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Sex, Death, and Other People’s Money – BPR Interviews: Copyslut

Reiko Que Fuego (left), Chatz of Love (center), and Poppy Cuervo (right).

Copyslut is a band and artists’ collective who have been creating sex-magic, catharsis, and healing vibes since 2017. Also sex-positive sex educators, the band is led by Chatz of Love, an active sex-worker, and often offers sex-ed Q&As for audiences at their concerts. Copyslut was founded in Pride Month of 2017 by lead singer Chatz of Love and singer and guitarist Poppy Cuervo, and then joined by bassist, saxophonist and electronic wind instrumentalist Eli Maliwan in 2018, and drummer Alexis Blair in 2019. Reiko Que Fuego, Copyslut’s art director and video vixen, has been with the band from its inception.

Their work has been featured in Medium, Advocate, Thrillist, JapanFM, and The Hype Magazine, among others. Their LP Sex, Death, and Other People’s Money debuted last January, followed by a virtually collaborative music video created with their fans in quarantine for “Hooker Homecoming.” Their mission of healing through pleasure continues most recently with their fresh release, “Bubbles.”

Amelia Spalter: How have the struggles brought on by the pandemic-induced lifestyle changes impacted your creative process?

Chatz of Love: There is this myth that once your basic needs are met, then you can be creative and make art. But we think art is a basic need. So, that myth erases the experience of people who are making art through struggle. People who are struggling are creative as shit. It’s a way to survive the things that you’re going through. That is the kind of art that Copyslut makes. We make art through our pain, through our sorrow, through our joy, and through all the feelings we’re having. The transformation that happens as you change pain into something that helps you process that trauma instead is one of the beauties of what we do – or at least that’s been true in my experience. I don’t want to speak for you, Cuervo.

Poppy Cuervo: It’s true. To survive, you need to create. A lot of people find survival through creation. The other thing about creation is that when you create and put things out in the world, you can be supported by other people. We have a beautiful network of artists and writers and dope people doing dope shit. That’s part of Copyslut’s constellation. That’s another big way people can support each other, just by looking at people’s art or streaming their music. If you have access to a phone and/or if you have a Spotify account, you can support sex-working queer BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] artists. That’s a very simple, relatively low-cost way to support and uplift the marginalized voices who are around us.

AS: Is it acceptable to ask your sex-working friends questions about sex, or is it like how you shouldn’t approach your BIPOC friends to educate you about race?

CoL: Definitely have a sensitivity towards that, but it is okay to acknowledge that there is a wisdom that a lot of sex workers have in this area [and safety relevant to COVID-19]. Speaking for myself, I have years of experience with risk management, especially around contagion, and navigating high-risk situations. I have a hyper-awareness around bodies, things like leaning in two inches versus leaning out one inch. I know how close you are to me. I know what six feet actually looks like. So it is ok to approach the sex workers in your life as a source of wisdom around pandemic concerns. Yes, not all sex workers are epidemiologists, but a lot of us are experienced in best practices around health, hygiene, safe sex and sex education.

Ask before asking, because [initiating conversations about their work] essentially requires asking for consent. Like, “Hey, I see you as a person who is really wise around this particular issue. Is it okay if I ask you a question around sharing space with another person?” Be open to a “No.” But in any case, that person is feeling respected now. Often, it doesn’t matter how long we’ve been in the industry, people still don’t see us as experts in sex or contagion. They don’t recognize our expertise the way they would if we had spent the same number of years as, for instance, a professor, because our work is not legitimized in the same way. You’d never go to a professional who’d been working for a long time and try to explain their job to them, right? Like, unless you’re an engineer, it wouldn’t ever occur to you try and tell an engineering professor what they really need to know about engineering. Yet, sometimes people still try to tell us about how sex is supposed to be, or try to tell us about doing ourjob, and it’s like, “Hmm… maybe I actually know a bit more about this than you?”

AS: Are there any questions people shouldn’t even ask about asking?

CoL: It’s important to know that you are speaking with somebody who has a criminalized identity. I like to use the analogy, “Think about questions you wouldn’t ask someone who’s a drug dealer.” When people are like, “So, what exactly do you do?” they’re potentially asking me to incriminate myself. And beyond that, it’s also just a rude question. It’s very personal. If you’re out as a sex worker, people generally feel entitled to you and your body. I’ve had some really intense questions asked of me, and I know a lot of other sex workers who have as well. It has some overlap to people in trans communities – this is an intersection between trans oppression and sex work oppression – where people feel very entitled to knowing about your body. The things that people have felt emboldened to say to me have really made me stop and go, “What? How could you think that was ok?”

PC: Like wanting to know how you have sex.

CoL: Yes. “How do you have sex?” “What do you have sex with?” “How much do you charge?” “How much would it take for me to have sex with you?”

PC: “Have you had ‘the surgery?’”

CoL: Yeah. “Are you ‘really’ transitioned or not?” That’s like… what? I think some of it is just ignorant curiosity, where it’s titillating, so they want to ask the juicy questions. But another thing is some people will think that we are the world’s sex therapist. A lot of people will go, “Okay, let me tell you about my sex problems so that you can help me.”

PC: True. All the time.

CoL: My partners’ dads have even asked me about crazy things. They just think because you’re a sex worker, you have no boundaries around sex when, actually, a lot of us have a lot more boundaries around sex. It is more important to respect the physical and emotional boundaries of a sex worker than a civilian, not less. It is truly more important, because we have our boundaries crossed all the time. All the time. At work, and outside of work, and often before we even had this job. I can only speak for myself, but there’s a lot of trauma that I have experienced, so I am more sensitive to people crossing my boundaries. In circumstances like those it is more important that you help support somebody’s boundaries around their body, their emotional labor, and all related things, than somebody who hasn’t had those experiences.

AS: Sometimes a portion of your show is dedicated to answering the audiences’ questions about sex. What’s most surprised you when providing this segment? 

PC: I am always really shocked about the kinds of questions we get.

CoL: They’re so good!

PC: Yes! I mean, you always get some weirdos, but mostly they’re always so good, truly. Like, I remember someone asking, “What is this ‘sex’ that you speak of?” And yah, it was kind of sarcastic, but it was also, like, “Great question. What is sex?” It isn’t always physical, a lot of it can be an exchange of energy. Depending on your personal definition, it can also be just like a handshake, you know?

CoL: A really good question I once received was, “At what point do you know that you’re having sex? Like, where does it officially cross the line from foreplay to sex?” My answer was, “Only you know.” Because it really depends on how you feel. If you feel like you’re having sex, you’re having sex, even if the other person doesn’t have those same feelings. That’s why communication is so important.

PC: As sex educators, people come to us with hard stuff, too. We’ve had submissions from people who were really struggling with something serious because they had no other outlet or resources to turn to. At times, there’s also an unexpected heaviness to what you do as a sex educator.

CoL: Yes. Sometimes you have to try and direct people to other resources and explain, “I’m not a therapist.”

AS: Based on your extensive experience with sexual education in different communities for individuals from a variety of backgrounds, what do you think is the most important topic for all sexual education curriculums to cover?  

CoL: Shake shame!

PC: Yeah! No shame! Destroy taboo!

CoL: Basically, being able to talk about sex openly without shame. The sex education that I’m doing is the sex education I need now and needed as a kid and didn’t get. It’s part of my healing journey, I’m trying to heal some of my own shit, and give the baby Chatz inside the things that she needed and didn’t get. We all have those things that we didn’t get as children, and ultimately, she’s who I’m playing my music for. My motivation, my inspiration, is asking, “What would have reached her?” Even in the sexual relationships that I’ve had as an adult, even with people who were much, much older, I could have benefitted from sex education. Sex education is needed for all ages and at all stages of life. Often people will reach a stage where they think they’re as sexually educated as they need to be, but then they have a learning experience and it hits them, so obvious it’s like a blow to the head, that the learning never stops.

PC: Exactly, because things are constantly changing, too. We’re always learning new things. For example, there’s this whole connotation around anal douching where it’s been a part of sexual health that was recommended for years. But recently I’ve heard that, “Well, actually, maybe it causes irreversible damage to your rectum.” Sex education is not us standing up and telling you things, it’s a conversation. In order to have conversations, we need to shake shame.

AS: Chatz, you grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Do you feel coming from such a regimented culture delayed your sex-positive outlook, or expedited it?

CoL: Even when I was young, I was always asking, “Why?” I was very curious. I really loved asking questions, and I was very annoying. I was always like, “But why?” And everyone around me said, “Just because! Have faith!” So, I think it definitely delayed it some ways. I didn’t really come into my queer identity until I went to college. I didn’t know what consent was back then and I thought that it was my responsibility to take care of men’s behavior. Truly. Like, if I wore something that didn’t have sleeves or was not down to my knees, then I was porn, and I was bad, because it was my job to not turn on the men inappropriately.

Many of the men in the church could police what you wore. Even if it technically followed the rules, they could still decide it didn’t follow the “spirit” of the law. I also grew up with a lot of sexual trauma from men in the church, so it was very confusing, and I felt guilty about it. There was this pressure cooker of oppression that squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until one day I woke up and decided, “I’m going to organize an orgy.” Coming from a very repressed society, I was very drawn to that kind of sexual exploration. So, I think it both delayed it and probably accelerated it in some ways.

AS: What is whorephobia?

CoL: Whorephobia is a fear, just like homophobia. It’s a fear that turns into disgust or even violence against sex workers of all types. It manifests in a lot of different ways. There can be internalized whorephobia, where people hate themselves because they’re engaging in sex work.

PC: Just like internalized homophobia.

CoL: Exactly, and then that can lead to like acting out, or in-fighting, or in-group violence. Then there’s also whorephobia that comes from the outside. It happens every day, all the time.

PC: There is a lot of whorephobia around any kind of exchange of sex for money.

CoL: People have big hang-ups around sex and money in the United States, so if you put the two together, people are instantly put off. Now, it’s becoming a little bit more okay, or if not okay, at least better represented. For instance, Cardi B is a former stripper. Lizzo is a former sex worker. Really, really famous people are being out about having participated in sex work. There still aren’t super-famous people who are active sex workers, but culturally, it’s definitely different. Like, the fact that the movie Hustlers was released, that’s different. I’ve been in the industry for a long time, and nothing like that was around in the mainstream. Showgirls was the only thing, and that was it.

AS: Where did the title for your LP Sex, Death, and Other People’s Money come from?

CoL: I’m into astrology, and I first read the phrase “sex, death, and other people’s money” in a description for Scorpio, which is very much associated with sex work. “Sex, death, and inheritance” is the common way that people describe it, but when I read “sex, death, and other people’s money,” I was like, “Wow. If I were to write a book about my life, that would be the title.” And the album is some version of not just my life, but all our lives, and I love it. It captures so much, so those words are really powerful. And it’s literally what our songs are all about – sex, death, and other people’s money.

AS: The anti-trafficking laws SESTA/FOSTA were introduced as measures to fight trafficking, but have had controversial residual effects, including the removal of Craigslist’s “personals” section. What has the first-hand impact of these laws been on your community?   

CoL: So, some background, SESTA is “Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking,” and FOSTA is “Fight Online Sex Trafficking.” They’re separate, but have been kind of lumped together, and they passed with bipartisan support. It’s the first time the federal government is coming in with an internet regulation of this type. So before, if you were to post on Craigslist, “I’m going to do this illegal thing,” only you are responsible for the illegal thing you do, not Craigslist. The website is not responsible for the individual. They’re a third-party website, and so they’re protected under internet laws that essentially said that they’re not responsible for the content that is put onto their platform.

Now, with SESTA/FOSTA, if you make a post about offering sexual services, websites like Facebook, Instagram, or Craigslist can be held legally responsible for sex trafficking. These laws were written very broadly. That was done on purpose. It’s only through court cases and judiciary action that they are being refined to get more specific, because what’s happened is that everyone is self-policing based on these broad laws. The penalties are not specific, it’s not like, “Ok Instagram, you hosted this type of post, you’re going to be fined X amount” or “You’re going to be taken to court on this specific charge,” or anything like that.

PC: Yet the censorship has dramatically increased.

CoL: Yes, and so it’s become increasingly dangerous to work. Because the [established] sites that we would use to screen clients or find bad-date lists that identify people who are violent or predatory have all been taken down. There are actually more of these kinds of sites than ever, but they are not as structured and less trustworthy, so a lot of people are being forced to go back out on the streets. Street-based work is completely fine and totally legitimate, but it is more dangerous for sex workers. So, if you don’t want to have to do street work, you should have the right to use the internet instead. Violence has increased across the board since the passing of SESTA/FOSTA. A positive is that there has been a lot more awareness raised around decriminalization of sex work because international studies have been done by places like the ACLU,  Amnesty International, and The World Health Organization and they said if you decriminalize sex workers and their clients, violence goes down, period.

AS: How can people who do not have the means to donate be of support to sex workers endangered by SESTA/FOSTA and/or COVID-19?

CoL: Educating and following people online. A lot of things have been transitioned online, so following people who are sex workers’ accounts, liking their posts, boosting them. Giving more visibility to people, especially Black, Indigenous, POC sex workers, because it’s the hardest to get visibility. Sex workers are being disproportionately impacted by what’s happening in the world, both with COVID and all the economic changes. There is also a disproportionate impact between people who do in-person work and people who do online work. Those who are already established online have an easier time than people who were not established online.

Then there’s also disproportionate racialized impact. So it’s important to remember that if we’re going to talk about sex worker rights, we have to talk about Black Lives Matter. That has to be taken into consideration as a part of redistributing funds, making a point to gas up your BIPOC, sex-working friends, and centering of those voices as an important part of aid. Those who are allies, and not necessarily sex workers themselves, can do all those things too. Going beyond basic humanization of sex-worker rights and actually being like, “I support this. I love this!” publicly, actually does make it safer for us. Of course, never “out” somebody without their consent. Always check in with them before [publicly disclosing their sex-worker status]. But, when appropriate, that’s definitely a great way to support the community. So is self-education. Even just reading. There are a lot of great articles out there.

AS: How did you get the idea for a collaborative music video with all of your fans?

CoL: When we witnessed the impact of COVID-19 on our own lives and the lives of our friends and our community, we were inspired to create a music video, “Hooker Homecoming,” in quarantine as part of our response to the isolation and struggle we were experiencing with our people. “Hooker Homecoming” is our queer sex-worker anthem. It’s a moneymaking protection spell. People were submitting videos from their homes, people were finding secluded outside spaces where they were, we had people who contributed all the way from New York to LA. We were overwhelmed by the contributions, I really wanted to do justice by it because it was beautiful to see how everyone came together. We had originally planned a June 2 release for International Whores’ Day, and in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, we postponed to June 26. The new date felt wonderful, I’m glad we pushed it back, and I’m glad it was released during Pride Month. It was especially poignant being released amid national protests and all the isolation that people are experiencing during this global pandemic.

PC: Our deepest intention is that this protection spell imbues the efforts of our communities. We wanted to dedicate this video to all those who are feeling alone, grieving the death of loved ones, fed up and out of work, or on the front lines of this upheaval and uprising. In “front lines,” we include protesters, we include care workers, domestic laborers, grocery-store workers, everyone who is out there supporting this movement and finding their role. We’ve always been about how healing it is to make art through struggle and inviting our community to do it with us. It was awesome to be a part of creating a space for people who submitted videos to break the monotony of quarantine by getting dressed up to dance in front of a camera.

AS: Besides “Hooker Homecoming,” what song do you recommend everyone add to their playlist? 

CoL: Oh! “Fault Line” by Mya Byrne.

PC: I really love Lucius. “Almost Makes Me Wish for Rain” is a great one. It makes me think about rising above depression and self-sabotage.

AS: For better or worse, how do you think the ways we interact with one another physically will change from the pandemic?

CoL: I do hope something that comes from this is healthier, more open and compassionate conversations around sex and sexual health practices. They are parallel to a lot of conversations we’ve had to have due to COVID. The same skills are applicable, because conversations about sexual health and conversations about socializing in a pandemic both require acknowledging that everybody’s comfort levels and everybody’s boundaries are different. You need to learn to navigate that respectfully when sharing space. Let’s grow and transform those conversations about social distancing and similar precautions into better conversations around sex, especially with our youth. Because this will change the discourse, and I feel like it will go one of two ways. I really hope it goes that more open way and not into the body-shaming, “other people are disgusting,” way.  

AS: How have sex-working communities come together to support one another during the pandemic, and is there anything else allies should know about how they can help?

CoL: I want to speak on this issue as the only one in the band who is out as a sex worker. I always like to say that because I don’t want people to assume anything about anyone else in the band. So I’ll say, as a sex worker-led band, we’re thrilled and impressed with the organization GLITS. It’s a black trans sex worker-led organization, and they raised a million dollars for sex-worker aid. I’ve never seen anything sex worker-led that made so much money so quickly, so that kind of formal organizing was really impressive. It’s amazing to see how the entire the sex working community is plugging into what’s going on right now. Sex workers have always informally self-organized mutual support and aid efforts; people in my community have had to organize that way because of the stigma and oppression that we experience, even in grassroots and small organizations. We have to continue to self-organize because that stigma still exists.

I also want to note that my community is not all white sex workers. It is sad and offensive that we live in a world where we still have to make this connection, but I will because it’s really still important to say: If we’re going to talk about sex worker and LGBTQA rights, we must also talk about Black Lives Matter. It’s all interconnected. The movements and celebrations must align and work in tandem with other oppressed groups. The work is not done until there is liberation for all oppressed. These informal networks of mutual aid are truly the foundation of not only what makes more formal movements possible, but how we keep these people here and alive. It’s important to acknowledge that sex workers have always had communal responses to crises because we don’t get aid from the government very easily, we don’t get aid from nonprofits very easily, we just don’t get aid in the traditional ways that a lot of oppressed people can generally seek aid. There is a power and a resilience within sex-working communities that is foundational to our movement.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.