A few weeks ago I came across the term "gig economy." A twitterer I follow posted the article Pixel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in the Gig Economy, written by Sarah Kessler, who decided to try to make a full-time living working odd jobs listed on sites like Taskrabbit, Fiverr, Uber, and Airbnb. The founders of such sites describe them as empowering workers to find work on a project-by-project basis, which allows them to set their own prices and schedules and to escape the doldrums of working inflexible jobs for Corporate America. But as the writer soon finds out, what she's able to scrape together from the jobs she wins doesn't add up to a living. On her best day, she makes $11 an hour. Her entire week nets her $166.
"My experiences in the gig economy raise troubling issues about what it means to be an employee today and what rights a worker, even on a assignment-by-assignment basis, are entitled to," she writes. She phones Leah Busque, CEO of Taskrabbit, for comment on the article.
"We're about empowering these independent contractors to build out their own businesses," says Busque. "We don't want them to be TaskRabbit employees. It's good for them to have the autonomy and the drive to do what they want, when they want, for the price that they want." When questioned on what percentage of Taskrabbit users are able to earn a passable living from the site, Busque estimates that it's around ten percent.
The twitter user I follow who posted the article, @sblackmoore, followed it up with a series of tweets in which he wrote, "I don't like capitalism at the best of times but the gig economy bothers me even more. I get there's a need and this is a way to fill it. But I can't help feeling that companies like Lyft or Uber or TaskRabbit are essentially facilitating exploitation. They're preying, yes preying, not leveraging or any other nice corporate euphemisms, on a desperate workforce trying to make ends meet. In the gig economy you're essentially doing lots of tiny jobs for little money, no security, no guarantees. And yes, we all have to embrace a certain amount of ambiguity in life, but this kind of thinking is nuts."
After reading both the article and his tweets I was left feeling deeply unsettled and vulnerable for the rest of the day.
The whole situation reminded me of my last serious Dominant/submissive relationship.
Most people know at this point that I spent four years as a successful professional dominatrix in New York City and that during that time I was also the girlfriend, employee, and 24/7 collared submissive of my boss, who owned the house where I worked. It was a relationship I chose -- pursued, even -- and I in no way felt that my boss exploited me for the purposes of having a sexual relationship. In retrospect I do, however, feel that my boyfriend exploited me for the purposes of having an employee.
A lot fell on my plate during those four years, and it wasn't always within what should have been a reasonable expectation of a young woman in her early 20s. As the eventual top-earning domme there (how my boyfriend encouraged and schemed with me to get me to out-earn the other women there in order to win himself more political power against his business partner is a story unto itself), I was responsible for managing my stable of clients; as the director of training and marketing I was responsible for the ability of our new hires to play safely and to market themselves effectively; as a shift manager I was responsible for day-to-day business such as drawing up the weekly schedule, ensuring the cleanliness of the facility, answering the phones, and a whole host of other office mundanity.
Several of the other dommes in high-ranking positions were able to draw clear boundaries regarding their workloads -- even if those boundaries often came in the form of simply neglecting the tasks they didn't feel like doing -- but because I was my boss's slave, and because I felt that a good slave should devote her full efforts to the interests of her Master, I kept letting the work pile up on me until I was stressed to the point of non-function. And in the after-hours I catered to his sexual interests in a way that, while always consensual and kinda hot in the way it deprived me of agency, didn't often take my own desires into account, because my boyfriend thought that being a Dominant just meant getting his way all the time.
Despite all I did for him, it became abundantly clear that my boyfriend really wasn't looking out for me when the NYPD raided the business in 2008. The city hadn't seen such a string of busts since the 90s, but that summer, three or four other houses were shut down before us, and I urged him to take precautions in turning down certain kinds of sessions that might have entered the grey areas of legality. He refused. When the police busted in and asked who he was, he readily told them he was the owner and was promptly arrested, and shortly thereafter his and all the business's accounts were drained of funds by the city. It might not have crossed his mind at the time, and certainly I don't believe it was his intention to drive a train straight through my life, but he should have done enough thinking ahead to have known that, in the event of those circumstances, I would be the only person in his life able to loan him the money to pay his legal defense, house him, and support him financially in the year that followed. Which I did. His carelessness caused him to drag me under the bus with him and to endanger me and my safety.
But really, I should have seen the signs long before. Our relationship went through tumultuous phases of monogamy and non-monogamy, each seeming to find a way to deprive me of my needs in a manner I always thought the opposite would fix. When his work schedule prevented him from giving enough attention to our relationship, I suggested we open it up so that I could get some of my needs met by other people. When he decided to take on other partners without telling them about me, each of his new lovers thinking that she was in line to be his girlfriend, I begged him to close off our relationship again. When he couldn't promise me not to date any of his other employees, I fell into unbearable anxiety and depression, both at work and at home, the kind where I paced and wrung my hands and tossed in bed because I couldn't stand the sensation of being in my own skin.
One day during this time he called me into one of the session rooms during a work shift and sat me down. I sat nervously in a chair across from him, frightened that I was in trouble over something I didn't know about. He told me he'd been talking about me with a friend of ours named John, a regular client of mine who worked as a social worker.
"John and I are worried about you," he said to me. "I've been talking to him about you and your behavior lately. We think you're suffering from depression."
OF COURSE I AM SUFFERING FROM DEPRESSION, YOU ASSHOLE, I wanted to scream. YOU ARE TRIGGERING ME AT EVERY FUCKING STEP OF OUR RELATIONSHIP.
"Fuck you," I whispered at him from my chair.
In hindsight, the pattern was clear. I was rewarded on a task-by-task basis for the work I did at my job and for the sexual service I provided, but my boyfriend wasn't actually invested in my well-being as anything other than a curious bystander.
"You're responsible for your own mental health!" he would lecture me. "I can't fix you! You have a problem with self-regulation, and it's likely that you suffer from borderline personality disorder. You should really get professional help."
Six weeks ago I auditioned for a position as a gogo dancer at a few of the clubs here in Vegas, and after my audition for The Palms I was hired on the spot. The woman told me she was going to bring me onto her existing team of dancers, but that I needed to "tone up" a bit before pool season began. I agreed, somewhat embarrassed but happy to have a job doing what I enjoy. I then waited weeks to hear from her. When she finally wrote me, I was booked for only one night of work through all of April, but she assured me she was recommending me for work at the pool once it opened. The next email informed all of the dancers that all gogos had been canceled for nightlife shifts until further notice, but that the pool team would be announced shortly for its start doing day shifts in May, and that we were all expected to keep maintaining our fitness in the meantime. Another week passed, and the pool team was announced. I was scheduled as an alternate. I still haven't made a single cent from the job yet (although I have been body-shamed several times for the privilege of not working).
Honestly I feel worse for the gogos who were already on the team before me, women who had already proved themselves as competent and reliable workers, who suddenly were out of a job for the entire month of April and whose employment on the pool team was not guaranteed. And this employment or lack thereof was coming from a large casino who most definitely had the means to continue paying them.
The pattern again is clear: show up for a night of work and you will make a night's pay, but we're not terribly invested in whether you are actually able to survive on what you're making.
And so many of my relationships have felt the same. I always know what actions to take in order to get a desired reaction out of my partner (seduction is handy for that), but I have generally remained unconvinced that my well-being is of great concern to them. People, whether lovers or employers, rarely look outside the myopia of their own self-interests. Do this and you will be momentarily rewarded, but no one gives a shit about whether you're actually okay or able to feel safe and survive.
Years after my relationship with my ex ended, I picked up the book Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship by Stan Tatkin, PsyD. The author studies the different attachment styles that people are outfitted with, usually unconsciously as a result of their early relationships with their parents, and how to create a relationship with your partner that makes them feel safe, in accordance with their particular attachment style. People who had an insecure or abusive relationship with one of their major caregivers (um, hi) might require more reassurance than those who had normal and supportive relationships in their early childhoods, but what Tatkin recommends is to approach those partners with understanding. Rather than saying, "Fix yourself! You have a problem with self-regulation! You probably have borderline personality disorder and you should really look into getting professional help with all the money you no longer have because you spent it all on my legal fees and the health insurance you don't have because you were working for my company which didn't provide it!", the book teaches partners how to look at one another without judgment, and figure out, Alright, what is it that you need from me to feel okay?
I bawled my eyes out through the entire thing.
A few days ago I came across an article online that referenced the same ideas about attachment styles, and introduced a new term: co-regulation, the idea that within a relationship we are not responsible only for regulating ourselves but also for regulating each other.
The ability to self-regulate is a crucial life skill, yet relationships require co-regulation, which is a different skill altogether. Living alone is one solution – there’s no one around to trigger you. Couples and families, on the other hand, are forced into close quarters with others who can easily feel like threats to their vulnerable primitives. You can “pet your lizard” to soothe your primitive brain and quiet your fears, but what do you do when your partner’s lizard brain feels cornered, and attacks?
In an ideal world, at moments like this, you can depend on your partner to provide you with reassurance and care. “It’s okay, honey. You’re safe, I’m here, and I’ve got you. Come on over here and get a big hug.” This soothes your frightened inner child, and your amygdala can de-escalate and relax. Safely embraced, your limbic system quiets from emergency red to cautious yellow, and eventually it settles back into the calm green zone of safety. “It’s okay, the danger has passed. I’m loved.”
In America, we're conditioned to value things like independence, self-sufficiency, entrepreneurship, hard work, an ability to make it alone in the cold, cold world. Even I have a chapter in my own book on self-sufficiency, because I do believe that we are all better partners to one another when we have the basics of our lives handled. And as a millennial I accept and even embrace things like the need for multiple income streams, or even non-monogamy, because often it's just unrealistic to depend on one job or one person to meet all our needs -- thank goodness, for example, that I have my coaching, modeling, and book/album sale revenue to provide income in the wake of apparently not working for The Palms as I had anticipated.
But how often in our quest for autonomy do we cross the line into simply not giving a shit about each other?
Last week my bestie, attraction coach Adam Lyons, came to Vegas and we caught up with one another. I told him how excited I am about my upcoming move to Los Angeles and how I started a Pinterest to map out how I want to decorate my next apartment. "I'm going to live in the fucking Floating World," I told him. "I'm going to create a space specifically designed to promote pleasure, an environment that allows me to do what I do best with the people I'm dating."
"And what about you?" he asked me. "Who looks after your pleasure?"
I thought for a moment.
"No, I'm quite happy with my role in life, actually," I told him. "I don't need my partners to do for me what I do for them, because I get a lot of pleasure out of doing it and frankly I'm better at it than most people. The kind of caretaking I require is different. I need a partner who is going to protect me as an investment. If I'm in service to someone, then they need to look out for me and make sure that I'm safe, even if it's just logical because my safety and well-being enable me to continue serving them."
"Valid," Adam replied. "I get that."
And that's where my ex went so horribly wrong. I was perfectly content being both an employee and sex slave, and even with the way that those two roles so hideously intermingled at times, and even with the fact that the Dominance/submission and boss/employee elements of our relationship meant a necessary imbalance of power. But in exchange for my consistent service on a daily basis, I should have been looked out for, protected, kept safe. Even if it was just so I could continute to perform my service at my best. Anything less is just neglectful.
In Wired For Love, Stan Tatkin refutes the popular idea that we cannot possibly love another person before first loving ourselves:
Is it really possible to love yourself before someone ever loves you? Think about it. How could this be true? If it were true, babies would come into this world already self-loving or self-hating. And we know they don't. In fact, human beings don't start by thinking anything about themselves, good or bad. We learn to love ourselves precisely because we have experienced being loved by someone. We learn to take care of ourselves because somebody has taken care of us.
After the incident where the boy I was dating left me when I was in the hospital on my birthday, I admittedly spent years dating people who were obviously incapable of taking care of me, simply because it saved me the anguish of disappointment. Hoping to be with someone who was capable of taking care of me and then seeing them fail, or worse, being with someone who was capable of taking care of me and yet made a choice not to, was too great a heartbreak to risk. So I dated a lot of broke and self-involved musicians, and I did all the caretaking myself, because it was just easier that way.
I've spent the last just-over-two-years of my life trying very seriously to unconvince myself that people who can and choose to be good to you just don't exist, and in many ways I think I'm making improvements. At the very least, I'm not making the same mistakes I used to, even if I may make entirely new ones.
I don't know what else to say except to make this post another heartfelt plea: Please, let's all look out for one another. This economy sucks. This hookup culture often sucks too, not because of its free love ideals but because of its absolution of responsibility to one another. I'm tired of feeling like I'm on my own in my survival, and I'm tired of further isolating because I'm so afraid of people endangering me again.
I kind of just want to remember what it feels like to feel safe.