Your project consists of remaking iconic Western art works, creating photographic reproductions in which you replace the main figures in the paintings with sex workers. What does depicting sex workers in these roles achieve?
As sex workers we use the archetypes represented in these paintings every day in our performances, at work and in life. This history, and reality, of the feminine script is one that you cannot escape, but you can define your relationship to, through fantasy and inversion. As sex workers we are the inversion, at the same time as we are the embodiment, of the feminine.
How do you feel about the way sex workers are classically portrayed in the Western canon? I do recall some bright points, like all those gory paintings representing the triumph of heroic Biblical harlot Judith, when she beheads the general (and client) Holofernes for the Israelites. I was happy to see one of your photos is a riff on one of these paintings.
Well, first what has to be re-established from history is that sex workers were often models and muses for artists. Caravaggio often employed sex workers as models in his paintings. His piece ”Death of the Virgin” was rejected by the commissioning parish because it depicted the well-known courtesan, Fillide Melandroni, as the Virgin Mary. And the modern (Western) canon has painters such as Manet, Degas, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Seurat divulging their fascination or at least proximity to sex work in their paintings. Many of them went directly to brothels to do some of their most famous work. Countless other times, however, our position as the model, muse, and/or subject has gone undocumented. These reimaginings are so important because they include us in celebrated and preserved artifacts, when so much of our history has been erased, deemed invaluable, throughout time.
Which model did you decide to use for each photo and why?
Actually, when a worker decides they want to collaborate with me on the project, they get to choose the painting. I have a growing index of paintings, throughout the span of art history, that represent the feminine in some way. Each person looks through that index, or comes with a painting I don’t have, and we go from there. Then we work together to design the props, with them collaborating as much or as little as they want.
Nicole Witte Solomon and I have kept up with each other online for a while, dating back to the era when she was a young phone sex operator/film student, just beginning to pitch her clever writing on topics ranging from vegan cooking to feminism in pop culture to a variety of venues. As the years have gone by, she’s fulfilled many of her dreams, from directing a video for her favorite Jewish post-riot grrl band The Shondes to co-founding writers’ site The Stoned Crow Press. Having followed the making of her phone sex horror movie short Small Talk since its inception, it’s exciting to get a chance to interview Solomon about it as it finally makes the festival rounds.
What attracted you to horror as a genre? What sort of opportunities do you think horror provides for feminist artists?
I’m attracted to horror as a viewer because it has the potential to make me feel a wide range of intense emotions within a controlled and hopefully safe environment. A great horror director is much like a great domme; of course I gravitate towards the genre as both a viewer and filmmaker.
The whole reason Small Talk happened is I was writing a phone sex memoir and got the image in my head of a PSO taking a phone sex call while dismembering a corpse. It felt a lot more compelling than a long, tedious recounting of autobiographical detail. Horror allows us to break into the supernatural where needed and requires no happy endings.
It was enormously therapeutic for me to make this film. I had some unresolved feelings and then I exploded a couple [of] people in a movie and now I feel fucking great. I am a huge proponent of filmmaking as a form of narrative therapy and encourage any and all sex workers who have unresolved feelings to make art about it, if for no other reason than my own selfish one of I really can go the rest of my fucking life without reading, viewing or otherwise consuming a sex worker narrative by a non-sex worker, and god knows everyone else is apparently starved for them [narratives by and about sex workers] and—
The horror community has been by far the most welcoming of the film. I submitted it to a ton of “women’s” film festivals and not a single one has wanted to touch it. One festival that rejected me offered to send a summary of jury comments for free and the comments were basically like “It was well shot and acted and all but it was about a phone sex operator and it was so disturbing and suddenly people were exploding and I don’t understand why and our audience will be so disturbed and upset.” That was the consensus of why my film was a bad choice for their festival.
I was impressed with how Manini Gupta, as the phone sex operator protagonist, Al, was so versatile with the affect of her voice as she worked the line. And I empathized with her so much as she rolled her eyes through most of those calls. What were you looking for in the actress that would play the PSO? What was most important for you to say about being a phone sex operator in your movie?
It was not easy finding someone who could do all the things you mentioned, and the most important thing to me was that the actress I cast be believable—to me. That was the litmus test. I needed someone who could 1. Convincingly play all those things on the PSO fantasy end—sound like a believable, good PSO while also 2. Play the Al character’s own, usually conflicting reaction to what’s going on. Manini was totally on the right track from the first audition, whereas most people I saw couldn’t really do either, let alone both at the same time.
In terms of what I wanted to say about being a PSO—I guess I wanted to portray it as a challenging job involving a particular skill set. I wanted to show some of the less savory aspects of the job without demeaning it in any way. I wanted to open up to the world about the specific aspects that can be difficult and sometimes emotionally damaging in a way that contextualized it within a broader service industry—looking at race and gender dynamics within capitalism in general, not just the sex industry specifically or the phone sex industry in particular. I meant this film as a kind of valentine to other PSOs, honestly. Our labor and skills are so commonly undervalued and misunderstood, and what we do is so tricky, if we do it well.
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.
L. Synn Stern has been doing outreach work since the 1980’s. As an ex-sex worker and ex-injection drug user, she has a unique perspective on her work and the lives of her clients. She is now a certified R.N. and works as Health Services Coordinator at the Washington Heights Corner Project, a community space in Washington Heights that provides syringe exchange, counseling, and various support groups among other services. She also helps run the weekly women’s group there. I took some time to talk to her about her past doing sex work, her passion for outreach, and how she was rebirthed into the woman she is today.
What was your experience being homeless for much of your youth in NYC?
I spent a lot of time as one of the hidden homeless; the couch surfer, the office dweller, the sleeper in locker rooms, exploiting the rich, unpoliced resources of college campuses. I spent more time than that frankly homeless; out on the street with nowhere to to stash my blankets and nowhere to wash. NYC is a cruel place for those in need of a public toilet, and the more homeless one looks, the harder they are to find. Although it took me a while to figure out, as long as college was in session, I was able to keep myself together by sleeping in unused campus spaces or befriending legitimate students, eating in their cafeterias (or getting students to steal food for me) and bathing in gym buildings and the like. I lived several relatively undisturbed years in the dance building of a campus under construction. I had my own set of lockers, unlimited access to showers. Fantastic. Between semesters I ran the gamut of out-on-the-street homeless, to sleeping on trains, to living in abandoned buildings, squats, emergency rooms, and tricks’ houses. The usual thing.
How did you get involved in the sex industry? What was it like working then in comparison to how it is now?
I remember sitting in a bar once, very underage, during school hours, and the guy next to me said, “Penny for your thoughts.” I scoffed. Then he said, “Twenty bucks for your thoughts,” and it was that simple. Before that I had not realized that there was any value to what I’d been giving away.
And for the first dozen paid encounters, I felt like Queen Feminist. I felt like I’d invented it. I could not have been prouder. Of course, I was out there a long time, vulnerable, incautious and young enough to experience at lot of pain and shame as well…
The biggest difference between then and now is technology. Cars were bigger and child safety locks had not yet been invented, and there was no such thing as a cell phone, an ATM, or Craigslist. Some changes have been for the better, some for the worse.
Meg Munoz became an escort at age 18, and had a relatively good experience working. She then took a break from the business for two years. Some time after her return to the work in order to pay for college, a close friend turned on her, blackmailing her and forcing her to turn over all her earnings to him for the next three years. Her experience led Munoz to found Abeni, an Orange County-based rescue industry organization. But Abeni’s participation in nuanceless anti-trafficking rhetoric bothered her, and after some re-examination, Munoz repurposed Abeni to be a safe space for both sex workers and trafficking survivors. Nowadays, Munoz uses her unique experience as both a voluntary worker and a survivor of exploitation to attempt to create understanding between the sex workers’ rights and anti-trafficking movements.
Prominent activists with history as trafficking victims, such as you and Jill Brenneman, have come out on the side of decriminalization of sex work. You turned Abeni, your organization, from a rescue industry vehicle to a safe haven that serves both trafficking survivors and sex workers—plus the people who fall in between those two identities—and promotes their agency. Ruth Jacobs, a woman with deeply negative sex work experience, also recently made an about face from being a sex work abolitionist to joining the sex workers’ rights movement. How do you interpret this phenomenon?
Jill’s story wrecked me in some of the worst and best ways. She’s one of those people that you want to make everyone sit down and listen to. Her story is a powerful reminder of just how complex this can be, but how necessary the more critical conversations are in regards to hearing different voices and current legislative trends. But most of all, my hope is that [her story and those like it] would allow people to humanize sex workers and survivors in ways that extend beyond the victim narrative. Ruth Jacobs does this very well. I [see] Jill and Ruth’s perspectives as that of women with deep, intimate, experiential knowledge (both negative and positive) of the industry. They seem to genuinely understand how approaching sex work and exploitation with risk reduction concepts and better policy can boost agency and save lives. I don’t think any of us want to further entrench ourselves in more policies and laws that isolate, stigmatize, and criminalize already marginalized people.
What made you personally change your mind about Abeni being an anti-trafficking organization, motivating you to make it into “a reality based social services organization for sex workers and trafficked people”?
From a practical standpoint, Abeni was founded on developing the kind of support I wish I’d had when I was in the industry. But, from a philosophical standpoint, we had a lot of maturing to do. Back in 2009, we were the only Orange County-based organization of its kind. I was coming out of, but still being influenced by the Christian culture I’d been a part of for the last 10+ years.
We’re starting to see a slow cultural shift, but what I was hearing in regards to those in the industry usually sounded like this:
Girl (or usually a girl) experiences abuse, trauma, or loss.
She’s addicted or broken, so she enters [the] industry and experiences more of the same.
She meets Jesus, repents, gets rescued/leaves the industry, and then some modified version of ‘happily ever after’ follows.
The inherent danger in that is when the Christian community become consumers of these stories and insist on acknowledging and promoting only a singular type of industry experience. That’s dishonest and damaging. I just didn’t feel like that narrative reflected my story or the complexity of so many other stories I’d heard. There are hundreds of reasons people enter the industry and those were missing from the conversation. Also significant to me was the fact that it didn’t reflect my spiritual narrative, which has been a significant part of my journey.
In order for Abeni to evolve, I was going to have to evolve. I was processing trauma as well as my non-trauma experiences, so it took some time for me sort through that. I left escorting following years of intense abuse and exploitation, so that was fresh on my mind and it definitely influenced how we saw the industry. We were always supportive but ultimately had an agenda that was “exit-hopeful.” As long as we were serving “repentant” women who’d internalized their stigma, hated sex work, and felt shame about working in the industry, we served a purpose. We didn’t realize we were part of the rescue industry and, ultimately, part of the problem. We were the ones to call if you had a dire need for lip gloss or cookies. But after about a year, I began to instinctively understand that we lacked relevance and substance. I started to feel an incredible amount of conflict in regards to how we were growing and our direction. I could write a book on that alone.
Good intentions weren’t enough and I realized that if we continued down the road we were on, we could hurt or further stigmatize people. That is the thought that broke me. I knew we had to change or shut down, so we did the unthinkable: We literally stopped in our tracks and decided to undergo an organizational soul-searching. We took the next two years and continued to work with those who were already with us, but did little else but learn from and listen to the sex work community, and analyze intersecting issues like human rights, sex work, feminism, race, gender, socio-economics, labor exploitation, policy, etc.
We didn’t know of any other organization[s] that had undergone such radical shifts, so we had no idea how to navigate that. We understood how we’d been viewed by those in the industry as well as those in the anti-trafficking community, so we weren’t sure how we were going to explain our growth and change. We had real concerns about how we would be viewed and received. One of the people I really respect and listen to is Donia Christine because she was honest as fuck with me. When I met her at CCON West back on 2013, she was skeptical and didn’t hold back, letting me know exactly what she thought and what her concerns were. I value that moment so much because it showed me how much work we still had to do. And we don’t mind doing it because the sex worker community isn’t just this group of people we serve, it’s MY community. Sex work wasn’t just a pit-stop for me, it’s part of who I am and part of my identity. I love Abeni’s story because it’s my story, too.