When in 2018 Boots Riley lampooned the Sillicone Valley tech-barons by suggesting that a startup could rebrand slavery as Uber for labour, we found it darkly funny, but nonetheless preposterous. Most of us, I think, didn’t expect this vision to become that literal, that quick. But this where we are now: in a world where a friend of mine was able legally sell herself into bondage of the infamous bio-tech/porn conglomerate Galatea Corporation, to become a prostitute…
Helen frowned, fingers freezing over the keyboard. She reread the last few words she typed in, then deleted them.
...to become an unpaid sex worker.
“Better,” she murmured. But also, as she was well aware, not exactly true either. With a frustrated sigh, she tapped backspace again.
...to become an indentured sex worker.
That was a more accurate way of putting it, but also only half as punchy. Indentured sex worker! She could already hear her abolitionist friend whining her ears off about how indentured service was the truth of prostitituion anyway. It wasn’t even what Helen wanted to write about. The problem wasn’t that Rowan wanted to do sex work.
She stared at the blinking cursor, trying to come up with a better way of putting her thoughts into words, and instead found only a new layer of the idle frustration that seemed to be what her writing was mostly about. Impatiently, she tapped the edges of her laptop with her fingers, and caught herself incessantly drumming. As the alternative was actual anger, she allowed herself to stand up and pace around her room again.
It was a poor substitute for a jog, but it had enough empty space to allow for a short lap between the desk, the kitchen door, the bed and the bookshelf. She made the round a few times, mulling the text over in her head.
“To become a sex worker-slave,” she tried a new version of the line, “for two whole years. Everything under the aegis of the law and founded on an ardent belief that there must be no limit to our consent..”
Again, something grated. Helen shook her head and stopped in front of her bookshelf. She was never much for house decor, but she still liked what she did with it. One of the perks of reading mostly from feminists presses was that instead of drab browns, blacks and olives she tended to associate with dude libraries, this one had a confetti-like colourfulness to it, pleasantly contrasting with the bare white wall behind.
It also meant it was easy to find the one gloss black back she was looking for. Blue and pink letters spelled its title: Pat Califia, Macho Sluts. She drew it out and weighed in her hands.
The cover displayed a small tableau of lesbian leather desire, rendered as dainty, white silhouettes. It showed two women, wearing only black leather straps that left them in a state of undress more striking than if they were both stark naked. They sat - or lay, it was hard to say - close together. The one on top, head half-shaved kept her head thrown back in a state of bliss, her gloved hands and thigh-high booted legs wrapped around her partner, pressing her face-first into her crotch. The first time she saw it, the entangled mess of bodies confused her - it took her some time to decipher the image.
She found the inscription she was looking for squeezed carefully calligraphed on the title page, the silver ink still holding to most of its shine.
For Helen, that she may get her burdens off her back and spend some time on her back,
The pun itself was more of a signature than Rowan’s lower-case “r”, and as much of a gesture of friendship as the gift itself. It made Helen think back to that course on sex wars where she had first met Rowan, then going by a different name, furiously noting down every piece of feminist gossip that the lecturer deigned to share. As a token of friendship, Helen was happy to have it on her shelf - but as a book, it never managed to convince her. There was something about its stories of insatiable, multi-orgrasmic fetish-lesbians that felt execessive, wanton. Some of the individual scenes could be appealing and there was sharp wit to the stories she had to appreciate, but en masse, the collection felt overwhelming, verging on distasteful. It explored every fetish known to the 1980s, resulting in something less than a curated collection of erotica and more like some Sadean madness. She never managed to read it cover to cover. Now, with Rowan gone, she could not help wonder if maybe she should have had.
She put it back in its place, and returned to her desk. What she really wanted to do was to kill the computer, and get back into the gym, to sweat the indistinct feeling of frustration out. But that would mean returning home after a few hours, then spending too much time under the shower before deciding she was hungry enough to order takeout and killing time on the internet waiting for it to arrive. By the time she would finish eating, it would be late enough to justify calling it quits for the day and calling some friends to hit a club. And as appealing as the idea seemed, she unfortunately had an article to turn in.
I think about the premium catalogues that advertise Galatea fucks-farms…
“Can’t call them that,” she reminded herself. Her editor was rather blunt on that: she had to keep her language respectable.
...Gatatea brothel-resorts for wealthy men.
Again, something about the phrase rubbed her wrong. Briefly, she alt-tabbed and that interview again. The Harem of One Own. Amanda Olwen on Sex-positive Businesswomen and Her Stay in a Galatea Resort. The photo below the headline displayed a middle-aged woman with a sharp smile, wearing a well-tailored two-piece suit of a girl-boss lounging on the top of the world. But even though she was a CEO, she still counted as a woman, and apprently she liked to talk about how Galatea fuck-farms were her favourite vaccationing retreat. Dutifully, Helen again reached for the delete key.
...for the wealthy elite. They are filled with images of bodies primed for sex. I say bodies, because to call them images of people would be an overstatement. Through the work of the camera, through careful staging, through employed paraphernalia, the bodies are reduced to nothing but ever-agape orifices, digits and limbs prepared for use. The gloryhole is the unofficial logo of the Galatea Corporation.
She frowned at the word “gloryhole”. Was it too colloquial? She toyed with a more descriptive way of calling it, but every sentence that came to her mind ended up feeling more vulgar than what she already had. She left a comment for the editor explaining herself and returned to writing.
If the images didn’t reflect on something painfully real, they would feel gloriously avant-garde. Imagine a series of installations of people reduced to the barest facts of their sexuality! And there is an artistic aspiration to it, betrayed in the text that fills the catalogues. And what text it is: obscurantist paraphrases of classics that wax poetic of bodies remade and freed. But what the pornography displayed right next to those words promises is only unlimited access and unrestrained license.
She looked to the stack of catalogues assembled at the side of her desk. Looking through them took quite a bit of effort, most of it going into breaking through initial impulses of revulsion and bewilderment. In the end, however, she found herself fascinated by at least some of what she found inside, on an aesthetic level. Each of them promised that the photographs were minimally edited, but even if that was true and they were not retouched in Photoshop, what they displayed was just too carefully staged, too meticulously arranged and lighted to feel real. There was a kind of excess to the countless images of bodies bound, twisted, extended and prepared for use that at some point crossed past pornographic and into straight out surreal. It wasn’t even a horror movie aesthetic, but rather the feel of a goth rave as designed by one of H. R. Giger’s most ardent students.
Nowhere did it show more than in the photographs of what the text called “drones” - featureless, human-like dolls wrapped in enough plastic and rubber to strip off marks of personality and gender, leaving only an outline of an attractive body to be seen. They were easy to mistake for mannequins, and even as they were arranged in positions of service and humiliation, Helen struggled to conceptualize them as people. They looked like inert props and somewhere in the back of her mind was the suspicion that they were just that.
If the images weren’t real, they would be fascinating. But they are. Although Galatea allows very few non-curated images of their resorts to ever reach the public, there is enough evidence to know that what the catalogues show is just the tip of the iceberg. And perhaps I could write more about it, perhaps I could try to expose the mechanisms by which the corporation managed to be allowed to create pornographic dystopias like that, but that is not what I want to do here.
It was just a cheeky nod to the fact that she could not do it either way. She spent a week trying to find exposes and research on Galatea, but there was barely anything available. The corporation kept its secrets with an iron grip. All that Helen managed to piece together was that it started as a small startup somewhere in Eastern Europe, before exploding out of nowhere two years later. Seemingly overnight, it introduced new surgical tools and technologies that made its competition look like a bunch of 19th century surgeons in blood-splattered leather aprons, cleavers in hand. Their road to the top was as short as it got. And then, for no reason stated, it branched out into the sex industry.
There were no official histories written of it, and try as they might, investigative journalists never pieced together more than just that outline. In fact, the air of secrecy around Galatea was more than excessive, and found its embodiment in the company’s CEO: infamously reclusive, refusing to communicate or even show their face to the public. But they made money, more money than it made sense for them to make. They offered results others could never replicate and sometimes comprehend. As a result, looking for information on Galatea online yielded two sorts of results: a string of op-eds written by increasingly baffled pundits who would honestly prefer the corporation to cease existing, so that things would start making sense. The others, of course, were the conspiracy theories.
There were more of them than Helen could keep track of. In her brief foray down that rabbit hole, she found mentions a jewish plot to Islamize the white race, a NWO conspiracy to inject vaccines through dildos, or a secret scheme by socialists of the world to cripple capitalism by addicting everyone to sex. She liked that one the best, alongside with its sister theory that it was the capitalists that were trying to get the working class hooked on fetish sex and thus render them irrevolutionarily decadent. Of course, that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were entire sites devoted to explaining how Galatea was a satanic ring ruled by the pedophile clique venerating their Hell-Saint Hilary Clinton. Or to how it was all aliens. Reptilians. Reptilian aliens. Post-singularity big pharma. There was no end to it. By the time she found herself reading a reddit post arguing that the feminists invented Galatea to make men gay by convincing them that anal sex was hot, she called quits on her investigation into Galatea’s history.
Besides, it wasn’t really Galatea that she wanted to write about.
What matters to me, she typed, is that there must have been something in those catalogues, in the fantasies peddled by Galatea that—that made my friend want not just to consume pornography, but to become a part of it. That made my friend, from whom I have learned much about feminism, throw herself head-first into all that. And I don’t know what that is. I keep wondering: why did she do this to herself? Why do I feel like...
“Like?” she asked herself.
She exhaled, then went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. Over the past few weeks, she sometimes suspected that the reason she dove so deep into the history of Galatea, or into the contents of their catalogues, was to distract herself from thinking about Rowan. She didn’t even realize how close she was to her, not until she abruptly vanished. But if it was just vanishing, it would be easier for Helen, rather than to constantly remember that Rowan was still alive, somewhere. And that she was being used, twisted, bound, primed for use. All on her own wish. The thought was a patch of thorns rooted itself between the folds of Helen’s brain. She kept returning to it, trying to disentangle it, and only ever feeling more pricked in the end.
The kettle made a loud ding. Helen found a cup, rinsed it, spent a good minute looking for the strainer, filled it with it with tea, put the water to boil again, then filled it and stirred two clockwise, three times counterclockwise. The simple everyday things helped her keep sane, and keep the thought of Rowan’s fate at bay. She was quietly thankful to her editor that she allowed her to write this piece. Maybe it could work as an exorcism of sorts and get this patch of brambles from her head.
She returned to the computer.
Why do I feel like...
She stared at the open sentence for a few minutes, holding the mug in her hands, waiting for the tea to cool down. Like, like, like. She closed her eyes. What was she even trying to say? Like she had been hurt? Abandoned? Misdirected?
Why do I feel like I have been betrayed? she typed. Maybe because my friend justified her choice through the freedoms we fought for and keep fighting for. But this shouldn’t be what they are for, should it now? We sought to stress the importance of consent—only so that now we are allowed to consent to losing it? We argued that women possess sexual autonomy and desire of their own—but must it take the shape of abject submission? I have always assumed that if I were alive in the 1980s, I would find against the anti-pornography feminists, for the cause of sex-positivity and anti-censorship. But now, I keep wondering: is my friend’s choice the result of the ascendancy of sex positivity?
So that was it? Was she really just mad at Rowan for failing her? A part of her wanted to say yes. That her friend should have really known better than to do what she did. But was she supposed to dismiss her choice like that? She sipped on the tea and then brought the browser window back. She needed a break. Idly she started clicking through the dozens of tabs she had open.
As usual, within five minutes she’d landed on the front page of YouTube. Her recommendations were nothing but Galatea content. Galatea advertisments, for both surgery and fuck-farms. Newsclips on Galatea. Video essays on Galatea, the good ones and the cranky. Galatea adverts made into vaporwave memes. A Galatea ASMR, somehow. It would probably take her weeks to get this off her recommendations. At least there was no Galatea music. She browsed through the songs the algorithm suggested she should re-listen to. None of them seemed to fit the mood. What was that she wanted to listen to, again?
She clicked on the search bar and entered the word jumpers. It was the fourth clip from the top. The thumbnail was two women raising their guitars in a salute, the drummer hidden behind her kit. She opened it, and started pacing the room again.
I spend the afternoon in cars
I sit in traffic jams for hours
don't push me, I am not OK...
The words were immediately familiar; Carrie Brownstein’s voice felt like an old friend. As ever, it spoke to her, even as it made her think back to the black years of her life. As ever, it felt true, even if painfully so. Quickly enough, she found herself humming along, the words coming to her lips unbeckoned.
...be still this sad day
be still this sad year
hope your last hope
fear you last fear
you're not the only one…
She waited for the music to die down and opened Word again. She knew what she wanted to write.
They say that slavery is a kind of death: the social death. It rips you from the world you have once inhabited and makes you something else. It makes you someone’s else. Slavery is a kind of death. Social, but death nonetheless. I feel betrayed, because I feel like my friend chose death.
There, truth: as I think of her, I think of someone departed. We are increasingly accepting, as a society, of suicide, of euthanasia. But it is never not a tragedy. My friend was gripped by unhappiness and unfulfillment. But the way she chose to deal with it wasn’t to struggle against what made her feel like that. Instead, she chose to surrender. To render her body to a capitalist ogre.
Should she mention that Rowan was trans? She frowned. No, that was a bad idea. It would invite the absolute worst in the commenters. Inexplicably, her audience included terfs, and she had no desire to deal with any of that right now. She was writing about her friend as a woman, because that’s what Rowan identified as, and that’s what mattered. Not her genitals.
But should you ever be free to do something like that? Should you ever be free to consent to objectification? To social death? Some of our values indicate that it should be the case. But now my friend made that choice, and it terrified me to think that she chose this kind of death because it felt better to die like that rather than to live as she was.
Desire is a hungry god.
I hope she is okay right now. I hope that whatever is happening to her is not hurting her. I hope that she is happy. They say that most people who sign Galatea contracts do not regret it afterwards. But I struggle to believe in that. Who can tell what years of bondage can do to a mind?
I hope she will be returned to me. I hope I will see her again. But I fear that if she ever returns, she will be no longer the person I knew. I fear that I have lost her, and I fear it is all, somehow, our fault.
She sighed. It’d ended up more depressing than she wanted it to be, but at least she’d gotten it out. She opened the email client, attached it to an empty email to her editor, and pressed “send”. Already, she felt lighter. The clock showed 4PM. Enough time to get a work-out in before hitting the club.
Maybe that would wash the feeling away, whatever that feeling was.