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What Does Amalia Ulman’s Instagram Art Mean for Sex Workers?

(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.”

Q: Why did Jesus die on the cross?

A still from the infamous Nodis commercial

I saw this one day too late for Easter, but the dominatrixes among our readership might still enjoy watching this Nodis commercial that’s apparently caused quite a stir in Italy. Jesus, who’s got his hands all tied up by a dominatrix, can still use his Nodis bluetooth earpiece to make a phone call to his dad (who is God, by the way). The Catholics Bishops Conference is calling for a boycott of the company.

Hopefully I’m not the only one who thinks this is funny.

A: He forgot the safe word.

It’s Not About Me: Responsibility In Sex Worker Writing

writingishard4New sex worker writers often justify their sex work with respectability politics.

I did it. I fucked up with my very first piece, in a big venue, the Guardian, contrasting my sex work to that of hypothetical trafficked workers, so-called “miserable slaves.” Even after taking feedback about that mistake, it took me a while to quit using my own favorable personal circumstances to make sex work more palatable to my readers.

I think that I did it because I was intoxicated with the power of my writing, and I thought my experience was important. Guess what—sometimes it’s not. My education and my privilege and the good working conditions I enjoy doing sex work are far less important than the broader picture—the narratives of austerity, migration, and marginalization that are the true story of sex work, the one that needs to be told in order to defuse myths and build support for sex worker rights. While I campaign for sex workers’ rights, in part, because they would benefit me and my family, I need them far less than the most marginalized, criminalized, and stigmatized among us.

I hope to educate others with an account of the process of making my writing better reflect the sex worker community. This essay is meant to be a start of a conversation. I invite reply, correction, and contribution.

Tell all the stories.

A sex worker writer should learn as much as possible about the conditions of all kinds of sex workers, from porn stars to street-based workers to parlor workers. This is not only essential for a good perspective, it’s good journalism: keeping track of multiple streams of information can produce great story ideas. I learned about the Merseyside murders and the Soho raids; about the rescue industry and about the party politics behind recent parliamentary debates on the Swedish Model and decriminalization. Through Google alerts, blogs like this one, and the indispensable Honest Courtesan, Sex Work Twitter, and Facebook groups like COYOTE and My Favorite Abolitionist, I keep track of sex workers’ rights news across the globe. Even when I am not covering an issue, perspective gained through continual study has helped me to put my reporting in better context and choose better stories.

.XXX Domain Ads: Creepy “Porn Is Moving to .XXX” Print Campaign

The .xxx domain is nothing more than an efficient means for domain registrars to extort money from businesses and organizations afraid that their names will be bought and used by porn sites, and from adult site operators who must purchase their .coms in .xxx format, lest someone else do so and hijack traffic. They basically said as much themselves with the “Can You Afford Not To?” video ad campaign. You have to give them credit: When they finally approved the .xxx domain, ICANN created worth out of thin air by allowing domain registrars to run what is essentially a protection scam: “That’s a nice brand you have there. It’d be a real shame if it redirected to a porn site.”

This Week in Pole Dance and Popular Culture

Enrique Iglesias’ “Dirty Dancer” premiered Wednesday with what I think is the best actual pole dancing (and floor work) I’ve seen in a music video. I don’t think the athletes in the video are what any of us would refer to as “dirty dancers.” The futuristic strip club reminds me of a defunct Portland club that opened in the former space of a super-mod sushi restaurant called Electrofish Lounge. They kept all the furniture and decor and added a pole, and it looked a lot like this except for the surveillance camera hawks. Charlotte wants to know why Enrique is dressed like Justin Bieber.

Taking a cue from Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears pulled a male audience member on stage during her performance at Staples Center in LA on Monday night. He looks a lot more comfortable than Steve Nash, no? While one, let alone two feather boas is a total no-no (they shed everywhere and sweat plus feathers is a bummer), it’s pretty accurate. The jumping on the pole and straddling the guy from behind is a classic bachelor/birthday stage dance move.

America’s Got Talent featured an androgynous self-proclaimed “pole-fessional” who made it past the first round using two spinning poles and dancing to Katy Perry. Catherine says, “Gotta love a man in stripper heels and body glitter!” I kinda don’t think the black Mary Janes go with the silver though.