Sexuality, after all, is often spinning around and through much of the art we consume.
On the morning of August 11, 2015, I was anxious, drinking strong coffee and refreshing Twitter every few minutes to see if there was an announcement from Amnesty International. Delegates of the venerated organization were meeting in Dublin to vote on whether or not to endorse the decriminalization of sex work as a matter of human rights policy. Would they be persuaded by the body of evidence indicating that decriminalization is key to ensuring the basic human rights of sex workers to live free from violence, harassment, and imprisonment — or would they balk?
When the announcement came that Amnesty had voted to fully endorse decriminalization, I jumped up and down, then tweeted effusively. I thanked Amnesty for their bravery and wished that I could celebrate in Dublin, stout in hand, with some of my favorite sex-worker friends.
Less than a month later, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders — whose ’90s hit “I’ll Stand By You” I spent a summer singing along with in the backseat of my best friend’s Chevy as a teen — gave an interview to BBC4’s Women’s Hour in which she was asked about contemporary pop musicians and feminism. She said that pop stars who “call themselves feminists” but who are “selling their music by bumping and grinding and wearing their underwear in videos [are] feminists on behalf of prostitutes.” She backed up a little and said, “It’s a kind of feminism, but, you know, you’re a sex worker, is what you are.”
Chrissie’s words seemed designed to distance sexual performance from not only feminism, but artistic performance, too. Yet is there really that clear a line between the work of women artists, and the work of those who sell sex?
Sexuality, after all, is often spinning around and through much of the art we consume. It emerges in the artist’s attempts to draw the audience in, and in an audience’s desire for vivid emotionality. Sex and art typically meet in the same place on the landscape of human experience. The parallels are not precise or constant, but the connection between the two, as well as between sex workers and artists, has become instinctual to me after several years as a sex worker and a lifetime as a writer.Is there really that clear a line between the work of women artists, and the work of those who sell sex? Click To Tweet
In a 2001 New Yorker article, Peter Schjeldahl wrote of Pablo Picasso, “I’m accustomed to feeling used up after any Picasso show: shaky with pleasure and not so much sent on my way as seduced and abandoned. Sometimes I despise him. But I’ll always go back to him.” It’s a statement that articulates an essential aspect of the human relationship to art: we want to be lured in and made to feel; stirred up and transformed. Leave me breathless, I beg of any novel when I crack the spine.
In her video for “I’ll Stand By You,” Chrissie gives sultry and earnest looks to the camera in a ’90s heroin-chic white t-shirt. She soothes and cares for a man in crisis, washing his hands and feet, giving him a bath, reassuring him.
It’s reminiscent of one night about two years ago, when my phone sex line rang sometime after 2 a.m. I shook myself from sleep and heard a man with a familiar crack in his voice: he was hurting and alone. What I can’t forget about this man is his request for me to tell him that I loved him. “Make me believe it,” he said. He was more desperate than demanding. I summoned the face of a beloved in my mind and imagined I was saying it to him. “I love you,” I said with real meaning. The man exhaled in relief. It was one of my best performances.
Yet Chrissie doesn’t seem to see any parallel between her work as an artist, and mine as a sex worker. Neither, apparently, do the bevy of A-list actresses — including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, and Anne Hathaway — who signed a petition before the Amnesty vote in August written by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). It urged Amnesty to back away from decriminalization, citing a fervent concern for female victims of sex trafficking. Yet as Amnesty International noted in the announcement of their decision to endorse decriminalization, there is hardly any evidence to suggest that criminalization helps to combat sex trafficking of girls and women, and plenty to suggest that criminalizing sex work greatly impedes the human rights of women in the sex trades.
It’s difficult to understand why so many actresses sided with policies that one of the most respected human rights organizations in the world maintains directly harm women. One possibility among many is that their opposition to decriminalization is less about the safety of women and girls, and more about cultural taboos against sex work itself.
As sex workers, we stand at the edges of what culture deems acceptable, and are often subject to violence as a result. This vulnerability to violence is more acute depending on where a sex worker works; if they are transgender, gender non-conforming, or a person of color; and whether or not they hold citizenship in the country in which they work.
If unremitting violence is societal punishment for transgressing taboos, what would happen if the lines between sex and art, and therefore sex worker and artist, began to blur? Maybe it would pull sex workers into areas of the mainstream (likely white, cisgender, financially secure sex workers before others), but maybe it would have the opposite effect. It’s possible that instead, women artists would find themselves in a similar societal position to sex workers.What would happen if the lines between sex and art, and therefore sex worker and artist, began to blur? Click To Tweet
Given our status, I don’t blame artsts for not being eager to join us. Elizabeth Bernstein articulates this fear well in Temporarily Yours, when she explains that the cultural taboo against sex work, i.e. “whore stigma,” “ultimately serves as a patriarchal tool of control over all women, who, by virtue of the prostitute’s example [who is socially punished], are threatened with a similar loss of honor should they traverse accepted norms of sexual propriety.”
I suspect that whore stigma is at play when women artists like Chrissie Hynde, or the actresses who signed the CATW petition despite evidence that this position harms women, work to make clear distinctions between themselves and sex workers.
I sympathize with women who want to live autonomous lives without the intrusion or strictures applied by whore stigma, and as a writer I know precisely what it is like to live in a world in which womens’ artistic voices are devalued and ignored. But for the safety of all women, there has got to be something beyond the self-preservation implicit in keeping sex workers not only at arm’s length, but relegated to physical and conceptual places in society which include violence, harassment, and imprisonment.
Since my teenage years writing terrible fiction, I have adopted a few writing heroines, women who live in my imagination and serve as my north stars. Virginia Woolf has always been one of them. I love her because she was a fissure in Victorian society. She maintained an unconventional marriage, pursued her art at a personal cost, and had at least one affair with another woman.
There is a quote about sex work that is often attributed to her: “Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” I would come to find out that it’s likely another writer who actually originated this saying, but still, I indulge in the fantasies it fosters.
In one fantasy, Virginia Woolf and I spend a lazy Saturday together. She manipulates her long fingers around tobacco and wrapping paper in a dark English study. She lights two cigarettes for us and I admire her aristocratic face and self-possessed comportment. She says the most amazing things about time and eternity. She sees me, the woman writer across from her, and perceives the layered complexity she saw in everything. Virginia could stare at a moth for hours and see an entire universe in its struggle for life.
With her I am a both a sex worker and a writer, no longer held back or ignored.