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The Gr8 Pole Deb8: PoleCon Edition

Three years ago, at this very time of year, this post came across my Tumblr dashboard.  It was the first time I had seen anything like it and I was staggered.

Stripper tumblr (strumplr?) was outraged, and though responses began with the intent of being educational, they devolved quickly as the original poster, Kelly, blasted back with the same clueless defensiveness that most people demonstrate when told they’ve been thoughtlessly oppressive and insulting to another group of marginalized people.

My response then is basically the same as my response now, although the years have honed it and solidified my personal feeling that hobbyists (non-in person sex workers) have no business being within feet of a pole.  If you aren’t going to work fifteen-thirty hours a week in 7” lucite heels; having beer breath burped in your face; learning with each rotation how to do pole tricks, in front of a live audience; risking your position in grad school (“ethical conflict”); your ability to get an apartment (“but your income isn’t documented”); your ability to keep custody of your kids (“she’s a fucking whore who takes it off in front of people for money, she’s clearly an unfit mother,” never mind that that wasn’t a problem when she was giving you her money); then you have no business using us as a costume. You have no business pretending that the performance of labor that wrecks our lower discs and ribs, forcing us to suck in our bellies, point our toes, and arch our back to the point of pain, is somehow relevant to your sexuality. I can’t stop you, but that doesn’t make it right.  We’re not your sexy stripper costume. If you can’t hack the labor, you don’t get the edgy whiff of transgression.

This was my first intro to the “#notastripper” phenomenon, or as I like to call and tag it, “#the gr8 pole deb8.”

It was not to be my last encounter with these people, not by a long shot. It wasn’t even my last encounter with Kelly, who refused to go away or even show any embarrassment and instead proceeded to insist that she “loves and respects strippers, but she’s not just some bitch with daddy issues shuffling around the pole.”

I mean, honestly.  You parse that one.  My life is too short.

“#Notastripper” spawned many articles, because what internet editor doesn’t love that combo of sex work and scantily clad women, especially when it means the lead image can be sexy?  (I may have the only editors of an internet news/pop culture site who do not go for these things.  Bless.) My personal favorite is by Alana Massey, Why is there an ongoing feud between strippers and pole dancers?

All the while pole hobbyists were writing articles and blog posts bemoaning the just truly baffling conflation of pole work with strippers, one woman even daring to say that she was getting stigmatized for her sexuality.  Where to even begin!

In the past three years, however, I have never read anything as ignorant, uneducated, condescending, and blatantly offensive as I did this week, in a post leading up to this week’s International Pole Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.  

In an open letter to her “Exotic Pole Dance Sisters” Nia Burks calls for them to take the stage this weekend mindful of those who came up with their fun extracurricular activity.  All well and good, right?  I felt like finally, an asshole pole hobbyist was taking my demand for them to minimize their asshole-ness seriously and acknowledging strippers.  Righteous. But read on.

Peta Brady’s Ugly Mugs—An Analogy

(Photo by Julie Bates, via Jane Green and sexliesandducttape.)
(Photo by Julie Bates, via Jane Green and sexliesandducttape.)

As a writer, a former sex worker, and someone who has been quite vocal in my writing about the industry, I’ve been approached quite a number of times to write about the play Ugly Mugs by Peta Brady.

I’ve declined each time. Firstly, because I have not seen the play. I’ve only read about it online and read sex workers’ concerns about its content. Secondly, because I wondered how much I could really contribute after reading such powerful and articulate pieces by people such as Jane Green on the subject. But I was asked again, and this time I had just been on the phone to an old friend talking about an incident that happened many years ago. And something inside me clicked, something that made me feel compelled to tell my story.

When I was in high school I had a diary. Like most teenage girls’ diaries it was full of angst and bad poetry, interspersed with observations of the people and situations around me.

I was not a popular girl in school. I had been given the “slut” label very early on and it stuck. I guess, if you were using the vulgar base meaning of the word “slut,” I was one.

I ran around with boys. I liked getting their attention. I was not afraid of sex, sexuality, sexual pleasure, and sexual gratification. I masturbated as often as I could. I watched porn videos and read Playboy magazines.

I was very lucky that despite being shunned and shamed by the “popular kids,” I had a friend, a girl who was pretty much just like me, who shared my obsession with sex and sexuality.

My girlfriend and I would swap my diary back and forth and fill it with our own dirty stories, our fantasies about the different boys (and sometimes girls) that we knew. We would tell our deepest secrets and horniest stories to each other within those pages. We also used it as a way of communicating what others were saying about us. What the rumors were about which girls were going to “fight us” after school. Where they’d said they’d be “waiting for us.” Which boys to stay away from because they were the ones who ran around telling the rest of the school about the things we had done.

It was our little safe haven. Our solidarity. Our secret.

I’m not quite sure how it fell into the wrong hands. I think I had it in my bag at a sleepover party. I don’t know why I would have even taken it with me… but I did. And when I got home the next day I realized it was missing.

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.

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.