Bobby explaining club rules (c) Six Island Productions
In one of this film’s first scenes, a manager tells a stripper “I’m fining you $20 because I’m so pissed at you,” while handing her a $40 payment for a shift. She tells him she was scheduled for one shift, she showed up for it and he couldn’t “fine her” or withhold her pay. “I can do whatever I want,” he says. 90 seconds in, and I already have a grudge against the people running this strip club.
Director Shawney Cohen tells us that The Manor, which opened the 2013 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, is not a documentary about the titular strip club—it is about his family. Shawney’s parents bought the Manor, a combination strip club/downmarket residential hotel in Ontario, when he was a child, and now it’s run as a family business with their two adult sons. The film is more mystifying than revealing, as it cites connections between family disorder, dysfunction and the running of a strip club which are never really clarified. [READ MORE]
An Intimate Life might not exist if not for The Sessions, last year’s Oscar-nominated film fictionalizing the experience of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene and her client Mark O’Brien. From the blurbs by actors Helen Hunt and John Hawkes to the book’s pictures of Cohen Greene posing next to the stars, it’s obvious the publishers were guessing most readers would come to the memoir through the movie. I hope it finds a wider audience than that, though, because it could have a big impact on the lives of the sexually misinformed, anxious, and ashamed. Through a combination of vignettes about several of her clients and the recounting of her own sexual awakenings, Cohen Greene offers a blue print on expanding one’s sexual life. As one reviewer on Amazon wrote, “Thank you from my heart and penis.” Sounds like something one of my guys would say.
Awesomely, Cohen Greene opens the book with her number of sexual partners (900) but perhaps less awesomely, she follows that immediately with an explanation of why she’s not a prostitute. I admit that I’m probably a little oversensitive to this, but what is she trying to say exactly? Does she think there’s something wrong with being a prostitute? You don’t come around these parts blowing that horn, Madam. While I imagine Cohen Greene is not someone who would sneer at or shame prostitutes, it’s a little suspicious that she so regularly wants to distance herself from us. For her, the difference in our work is “significant”:
- prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, while surrogacy is new
- intercourse is not the majority or totality of the interaction
- her ultimate aim is to “model a healthy intimate relationship”
- she’s focused on resolving problems and achieving goals rather than simply providing a sexual experience
Her favorite metaphor is that going to see a prostitute is like going to a restaurant but going to see a surrogate is like attending culinary school, the implication being that prostitutes don’t teach their clients anything.
Part of me gets it. But another part of me thinks she might not know many escorts.
Melissa Petro, Pros(e)’s editor, at a reading. Photo by David Kornfield, courtesy of the Red Umbrella Project.
Released in the fall of 2012, Pros(e) is the first anthology of writings from the Red Umbrella Project’s Becoming Writers workshop, a creative non-fiction workshop for people with experience in the sex industries. Caty Simon and Jessie Nicole produced this collaborative review out of an hours long conversation that had to be abridged to a fourth of its original size to be readable. We had a lot of feels, as the kids say.
A notable story for both of us (and Jessie’s favorite) was “Fist” by Josh Ryley, which we both had strong visceral reactions to. The mix of humor and horror was nothing short of brilliant, and like all the best pieces here, it illustrated a ubiquitous sex worker concern–what happens to a sex worker if a client gets seriously hurt during a session? Other pieces felt incomplete, like introductions to an untold story happening outside of the pages. And some left us lukewarm or cranky. But the power of Pros(e) is in the variety of experience.
Caty: Melissa Petro’s introduction opens with simple but vital points. We’re taught that sex workers are “if not worthless, than worth less.” We feel the need to tell ourselves we’re exceptional, to distinguish ourselves from the rest of that hoish rabble. This engenders horrible, elitist attitudes reflected in many other sex work memoirs, sometimes from the title onwards, as in Ivy League Stripper and the like. These attitudes also create barriers to organizing together. A collaborative writing project like this can make the vital difference. We show each other how we are the same, rather than one sex worker writing to show how a nice girl like her happened to end up in a place like this. Petro also reminds us of the erasure of male and trans* sex workers, and Pros(e) works against that by including a wide spectrum of voices from the sex industries.
Jessie: Pros(e) connects the value of storytelling, an idea driving RedUP, to the concrete benefits that sex workers can gain from having a venue to tell their stories. This anthology, simply by virtue of existing, is part of a larger project to counteract the stereotypes and stigma that works to threaten those in the sex industries. [READ MORE]
In the midst of Girls Gone Wild culture, in which stripping is made to seem effortless and women’s naked bodies are cast as easily replaceable, Kim Price-Glynn enters the Lion’s Den. The Den, a seedy strip club in a small, white, working-class town in the Northeast, is a far cry from the glamorous media images of low lights, glamorous makeup, and dazzling stage sets. Quite the contrary, the Den’s physical layout—run-down and in serious need of repair—mirrors the niche its strippers occupy as the exploited and expendable employees of a club centered around male desire and profit.
Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work is an ethnography by Price-Glynn in which she explores what she calls the “gendered processes” underlying the organizational structure at a strip club. While working as a cocktail waitress, Price-Glynn turned her attention to the formal and informal processes by which strip club employees, dancers, and customers exercised authority and had their needs and desires fulfilled. Who “wins” when it comes to stripping? Her answer, while attentive to the ambiguities, suggests that males—customers and employees—“win.” Strippers get the short end of the stick.
Price-Glynn doesn’t believe that strip clubs need to be shut down, nor that strippers are caught in cycles of abuse. Instead, she places the “blame” for the exploitative conditions experienced by Lion’s Den dancers on a larger culture of misogyny. Rape culture, the permissibility of violence, and the unique intersection in the club of racism, ageism, and sizeism are overarching social realities that converge to enable the Den’s brand of sexist exploitation. [READ MORE]
In My Skin by Australian Kate Holden is an example of the “my drug whore hell” memoirs to which I am both attracted and repelled. I’m an IV drug-using sex worker but do not subscribe to the NA model of addiction-as-disease and don’t define my life as hell. Most media doesn’t show anything true about my life at all, but instead falls back on depictions of drug-using sex workers as dead hooker jokes, grotesque caricatures of secondary characters with barely any lines. So I eat up all the tell-alls about them I can find, because even if their perspective on drugs and sex work isn’t mine, someone like me is the main character.
Holden’s pre-heroin self was the middle-class girl many of us once were: a scholarly teetotaler, a bohemian who looked up to Anaïs Nin. Her college friends began to experiment with heroin, and, feeling left out, she tried it. She developed a habit and fell into stereotypical behavior: Workplace theft (and a subsequent firing), breaking up with her recovering boyfriend and attempting to quit herself. When she was kicked out of her parents’ house, she became a street sex worker and then a brothel worker. After some time she enrolled herself in a methadone clinic, and eventually weaned herself off both heroin and methadone. While that sketch might sound like a sensationalist women’s magazine article, In My Skin manages enough powerful nuance to transcend genre. READ MORE