Writing Sex Work
In-depth representations of sex work and sex workers are rare. But that’s changing. Annie Oakley’s new anthology Working Sex: Sex Workers Write About a Changing Industry is the most recent contribution to a growing stack of books about sex work, most written by current or former sex workers. Not surprisingly, most of this publishing has been on the indie side of things. Seal Press has led the charge with books like Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping by Elisabeth Eaves, Sarah Katherine Lewis’s memoir Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire, and Audacia Ray’s Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration (Seal is also the publisher of Working Sex). Elsewhere, Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore edited Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients. 2004 saw the publication of Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin’s gorgeous, intense Rent Girl, and there’s been a reliable stream of academic treatments like Elizabeth Bernstein’s recent Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex. There’s even a quarterly publication, the increasingly great three-year-old $pread magazine.
Diablo Cody, author of the 2005 memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, has been in the news lately with the release of the film Juno, for which she wrote the screenplay. Reporters generally portray Codyas an appealingly bad-ass, formerly naked girl made good, and tend to revel in their fascination with her ex-job (writing in The New York Times, David Carr was enamored by “the plucky Midwestern girl who used a stripper pole to shimmy her way up and out of a drab office cubicle and grab her piece of the Hollywood dream”). But while articles about Cody’s unapologetic embrace of her past offer the mainstream a refreshing glimpse of a real person in the sex industry (not to mention a welcome respite from the male-driven and amazingly dude-centric prestige films of late…), they don’t lead to a real sense of what sex work, and sex workers, are all about.
They shouldn’t really have to: Cody is just one person, with one highly unusual experience. But mass enthrallment with figures like her reveals a serious curiosity about the stories behind sex work. There’s an audience hungry for them. There’s also a community of sex workers who want to hear the experiences and ideas of others in the industry. Even at its most fucked up, there’s something sexy about sex work. And we already know that it sells.
Working Sex tells some of these stories, by way of personal memoirs, fictionalized accounts, and meditations on the meaning of it all. The thirty-plus contributors are -- or have been -- prostitutes, phone sex operators, hustlers, strippers and everything in between. There are excerpts from a journal Anna Voog kept in 1997, the first year of her famous web cam (one of the internet’s first and now the longest running). Jennifer Blowdryer recounts acting in a porn when she was 19. There are some poems, a short play, and, from performance artist Vaginal Davis, even some song lyrics, including a ditty about “Jake Gyllenhaul”: “He’s the hot boy of the Hollywood town/he’s the young one who can carry the crown/I’ll get up for him and then lie back down.”
Some contributors are fierce advocates of sex work. Veronica Monet, now retired from the business, boasts “a depth of fulfillment to my career in the sex industry that I never ever hoped for as I charted my corporate career.” Mirha-Soleil Ross reflects on the tender moments she’s shared with clients who are ashamed of their bodies, or who come to her in an attempt to save their relationships. She calls sex work “a greater good,” tainted only by society’s preconceptions about sex workers and the penalties it doles out accordingly. Other writers hone in on the economics of sex as work, and the simple fact that it tends to pay more money than other kinds of hourly jobs.
Despite the empowerment driving the book as a whole, a fair amount of the pieces have a quiet sadness to them. Michelle Tea describes “opening up and shutting down various parts of our selves.” Nomy Lamm writes about the complicated dynamic between herself and a particular phone sex client. Blake Nemec contributes a bittersweet quickie about juggling sex work and a romantic relationship. Some of the best moments are in the details: Chris Kraus describes spending the dollar bills that had been slipped in her g-string, “wondering each time if the (usually female) cashier knew by the vertical fold how I’d acquired the bill. The folded-up dollar bills were Everywhore’s signifier. Any girl who’d ever danced, knew.”
Nearly all of the contributors here define themselves as writers and artists of various kinds, and many use their work experiences as fuel. “I was frozen at the table, my pen stuck in the grip of my fist, the tips of my fingernails stabbing my soft palm,” writes Michelle Tea in her fictionalized, Rent Girl-like piece. “The journal below scribbled with some uninspired notes about my most recent trick, a college student from Korea. I wracked my brain, but there was nothing to say about it. Nothing to say about a fuck?” While it’s obviously not unusual for people who contribute writing to an anthology to be writers of some sort, it’s striking just how many virtuoso creative types there are here, far beyond the recognizable names (of which there are plenty, including Eileen Myles and Stephen Elliot). The bios in the back of the book identify zinesters and performers, musicians, novelists and filmmakers. Editor Oakley is even the founder and director of the traveling Sex Workers’ Art Show. But elsewhere in the book, in a Q&A with Gloria Lockett (former co-director of the prostitute rights organization COYOTE), interviewer Siobhan Brooks says she has a “real problem with a lot of the ‘feminist’ literature coming out of the sex industry,” which seems to be written mostly from a white, middle-class perspective by people who “basically wanted a job to allow them to continue their art, write poetry, and write books.”
Whether you agree with Brooks or not, a shift in sex worker demographics may be one of the ways the industry is changing. The pieces in Working Sex don’t specifically examine this or other changes that are underway, but the book provides a platform for a bunch of fiery, smart voices to confront some damaging taboos. That may be the most important change of all.
Working Sex: Sex Workers Write About a Changing Industry edited by Annie Oakley