Intersections Between Pain and Pleasure in “Brutalities” – Chicago Review of Books


Margo Steines knows something about pain. At seventeen, while growing up in New York City, she became a dominatrix, her first-ever job. She was a sex worker for a decade, later running her own S/M dungeon—kicking, punching, and otherwise assaulting consenting, paying adult males for a living. She developed a romantic—albeit increasingly tumultuous and aggressive—long-term relationship with one of her clients, a man who led her into the worlds of farming and metal work, worlds that taught Steines their own kinds of violence. In her debut book, Brutalities: A Love Story, Steines weaves essays examining her past with essays set in present-tense as she nears the end of her pregnancy, which is happening in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Brutalities is a then-and-now study of what Steines has been through and what she’s going through to get to where she is now—among other things, a mother; a partner in a stable, healthy, loving relationship; an MFA graduate; a faculty member at the University of Arizona, where she currently teaches creative writing. 

In “Working,” Steines writes, “In Tucson, which thinks of itself as progressive but is no New York City, I went to see the movie Hustlers wearing a shirt that read SOMEONE YOU LOVE IS A SEX WORKER. In the theater lobby, I received a few sneery looks. I watched the movie, a ripped-from-the-headlines blockbuster indie about a group of enterprising strippers who wanted to level up their hustle by any means necessary, with a small group of my friends from graduate school—people who have not worked the way I used to work. …To be working like I meant it is not just to perform labor for money. …Sex work is work, but the way sex work is understood and policed in our carceral state makes it an unshakeable identity as well.”

Steines explores the nuanced ways we glorify and shame sex work, female sexual expression, and, to some broader degree, what it means to be a successful woman. In so doing, she observes her own unique career path and background. Later in the same essay, Steines writes, “I had a lot of privilege as a sex worker. I am white, I’d come from private schooling, I only ever worked ‘indoors’ (meaning never on the street or in cars, where every risk that comes with sex work is dramatically increased), and I took nearly all of it for granted. Because I didn’t consider myself to be participating in labor that was inherently political—and because it hadn’t yet dawned on me that all labor is inherently political—I thought my ‘political’ friends were doing something like going to grad school, which they also did, and I thought of all their non-working pursuits as utterly out of my spheres of reference.”

As sex work became increasingly dangerous—because it became increasingly policed and punitive—Steines pursued an opportunity with her then-boyfriend Dean to shift careers. Through his contacts, she got a job working at Ferra Design, the upscale metal design firm in New York City. In “Scales of Hardness,” Steines writes that “…being a domme had never made me feel tough. The idea of it was, but my lived experience didn’t match. If I could be a welder, I thought, I would finally feel hard enough—for Dean, and maybe even for myself.”

Immediately feeling passionate about the industry, and encouraged by her brotherly colleagues, Steines applied for an apprentice position with a New York City ironworkers’ union and, within a few months, officially started her job as an apprentice ironworker for Local 580. She shaved her head and began to dress in baggy, gender-neutral clothes.

“It was important to me that they saw me as a neutral entity and never pondered my gender or sexuality,” Steines writes. “My biggest fear, workwise, was that I would be thought of and treated as weak, sexual, or vulnerable in any way.”

Steines worked for another ten years as a welder, mostly in architectural fabrication and installation, often as the only female at a construction site. From this work, too, she amassed a new series of scars:

“In the ten years I worked as a welder, I was lucky to never suffer any serious injury, but I gained a body-wide collection of small second-degree burns and knife slices, multiple instances of frostbite, more smashed toes and fingertips than I can recall, and a toxic accumulation of manganese in my blood that has yet to dissipate. I fell into a hole carrying hundreds of pounds of copper welding lead, took a spinning shard of drill bit to the cheek, broke my thumb in a vise. I burned my hair, my thighs, my forearms, my neck.”

Steines’s insecurities and observations about her changing body, as she survives eating disorders and self-harm, as she explores her own sexual desires for physical pain, as she becomes aware of her compulsion for extreme exercise, but perhaps especially as she experiences pregnancy, are acute and powerful. Her ability to write with such frankness and self-awareness lays her observations bare, even if what is behind these observations is tragic and complicated. 

“When we speak colloquially of hardness, toughness, and strength, we often conflate the three, but to pull apart the definitions is to understand that there are many ways to resist the forces of change and harm, and many circumstances in which one and not another is called for. I went to metal for the same reasons I went everywhere else: to try and rebuild myself as a creature impervious to damage. …To be a soft thing was my greatest fear, and greatest shame, but it was true all along—the great awakening for me was not in becoming ever harder, tougher, stronger. It was, instead, in becoming brave enough to look my softness in the eye.”

See Also

Throughout Brutalities, Steines examines the many ways work and life can hurt a person, along with the intricate and perhaps innate ways pain and pleasure intersect. When she decides she’s finished with her metal welding career, she finds herself in Tucson and becomes involved with N, a third-generation MMA fighter who survived a nearly paralyzing spinal injury. Now a fitness coach and MMA trainer, N shows Steines a gentleness in love that she finds deeply fulfilling. As their relationship grows stronger, so too does Steines, in many ways. As their baby grows and her belly expands, Steines considers violence that is socially approved, violence when it is caused by men to other men, violence that isn’t sexual. She notes that many of her sex work clients would confess to her that they hadn’t been touched in any kind of way for weeks, months, even years. She ponders studies that show the importance of touch, while observing how complicated and controversial the topic of touch can be. 

In “Can I Shelter You?” Steines writes: “What will I tell our child about violence—the violence of the United States, of the world, of Tucson, of my own life? How will I accept that there will likely be an aspect of my mixed-race child’s life that I, a white parent, will never fully understand, that I will only be able to observe? How will I explain the ways women are afraid, the ways men are dangerous, the treacherous ways whiteness is deployed? …What will I tell them when they draw their small finger across the scars on my body and ask what they are, just as I remember doing with my own mother’s body? What will I tell them if they, as I have, seek things that hurt them?”

Steines’s ability to be so thoughtful and introspective, connecting her unique experiences with broader themes and issues, provide plenty of opportunities—perhaps even surprising ones—to which the reader can relate. Brutalities: A Love Story is an extraordinary debut.

Brutalities: A Love Story
By Margo Steines
W. W. Norton & Company
Published October 3, 2023


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