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Embracing the Divine

INTERVIEW BY MOLLY SIMMONS


Jessie Sage is a writer, a mother, a sex worker and a former seminary student. She spoke to Petit Mort about the intersection of sex work, religion, and the possibility of divine ecstasy. Excerpts from her forthcoming book, An Unexpected Place: Sex, Work, Home published by West Virginia University Press, are interspersed throughout the interview.


In my first semester at seminary, while newly pregnant with my first child, I was in a systematic theology class when I learned, for the first time, that Catholics believe in transubstantiation, and how this is different than the protestant interpretations of the sacrament as either purely symbolic, or as partially symbolic (consubstantiation). I learned that transubstantiation, in Catholic dogma, is the belief that the bread and wine of the eucharist, upon being blessed by the Priest, becomes the body and blood of Christ. Not Christ’s body and blood plus bread and wine, that’s consubstantiation. And not bread and wine as a proxy for the body and blood of Christ, which is what Mormons told me. But the actual body and blood of Christ. This blew my mind: What kind of magic is Catholicism?


In the second semester of the same class, now visibly pregnant and able to feel my child moving inside of me, I was introduced to liberation theology, whose main tenant is that God stands on the side of the poor and oppressed. Years later, when I moved into sex work activism, the words of James Cone, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Leonardo Boff echoed in my head when I heard Black trans sex workers remind privileged white organizers, such as myself, to center the voices of the most marginalized: those who were disproportionately impacted by poverty, violence, and policing.


PETIT MORT (MOLLY SIMMONS)

I’m really fascinated to know why you chose to go to seminary?


JESSIE SAGE

I finished college in San Diego and I was applying to graduate schools. I was planning to go to graduate school in philosophy and then my husband at the time got a job offer in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was looking around at what kind of schools they had up there and found this ecumenical theological consortium affiliated with UC Berkeley (The Graduate Theological Seminary—The GTU); There are nine different theological seminaries: five different Catholic orders, a Presbyterian one, an Episcopal one, a Buddhist Study Center, and a Jewish Study Center. I was interested in the school because toward the end of my philosophy program, I started thinking that some of the more interesting questions that we studied in philosophy were actually theological questions: “What’s the purpose of the universe? And is there a God? Does God care about the creatures, the people?” The theological education I got at the GTU exposed me to a lot of new ideas. While they were still very abstract to me when I was in seminary, they would become concrete and shape the rest of my life, including parenting and my later sex work career. In retrospect, the time I spent in seminary is very connected to the work and life I have now.

While I am no longer a part of religious communities, this desire to be a part of something larger than myself and to ask big questions is still a huge part of my life, it has just taken different shapes at different times. I started as a philosophy student, and then I went to seminary, and now I’m a part of a sex work community and there are consistent threads that weave all of these pieces of my career and life together.


I FEEL THAT WITHIN THIS WORK WE CAN HAVE THESE MOMENTS OF BEAUTY AND CONNECTION THAT FEEL ALMOST ECSTATIC.


As a young pregnant graduate student, I did not yet know that I would become a sex worker. I also did not yet know that the child I was carrying would be transgender and suffer from significant mental health issues that would shape our lives. While I grew up in poverty, I didn’t yet have a language to understand my own experience; I had yet to be introduced to the notion of white privilege or to the framing of intersectionality, with its interlocking oppressions. In short, everything I was learning still felt abstract. I did not yet know what any of this had to do with me.

In class one day, my professor showed the 1989 film, Romero, which followed the story of the life and death of Oscar Romero, the Salvadorian Catholic Archbishop during the guerrilla uprising of the late 1970s in El Salvador. At one point in the movie, the paramilitary had taken over Romero’s church, lining its perimeter with gunmen. Romero’s parishioners go to him seeking to celebrate. Initially, Romero is intimidated by the gunmen and turns them away, but then he comes back with renewed resolve and—in a dramatized moment—puts on his sacramental vestments, breaks the line, and enters the church with his parishioners following.


In this scene, they celebrate the eucharist, while surrounded by the death squad: Jesus’ body and blood are center stage, with his followers risking their lives to become one with it. It should not be surprising, given the intense power of this political act of protest, that later in the film, the moment of Romero’s death comes right after he lifts the host and pronounces, This is the body of Christ. He is shot on the altar.

As a young seminary student who has been raised Mormon—where the people who were administering the sacrament were the kids from high school, and no one believed there was any power beyond the symbolic—I couldn’t wrap my head around risking my life to go to church. Eating bread and grape juice though (as the Mormons do), is categorically different from taking the literal body and blood of Jesus into your own.


PM

I think it’s so fascinating how you you introduce the idea of the magic of Catholicism and of Transubstantiation. I love the idea, again, that through ritual, the bread and the wine can become the blood and the body of Christ. I think how you connect it to sex work and sex work or activism is super fascinating. Could you give a little background about the inspiration for this chapter?


JS

The inspiration of this chapter came from a relationship that I have with a client. This client and I were talking about why he desires what he desires. He grew up very religious, in an Evangelical tradition and so did his wife. Both of them were really shaped by a lot of sexual shame and repression. They had this thought, “Well, we’ll get married, and then we’ll be fine.” It turned out, which isn’t surprising to people well versed in sexuality, that once they got married, their shame and all of their sexual baggage didn’t just magically disappear. They’re happy in their partnership together, but he’s struggling with the sexual part of their relationship. Both of them are. The reason that I was thinking about all of this is because we had this very long conversation about religion and sexual shame and how that has shaping his own sexual desires. That was really interesting to me, and it started to get me thinking about the fact that I have kind of an unconventional relationship with religion. I had exposure to a lot of different religions, but also I was always kind of the lone person in any religion that I was practicing.

I felt like I got to have this kind of outsider’s perspective of religion, that made space for all of the beauty and magic of religious practice and belief without any of the baggage. One of the connections for me between Christianity and sexuality is that you have to assume that with incarnation comes the messiness of bodies too: all of the desire and all of the pain and all of the beauty of bodies. I think about that a lot when I’m with clients, especially when clients talk to me about their religious backgrounds, which they often do. Sex work is work, but on the other hand I feel that within this work we can have these moments of beauty and connection that almost feel ecstatic.


PM

I think that’s a really interesting avenue that gets opened up here. The idea of a sex worker as a sort of a priestess figure that people come to for absolution because they feel guilty or because they feel shame. They’re like, “I need to tell all these people something,” in a way that’s very different from going to therapy, because it is ecstatic.


JS

It opens up the space for that sort of ecstasy in a way that is totally precluded in therapy, you’re not allowed to engage in that way.


My time in seminary was marked by my changing relationship to my body—when I had literally created space for another being within my own body. I learned about eucharistic theology, the history of the church, and the fight for liberation while my first child grew inside of me. I gave birth weeks before sitting for final exams, which I took while she was attached to my breast. Berkeley is a magical place. While still nursing, I read about the medieval mystics who not only had visions of breastfeeding the baby Jesus, but who also gender-queered the entire dynamic, seeing themselves feeding from Jesus’ wounds—drinking the blood from his body—being nourished by him as if his blood was milk. While sitting at 10am weekday chapel, holding my baby in my arms, I would look up at the crucifix and study his hanging body, a habit that—while I rarely enter a church these days—I can’t seem to break.


I would study the particularity of the representation of His body on the cross, his hollowed out belly, the loin cloth hanging from his narrow hips, the stake in his side. I would imagine myself kissing his wound, bringing my mouth to it, running my tongue along his skin. Sometimes, as the mystics did, I would imagine fucking Jesus, but often I would just imagine laying my head on his belly—as if the cross was horizontal and not vertical—and resting there with him. Our skin-to-skin contact erases the pain of violence, just as it does after childbirth.


PM

Nor should you. That’s its own thing. Some sex workers are like, “Oh, what I do is therapy,” and then other people are like, “No, you’re not a mental health care professional,” but it is its own thing and it is very healing, it is very therapeutic.


JS

And something can be therapeutic without it being formal “therapy”. I think that this is where people get caught up in semantics. I feel like this chapter was born out of a confessional moment that also made me connect with the spirituality of what some of this work looks like.


PM

I think it’s so beautiful that you are able to take this Catholic/Christian viewpoint as an entry point, and have it be not as a source of shame, but a source of joy and ecstasy. When you were talking about the connection of reading the medieval mystics who had visions of breastfeeding baby Jesus, and then also your experience as a new mother at that moment, breastfeeding your child... I think it’s really profound.


JS

And fast-forwarding and having clients engaging in the same way. It’s complex. It’s also labor and so much more.


PM

There are opportunities for sex workers to serve as divine portals to help assist on other people’s journeys. That is often really hard to suss out and see because there’s criminalization, there’s violence, there’s marginalization, there’s a lack of labor rights, there’s lots of misogyny. There are all these complicating issues, but there are moments of really divine opportunity, where we can see ourselves as sex workers in that priestess role, where someone’s coming to us in a confessional way.


JS

There’s the whole history of sex workers being priestess prostitutes, being the holders of this sort of religious wisdom. I think erasing this history really does us a disservice.


PM

It’s interesting, because when we talk about ecstasy in the divine sense, why should that be separated from ecstasy in the physical sense? There is a Roman sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini of St. Teresa’s religious experience of being visited by an angel and the sculpture makes it look like she’s having an orgasm. It was so clearly sexual many people actually didn’t want the sculpture inside Cornaro Chapel. There’s something about the layers of religious shame and trauma that blankets over divine ecstasy, which is very connected to physical ecstasy and the core of Christian tradition. Christianity does really exalt this connection to the physical body.


JS

Right? It’s interesting because to me that’s Christianity at its best. There’s obviously so many problems with Christianity, but at its best it is this intense connection with the physical body, the incarnation of God among the people. This is why I was talking about the Eucharist because I feel like the Eucharist is such an amazing example of people desiring to take God inside their own bodies. It feels very sensual. It feels very penetrative to me. This is why St. Teresa looking like she’s having an orgasm makes sense.


PM

It’s very erotic, the idea of consuming this body so that I too can literally be one with it. Be one with God.


JS

That’s also sexuality at its best. There’s obviously corruption in all of these things, but if we’re going to look at what we desire — our religious and sexual longings – it’s a connection with something besides ourselves. It’s pleasure, but it’s also connection. Melting your body into somebody else’s body.


PM

Connection is arguably way more important than moments of physical pleasure that we feel.


JS

That’s why those moments stick with us, why we don’t just walk away from them, why we have erotic attachments to people.


PM

Exactly. Now, if we’re using sex workers as an archetype of the priestess, you close the segment talking about watching clients suck on your breasts. It seems like clients have maybe been able to work through some of their own religious and sexual trauma with you and also through you as a vessel. Are there times you feel empowered by that? Or are there moments when it feels objectifying in a whole new way?


JS

To me that doesn’t feel objectifying, and I feel like one of the reasons that I can connect sexuality and spirituality is in part because this particular way of relating allows me to play the game. Turning the Madonna-whore complex upside down. To me that feels very powerful. I’ve been a mother since I was 23, I’m 44 now. I have three kids and I’ve lost two. I’ve had two miscarriages, and I feel I’ve spent a tremendous amount of my time pregnant. Nursing babies, taking care of babies, raising children. There’s a way this role in our culture is devalued —the role of mother and caretaker—and it’s completely stripped of sexuality. We have a MILF trope, but the reason we have a MILF trope is because it’s assumed that moms aren’t hot. Most of them aren’t even moms, they’re just women over 30. This is not meant to be essentialism, because I do not think that all women interact with their bodies this way—but this is how I happen to experience my body. There’s something to me that feels very powerful about using my body to care and love for my kids, but also to care for my clients. It almost feels like a rebellion against this idea that women can’t both be mother and a sex pot at the same time, or can’t have a robust sexuality that doesn’t impact or negatively harm their children.


In that way, sexuality and motherhood and religiosity all get very interwoven for me in a way that being able to play that out in a safe space with clients feels good. I don’t do that with all clients, and I don’t even do that with my own partner because it doesn’t make sense when you’re running a family with somebody. I relish the vulnerability that clients come to me with, and the confessional nature. Maybe it’s because I also spent five years primarily as a phone sex operator earlier in my career. Being a phone sex operator is also like sitting in confessional, but people are calling and talking about their past, talking about their parents, talking about desires that they don’t want to tell their spouses about —that experience has become very encoded into how I do in-person work, too. There’s something about that kind of bounded intimacy, those bounded moments where you can let go of shame and let go of stigma even if only for an hour or two and enter into the moment. I like that. I haven’t been in a situation where I’ve felt objectified in a bad way because this idea of objectification feels very second wave feminist to me.


PM

Right? It exists in a very specific container. Like you said, this isn’t something that I’m doing with my partner, because we don’t want our partners or our husbands or our wives to see us as divine sex beings all the time, we want them to see us in all our dimensions. But when we access this in a very specific container, we also have that understanding that this person does not see me as a fully formed human being. They are viewing this idealized, divine version of myself. And that’s okay because I am playing this small role in their life or even just in this moment because it’s what they need.


JS

It’s something you can’t do all the time. Objectification is not being able to be your full self outside of whatever it is that you’re being objectified for. The fun thing about the sex work session is that you can play this larger than life character that is a part of who you are, but isn’t who you are all the time. A minister does the same thing. They give a half an hour sermon and they do a couple sessions a week, and they preside over things, but then they go home and watch TV, they hang out with their family. If they were supposed to play that role 24/7 to everyone around them, that would all fall apart.


PM

Exactly. If I’m in the confessional booth, I’m not asking my priest how his day is going. I’m asking him to meet a certain need and he’s agreeing to do that because he’s accepted this community role. As much as a part of us understands that these are their own, full human beings, we interact with them in a very specific social contract where we don’t have to care about the rest of their lives.

Sex work doesn’t just need to be valued as labor, but the type of sex work that we’re talking about needs to be valued as a community role. There are many layers and sex work is very complicated, but what if we could embrace the idea of sex work being a community role, and not just something people need to do to survive? What if we welcomed sex work as an important community role?


I think that would actually allow for more healing experiences to occur. We often say that sex work can be so healing but we don’t often get to really live that because it is so stigmatized and criminalized. But sex work as a community role is the future I would like to envision. Not just decriminalized but a cherished community role.


JS

The fact that it’s so underground means there are a lot of people who could really benefit from seeing sex workers but can’t talk to their friends about it, have no idea how to access it, and don’t know how to start. It’s interesting because I have people who are following me and my writing or are following me for other things, and they’ll come to me and be almost embarrassed, asking, “Would there be a way that I could connect with you or set up a session through a phone or zoom call?” And I’ll always say, “Of course, this is what I do!” Even when you’re out in some sort of way, I think it’s really hard for people to know how to go about having those needs met by sex workers, because there isn’t a lot of information because it’s pushed underground so far. So I like that future.


PM

I think it would be very freeing if we were able to embody the sex-work-as-priestess role, because it’s less frustrating for us when people don’t view us as fully human. Because I’m not asking you to do that. I’m asking you to also engage in this very specific scenario where I am playing a specific role. I’m not looking for you to view me in any other way, so it makes it way less frustrating when they almost inevitably don’t.


JS

It does make it less frustrating. Going back to the question you were asking before, I feel like because it is so contained, we have our moments of frustration where clients say annoying things or try to undercut us or whatever, but then we walk out of that and leave it there. I mean, we do it when we’re doing well. I know things get hard. But being able to leave it there and having a more clear sense of who we are in this role, I think also allows us to kind of shield ourselves from that a little bit.


PM

I think a great way to tie it all together is to come back to that final passage where you wrote, “We seek refuge in approval through our bodies and into the bodies of the other— —Jesus’ body, Mother’s body, lover’s body, and whore body.” Coming back to the physical body as a point of ecstasy and awareness and the site of healing itself.


JS

I think that our bodies are very important. I feel like in our culture, we cut ourselves off from our bodies and our bodily desires and carry so much shame about them. Not just shame about our sexuality or our desires but also shame about our bodies in general. What they’re supposed to look like and who they’re for, how to dress them, and what you do with them. There’s a lot of shame about illness, too, and the degeneration of our bodies, which all of us will go through at some point if we’re not already going through that. I think healing can come from accepting our bodies and accepting the pleasure we can get from our bodies. The pleasure and the rest we can feel in the bodies of other people, which is interesting because I talk a lot about ecstasy, but I also think in there I touch on rest and refuge in people’s bodies as well. The body just seems to me to be a site of both our joy and our pain. Experiencing those joys and sorrows through the bodies of the people around us is important.


PM

Merging physical bodies is very powerful. It’s interesting, because the spirit of so many of these Christian traditions is very erotic, as this whole piece is. It’s really become separated from a lot of their religious practices.


JS

Right. And almost covered over. Even if you look at Christian images of Mary, in art, so much of it is so unbelievably erotic. All of the art is very embodied and very erotic in ways that you have to work very hard to not see that. Part of me feels like there’s so much shame that people do work very hard to not see it. You can take the shame blinders off for a little while and experience it for the erotic beauty that it is. I think that can be a real blessing.


Often, in bed with my clients, my favorite part of a session is looking down at them while they gently and lovingly lick and suck my breasts. This act, which is intended to be a form of foreplay, often feels like a climax, though it is not in a technical sense. While it is physically pleasurable, it is also more. When they look up at me—as if seeking approval—I am reminded of the question I asked my mother on that chaotic day in my childhood, about what it would feel like to receive God’s approval at the moment of death. I think about all the ways that we seek refuge and approval through our own bodies and into the bodies of others. Jesus’ body. Mothers’ bodies. Lovers’ bodies. Whores’ bodies.



JESSIE SAGE INTERVIEWED BY MOLLY SIMMONS

PHOTOS BY PJ PATELLA RAY

EXCERPTS FROM JESSIE SAGE'S UPCOMING BOOK COURTESY OF JESSIE SAGE



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