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Former 'Video Vixen' Talks Sexuality and Power

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This week, we had planned to have a series of conversation about women and paths to empowerment outside of the mainstream.

Yesterday, we talked to women who were bringing back roller derby. They say the combination of speed, hard contact that can't be feminine touches, makes them feel powerful. Today, we're going to have a talk with a woman you've seen quite a bit about in the tabloids, in the news pages.

Karrine Steffans is a former video dancer who gained fame by naming names in her first book, "Confessions of a Video Vixen." In it, she provided details on her exploits with various male rap and R&B artists. She also talked about the struggles in her own life.

Recently, the best-selling author joined us from our NPR bureau in New York to talk about her new book, "The Vixen Diaries." Steffans said she had plenty of material for another tell-all.

Ms. KARRINE STEFFANS (Former Video Dancer; Author, "The Vixen Diaries"): A follow-up was necessary because that book and that story, I ended it when I was 25 years old, and I felt like I had to finish out my 20s with the audience. What happened next? Did she get over the issues with her mother? What about her son? What about, you know, her relationships? What about her? And I had to finish that and give that to you before I turned 30.

MARTIN: I want to talk about some of the issues you raised in the first book and the second, some very similar themes, and one is the issue of using your sexuality to achieve goals. I want to read to you something that you talk about in the book. Can you talk about the double standard? You say that - you talk about a talk show you were on and you felt you were treated very differently from men who had similar activities, right?

You said that, I had made my living in part by exposing and displaying men I have slept with. Hugh - speaking at Hugh Heffner, the founder of Playboy Enterprises - has made a fortune, in part, by exposing and displaying women, many of whom he has slept with. Yet I am to be ashamed and Heffner is to be praised.

Interesting point there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEFFANS: Well, I try to bring up interesting points because I'm learning more about my life, and just life in general and the world around me. I think that I'm all the things that people hate to hear about. And so I find it interesting, while I'm talking to people in the media, they will speak to someone like Hugh Heffner as if he is an icon to be praised. I'm not saying he's not. But then when I get on the same stage just a few minutes before or after, I am the devil's spawn. And it's such a double standard that I'm wondering if it was obvious to the listening and viewing audience as well.

MARTIN: But do you feel you have the power in these relationships? One of the things I learned from this book was how precarious your finances were, and that the book - the first book that people criticized you for, you know, naming names like, you know, who you were with and, you know, what their habits were, kind of saved you from financial ruined. You were able to buy a house. You were able to take care of your son better. And so the question I have is do you really have the power in these relationships if your circumstances are that precarious?

Ms. STEFFANS: When your finances are precarious, no, you don't. And that's the point between the two books, is that initially, through my first experiences with dating, I have always been the person in need. And so there isn't much I can do. You have to make this person happy. You have to do what this person says or you may not get your rent paid, or you may not be able to afford that car that you need so desperately - or eat. And when I wasn't available to people, I did starve. And I lived in my car with my son, and I did starve on many days and didn't eat a thing. And so in this second book, "The Vixen Diaries," I wanted to show that with financial freedom comes other freedoms as well.

MARTIN: It's not just the car, though. You know, you're going from living in your car to driving a brand new, you know, Mercedes Benz. So is the message here that those are the choices? It's either sleep in the car or have the glamour lifestyle? Are there any other - is there any in between?

Ms. STEFFANS: I think that I clearly state that everyone has their own range, and that whatever it is I intend to display that, whatever your focus, whatever your job, make it a career. For women especially, it's important to be financially independent. In certain parts of the world, you can buy a home for $100,000 or less. In certain parts of the world - where I'm at right now in New York, you're going to pay a whole lot more. In Los Angeles, your average starter home is a million dollars. So I need more money in Los Angeles to live like a normal person. If I live in another city, Iowa maybe, I wouldn't need as much. So wherever you are, my focus is that women become financially independent to suit their lifestyle, depending on where they live and how they wish to live.

MARTIN: But your financial independence, at the root of it is men. It's either being with men or writing about your being with men. Do you find that contradictory at all?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEFFANS: No, because I don't write about being with men. I write about my life. Between the two books, there are 29 years of life, of mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, marriages, abuses and just friendships. There's a lot in those books. I don't write about sleeping with men. I couldn't write a book about that.

MARTIN: There's a lot of that in there, though.

Ms. STEFFANS: But that's a part of life. There's also a lot of that in Jane Fonda's autobiography as well, but no one's calling it a sex romp or a tell-all. Jane Fonda, who I've met, talks about threesomes within her marriage and all kinds of things.

MARTIN: I know, but what I'm trying to draw here is how do you see your job or your career, because I think that people - I understand what you're saying, and I understand that you've talked about this very - about the double standard. You see particularly between men and women, when men and women talked about their sexuality or showcase this sexuality. I hear you.

But I think people would say Jane Fonda is an actress. That's her job. And then when stopped being an actress, she became like the uber-exercise guru, and that was her job. And then she became an activist, and that was her job. What is your…

Ms. STEFFANS: So what's my job?

MARTIN: That's exactly. What's your job?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEFFANS: I'm an author. I've always - first of all, "Confessions" was the ninth book I've ever written. It's just the only book I was able to publish. I've been writing since I'm five years old. I've been writing books since high school - junior high, high school. I write every single day. I never thought I'd be published. I didn't shop this book. Harper Collins came to me and asked me to write this book. And so I've always been a writer, just like most people who are writers at heart don't know how to become published, and I had no idea. I live in Los Angeles, and it's not the publishing Mecca. And so those are things I'd never learned, and so thank God that it was ordained and Harper Collins did come to me.

MARTIN: So this - this stuff that you're engaged in is material for your books? It's, like, is your art, I guess what I'm saying is your life your art?

Ms. STEFFANS: In these two books, in a way, yes, but my life is my life. I am not a book. And the things that are in the book are things that I want to share. There are a lot of things that I have not shared that I will never share. I do have a personal private life.

MARTIN: The other thing you talk about in both books - and this is something I've seen in other works by women who are in the public eye - in part because of their sexuality, in part because of, you know, relationships that they've had with other high-profile individuals - is you were sexually abused as a young woman.

Ms. STEFFANS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You're not the only one. I wonder whether that experience led you, in part, to the choices you made later?

Ms. STEFFANS: Well, of course it did. And I spoke about - in "The Vixen Diaries," and with - then speaking to my forensic psychologists who I've been seeing for upward of two years now, explaining to me the statistics of young girls who are sexually abused either inside or outside of their family and the repercussions of that. The most formative years of our lives, there's two stages - birth to 5, and 5 to 12. Those are the most awful years of my life. So, of course, as I become an adult, I draw from those experiences.

MARTIN: But how then - I guess, I'm trying to draw the connection to how did you feel empowered, and I'm interested in this because we, typically, when we think about female empowerment, you know, we think about members of Congress, you know, the secretary of state. We think about women who master traditionally male forms of leadership - CEOs, things like that…

Ms. STEFFANS: Which is what I've done. And that's funny you say that, because this is primarily a male form of leadership, like your Hugh Hefners. This is something that men have control over. Men have more control over women's bodies than women do. And I'm talking to you from a place where I'm in a culture where there are female bodies to represent us and no female voices. I'm the only female voice for this in my generation, in my age group.

So when you speak of Congresswomen and the Condoleezzas of the world, there are a huge of number of African-American women especially who are not listening to her, who don't know who she is because a lot of us in this hip-hop generation get our news from sub-journalistic Web sites and blogs. And there's not an issue of Time magazine or the New York Daily News, the New York Post in these homes. We're not…

MARTIN: So what do you think you represent?

Ms. STEFFANS: I think I represent me. That's it. I'm just me. That's all I can be. I cannot be anything but that.

MARTIN: What message do you want women to get from your book, and what message do you want men to get from your book?

Ms. STEFFANS: I don't…

MARTIN: Books, I should say.

Ms. STEFFANS: I don't have one particular message. I don't want to be preachy, and I don't want to assume that there's one thing in this book that you should get. All I want to do and all I have done is shared who I am and allowed people to take from that what they will. The most important thing I've done - besides from molding my culture and changing my part of the world - is started a discussion, and that's all I've done. That's more than a lot of people in my position, age group and culture has done. I'm just happy to have done that.

MARTIN: Thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. STEFFANS: Of course.

MARTIN: We have a longer conversation with Karrine Steffans about her new book, "The Vixen Diaries," on our Web site. She talks about her recent engagement to be married and how she plans to talk with her own young son about sex and women. You can take a listen at npr.org/tellmemore. And the Mocha Moms are next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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