As we started south toward Bound’s Center City home, she began an address on the state of the city’s more illicit unions. In the early moments, while we remained in sight of the kitchen store, I still considered myself a somewhat savvy person. Today, the world of bondage and sadomasochism seems familiar in popular culture to the point of blasé acceptance. It crops up, so to speak, on prime-time comedies like Family Guy. (“The safety word is ‘banana.’”). And when Bettie Page, an early and famous bondage model, died in December, Time magazine eulogized her by lamenting that “the hallmark of modern pop culture is that everyone’s famous and nobody’s shocked.”
Perhaps the question, on a closer examination, is whether we should be.
THERE’S SOMETHING NEW happening in Philadelphia’s sexual history. Or, rather, something old happening in a previously unimaginable way.
According to Julian Slowinski, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, sexuality is changing in part because of technology. “The Internet is anonymous, it’s free, and it’s always there. Those three things make a dangerous combination,” he says. The evolution of the private act of porn-viewing is difficult to measure, but Internet pornography revenue is no doubt in the tens of billions of dollars — likely more than the combined revenue of all professional football, baseball and basketball in the United States.
Philadelphians have, of course, always gone bump in the night. But until recently, sex was largely defined by proximity and exposure. It required the lingering glance, the crook of the finger. Then the Internet changed all that; in a relative instant, sexuality reorganized itself by niche instead of geography — became vertical, so to speak, instead of horizontal — and exposure came uncoupled from proximity. Now, no desire is too specific to be met. (“Hot interracial couple hosting couple’s party — mw4mw,” read a recent online listing for one flavor of get-together at a Center City hotel.) Previously private fantasies and even psychoses became, suddenly, full-on communities. New sexual commonwealths offered opportunity for exploration and, more to the point, exploitation.
A few years ago, in the midst of this transition, a young woman named Edythe Maa began her doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She had grown up in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and as a teenager she suffered typical gawkiness and bad skin. After high school, she went on to Stony Brook for her undergraduate degree. By the time she arrived at Penn, she had become a smooth-skinned beauty, and her destiny seem fixed. She planned to be an engineer. She lived with her sister, and people who knew her described her as brilliant.
Then her life took an abrupt turn: She dropped out of Penn’s Ph.D. program and joined the sex trade. And just like that, Edythe Maa became Jade Vixen.
THERE’S A MOMENTOUS pivot, in those certain women’s lives. An instant when passion tips over into profession. On a Monday, they may give and take pleasure for its own sake; on Tuesday, they do it for money.
Jade Vixen’s colleague with the stark eyebrows, Veronica Bound, took her first step toward that moment when she was 16, and a boyfriend showed up at the bedside with a length of rope. “That’s how it started,” she said, smiling as she poured a glass of juice from her refrigerator. Her head tilted back, and her mouth opened to display a horseshoe of white teeth.