Deborah Demander Reno

This Is What Happens When Sex Work and Local Elections Collide

It's 2018 — why can't we elect a woman who sells used panties online?

Deborah Demander Reno has been running for the City Council of Evanston, Wyoming, a small town on the Utah border. She says she became a candidate at the urging of Wendy Schuler, a councilwoman who will soon vacate her seat to become a state senator. Reno and Mikal Welling emerged the winners of a five-way primary in August and are poised to go head-to-head in the November general election.

But somewhere along the way, another side of Reno’s life was exposed. She “hasn’t been able to discover” who made it public, she tells me in a Facebook message when I reach out for her side of the story. “I have learned that a handful of people have known for longer than a month.”

The October Surprise was news of Reno’s moonlighting as “Mystee Crockett,” an alter ego who sells titillating photos, videos, cam shows and used lingerie to fans who leave adoring comments on her Panty Trust webpage: “I’ve ordered several times from the sexy Mystee. Every time has been an awesome erotic experience!” one wrote. Mystee describes herself as “the nice girl from next door, all grown up and naughty.”

“The atmosphere in town is somewhat standoffish,” Reno informs me. “I’m getting nasty looks in the grocery and around town from people I don’t know. As I expected. My friends and the people who know me have been supportive of me, although most of them don’t agree with Mystee and the panty selling.”

Outed as Mystee, Reno deleted the Twitter and Instagram accounts she’d made for the persona. Welling, her campaign opponent, issued a scolding statement that called Reno’s internet activity “very unfortunate and so against my own personal moral code and standards,” though it noted that he does not plan on “confirming these allegations.”

Local media led with speculation that Reno might drop out of the race, in which case Welling would take the seat by default; Schuler, the outgoing councilwoman who had encouraged her to go for the job, said this: “I’m not really sure that she would be electable at this point. You know, this is a small town, and news gets around pretty fast.”

But here’s my question: Why should this be an issue at all?

Quite a few Americans make money on the side with sexually explicit web content and services. Only by stretching an arcane and rarely invoked legal statue to its breaking point could you think of Reno’s business as illegal. And Welling’s talk of proving “allegations” is absurd given that Reno has now freely spoken of her experience as Mystee Crockett. Moreover, we have a sitting president who bragged about committing sexual assault and pushed through a Supreme Court nominee credibly accused of the same. As a “scandal,” Mystee feels quaint, even charming. Reno hasn’t hurt or conned anyone — quite the contrary. Why shame a 50-year-old woman for having a healthy sexual outlet?

I won’t pretend to know the political climate of Ward 1 in Evanston, Wyoming — but the county did give Donald Trump 76 percent of the vote in 2016, so how uptight could they really be? At any rate, the story doesn’t seem to have upended another of Reno’s entrepreneurial ventures: therapeutic massage.

When I reached out to the candidate on Facebook, she only had enough time between that afternoon’s massage appointments to say this: “I’m not quitting.” Reno also linked me to a blog post titled “Dismembered by a Political Hack Job,” in which she explains how she came to seek office: “I live in a small town, which I love. After 10 years of working in the community, volunteering and participating in every fundraiser, charity event and feel-good project I could find, I discovered that I love to serve. I want to help people improve their lives,” she writes. “Whether it’s the little things, like collecting food for the local food bank, offering a free massage to a woman after her last chemo treatment, or donating yoga classes to disenfranchised youth, I want people to feel better in life, because they know me.”

She also discusses — with candor and nuance often lacking at any level of government — where the character of Mystee came from: “I have an alter ego. She is an online panty seller. I created my alter ego about a year ago, and she is fun. She gets to do all kinds of crazy things that the real me would never do,” Reno tells us, adding that she and her husband enjoy this side of her identity when they’re out of town.

They had also weighed the possibility of Mystee becoming a topic in the election: “I naively figured that since it was a different name, no one would figure it out. I thought, in my own logical mind, that the Mystee Crockett box, the yoga instructor box, the writer box, the mom box, and the public servant box could all be maintained separately. They are all different aspects of who I am, but they all have their proper place.” It’s embarrassing, Reno says, to have her kids find out about Mystee, but selling panties “does not make me a weak or bad person. It is a small, tiny part of who I am.” Ultimately, she writes, Mystee was about empowerment, and “she brought a lot of fun into my life and into my marriage.”

Conservatives hold marriage as a key value, but they’re frequently willing to excuse the infidelities and sexual misconduct of male politicians. Meanwhile, they’re quick to puritanically condemn any woman who demonstrates sexual agency — even if she does so to strengthen a bond with her husband. That the couple might have paid a few bills with Mystee’s help should only make them more relatable to other Americans trying to get by in the gig economy, and it puts them in close touch with a cultural landscape that has always tended toward the liberalization of intimacies. It’s not in the slightest bit disqualifying; rather it is evidence of curiosity, tenderness, digital savvy and self-awareness. Shouldn’t we want those qualities in our leaders? Are we going to be afraid of a woman who’s proud of her body, or pretend we don’t all get off somehow?

Maybe you already know of a poem by the artist Zoe Leonard called “I Want a President,” which voiced the desire for a far-ranging diversity of political figures — for candidates of color and queerness who have encountered (and struggled with) discomforts of the American reality as few presidents ever have: extreme poverty, pollution, disease, rape, systemic discrimination, crushing and unfeeling bureaucracy. Toward the end, she includes this memorable line: “I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker.” A quarter century after it was written, the question is no less devastating. And however Reno’s campaign shakes out — again, she’s still hanging in there, having been courageously honest with the neighbors she’d represent — we will have to reckon with our tolerance for corruption and greed as it sits beside our resistance to benign social change. I’d be proud to have Reno, who strikes me as a kind and thoughtful woman who knows what it means to be human in the 21st century, serving on my own city council. The hypocritical old right-wingers have power to spare.