Art

Velvet Collar is a comic book series written and produced by worker Bryan Knight and drawn by queer comic artist Dave Davenport. It depicts the lives of five male sex workers. In the course of the series’ narrative, an escort listing service is shut down by the feds—a thinly-veiled representation of the Rentboy raid and subsequent prosecutions.

Dale Corvino, who as Ask Dominick was Rentboy’s advice blogger, interviewed the creators of the comic series for Tits and Sass. He spoke with Knight in person in New York, while corresponding with Davenport, who is based in Los Angeles. Corvino is now a board member of the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP). The org’s 2014 documentary Red Umbrella Diaries was generously supported by Rentboy’s founder, Jeffrey Hurant. RedUP will be coordinating with SWOP Behind Bars to provide support for Jeffrey while he serves his sentence related to the Rentboy prosecution. Of this effort, RedUP Program Director Lola Garcia says, “While workers are our primary concern, nobody deserves to be jailed for involvement in the sex trade, provided they are not coercing sex workers (i.e. sex traffickers).”

The interview that follows has been edited for length from Corvino’s emails with Davenport and a transcription of Corvino’s conversation with Knight.

Dale Corvino: The Velvet Collar Kickstarter discusses representation of sex workers in alternative comics. Chester Brown is probably the most prominent creator who mines the topic, but he is admittedly writing from the trick’s perspective. Other depictions often feature characters with limited agency, as you point out. (Though there are a few inspiring exceptions to this rule.) In the queer comic space, sexuality is often depicted; sex work rarely. Does the project of depicting workers as fully realized protagonists in the comic space challenge both the comic genre and the queer comic sub-genre?

Dave Davenport: Definitely. But I’ve known sex workers at all points of my life, a good deal of my friends have been so at one time or another, and I may have had to hustle to make the rent at one point in my life. It’s a part of life, it always has been, and always will be. It needs to be a part of comics as well.

Bryan Knight: First, I’m telling stories about real people who have done or are doing illegal things…and whatever ethics we may have about it, there’s that first fundamental block. The practice has a long stigma and people are going to reflexively flinch. Second thing, there’s sex. There’s graphic sex. I made the choice not to censor that part of their lives because it happens. Not only in the transactional sense, but as a part of their private lives…it’s about as real an experience as I could fully capture.

As for queer comics…in early queer comics, we didn’t worry about mainstream acceptance, we made it for our friends. We weren’t concerned about sales or reputation because we were already fucked!

Right now gays are in the mainstream, we have marriage, and part of that strategy has been desexualizing everything we are so this particular comic pushes us back into that realm where sex and identity are intertwined…the narratives of acceptance have been, “We’re just like you!” but the truth is, we’re not…a lot of naked truths get exposed and that’s what I plan to bring to the comic genre.

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(“Flurry” by Marilyn Minter, 1994)

This year’s London Frieze art festival included an exhibit called Sex Worka retrospective on the first wave of feminist art. “Your Art (Probably) Sux!” cried sex workers, upon realizing that the only one of us formally involved was an anonymous porn actress’ cropped pussy lips in a photo.

But to be fair, we hadn’t even seen much of the show. So how have we gotten to this cynical place, where giving an artist the benefit of the doubt seems like a losing bet? Because when it comes to conversations about sociosexual mores, the deck is stacked against us and the house always wins. Sex workers have long been used as muses, metaphors, and props, sensually strewn throughout the art world’s most famous boudoirs but rarely recognized as cultural producers in their own right. When it comes to the era of radical feminism at the heart of  Sex Work, a period of artistic fascination with (fetishization of?) prostitution, a time integral in the creation of a violent anti-prostitution feminist politic, the stakes seem life or death. Fool me once, you know?

For the record, I don’t think the art in Sex Work sux. Considering the recent death of Hugh Hefner, a misogynist whose myopic hetero vision of men, women, and sex shaped a generation, it is still somehow precious to see bodies represented through the eyes of anyone but straight cis men. Betty Tompkins’ black and white “Fuck Paintings” feel spectral, like catching a glimpse of her hazy vulvas through a steamy window. They were all too real, though, in 1973 when she had to order pornography from “the far east” to a secret mailbox in Canada, and then smuggle it across the American border.  Marilyn Minter’s color-saturated orifices aren’t nearly as shocking as the idea that only a few years before I was born she was told by a gallery that women artists don’t sell and to come back in ten years—or never.

The historical context of these works can’t be overlooked. They herald from a time that is eerily recent, when an exhibit featuring only women artists like this one would be so transgressive a curator might lose a career over it, and where the best an artist could hope for in terms of positive reviews was a patronizing remark about a work’s alterity—its “feminine qualities. “I like this art and yet I still struggle to release the distrust lingering from a many-decades-long betrayal committed by the epoch in question. Because after all, there is a historical context for sex worker outrage, too.

[NSFW image after the cut]

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(A screenshot from Amalia Ulman's Excellences and Perfections series)

(A screenshot from Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections series)

‘Up-and-coming’ no longer describes Argentine-born Amalia Ulman. Her recent work– a secret Instagram photo series mimicking the online persona of an L.A. sugar baby–made some huge waves. Ulman is quickly gaining ground as an artist whose accomplishments extend well beyond speaking at the respected Swiss Institute and showing at Frieze and the 9th Berlin Biennale. Her recent viral success is due in no small part to the enduring cultural fascination with—and disdain for— sex workers. It just so happens that she used to be one herself.

Even though she was never without basic needs growing up in a working class family, Ulman found herself struggling later in life to afford food and winter clothing while making art in London, England.

“Once I had to steal a coat from a store,” she says of a time when she was also financially supporting her mother, “and for me it was the most demeaning thing I’ve had to do in my life. It was out of necessity and not just for fun or the thrill. It changes things a lot when you actually need it.”

Financial hardships aside, Ulman had to balance the time demands of artistic production: “Sadly, most people don’t really understand that the process of making art requires lots of free time. That’s why, especially now that the economy is so bad in general, it’s just full of rich kids, because they’re the only ones who can go a month without really doing anything. Because that’s how making art works.”

Moreover, Ulman was resistant to the social expectation that a young woman should be spending her time finding a husband. She was keenly aware that if she charged for that same romantic experience she didn’t want personally, she could make both time and money for herself:

“Instead of having to perform heteronormativity all night, like going on dates with random dudes, for free, I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just do that for money.’ For me, [sex work] wasn’t like a dark thing to do, or an empowering thing to do either. I was just buying time for myself to think. I had retail jobs in the past where I had a 9-to-5, plus transportation of two hours in the middle of the snow, and I couldn’t think. I would rather I monetized on my body, which I was already doing in a way because that’s how the art world was working for me…even if I didn’t want to, I was being objectified as a young female artist and most of the attention I was getting was from older men in the art world. It was very objectifying.”

Imagine this encounter: An older man invites a younger woman to a private room in Manhattan. Once there, he offers her money, sensually feeds her finger-foods, and grabs her ass as she leaves. It seems par for the course for any escort providing an outcall, but this is what happened to Ulman during a formal interview with a representative of an admired art magazine, not with a former client. This is reality in an industry with an ingrained culture of quid-pro-quo “mentorship.”

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MARYWEPT_cover300Canadian comic artist Chester Brown is probably the most well-known punter-writer our there. His latest, Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus: Prostitution And Religious Obedience In The Bible, is an analysis of the Bible as a graphic novel. (Maybe Brown likes illustration because most clients need pictures in their books.) This review of his newly published book is composed of an edited version of an email and g-chat conversation between Tina Horn and Caty Simon.

Caty: I was surprised by Chester Brown’s Christianity as demonstrated by this book. In its afterword, Brown explicitly identifies himself as a Christian, albeit one focused on mysticism who’s “interested in personally connecting with God, not in imposing my views on anyone else.” His avowed, classic libertarianism in his sex work client graphic novel memoir Paying For It (2011) would’ve had me assume that he was a fervent atheist a la Richard Dawkins. His libertarianism does come up at an interesting point in this book when he puts the words “it’s none of your business how other people spend their money” into Jesus’ mouth when he chides Judas for judging Mary because she spent money on anointing oils for Jesus’ feet rather than on charity.

Tina: Especially when you consider that he ran for Canadian Parliament in the Libertarian Party! This was in the years right before Paying for It came out.

Caty: So he’s actually having Jesus Christ parrot his party politics—that’s ballsy.

Tina: When I was a teenager, I thought Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis was the shit, because it taught me more about what the Bible actually teaches than most of the aggressive Christian kids at my high school. Mary Wept puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis: a Christian highlighting the hypocrisy of other Christians through rational interpretation of their text.

Caty: When people say that Judeo-Christian values oppose prostitution, it gets me fuming, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are plenty of heroic whores in the Bible, and many more Biblical heroines who explicitly had transactional sex at some point in their stories. So I enjoyed how Brown highlights the stories of women like Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered Hebrew spies from discovery when they scouted out the city of Jericho, and Tamar, the woman who whored herself out to her father-in-law in disguise in a complicated plot to expose his hypocrisy. I only wish he’d included the story of badass Judith, the woman who beheaded the general Holofernes as he lay drunkenly asleep in her tent after possibly purchasing her services, ushering the Hebrew army to victory.

Maybe Brown felt like he just couldn’t compete with all the exquisite Renaissance and Baroque era artistic renditions of Judith in her moment of triumph, like this one:

Trophime Bigot's "Judith Cutting Off The Head Of Holofernes" (via Wikimedia)

Trophime Bigot’s “Judith Cutting Off The Head Of Holofernes” (via Wikimedia)

But I think the real reason Brown didn’t include tales like Judith’s is because he seems more focused on outlining these sex work-related Biblical narratives in order to glorify sex workers’ clients. He has a convoluted thesis going about men whoremongering as a transcendent challenge to rigid religious dogma. This ascribes nonexistent significance to an activity which is really morally neutral, and it obscures all these awesome sex working Biblical women in stories which are about them. In a memoir about being a sex work client like Paying for It, centering the client perspective makes sense. But in a book like this, it feels beside the point. I’d love to see how this material would look tackled by a sex worker amateur Biblical scholar/comic book artist.

Tina: The book does explore the subjectivity of the clients more than that of the women. Brown’s reinterpretation of a lot of these stories seems to amount to, “God totally says it’s ok to be a whoremonger!” Which is great, but I would love to see more, “God says it’s totally cool to be a whore!” Not because I personally need the validation, but because undermining Christian values with their own text is a longtime favorite sport of mine.

Caty: So, what do you make of Brown depicting God as some sort of Biblical version of a WWE wrestler? His God is BUILT.

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Candida Royalle at the 2013 Cinekink Awards. (Photo by Cropbot, via Wikimedia)

Candida Royalle at the 2013 Cinekink Awards. (Photo by Cropbot, via Wikimedia)

Candida Royalle was born in 1950 to a New York City that, to her, appeared buttoned-up and fucked-up about sex. She left that city, and the world, for good just a few days ago after several years of wrangling with ovarian cancer.

Following in her musician father’s footsteps, Royalle pursued an arts education, funded first by art modeling. The art modeling, in a career path familiar to many sex workers, quickly evolved into nude modeling and eventually into performance in about 25 feature length porn films. “I got into adult movies to support my art habit,” she explained in an August 2014 interview.

After a stop-and-start filmography, punctuated by periods of uncertainty and guilt, she left performing altogether in the hope of making a better pornography for us all by founding her own company, Femme Productions. Her first few years of film-making were particularly interesting, featuring older models; a wide range of body types; severe, “unsexy” shooting techniques; and weird, dystopian plots. Her film Revelations (1993) features a married couple living in a fascist, sex-hating future. The wife finds an old stash of dirty home movies which sexually transform her and ultimately result in her arrest. Royalle spoke frequently about wanting to create pornography that focused on feminine pleasure, and which made space for erotic storytelling that was not clichéd and shallow. Her goal was to create films that women would watch and that partners would watch together.

Over the past few decades, her production company became more successful and branched out into a wide array of sex toys, books, and even a biographical documentary which was in production before Royalle passed away. She was a heartening role model for women who could no longer directly sell their own sexual labor (by choice or necessity), but for whom leaving the industry altogether was not an option.

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