Ah, those dreams about crying tears of sperm—a sure sign of burnout (.gif made out of screenshot of House of Pleasures)
House of Pleasures (also called House of Toleration or L’Appolonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close in its native France), directed by Bertrand Bonello, is a film depicting the last year of a legal French brothel, a maison close, at the turn of the 20th century. While the film does predictably illustrate the old prostitution-is-inherently-miserable motif, sex working viewers will find much to enjoy in the close examination of brothel history and the dynamics of women’s spaces that the movie offers. Then, of course, there are the costumes and the intense outfit envy they engender in any hooker with a pulse. The brothel workers wear diaphanous, clinging gowns that look like proper dresses in shadow but reveal their transparent naughtiness in candle light, and look even more temptingly gorgeous draped along with their wearers on the lush upholstered furniture of the maison. These elements, along with the sharp dialogue that director Bonello gives the workers, kept me watching, even when the crude, supposedly “feminist” analysis and the all-too-voyeuristic violence against sex workers he inserted into the movie made me want to hurl my remote control at the screen.
C’mon! Take this scene, for example:
Client: [After long, tedious description of the plot of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—this guy is obviously the Victorian antecedent of people who blurt out spoilers] Have you read it?
Brothel Worker: No. My only two books are Sade’s diaries and the Bible, and I don’t read the Bible.
My kind of girl!
And at first I thought that House of Pleasures might provide the audience a nuanced economic analysis of its protagonists’ work: Early on in the movie, it’s made clear through a close up of the madam’s ledger book and the women’s anxious conversation among themselves that most of the workers are deeply in debt to the house. Throughout the narrative, the women and the brothel itself struggle to survive in the face of the crushing reality of a raised rent. There are even some interesting insights about the unpaid emotional labor involved in the work, as it’s implied that in this upscale environment, what’s being sold as much as the sexual services themselves is a cheerful, carefree attitude of refined femininity. While the women tally their success at the end of the night by the number of men who took them upstairs, they must linger for hours in calculated languidness downstairs, making conversation and cozying up with idle clients, playing board games with them and seeing how many party tricks can be performed with a champagne flute. “Try to be joyful,” the madam chides them at the beginning of the evening.
The Invisible Men Project, a tumblr-turned-Glasgow-art exhibition, supposedly reveals the previously unknown attitudes of men who engage the services of sex workers. The project was launched by the Glasgow Violence Against Women Partnership who come off as bonafide in their intention and achieve poor results. They do this by constructing a poorly designed mask (a faceless one, because sex workers are faceless, right?) and plucking quotes from the worst reviews written by clients. They paint this in the same manner an artist might paint a mask for a masquerade—with the idea of presenting cryptic truth through ambiguous art.
The Invisible Men Project is a propaganda project that fails as a creative project. They have painted the “faceless” sex workers with the words their clients use for them. As if the client’s opinion even matters. As if the sex worker’s worth weighs solely on their clients opinion about them. They haven’t even thought to use the words of the sex worker in question, they just assumed that the client’s opinion about their work resonates similarly.
Bravo to the Invisible Men Project for creating a space to glorify the misogynist attitudes of these men. And they are glorified. Highlighting their words does nothing but promote their behavior. They’re not ashamed—if they were, they would never had posted their reviews in the first place. The curators are completely aware that attaching a price tag to each piece will further shock their audience, especially if that price seems low. They don’t bother to put the prices in a context that allows for regional or socioeconomic differences.
The sex industry is competitive in its very nature. It’s not odd for fake reviews to be written, especially from the direct competition. Or for them to be exaggerated by a disgruntled client. This often happens because these business dealings are not in the economic mainstream (depending on the type of legal framework the country functions under). Every sex worker and every punter knows to take reviews with a grain of salt. The public doesn’t always know this, and the Invisible Men Project doesn’t bother to mention this. [READ MORE]
(poster via axxomovies.org)
There’s a scene in which under-the-weather-feeling, anti-heroine protagonist Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) describes the way she feels as “shit city.” Afternoon Delight, directed by Jill Soloway, is shit city. This film screamed “rescue project” from the very start. Rachel is a bored, restless, wealthy, vaguely hipster stay-at-home mom living with her husband and young son in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her contemporaries are mostly other jobless, Jewish, “hip” housewives who spend their time doing volunteer work, if only to thoroughly document it on social media; organizing play dates amongst their elementary school-aged children, and running something called “Craftacular.” Thing is, Rachel doesn’t like this life and she doesn’t like these women. She wanted to be a war journalist. In a scene near the end she wails, “I was so bored I could have died!!!!” One of this film’s only saving graces is the fact that her therapist is Jane Lynch, whose character is truly the only “delight” Afternoon Delight has to offer.
Two people who stop time when they orgasm team up to rob banks is Sex Criminals’ basic premise. Written by Matt Fraction with art by Chip Zdarsky, it’s a fairly new comic that’s been getting a lot of attention. The book sounds like it will be a fun sci-fi romp. And it really is. There’s chase scenes and puns and a musical sequence, but there’s more to it than that. It’s about sex and all its weirdness. How awkward it is. How if you have really, really compatible sex with someone after years of feeling isolated by your time-stopping superpowers, it can be hard not to feel like maybe you should spend all your time with that person.
The books centers on two characters: Suzi and Jon. Suzi is a librarian who happens to love sex. Masturbation is a way for her to escape her grief following the murder of her father. She refers to the time-stopped world she reaches through having an orgasm as The Quiet and retreats there when things got too loud. In contrast, Jon mostly uses his power to cause mayhem at a local sex store, Cum World, which he names his time-stopped world after.
Since this is a series about sex, with an issue focusing on a teenage boy’s adventures in a sex shop, the narrative naturally touches on sex workers—in this case, a porn star by the name of Jazmine St. Cocaine. And while I do love this series, and have been recommending it like mad to anyone who will listen, issue two offended me enough that I wrote to the creative team when I first read it a few months ago.
Any book that aspires to be the first history of the sex workers’ rights movement in the United States will inevitably face accusations of exclusion. But despite some unavoidable failures in representation, Mindy Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, is a pretty damn good history of our movement. Still, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s critique in her review of the book—that male and genderqueer sex workers are given short shrift in Chateauvert’s work—is valid. Glancing references to Kirk Read and HOOK Online aside, the book is a bit of a hen party.
Then again, so is the movement it chronicles. Sex Workers Unite is a fairly accurate portrayal of our organizing, for better or worse. The index and the footnotes provided me with a comforting sense of familiarity as my eye skimmed over names well known to me, from Carol Leigh to Kate Zen. (Full disclosure: Tits and Sass posts were often cited, including one of my own.) At least, finally, in this text trans women sex workers are given the central role in our story that they’ve played in our activism. The book covers early movement trans heroines like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in depth, documenting their participation in the Stonewall riot and their founding of STAR House, a community program serving queer and trans youth in the sex trades. They were also involved in the lesser known organization GLF (Gay Liberation Front), an anti-capitalist group that “made room for prostitutes and hustlers, including transwomen, straight and lesbian prostitutes, gay-for-pay hustlers and stone butch dyke pimps,” but hilariously enough, couldn’t come to a consensus on whether it was still okay to take money for sex after the revolution. Chateauvert follows this thread of trans history throughout, never failing to highlight trans women sex workers’ contributions to such integral activist projects as Women with a Vision, HIPS, and Washington DC’s Trans Empowerment Project, as well as their more general influence in shaping sex worker culture.
When I first picked up the book and noted the subtitle, I felt a brief pang of disappointment at the fact that our movement is still so little-known that the the two iconic events that bookend Chateauvert’s summation of our chronology in her title—Stonewall and Slutwalk—actually properly belong to other movements. But as I started to read, I was delighted to realize what the author had done by integrating our narrative with that of so many other struggles for social justice, reminding the reader of sex workers’ critical participation in so many movements over the decades. From GLBT/queer rights and feminism to AIDS activism and harm reduction, Sex Workers Unite makes it clear that you can’t really talk about the history of activism in the US without talking about us. The book tackles our invisibility in these integral roles—in its chapter on Stonewall, for example, it highlights the rarely mentioned fact that drug using trans sex workers were the key participants of the riot, and strips the respectability politics from the typical portrayal of Stonewall rioter Rivera, who is often remembered as a trans activist forebear but not so often revered for supporting her activism via street sex work.