feminism

(“Flurry” by Marilyn Minter, 1994)

This year’s London Frieze art festival included an exhibit called Sex Worka retrospective on the first wave of feminist art. “Your Art (Probably) Sux!” cried sex workers, upon realizing that the only one of us formally involved was an anonymous porn actress’ cropped pussy lips in a photo.

But to be fair, we hadn’t even seen much of the show. So how have we gotten to this cynical place, where giving an artist the benefit of the doubt seems like a losing bet? Because when it comes to conversations about sociosexual mores, the deck is stacked against us and the house always wins. Sex workers have long been used as muses, metaphors, and props, sensually strewn throughout the art world’s most famous boudoirs but rarely recognized as cultural producers in their own right. When it comes to the era of radical feminism at the heart of  Sex Work, a period of artistic fascination with (fetishization of?) prostitution, a time integral in the creation of a violent anti-prostitution feminist politic, the stakes seem life or death. Fool me once, you know?

For the record, I don’t think the art in Sex Work sux. Considering the recent death of Hugh Hefner, a misogynist whose myopic hetero vision of men, women, and sex shaped a generation, it is still somehow precious to see bodies represented through the eyes of anyone but straight cis men. Betty Tompkins’ black and white “Fuck Paintings” feel spectral, like catching a glimpse of her hazy vulvas through a steamy window. They were all too real, though, in 1973 when she had to order pornography from “the far east” to a secret mailbox in Canada, and then smuggle it across the American border.  Marilyn Minter’s color-saturated orifices aren’t nearly as shocking as the idea that only a few years before I was born she was told by a gallery that women artists don’t sell and to come back in ten years—or never.

The historical context of these works can’t be overlooked. They herald from a time that is eerily recent, when an exhibit featuring only women artists like this one would be so transgressive a curator might lose a career over it, and where the best an artist could hope for in terms of positive reviews was a patronizing remark about a work’s alterity—its “feminine qualities. “I like this art and yet I still struggle to release the distrust lingering from a many-decades-long betrayal committed by the epoch in question. Because after all, there is a historical context for sex worker outrage, too.

[NSFW image after the cut]

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Aya de Leon’s new novel, The Boss, tackles the real issues of sex work in a criminalized society without ever coming across as preachy.

De Leon uses the experiences of sex workers and her own life to bring the reader into a diverse, vibrant, and intersectional world. As an isolated black femme sex worker living in a state with a less than 3% black population,The Boss felt like home to me, filled with characters I could recognize in my own family.

The Boss centers on two main characters who I found myself identifying with equally. Tyesha is a street smart but jaded former escort turned clinic director. Lily, Tyesha’s friend, is a Trinidadian stripper struggling to find safety while making ends meet. Lily’s teeth-sucking and reverting to patois when angry made her the realest character for me.

From Trinidadian Lily, to the various immigrants and Latinx characters, to the Chicago-raised African American members of Tyesha’s family, including a trans teen, the author has no problem dispelling the image of Blacks (and browns) as a monolithic culture.

De Leon wastes no time getting deep—whorephobia and racism within the sex industry get addressed in the first two chapters.

When the darker strippers at Lily’s club, 1 Eyed King, attempt to sign in one day to avoid their pay being docked, they’re prevented from doing so due to club politics. Illustrating her perseverance and how accustomed she is to being fucked over, Lily responds by making a new sign-in sheet and using another dancer’s phone as the time stamp while she takes a photo of the evidence that they were shut out, sending it directly to her boss.

Lily enters the story like an Amazonian force of sexuality and fear-inducing street smarts, and she proves to be all that and more. After a young, slim, blonde, white co-ed goes from being a protected favorite inspiring jealousy in the other girls to being the subject of a public attack at work, Lily is the one who physically steps in and puts her own body in the way to save the seemingly more fragile white dancer. Being aware of the privilege this other dancer has over her doesn’t turn Lily cold in the face of the attack. As always, black femmes continue to extend sisterhood to other marginalized people, and this isn’t something that’s lost or glossed over in the book.

Indeed, the black femmes of the story are consistently the ones taking action and even putting themselves in direct fire. Gunfire is almost as common as the hair digs at Tyesha in this book, and it adds up to remind you that even as a high-powered executive, Tyesha remains exposed to a world of violence and criminal elements simply as a result of being black and a former sex worker in America. De Leon acknowledges that as a black person, you aren’t out of danger just because you’re out of the hood. Your race binds you to your community for better or worse, and you’re always within arms-reach of where you came from.

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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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Anyone who knows me will tell you I struggle with nuance.  Different people have different ways of expressing this: two of my friends describe me as a typical Capricorn, I’ve been called an “angry bumblebee,” “strident,” and “ideologically rigid” by some of my best friends.  They aren’t exaggerating! I’m capable of nuance, especially when talking about my own experiences, but when I see good things said about the sex industry without any mention of the bad, my internal alarm starts screeching.

Which makes me a really weird pick to review Jacqueline Frances’ (AKA Jacq the Stripper) celebration of strippers, Striptastic!, right?
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(Photo by Kevin Banatte (@afrochubbz) of @MsPeoples)

A provocative critique of anti-trafficking celebrity spokesman Ashton Kutcher and the rescue industry complex penned by sex trafficking survivor (and Tits and Sass contributor) Laura LeMoon is making the rounds. Predictably, white people are pissed. “Kutcher is just trying to help!” exclaim my white, cishet acquaintances on Facebook, clearly missing LeMoon’s point that “being a good ally on the issue of human trafficking means listening, not talking.” LeMoon also offers a relevant take on the racialized and racist narratives inherent in much so-called philanthropy:

“The savior complex that activists and ‘allies’ typically display is particularly important to be examined through the lens of the white savior complex. It is no coincidence that most of these so-called allies are, in my experience, upper-class white people who seem to continually distance the realities of sex slavery from themselves and reward their egos through the integration of racist stereotypes that they often promulgate as justification for their domination and supremacy in the movement.”

Many of these philanthropic organizations associated with white savior complexes claim a feminist mission, which is why sex workers, particularly sex workers of color, have been some of the most vocal opponents of white feminism. White feminism, especially feminism that actively excludes trans people (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, TERFs) and sex workers (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists, SWERFs) is steeped in white supremacy. TERF and SWERF perspectives are reliant upon the preservation of white womanhood, which is always maintained at the expense of people of color. This is why Brittney Cooper writes that “[w]hite women have been some of the worst perpetrators of racial aggression and racial indignity in this country, but their aggressions frequently escape notice, precisely because white womanhood and the need to protect it animates the core of so much white supremacist aggression toward Black people.”

The inherent racism of white womanhood escapes notice precisely because doing white femininity entails curbing accountability. Eschewing agency, especially sexual agency, is essential for the performance of white womanhood. It’s why so many white feminists harbor disdain for sex workers—sex workers put a price on performances of femininity which are typically demanded of femme-presenting people for free and without full consent. Think of it this way—there is a reason Christian Grey is not a Black man. Rape fantasies like 50 Shades of Grey appeal to white women because doing white femininity means abating all culpability. White womanhood fetishizes submission to white men because it allows white women to skirt responsibility for all things unbecoming a “good girl”— namely, again, sexual agency. The toxicity of white womanhood is evident in TERF and SWERF feminisms; I’m sure I’m not surprising any Tits and Sass readers with my analysis thus far. What receives far less attention, at least in circles of predominantly white cis sex workers, is how we—white cis women—propagate the institution of white womanhood at the expense of marginalized sex workers.   

Let me be clear—I am a white, cis, former sex worker. I have a straight job these days. I experience a great deal of privilege on a day-to-day basis, even as a queer person who is also a single mother. And even though my girlfriend experiences hardships in the world on account of being trans, we are, after all, both white. All this is to say that intersectionality is not just about acknowledging the crossroads of oppression; it is about acknowledging intersecting privileges.

So, yep, I wear a Scarlet Letter. And yep, my lover is a woman. And yep, being a single parent is hard. But please, white cisters, stop ignoring how struggles like mine are compounded for non-white people. White cisters—particularly those of you in the sex workers’ rights movement—I’m coming for you.

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