire culture tells us to be shameful about. A lot of the stuff that I recommend to folks is to, in relationships, constantly re-engage. Constantly re-negotiate. Everything is negotiable.
The most amazing thing about being part of an alternative sexuality community like BDSM, especially BDSM with power exchange, is that in cis hetero-normative patriarchal relationships, gendered expectations are what controls everything. We’ve all internalized that. We have to be conscientious about it, but we can renegotiate everything. Nothing’s assumed. That’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of self work to figure out what you actually want, and then do the work of being able to actually communicate it to somebody else and deal with them sometimes not receiving it or using it against you. But that’s the best part. You get to create the dynamic that you desire, and you can reshape it all the time.
How long did it take you to get to the point where you felt comfortable, like backing out of a situation that you felt disrespected or unsafe?
Sera: It’s still a battle. There are arenas of my life where if you eff with my kid, it’s done. If it has to do with my business, I’m very aggressive about it. But it’s not like I don’t sometimes go out in public and have somebody act in a way that’s inappropriate to me and just say, ‘I can’t deal with it today.’ Misogyny is everywhere. Racism is everywhere. I’m Iranian-American, and I have carried my passport on my person since Trump was elected.
I saw in your bio that you identify as a demisexual. For people who don’t know what that means, can you explain that and how it plays into your work?
Sera: I feel like the Asexual and Aromantic spectrum are this amazing new frontier to understanding ourselves and our sexuality and our orientation. And I think, I’m going to go out and say this, I’m sure people will disagree now but not in 20 years, that they’re more critical of those orientations than what we’ve been taught as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, that are being used as critical lenses for understanding ourselves.When I first read about demisexuality I thought it was ridiculous and I made fun of it, and then I was like, ‘Why do I have these strong feelings? Oh, because I relate to this.’ In the Aspectrum there are folks who are Asexual to gray Asexual, and demisexual is down in that gray area.
It essentially means that I don’t feel primary sexual attraction unless I form an emotional bond. And we’re taught that that’s actually how you’re supposed to be. But that’s not how most people experience (it). Primary sexual attraction means you’re in the grocery store, and somebody walks by and you like something on their body, and you have a reaction in your genitals. I don’t experience that. I’ve experienced that twice in my entire life, and those two experiences were so weird and so uncomfortable. But then I talked to other folks and they were like, ‘Well, yeah, sometimes you’re just picking up fish sticks and all of a sudden you’re wet.’
I don’t know if you remember this, but about 10 years ago there was a whole debacle where the University of New Mexico found out that one of their professors, Lisa D. Chávez, was working as a sex worker on the side, going by the name of Mistress Jade. People freaked out.Do you think if a similar situation happened today that the reaction would be similar? Do you think that we’ve come a long ways in terms of accepting alternative sex lifestyles? Or do you think there’s still a lot of the same kind of mentality?
Sera: That was also personal to me and traumatized me personally, so it’s hard for me to comment on that with any kind of impartiality. I don’t know. I think that academia is still very much run by a hetero-patriarchal system, by a white supremacist system that it couldn’t unfold very differently until those structures are dismantled.If it’s class-gated, then it’s white supremacist-gated, and then it’s hetero-patriarchal-gated, and all those systems work together to maintain their supremacy. Even if people, us underlings, felt differently, the people in power would still be able to destroy somebody’s life and reputation.
I know folks in academia who are afraid to come out as poly. Who are completely heterosexual, who are white, who have a decent bit of money, but they’re poly and that’s awful. But they’re terrified that they would lose their work, their reputation, because they’d like to have a relationship with more than one person at a time. That’s messed up and if that’s still happening ... it’s not going to be any easier for a woman of color who is bisexual doing sex work.
This is kind of a turn from what we were talking about, but I saw that you had worked on the first pornographic computer game, “Bonetown.” What was that experience like?
Sera: So fun. It was really, really fun. Basically, this guy who’s a trust-fund kid wanted to create a pornographic video game, and he wanted to create a fun working experience that paid well for his friends. And you know, this is not common, I think, in the world. He and his friends brought their skill sets together and then I found the job. I think I was looking on sexyjobs.com, where I looked periodically.I had done some other voice recording work, so I got in touch with them and they decided that I was going to be the dominatrix that you have to fuck into submission at the end or you don’t win. ... And this was the first.
It was interesting to learn about all the things they had to be careful about, that they couldn’t mention drugs this way, or sex that way but they could have all this gratuitous violence. I stayed friends with the audio engineer who’s gone on to do some really cool work with art in Albuquerque. It was also a great experience in that I made connections that have continued to serve all of us. Believing in sexual freedom, basically.
This interview has been edited for clarity.