emotional labor

Jacqueline Frances (Photo by Danielle Rafanan)

Jacqueline Frances has drawn attention and acclaim with her deceptively simple cartoons of everyday strip club doings.  The simplicity of her comics draws you in, and before you know it, you’re seeing men and masculinity from a sex workers’  view that few people can bring themselves to take on consciously. Frances toured last year with her baby-stripper memoir The Beaver Show, and is touring this year with her new project, Striptastic!, a comic book celebration of strippers.  She’s traveling the country for the next month and a half on the Sex Witch Tour.

Red: So, early on in Striptastic! you have a great illustration of a woman onstage saying she’s smashing patriarchy, and then you write a bit below that about how stripping is feminist and against patriarchy.

And I wanted to ask if you think it’s that simple, because there are later illustrations of “bad nights,” and one of a girl being groped where the caption is something like, “for every Instagram picture of a stripper with stacks, this is what she had to put up with” (which is WAY TOO REAL). These illustrations hint at a different reality, one where women/strippers don’t have all the power—or much power at all—and the work is a complex negotiations of boundaries with customers for cash and then with management for their respect (or for them to at least act like it) and with some management beggaring dancers before allowing them to leave after a slow night.

So, given these illustrations, I was wondering how you see stripping now, if you still see it as a patriarchy-smashing activity, or if it is in fact just another job with compromises like everything else, or if it can be both. Can it be patriarchy-smashing if the clubs are set up to profit men with as minimal benefit to the dancer as possible? Is a woman with low or no social capital being able to earn a living radical (I think it is!), but can that also co-exist with the fact that she’s able to make this living by working in a space that expressly centers men, male desires, and male conspicuous consumption of female energy, bodies, and services?

And is her work that benefits all these men, is that still smashing patriarchy?

Jacqueline Frances: No, it’s definitely not that simple. We exist within it and all have bills to pay. There are many ways to chip away at and/or smash the patriarchy, and I don’t believe there is one pure and simple way to do it.

Red: What’s your ideal outcome with the book? Are you trying to build stripper solidarity? What would you like to do with that, if that’s your goal? What are your visions?

Jacq: Yeah, I totally want to build stripper solidarity! Hmm, what was my goal with the book? I don’t know—the book kind of just happened organically, I started drawing and I knew that people were disappointed that The Beaver Show wasn’t illustrated—

Red: [laughing] Did you see the review—someone posted a review of The Beaver Show and it was clear they hadn’t even touched it, they describe it as a comic book and I was like, “Mmmm…”

Jacq: No, it’s not! But yeah, there are a lot of typos and it is a baby stripper memoir, it’s how you start. And so I was like, “I guess I should make a book of pictures!”

So I made it, and the survey made it not so much a book about me, more about other people. And I was talking to my mom today, [telling her that] I want it to feel like a yearbook, I want other strippers to open it up and relate to it and be happy about the positive memories and the strength they’ve discovered through stripping and sex work. I really want it to be an artifact for the women who’ve done the work, to celebrate their achievement. And I also want it to be educational for people who don’t do it, but that’s not my MO.

My MO is not teaching dudes, that’s all I do at work all day. I’ll offer some pearls of wisdom, or my zine, How not to be a dick in the strip club, which I just made available on Amazon again, but this is a gift for strippers.

…I’d love to usher in more women telling their stories. I know it’s not safe to come out, I know I have a ton of privilege that makes it safe—stripping is legal, I’m white, I’m educated—I have a lot of privilege that makes it easier to come out, so I want to use that. I want to start a dialogue. [READ MORE]

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(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.”

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lumpenproletariat meme 1“So, I figured out what happened to Jane,” the dungeon manager said.

“Oh?”

“My friend ran into her the other day. She’s a cop now.”

“I guess that makes some kind of sense ,” I said.

“Mmhhmm. She can beat-up people legally now.”

That’s the punchline. Do you get it? Let me take all the humor out of it by explaining: in most U.S. jurisdictions, professional dommes are criminalized under prostitution laws 1, and police can de facto brutalize whoever they want, especially if that person is Black like the dungeon manager is. Her joke isn’t funny-ha-ha; it’s ironic. It’s also funny-strange: why would a fascist like Jane spend years working as a petty criminal?

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that Jane bought the popular line about pro-dommes. It seems we’ve confused dressing up in Slutty Cop Halloween costumes and consensually slapping men’s scrotums with having real power. And when I say “we,” I don’t just mean Jane and other BDSM pros. I mean everyone. I mean, look at this recent example of how the media covers professional domination:

“The new group Dommes for Bernie placed an ad on Manhattan’s Backpage.com classifieds on Friday, calling for Wall Street workers to step up for punishment worthy of the Bernie Sanders presidential platform,” Mary Emily O’Hara writes at The Daily Dot. Both O’Hara and the DfB present ad copy as testament to a reality in which pro-dommes really do discipline our clients. “We think it’s poetic justice to dominate men who benefit from capitalism, and then donate their tributes to a candidate who stands up for those most harmed by it,” O’Hara quotes one of the dommes as saying. I fail to see the poetry or the justice of a man quite happily paying a woman for a highly gendered form of labor, and the woman taking her money and doing with it as she sees fit—in this case, donating to a center-left candidate for the presidency of a neocolonial empire that stands on stolen land.

But then, I also don’t see how a half dozen or so fin-dommes have transformed “fuck you, pay me” dirty talk into a semi-coherent rhetoric of wealth redistribution on certain strains of social justice Twitter. It seems obvious to me that gamely paying $20 in Amazon gift cards for a carefully calibrated performance of sexualized bitchiness is not full communism. Where did everyone else get it twisted?

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(Screenshot from the film)

(Screenshot from the film)

Imagine Lysistrata—the classical play you probably read in Greek Lit class —but in the hood.

In this fictional but all-too-real version of Southside, Chicago, the women of Chi-Raq, lead by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), opt to withhold sex as a negotiating method to force an end to the gang related violence their men engage in. Lysistrata is inspired by the story of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who organized a sex strike amongst her peers to end a gruesome civil war. Her efforts were successful and earned her the Nobel Prize. The purpose of the Chi-Raq women’s strike is not so much to save their men from themselves as it is to bring a stop to the stray bullets that kill innocent children caught in the crossfire. These female revolutionists consider their responsibility to put children first an unwritten condition of womanhood. While Lysistrata herself is not a mother, her solidarity with them over her gang leader boyfriend, whom she loves, is powerful.

Is the labor of the Chi-Raq women’s strike itself a sort of sex work? As a sex worker myself, I have a very liberal definition of what falls under that (red) umbrella. I consider any situation where sex is used as a means of negotiation to be a form of sex work. Cash exchange is not a requirement. This definition can include negotiations between married couples or any suggestion of potential future sex to get what you want in the now—what some might call “flirting.” I understand this is a controversial opinion and an incredibly broad demarcation of sex work. But the reason I keep my definition of sex work so broad is because it normalizes the behavior. The more parallels I can draw between prostitution and sexual labor within civilian relationships, the weaker the arguments for intimate labor being an inherent evil become. This also means that when I work, I feel no guilt over avoiding terms such as “escort”—which would get me targeted by law enforcement—in favor of “sugarbaby” or “spoiled girlfriend”—even though nine times out of 10 they mean same goddamned thing, just without leaving me subject to the same legal implications.

The women of Chi-Raq considered themselves activists, and peaceful ones at that, but they still end up facing federal charges for their disruptive behavior. “Activists” sounds much better than “pissed off girlfriends.” There exists near infinite terminology to frame sexual negotiations depending on the conditions in which you negotiate. As the leader of this unconventional protest, Lysistrata is careful in navigating PR—it is her articulation of the dire circumstances in which the neighborhood lives, in addition to her resolve, that makes her a force to be reckoned with as opposed to being considered a joke, or worse, a terrorist. Different titles for the same actions produce vastly different outcomes.

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Does your client look like this? (Trade Union Magazine, 1925, via Wikimedia)

Does your client look like this? (Trade Union Magazine, 1925, via Wikimedia)

I recently had a realization about my work after returning from an international trip with one of my sugar daddies. I was only gone for four days, but I felt like I had just spent a month with one of the worst bosses from one of my straight jobs. I was a ball of stress after coming back and needed a week of self-care, copious amounts of cannabis, and many hugs from my lovers in order to recover…oh, and an entire therapy session dedicated to deconstructing the experience. During all this reflection, I realized that my favorite moments from the trip all involved having sex with this man, who is thirty-four years my senior and can only sometimes get an erection. Every other part of the trip, the parts spent providing companionship, left me wanting to roll my eyes hard enough to give me a headache for days. The flight back, where I was forced to sit next to him and entertain him for eight or so hours while also dealing with raging cranky PMS demons, should have earned me an Academy Award. (Or at least a Golden Globe nomination.)

As far as rich and powerful old dudes go, this guy isn’t so bad. He tries to do good, though in my opinion he usually falls short. He is philanthropic, he is liberal, and he considers himself a feminist ally. But like most rich, powerful, liberal-leaning, old, white, philanthropic, self-proclaimed feminist males, he has way too much privilege to actually be a good person. He’s “not like other clients,” but in fact he is pretty much like every other client I have. He’s the type I seem to attract. The sort who is looking for a comparatively young, pretty, outspoken feminist badass to bust his balls…just a little bit. It is very important to him that I am always my most authentic self around him; that I don’t wear makeup unless I want to and that I always share my true opinions about his behavior. Of course, that’s only as long as my “true” opinions are mostly validating, with a smattering of criticism here and there to “keep it real.” He’s never said that in so many words, but I think we all know how it works.

Whenever I travel with him, I always feel a sharp contrast between the upper class lifestyle he leads and the middle class lifestyle I am used to leading. Being his traveling companion is discombobulating because I am a member of the luxury service industry he is exploiting (despite his best intentions), but I am also his partner in that exploitation. I am utilizing his wealth in order to live like him, and thus on the surface I must pretend to enjoy all the luxuries we enjoy together. I must perform capitalism in order to provide the service I’m implicitly selling him. But I empathize more with the numerous maids and waiters and chefs and cashiers and bellboys and masseurs and the other sex/service workers he hires to facilitate his vacation. This performance of consumption without criticism is emotionally exhausting for me, probably the most emotionally exhausting work I have ever done.

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