At the end of July, Neal Falls booked an appointment with a sex worker named Heather in West Virginia. He planned to kill her, as police believe he may have murdered as many as nine other sex workers in Ohio, Illinois and Nevada. But with Heather, finally, he failed. When he attacked her, she fought back, got his gun and killed him.
Falls’ death was national news but, as such things do, it soon faded out of the headlines. Heather, though, was still bruised and traumatized, unable to work and in difficult financial straits.
Luckily, not everyone forgot about Heather. Mistress Matisse, a writer and dominatrix in Seattle, heard about Heather’s experience and was determined to help. Through other sex workers she tracked Heather down, called her and booked a flight to West Virginia. She showed up at Heather’s door and hasn’t really left. She’s organized fund-raising, lined up medical assistance and connected Heather with nonprofit help.
This isn’t a new role for Matisse. She’s worked as a sex worker in various capacities since she was 19. But as she’s gotten established in Seattle, she says, “I have gotten to the point in my career where it is in many ways self-sustaining.”
As a result, she’s had more time to devote to activism. Matisse was there to help Heather because she’s made it her business to help sex workers who are in crises.
I talked to Matisse about her activism, her work with Heather and why sex workers are the best ones to help sex workers.
Most of your activism is independent, rather than directly working with non-profits or sex worker organizations. Why is that?
I get a lot out of sex worker organizations as a participant. I couldn’t be who I am without the sex work community. At a certain point it became clear to me that I should do sex work activism the way I do business.
I play well with others, but I’m also an introvert, and I don’t do well in people’s systems. I do well in my own system.
As a dominatrix, my work is creative. Someone is going to walk in, and you have a very short time where you sit and talk to them and kind of go, ‘What is it that you want and that you need? And how can that fit into things that I do, or am willing to do, in a way that’s creative and sexy and fun?’ In like five minutes, OK we’re doing that thing. It’s a very quick assessment. Make a plan. Make it happen. And that’s a dynamic that I do well with, and I enjoy it.
So for me what happens a lot is that I hear or see that there’s a sex worker who’s in a crisis, and I just reach out to her and say, ‘What do you need? How can I help you?’ And there’s a connection with her, and then I begin to address her needs at an individual level.
Working with an organization, you’re committed to working at a certain pace. They’re writing policy changes they want, or they’re lobbying in a very directed way to an elected official. They are process-oriented things, and I really want people to do them. It’s just that I’m not good at doing them. It just feels like slogging through mud to me.
So you’re working directly with Heather now?
Heather’s a case that moves me. My heart’s always very involved. And that’s why I like working the way I do. It’s emotionally very rewarding for me. Some people get rewarded from having written a really great policy, but that’s not rewarding for me.
I saw Heather on the news and I immediately knew — every woman who works alone, like I do, that’s the worst fear, is that you open the door to a murderer. And every time you see a new client, that thought is in your mind. I mean, I’ve opened thousands of doors over my career, to thousands of men, and crossed my fingers and hoped to God that it wouldn’t be one of those guys.
I’ve never been harmed by a client, but there have been a few cases where I have been very frightened, and that fear that you feel when you think, ‘Oh my god, is this guy going to hurt me? Am I going to be one of those girls?’ You never forget how that feels. So when I read this story…
This guy had a list of names of who he’s going after next. So Heather saved all those women’s lives. And it’s only sheer luck that the guy decided to go to West Virginia instead of Seattle. As far as I’m concerned, Heather saved my life and the lives of all the people I know in sex work, just as surely as she saved her own and the women on that list. This guy had been at it for a while. He’s a professional. So this is very emotional for me and very personal for me, and I decided that I was going to take care of it and make sure that she got everything she needed.
I started to call people (in the sex worker community) on the East Coast asking, ‘Who knows this girl? Who knows who she is? Who has met her?’ After a couple of days of calling around we came up with her phone number, so I called her and said, ‘You don’t know me, but I saw what you did and I’m a sex worker, too, and I would like to help you.’
Is it important that sex workers be the ones to reach out to help sex workers in need?
Well, for Heather, she was having a problem because there were some people local to her who had started a fundraiser for her, they said, but they were being really weird and controlling about the money. They weren’t going to let her have it unless she fulfilled certain things that they thought they should do.
They wanted her to give interviews, when she was clearly in no shape to give interviews. She told me they had bought her this dress they wanted her to wear. They wanted her to look like a nice respectable girl. They wanted to rescue her in the way, ‘We’re going to change your life. We’re going to change who you are, and we’re going to save you from this life.’
The reason that sex workers are the best people to help other sex workers is that we do it from a place of respect for the individual, and we understand that someone has to consent to being helped, at every stage of the way.
Trying to force ‘solutions’ on us that aren’t solutions just makes our lives more difficult. And most of the time, when you get a non-SW trying to help a sex worker who’s in trouble, they focus on sex work BEING the problem.
If someone wants to stop doing sex work, then we want options made available to them. But even in that situation, it’s crucial that you not shame someone who’s done sex work to survive. Like calling them a victim, even if that’s not how they identify, and focusing on how awful it must have been, asking for horror stories instead of just saying, ‘OK, so what do you want to be doing, and how can we get you there?’
I approach helping someone like I approach the BDSM scene. There’s a person here who I think wants me to take control of the situation. But you have to get consent for that. So I can say to you that I see that you’re having some trouble here, if you allow me to, I can do anything I can to alleviate these problems. Do you give me your consent to do that? Yes. You have to get the consent, and you have to go on getting the consent throughout the process.
These people wanted to get money for Heather, that’s great, but she didn’t even know them before they started doing that. And they were talking about her on the news and stuff. And they were going to hold onto the money until she did all these things they wanted her to do. What you’re doing to her she’s not consenting to, so it’s not really help.
I can look at Heather’s house, and say, moving out of here should be your first priority because a terrible thing happened here, and she’s like, ‘No, it’s not my first priority. X is my first priority.’ So that’s what we’ll do.
Do you consider your activism —helping sex workers— to be feminist activism?
The concept of feminism is kind of like the concept of God. There’s all this doctrine and dogma and stuff. And then there’s what people do. And everyone’s version of God is a little different. I’m very much in favor of a lot of the stated goals of feminism, just as I’m in favor of many of the stated goals of religion, which is be kind to other people, don’t lie and murder. It’s those ten commandment style things that I think we’re all on board with.
But mainstream feminism rejects sex work as an acceptable choice. So for me being a sex worker and being a feminist is kind of like being an immigrant who votes Republican. Even if you happen to agree with the rest of the party platform, there’s the small issue that they want to kick you out of the country. So I don’t describe myself as an adherent to a political philosophy that wants to eliminate me.
What can people do to help Heather if they’d like to contribute?
We’ve put together a crowdfund specifically to cover medical expenses; people can contribute to that here.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.