Vagina Monologues

05.22.14

Is This Dildo-Licking, Dominatrix-Loving Vogue Blogger the New Face of Feminism?

Karley Sciortino has parlayed her raunchy, witty blog into a Vice video series and a Vogue column, one that raises all sorts of questions about feminism’s modern-day tightrope act between exploitation and empowerment.

Karley Sciortino leans forward, adjusting a microphone buried in her cleavage. “I feel like you should be really aggressive. Pour it down my throat,” she chirps, flashing a wicked smile. Perched delicately on a folding chair on a Brooklyn rooftop, Sciortino is shooting a video for her website, Slutever.com, satirizing New Age hippiedom, playing a skeptic among friends demanding she try an ayahuasca-like “mind smoothie.”

“I think I might just stick with my dirty martinis and Xanax,” Sciortino deadpans, glancing warily at the neon concoction a friend just thrusted in her face. She reluctantly gulps it down, chokes, and allows little rivers of green juice to dribble from the corner of her mouth. She looks at her friends with heavy eyes, giggles, inhales, and takes another sip.

The 28-year-old Sciortino is something of a hipster Jayne Mansfield—busty, unnaturally blonde, and calculatingly effervescent. Once toiling in the increasingly crowded online world of sex blogging, she’s parlayed her blunt and expository writing into a show on Vice.com, a fawning profile in The New York Times, and her own thoughtful column on sex, relationships, and women’s issues for Vogue.com, providing a younger, edgier take on the magazine's traditionally staid content. (A typical topic: “Three’s a Crowd: Can An Open Relationship Work?”) Sciortino’s public persona is a bundle of contradictions: she writes and talks about women’s issues in the studied language of feminism but with the breathiness of an ingenue; she has the physical shape and sex appeal of a ’50s bombshell, but it conceals a keen intellectual sharpness. “I like playing with that kind of juxtaposition,” she says. “I like being the spacy, pin-up-inspired blond girl while simultaneously being thoughtful.”

And it’s still an unusual combination, particularly in an age when the feminist blogosphere is often mired in outrage and recrimination (feminist writer Michelle Goldberg recently lamented the “toxic” environment and “slashing righteousness” that has overwhelmed the women's movement).

With so many guardians of feminism ready to skewer any young celebrity questioning the utility of the feminist label, Sciortino is a refreshingly unpredictable voice, skillfully navigating that elusive territory between exploitation and empowerment, while existing comfortably outside the traditional borders of the movement. A bit brainy and a bit porny, she represents a new wave of contemporary feminism, mixing a downtown New York party scenesterism with a dash of women’s studies seriousness. 
 
But Sciortino isn't a product of the academy. After high school, she escaped her small hometown of Highland, New York for London to study acting, quickly developing an aversion to theater culture (“everyone was an egomaniac”). She lived in a commune with artists and drug dealers, infiltrating the city’s burgeoning hipster subculture while waitressing at a club where she earned more picking cash up off the floor at the end of the night than from her meager tips. Sciortino and her friends self-identified as “freegans,” eating out of garbage cans and living on $50 a week. “Being anti-capitalist or rebellious or subversive is much more accepted in London than New York,” she says. “People care about what books you’ve read, whereas in New York people care more about how successful you are.”
 
Between scrounging for meals and an aggressive schedule of partying, Sciortino interned at Dazed and Confused magazine and started Slutever, which would serve as an outlet for her writing on sex and culture. It was an auspicious time for a 21-year-old woman to publicly document her sexual escapades and humiliations. Feminism had gone into partial hibernation during the 1990s, saddled with a reputation for severity and humorlessness. But the Internet, in the hands of low-paid content producers recently graduated from college (where feminism never went out of style), allowed for the flowering of the next wave of modern feminism. It was an era that would see the rise of women’s websites like Jezebel, Gawker media’s snarky and flamboyant sister site, and its countless imitators.

But Slutever, with its rawness, honesty, and self-deprecating humor, was something different. Drawing the attention of the hipster media colossus Vice, Sciortino launched an accompanying—and provocative—documentary-style video series on the site, during which she interviewed “sexperts” (porn stars, sex therapists, neuroscientists, and professional dominatrixes) on topics ranging from BDSM to the complexities of the female orgasm. She dabbled in making mildly pornographic videos for the French fashion and art magazine Purple, in which she can be seen fellating a dildo or shaving her vagina to the come-hither tune of Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler.”

But her Vogue.com column leans less on titillation and more on intellectual savvy, whether debating gender fluidity in the media and pop culture (“Why are we more preoccupied with the body than the brutality?”) or the “female intuition” stereotype (“a term that is used to deride women and give men ownership over rational thought”).

It was an auspicious time for a 21-year-old woman to publicly document her sexual escapades and humiliations.

Vogue’s Digital Director, Sally Singer, first approached Sciortino last year, seeking a response to British novelist Will Self’s musings on men’s preoccupation with sex. Scortino argued that women are no less obsessed. (“Women have a cosmic sexual power,” she wrote. “Don’t think we don’t know it.”)

Slutever’s explicit content might seem at odds with Vogue’s more buttoned-up brand. But Singer was impressed with Sciortino’s compelling, self-aware writing style. “What struck me was not the subject matter [of Slutever] but the humility and humor in it,” says Singer, who was looking for a fresh female voice for Vogue.com when a friend introduced her to Sciortino’s blog. “I don’t think of it as feminist or not feminist, I think of it as intelligent and modern,” Singer tells me, describing her writing as “so clever, so very Vogue, very current.”

“I think Karley is exactly the person she wants to be. It’s not a pose. It’s not calculating. It’s just smart. There’s none of that cynicism or misplaced irony that can affect young, posturing writers.”

But Sciortino cut her teeth in that world of excess irony, cynicism, and posturing. In 2012, Jezebel recruited Sciortino to be their “resident sexpert” and write a Slutever-style advice column. She offered tips on dealing with a partner’s sudden impotence, how to know if threesomes are for you, and whether the male fantasy of ejaculating on a woman’s face (or, as it's known in the terrifying nomenclature of porn, the “facial”) is degrading.

Her writing for Jezebel was colloquial, the tone predictably irreverent, perhaps too much so for readers who interpreted her semi-satirical advice as sincere. “I think the idea of giving relationship and sex advice is somewhat ridiculous because it’s not a math problem,” she says. “So I think a lot of my jokes were lost in translation with people who weren’t familiar with Slutever.”

And the takeaway wasn’t always Jezebel-y. “People—women in particular—really need to get over the ‘is this degrading?’ thing,” she wrote in response to the facial inquirer. “I understand there are complex emotions involved in sex, so everything isn't always black and white, but I also think that sometimes girls' brains become so clouded by bullshit ‘feminist’ ideals — ‘thou shall not be treated like an object,’ ‘thou shall always be offended by men's pervy remarks’ (as if we are not equally adept at dismissing them, and dishing them out)—that we spoil our own fun.”

Her tenure with Jezebel was short-lived, in part because she wasn’t particularly popular with the site’s notoriously mercurial commenters. “If I wanted to read the ramblings of a trainwreck I would subscribe to Lindsey Lohans twitter feed, not some chick who thinks we should pay her attention and pat her on the back because shes ‘sex positive,’" one wrote.

Sciortino is now dismissive of the site’s content—especially in its most recent iteration. “Jezebel is sort of the worst website in the world,” she says, arguing that the site trivializes women’s issues by giving too much space to celebrity gossip, body image, and the personal problems of privileged Jezebelistas. “Feminism isn’t just about rich, white 27-year-old women in New York feeling fat."

But Sciortino is quick to note that she also falls into the privileged white women camp, and that while she self-identifies as a feminist, she feels her blog is “more a product of what feminism has achieved than it is an act of feminism. The fact that I can blog about my promiscuous behavior for a living with minimal backlash is proof of how far we’ve come.”

Indeed, Sciortino aligns herself with controversial lesbian author Camille Paglia, who became an enemy of the feminist establishment with her 1990 book Sexual Personae, in which she argues that feminism “sees every hierarchy as repressive, a social fiction; every negative about women is a male lie designed to keep her in place.”

When I ask her opinion of young celebrities who associate feminism with misandry, she rolls her eyes and references Carol Gilligan’s “difference feminism,” suggesting that the perception of feminism as anti-men is too absurd to merit discussion. She is more vocal about young women who have a “superficial, almost Tumblr understanding of feminist issues” and adopt the label “because they think Riot Grrrl is cool or read somewhere that Petra Collins doesn’t shave her crotch.”

But Sciortino's writing isn't simply the musings of a sexually open and expressive young woman, scribbling about sexcapades alone in her apartment. She's engaged in actual sex work. In 2011, prodded by her growing legion of Slutever readers, she entered the orbit of the fetish community, pocketing extra cash as a professional dominatrix (she documented her early “training” on her Vice show).

“At first it was so bizarre,” she mumbles into a hand mirror, her mouth taut as she applies lipstick in the back of a taxi. Sciortino earned $50 an hour for watching her dominatrix coach “beat up this Hasidic Jew who wanted to be put into a leopard thong and be infantilized.” Now, she’s rushing from a video shoot to see a client—there’s no watching or coaching these days--having changed into a red dress and white strappy sandal heels.

The man she’s meeting tonight “likes to be treated like a dog, to wear a collar and be made to eat his own cum out of a bowl,” she says, grimacing. But she’s happy to accommodate his tastes for $600, requiring an hour at dinner (part of their routine) followed by an hour of riding him—on his back, like a horse—around his apartment. She derives no sexual pleasure from her dominatrix gig, she says, but still likes “the arousal of the ego.”

Despite this more X-rated life, she still attracts mainstream attention. Last year, Sciortino and several underwear-clad Columbia students filmed themselves smearing egg yolks on each other’s faces and making out in the Butler Library, publishing the video on Purple.com. According to an accompanying description, the film “explores the rituals of American Ivy League secret societies, to the point of hysteria, highlighting our culture’s perception of female desire.” The mainstream media salivated—as they are wont to do when Ivy League students take out their tits on camera and call it feminism.

Sciortino conceived the film with Columbia undergraduate Coco Young, but has since distanced herself from the political agenda Young pushed to the press. “I’m always hesitant to over-explain my work,” she tells me. “It’s fine if people want to analyze it, but I feel like giving too much weight to what was realistically just a fun project verges on pretension.”

Many of Sciortino’s other porn-inflected videos don’t purport to have a feminist message, but they could conceivably qualify as art. Porn stars rarely stumble from the set of “Stacy and Susie’s Anal Lickfest” into the Guggenheim, but artists can—and often do—make the reverse journey. In 1991, Jeff Koons pocketed millions with “Made In Heaven,” a series of explicit photographs of the artist penetrating his then-wife, a Hungarian pornstar.

When I mention a video—shot in black and white—in which Sciortino masturbates on a fire escape, she feigns annoyance: “That was art, OK?” It’s a sarcastic comment punctuated with a self-deprecating chuckle. She seems to have shed that early-20s instinct, so common among liberal arts undergrads, to dress up porn in the language of high culture. “We intellectualize everything—sex, fashion—so it makes sense that we would intellectualize porn,” she says. “But we forget that porn really has one purpose: to get people off.”

Still, there’s something to be said for a porn star achieving mainstream appeal. The Jenna Jamesons of the porn universe—pumped with silicone, hair crackling from peroxide—are far less alluring than the stereotype-defying smart pornstars, the Stoyas, Sasha Greys—and, perhaps, the Karley Sciortinos.

“People are uncomfortable with the idea of a multidimensional women,” Sciortino says. “Either you’re the slutty sex monster or you’re a lawyer, whereas men can be both. We don’t have slutty role models.”

We do now.