Caty Simon

Uptown Thief (2016)

by Caty Simon on October 20, 2016 · 1 comment

in Books, Reviews

uptown-thiefSlam poet and African American studies professor Aya de León’s new novel, Uptown Thief, is every activist sex worker’s fantasy: her protagonist Marisol Rivera is a women’s health clinic director by day and an escort agency manager and expert safe-cracker to fund that clinic for survival workers by night. True, any enterprising hooker who actually tried this would get her pet cause into very hot water. But reading about Marisol’s escapades teaming up with her escort employees to rob their rich clients’ friends, practicing some creative accounting to enter these “donations” on her books, is the next best thing to pulling it off yourself.

Though de León has never been a sex worker, she’s been open about her respect for her ex-stripper mother and her aunt’s sex work. Her book is stolidly pro-sex worker without being blandly sex positive, representing a spectrum of experiences in its characters’ diverse backgrounds of high end escorting, survival sex work, and trafficking and abuse survival. There’s even a Live Nude Girls Unite poster in the clinic’s office. There’s never any hint of judgement in the tone de León takes narrating these women’s lives, although occasionally a tinge of didactic respectability politics bleeds through in the novel’s focus on clinic entrepreneurship classes and grad student escorts. Still, a story in which every whore makes good is a refreshing change from our usual crime fiction fate of death or destitution.

De Leon does make some gaffes in describing the way the agency operates which demonstrate her lack of personal experience with the work. Marisol’s escorts dress up as delivery workers in order to get into fancy hotels (huh?). And the agency’s clients agree on every sexual act they’ll perform with her employees in advance with her over the phone—a good way to get arrested. But once I started reading the book as a wish-fulfillment vehicle instead of holding it up to an impossible standard of realism, I began to really enjoy it. Plus, de León doesn’t make as many bloopers writing about sex work practice as many other writers do, perhaps because she made a point of having sex worker consultants edit her early manuscript.

The author’s general pro-lumpenprole stance is very clear here. For example, Marisol’s ex-NYPD love interest, Raul, left the department after suing them for racial discrimination and confesses that his one major regret is becoming a cop. When he catches on to Marisol’s heists, he’s openly admiring, wishing he could be a barrio Robin Hood as well. de León depicts some of the dangers sex workers commonly face by making his white ex-partner a cop who extorted sex from workers with the threat of arrest. And, of course, one of the most reprehensible characters in the book besides the abusive pimp is a snooty billionaire financier client.

De León also exhibits her populism in the way she’s marketed the novel: she’s explained in interviews that she purposefully branded the book as a women’s urban crime novel, a la Zane and Sister Souljah, to make it accessible to as many kinds of readers as possible. Indeed, one activist I know told me that this genre represents the most requested (and sadly, least donated) books to the books for women prisoners program she works with.

[READ MORE]

{ 1 comment }

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.

[READ MORE]

{ 5 comments }

Rihanna playing X-Box. (Photo by Gamer Score Blog, via Flickr)

Rihanna playing X-Box. (Photo by Gamer Score Blog, via Flickr)

2015 was a year in which hip hop and R+B continued to produce excellent soundtracks for the hustle. Here’s my shortlist of the cream of that crop, in no particular order:

Trap Queen-Fetty Wap

Fetty Wap’s infectious “Trap Queen” was technically first released in 2014 online and independently, but only really blew up this year with its major label release, ultimately peaking at number two on Billboard‘s Top Ten. The ditty happens to fall into my favorite hip hop subgenre: two members of the lumpenproletariat in lurv. Fetty Wap enthusiastically enlists his stripper beloved in his drug operation and immediately treats her as an equal and partner-in-crime after he teaches her the zen of cooking rocks. The video features a totally desexualized, smiling Black woman in jeans and a hoodie (what an accurate take on the dress code for a dancer’s day off!) diligently counting their shared money while Fetty Wap clowns around with his buddies, occasionally checking in to give his trap queen an affectionate kiss. (Accurate again: it’s the woman who takes care of business, and not much drug dealing actually gets done if you leave it to the boys.) Fetty and his bae illustrate how two heads are better than one in the hustle as they make financial plans together: “We just set a goal/talkin’ matching Lambos…” Maybe I’ve got a soft spot for the drug dealer-sex worker power couple as depicted in pop culture because of my own history, but you’ve got to admit the track is also just unstoppably cheerful—the antithesis of grim gangster rap, perfect for any psyche-yourself-up-and get-ready-for-work playlist.

Bitch Better Have My Money-Rihanna

Rihanna’s revenge ballad might be aimed at her cheating accountant, but its no-holds-barred titular sentiment is one any sex worker can identify with. “Don’t act like you forgot/ I call the shots” is a bottom line we all have to make sure our clients remember when they try to haggle with and lowball us. And their excuse filled whining in reply just sounds like “blah blah brrrap braaap” to us. All controversy over the graphic video aside, this is another excellent choice for any pre-work playlist. “Pay me what you owe me!”—doesn’t it all come down to that? Plus, brava to Rihanna for making it clear that men are the biggest bitches there are.

[READ MORE]

{ 3 comments }

(Screenshot from Roxanne, courtesy of Paul Frankl)

Roxanne and Lily negotiate breakfast. (Still from Roxanne, courtesy of Paul Frankl)

Roxanne, a short film about a trans sex worker who reluctantly takes in an abandoned child, was recently selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick and has been accepted at 14 international film festivals, including two Oscar qualifying fests.  It will soon be made into a feature film. The following interview was conducted by Sarah and Caty with director Paul Frankl over e-mail. 

Roxanne is played by a genderfluid drag queen performer, Miss Cairo. That adds an interesting layer to her portrayal of Roxanne, because a lot of trans workers exist in gender variant spaces. Sarah noted that Roxanne is a character she could actually imagine working alongside her in a trans parlor, and she’s never seen that done on film before. Can you tell us more about this casting choice?

Casting someone of fluid gender was not something I initially set out to do. I auditioned eight trans and genderfluid women (because I knew I wanted someone from the trans community, as an ethical choice), and of them, Cairo was the one I wanted for the role. We then had many discussions around gender (her own and Roxanne’s) and it was her who brought the genderqueer aspect, which I wanted to embrace and thought made a great extra dynamic to the film. Exploring someone as genderfluid is something that’s rarely seen in the media (even less than representations of trans people given the rise in awareness over the last couple of years), and something I think is definitely worth exploring more in film.

Another thing we loved about the short was the way you holistically represented all the aspects of Roxanne’s life—her morning run was given just as much if not more film time as her nightly sex work.  In your Hunger TV interview, you stated that, “by pushing the fact that she is a trans sex worker to the background, I hoped to humanise her and make her a character that everyone can relate to.” Why do you think it’s so hard for mainstream audiences to see beyond the label of “trans sex worker” and understand trans workers as whole persons beyond their jobs and gender identities?

I think films can allow people to connect with others on an emotional level, in a way they can’t through many other mediums. This is why it’s a great way to help change attitudes towards trans people and sex workers, because the audience can see their hopes, fears, and daily life—things that we all have—and relate to them. Too often, trans sex workers (and sex workers in general) are presented as victims, crazy, or drug addicts. I wanted to show a trans sex worker who was in control of her life—with her own issues, but ones that don’t revolve around her gender or career. In this way I hoped to be able to change some attitudes towards sex workers of those watching. Hopefully, this can be done more (to a wider audience) with the feature.

We were surprised by Roxanne’s agreement with Lily’s statement that she puts on her makeup to be someone else, rather than telling Lily that the makeup is just part of being the woman she is. In the Hunger TV interview, you also said that “[p]art of the key to the film was differentiating between the light and dark aspects to Roxanne’s life. We wanted to visually separate the day from the night scenes, and show the duality of her life—her real self vs. her masked self…” What is Roxanne’s “masked self”? A common stereotype about trans women holds that they are pretenders to womanhood. How is Roxanne not being her real self when she puts on makeup and displays her femininity?

Her ‘mask’ relates to the glamorous role she feels she has to play on the scene. The line about her “being someone else” when she puts on all the makeup, refers to her playing this glamorous person that doesn’t connect to her daily self—the one you see in the day time, who has interests outside the clubbing scene. It can be lonely to present a beautiful and glamorous person all the time. This is her mask—it has nothing to do with her womanhood or transness. But I think in general, makeup does disguise who you are somewhat—it physically changes the way you look. She feels she has to portray this person in order to get clients, rather than presenting herself as the sensitive, (hurt) person she really is.

[READ MORE]

{ 2 comments }

(image via Flickr user frankieleon)

(image via Flickr user frankieleon)

My BF is a former client. When I first met him I was in my early 30s and really popular. I saw him once or twice… I missed a couple appointments and he stopped seeing me.

Over the years my business slowed down. I operated UTR, mostly relying on regulars…After almost eight years my client who would become my BF contacted me for a date. I didn’t remember him, but he showed me an old review he did about me back then on one of the boards. He started seeing me twice a week. We did some overnighters and we started spending social time together. He was open-minded and generous. At the time, I was barely making it. He started paying for dates in advance. He signed a lease for me and he wanted to move in.

I liked him, but I was still escorting. I wanted him to help me, but I wasn’t willing to give up my freedom. He said he could deal with me not living with him and me continuing to work. He was OK as long as we still saw each other regularly.

[But] after a few months, it was clear that the relationship was really stressing him out. There was tension between us around me not operating securely enough. He tried to give me instructions about running my business. After some arguments, he finally conceded that I had been doing this for a long time and that I knew how to take care of myself.

He never asked me to quit, but I knew every time I told him that I had an appointment it caused him pain. Bottom line, I told him I was retiring. He was so happy. I told him I would go to school and get my education.

So for nearly two years I have been lying to him. I did go to school, but my school closed down. I took down my old contact information, but my review site is still up with all the old information on it. I changed my stage name and I have been operating UTR for nearly two years. He still pays my rent but threatens to cut me off unless we live together. He looks for me occasionally on the boards, but my new name protects me and he wants to believe me.

He loves me. I love him like my generous uncle. His money is not endless and he wants a commitment or he is going to cut me loose. I have mixed feelings. He has been good to me and he has given me a lot. I have a five-year-old. My BF has been generous and kind to her.

I’m getting older, but I think if I was more public I would still have a good five to eight years to make money. Should I give him a break and let him go while he still has some money left?

Sincerely,

A

[READ MORE]

{ 7 comments }