Let’s talk about sex…work. Let’s talk frankly about sex workers in the arts and the economics of the industry. Let’s talk about the visual culture of sex work in popular culture and social media. Let’s talk about sex workers breaking the silence of art history, representing our own stories and experiences.
Let me begin by saying—among other things—I am a stripper who works between Toronto and Montreal. My previous, more traditional artist practice has taken a back seat to other types of creations, performances and academic research. For myself, stripping and sex work is a way for me to engage in an industry that otherwise could not support a person’s livelihood, let alone education. The arts are notorious for minimum wage, contractual, precariously funded or no-wage labour for young people.
I wonder what the art world would look like if young artists didn’t need sugar daddies, johns and side hustles? Or alternatively, what could the art world look like if we illuminated our moonlighting?
The social labour of stripping has prepared me to be charismatic and confident in navigating the arts industry and academia. The hustle and work ethic of a self-made slut are unmatched by those of arts workers and academics. Unfortunately the source of those skills—along with my ability to stay up unreasonably late, carry on conversations with people I don’t care about, or do the splits— may never make it onto my resume, either.
I cannot pretend I am the first, or the last, artist to use sex work. My personhood and cultural output might look very different if my journey had never included undressing and flirting for my rent, or lap dancing for hours a night. But being a young person navigating the arts and culture industry did not afford me that luxury. In the arts, precarious employment is not separate from these larger systems, but a result of the same symptoms.
The art world has often gotten off on the run-down Greenwich Village New York type of scene, while doing little to engage or challenge the struggles facing marginalized youth navigating its conditions. This is what I believe radical Indigenous queer feminist artist Demian DinéYazhi’ has described as “the art school industrial complex”: establishments like galleries, universities and curatorial institutions disadvantage young people, stagnating wages or dissolving them into “internships” and “volunteer opportunities.”
Not surprisingly, it’s this same art world that hypocritically reveres Robert Mapplethorpe, while forgetting that he was working the streets to make ends meet when he met patron and gallery hookup Sam Wagstaff. (Want more details? Patti Smith recounted their struggle in her memoir Just Kids.)
That detail about Mapplethorpe’s hustle brings up another issue in the arts: nepotism. No longer do young people in the arts industry and other sectors just have to be well educated, highly skilled or passionate. It is partly through Mapplethorpe’s sexual labour that he was introduced to New York’s gallery scene. Sometimes you just need to know—or rather, be fucking—the right people.
If you are keeping track, “networking” is hard to do when exhibition openings often coincide with the busiest nights in the bars. And besides, the social labour I perform as a stripper is much more exciting—not to mention financially rewarding—than networking, grovelling and sending email follow ups for volunteer spots, unpaid positions or minimum wage jobs. But please, continue to tell me about how demeaning sex work is. Or joke about how you will resort to it when life gets too hard.
Beyond being a way to manage the very real economic challenges that the arts and culture industry inflicts upon young up-and-comers, sex work is, interestingly, increasingly being evoked in the art world and white cube settings.
I am not speaking here of the impressionist blobs of prostitutes that proliferate in art history books—however, if you’re curious about that, consider stripper Nia Burks’s re-reading of the canon in “The History of Harlots.”
Rather, I am talking about the fact that the “sex work” trend seems to have come full circle in contemporary art recently.
One of the latest examples is the “Sex Work” exhibition at London’s Frieze art fair. Organized by American curator Alison Gingeras, this exhibition irresponsibly evoked our hustle to make a second-wave feminist art show appear more transgressive and edgy.
This trend hasn’t come out of nowhere. After impressionism (and modernism), artists continued to scrutinize our modes of production, sexualities, and bodies. Exemplary of this continued exploitation and fetishism are the practices of Peter Hujar, Patrick Angus and (as Richard Mann has suggested) Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. I cannot speak to the relationships—friendly, transactional or otherwise—these artists developed with their subjects, but their oeuvre nonetheless requires the sex worker as a subject distanced from the artist.
In scholarship, Julia Bryan-Wilson’s essay “Dirty Commerce: Art Work and Sex Work since the 1970s” suggests our lifestyles and transactions have long been titillating in the minds of academics as well. And perhaps rightfully so. From my experience, it seems like sex work is where the privileged Western world hides its cultural baggage to fester. But I think we should also pay attention to sex work, since the field constantly grapples with abstract theories like race, gender, sexuality, performativity, idolized bodies, transaction and labour in very real tangible terms of dollars and cents, tuition and rent.
Apart from Gingeras’s Frieze show, however, it is also good to see that it seems like sex workers are entering the art world on our own terms, with our own representations.
Projects of this type include Toronto Nuit Blanche’s The Viminal Space, Portland’s Arts by Tarts, London’s Sex Workers’ Opera. It also includes the work of trans performance artist Nina Arsenault, which have been enacted at the Art Gallery of Ontario, among other locations. I think it’s an exciting time for us to unveil and dismantle the romanticism of the “oldest profession,” and to be telling our own stories.
This rise in visibility in art coincides with the public rise of visibility for sex work and consent activism organizations like Slut Walk, Stella Montreal and Maggie’s in Toronto.
I am flattered that people find us so alluring and intriguing. I just hope the art world can sustain sex workers’ voices and artworks instead of speaking over, curating, shaping or interpreting those experiences for us.
After all, the most progressive, realistic, and thought-provoking representations of sex work, still come from outside the elitist white cube, on more readily accessible platforms like social media.
Most notable on this front is the current #NYCstripperstrike movement calling attention to colourism, racism, shitty bartenders and work conditions in the industry. Started by @thegizellemarie and @kingpanamapink, the movement is still ongoing with posts on Instagram and other platforms. (Jaqueline Frances also addresses some issues related to #NYCstripperstrike in her memoir The Beaver Show, acknowledging that white privilege is a very real thing in sex work.)
Outside of the art world, too, the community is engaging in its own tough conversations, introspective analysis and honest representations. Jaqueline Frances’s most recent crowdfunded publication Striptastic: A Celebration of Dope-Ass Cunts Who Like Money reveals that apart from shitty managers is an epidemic of shitty customers with an endless supply of shitty questions. Her graphic novel is a hilarious rendering of our experiences in a unique narrative and visual format.
Other times, it’s all about entertaining selfies: #offdutystripper life, self-care, and cute #ootn. (A few of my favourite, less-well-known accounts are @stormtheintrovert, @thatwitchaudrey, @victoria.drive, and @jakubdublininc.)
There’s also the rise of stripper meme pages (@stripper_memes, @stripperproject, @local_._honey, @schwiftystripper, @thechurchothill) and Twitter orators like Lux Atl. These pages, along with personal accounts and social media movements like the #YesaStripper, get to the core of what it’s like to be a stripper: complex yet seemingly ditsy, hyper-visible yet cautionary, exciting yet heartbreaking, laughably stupid yet soul crushing, and still fucking amazing if the night and the customers are right.
Rarely is our line of work, however, as glamorous as even we make it out to be. These self-created discussions and depictions, inside and outside the white cube, highlight our complexity, sometimes being honest about how rough the profession can be.
Our self-made content can address the emotional strain of the field: what it’s like to be assaulted or harassed as “part of the job” or how much it fucking sucks to leave a club empty-handed, for example. The curated facade of social media sometimes breaks with memes and personal prose about how unsafe some nights can be.
Also, it must be said, the current mainstream sex work discourse on social media is far from perfect. It’s dominated by cis women, at times borders on queer and trans erasure, and has little recognition of queer male/MSM contexts. Currently, there are few discussions of appropriative practices in the industry. But, on the plus side: I think sex workers and strippers know that the industry is fucked, and we don’t pretend it isn’t, unlike other sectors.
For me, Instagram is the space where sex workers and strippers network, connect with each other, share art, ideas, memes and grievances. This is a discourse and representation that is much more realistic and consensual than the ones offered through the scopophilic and quasi-ethnographic lens of art history.
It would be exciting if the art world could connect—fairly—to these ongoing dialogues and lines of inquiry, drawing sex workers into the art world and recognizing our “low” art practices. That, perhaps, is not a popular option for the art world or for sex workers, but projects like The Viminal Space and Sex Workers’ Opera seem to be leading to that very collision.
Artists have long been expanding and challenging, gouging and spinning the category of art. Since the naked performance artist no longer seems transgressive, maybe the abject sex worker and stripper babe is next in line?
The art world may have found its new trend to exploit, mixing the high-brow gallery with scummy, fleshy nightlife. That’s fine by me—as long as it is sex workers who dominate the scene and call the shots.
Sam Doe is a queer nb stripper, thinker, creator and performer in occupied Tiohtià:ke and Tkaronto. firstname.lastname@example.org