Sex worker Kate McGrew of new RTE2 reality show 'Connected' talks feminism in her field
'Connected' reality TV star Kate McGrew tells Carol Hunt how to be a feminist working in the sex industry
Not once during the interview do either of us mention the "p" word. It just doesn't seem appropriate. Certainly, we talk about stigma, discrimination and the 'Nordic Model', but where sex for money is concerned - what we would call prostitution - Kate McGrew is adamant that it's a fair pay back for years of capitalist patriarchy.
"It's an aspect of my feminism," she says. "We spend so much time taking care of ourselves in ways that men don't, because of the beauty standards that society has for women... it's a total inequality. That's one small reason why I say; 'fine, essentially, y'all set this up, therefore you are going to pay for it!'."
Who? "The men, obviously," she smiles. And how are they going to pay for it? "In cash. I take their money. Of all the people who are living and working in this capitalist patriarchy, sex workers are winning. We have good strategy. People say it cheapens the experience," she laughs. "No, it doesn't, it makes it more expensive."
We're sitting in the afternoon bourgeois comfort of the Morrison Hotel. To say my conversation with Kate McGrew, the new star of RTE2's upcoming reality TV programme Connected is informative, would be an understatement. Kate is witty and whip sharp, disarmingly honest and thoughtful. She has written her own one-woman show, Sweet Pang, and was spotted while performing it in the Druid Theatre, Galway.
The spitting image of Sarah Jessica Parker (they come from the same town), it was known in Cork - where Kate now lives - that she worked teaching pole dancing and also in a strip club. But what many were unaware of was that Kate is also a professional sex worker. She started, she told me, in New York, where she had arrived, a twenty-something theatre graduate from Ohio, wanting to become a performer, to write her own show. Like many others, she took a part-time job as a street charity-worker (a chugger) for Greenpeace. "It was a hard job!" she says before mimicking: "'Do you have a minute for Greenpeace?' Let me tell you, in New York City there is not one minute for Greenpeace", she laughs. "But I saw this girl and we became best friends... and she was working in this house of domination and she said, 'you know what, I think you would like working there'."
And did she, I ask, wondering how a nice Ohio girl with a mother who is a university professor could go from working for Greenpeace to servicing men with strange sex fetishes so quickly.
"My first day was really exciting. It was the feeling of the unknown. My first client wanted to watch me put on lipstick while saying the word 'pussy'. That's all he wanted. It was a house of domination for fetishes, and I was mostly a dominatrix but sometimes we would switch."
While in New York, Kate also worked in a strip club, but didn't enjoy that as much. "I hadn't yet grown into my sexuality", she muses. "I felt like I needed to play a role... and stripping is the opposite of domming. When I was domming I kept clothes on and I'd make them beg me to kiss their shoe, but then suddenly you're walking around half naked [as a stripper] going, 'can I have a dollar?'"
Kate came on a visit to Cork with "14 members of my family and when they left, I decided on a whim to stay". Initially, she worked on her music and her show, she taught pole dancing but finally she decided that she needed to get back "into the industry".
"So I started working in a strip bar and I found I really enjoyed it. I had grown up a bit and had settled in my skin and probably had better boundaries... but it's not a great use of my time... not the best bang for your buck", she joked. "So I put myself on a website."
And how did that work out for her, I ask, wondering if it really was that easy. "Great," she says, without any obvious reservations. "I get all sorts of people - from very young college kids to farmers to, you know, businessmen, construction workers, writers... very nice, gentlemanly, nervous..."
College kids? How can they afford you? "I know," she laughs, "their parents are paying for me."
Obviously, sex work is not as rosy for many women as it seems to be for Kate. She tells me that there's a hesitancy in talking about sex work as "empowering" but that's really not the point - "because of course for some women it isn't," she says honestly. "We need less stigma, more support and more humanising of these women [who work in the sex industry]. It should be seen as legitimate work." I tell Kate that it's not the sort of work I'd like to see my daughter do - as I suspect it wasn't what her mother had in mind for her. She agrees: "I knew she would react strongly [when she told her mother]. If you don't have experience of this industry, I totally understand how it can look from the outside. But she [her mother] raised me as a feminist, she really did, and I think she could not have expected the shape her daughter's feminism would take."
What about young girls watching her on the show?
Kate is sanguine. "This work isn't for everybody," she says prosaically. "If people feel like they are doing it because they have no choice that doesn't mean sex work is bad. It's because of issues like poverty or trafficking or direct provision, for example - they are the problem, not the sex work."
Kate is very fearful that the oft discussed 'Nordic Model', which will criminalise the buyers of sex, will be introduced into Ireland. Why? "If you criminalise any industry," she says, "it's almost like, if they treat you like an animal, you'll behave like an animal. If there are men who don't want to break the law, that will leave women with fewer clients, and the clients who are left are less law-abiding [potentially dangerous]. And if the men are worried about being arrested, the women are less likely to judge and screen their clients properly."
Kate notes that the stigma of sex work is a huge problem. "Society sees these women are filthy whores, they're bad women and it's so much easier to believe that than to see that these women are people with agency who are making choices for themselves. We need to make the industry as safe a place as possible".
On why anyone would choose to go into the sex industry, Kate says: "People should be able to do whatever work suits them best." On feminism? "When my mother said, 'there are so many issues, you could be doing so much in the world', I said, 'I do think I'm doing something important for women, standing up for sex workers' rights... We're all people you know'."
'Connected' on RTE 2 September 22 10.30pm