Working It

Lizzie Borden, ed., "Whorephobia," 2022. Image courtesy Seven Stories Press. Sophia Giovannitti, "Working Girl," 2023. Image courtesy Verso Books.

In an interview about her 2003 performance Untitled, in which she had sex with an art collector on camera for a sum initially reported to be twenty thousand dollars, Andrea Fraser says she wanted to question “whether art is prostitution.” She asks the interviewer: “Is it any more prostitution because I happen to be having sex with a man than it would be if I were just selling him a piece?” Cannily, Untitled blurs boundaries of what the commodity actually is: is it the sex, the performance or videotape of it, or simply the allotment of the artist’s time and undivided attention to the collector? Shot at the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan in a single hour-long take from a camera mounted to the wall, the piece’s existence was greeted with easily anticipated outrage, alongside knee-jerk misogyny. The critic Jerry Saltz, for instance, opined on Artnet that Fraser was in “excellent shape for a 39 year old,” but the sex seemed “stilted and rote”; the blow job she gave, on the other hand, looked “attentive.” (Saltz also went on MSNBC to defend Fraser against accusations of indecency, however, and in his review, called her work brave.) All this seems to have bothered Fraser less than the initial perception of Untitled’s price. Speaking about the work almost twenty years later, she recalls being most troubled by the misreported amount, which exposed her “publicly in the art economy as cheap.”

Even a piece seemingly meant to critique or examine the market is not immune to its larger forces. Still, Fraser’s equation of selling art to selling sex might lead one to ask what the problem is with selling either. Two recent books grapple with different aspects of the question. Whorephobia (Seven Stories Press, 2022), edited by the filmmaker Lizzie Borden, interrogates derogatory views of sex work, and sex work’s relationship to art, with stories from writers and artist who moonlit as strippers alongside contributors who became activists, stripped for the majority of their lives, or continue to do so. Working Girl (Verso Books, 2023) by the artist and writer Sophia Giovannitti comes even closer to Fraser’s proposition by examining Giovannitti’s experience as an artist who often puts her sex work at the very center of her practice. Both volumes are concerned with the autonomy and rights of sex workers, the stigmatization of the work versus its reality, and the bleed between the realm of sex work and the art world.

Giovannitti’s book in particular looks at the larger social mores about money that lend Untitled its friction. “Art and sex occupy similar positions under capitalism,” she observes in Working Girl:

Giovannitti knows the Royalton Hotel well. She writes that she has met clients there for her job as a sex worker, though “for a lower rate” than Fraser’s—and it should be mentioned, at considerably more legal peril. Her book, whose subtitle is On Selling Art and Selling Sex, is a memoir in essays that considers some of the machinations and marketplace realties of each trade. But it is at its most insightful when Giovannitti names things people prefer to believe are not for sale—and describes the sometimes exploitative and damaging effects of such beliefs.

In her chapter “On Fantasy,” Giovannitti details her interactions with a certain kind of man who “enjoys willful confusion: who detests the idea of paying for your time; who thinks a firm price is applicable to others but not him; someone who sees nothing you do as work.” Another client revels in the intimacy he says he feels with her, while ignoring the lengths she has gone to make him feel comfortable by “receiving every stray thought and confession with warmth, or laughter, a doe-eyed openness.” He’d rather imagine these things are “happenstance” or “fate” than acknowledge, simply, that he is paying for them. The distaste at explicitly paying for sex leads other men to traffic “sugar dating” sites that connect older, wealthier people to younger, less financially stable ones. Here the implicit contract of sex work to honor secrecy and discretion might not be upheld, but the risk is less fearful to the men than having to accept the “labor involved in seeing them.” As Giovannitti writes, “It never ceases to amaze me what men are willing to risk to protect their egos.”

Sophia Giovannitti photographed by Daniel Arnold. Courtesy the artist.

Giovannitti doesn’t see the illusion that she projects for her clients as deceitful; it’s what makes her good at her job—“an artist,” in other words. Fantasies, too, can reach the level of art. She encounters a man whose greatest fantasy is “to be a teacher of virgins.” His dedication to replicating this same scenario over and over, in which he instructs the group of “virgins” on how to perform hand jobs has a “purity and trueness to it”; to be “in thrall to a fantasy like this,” Giovannitti writes, “seems like a work of art to me.” But when actual artists—she draws on examples such as Carlos Ginzburg and Jeff Koons—take an interest in prostitution or pornography as subject, legitimizing what is otherwise considered illegitimate, it can have a castigating quality: “the whore is stripped of her intellect as though she couldn’t possibly be smart enough to create her own commentary.” Meanwhile, she doesn’t have the same mobility as her interlocutors. When Koons divorced Ilona Staller, the porn star who only several years earlier had inspired his infamous series Made in Heaven (1989), he ended up using her participation in sex work against her, and a New York State court granted him custody of their son.

Still more harmful, racist, and, in some instances, tragic is the crude “conception of consent” within sex work that casts some as willing participants and others as victims of sex trafficking, especially those who are not white. Giovannitti recounts the case of Yang Song, a Chinese woman who worked at a massage parlor in Queens and was killed by New York police officers during a raid in 2017. She cites the “savior complex” that leads many people to imagine that all massage workers are victims of sex trafficking rather than immigrants who need to make a living and have a dearth of options. Sex work in this case proves a reliable scapegoat for larger systemic issues of inequality and immigration reform.

Key to Giovannitti’s argument is the call that so many other sex workers, activists, and certain feminists have made, since at least the 1970s: to recognize sex work foremost as work. To treat it as anything less, and to decrease its visibility simply engenders less safe working conditions. This reality was underscored by the legislation known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), which both Giovannitti and Borden mention. The bill, passed in 2018, ostensibly to protect against sex trafficking, in practice pushed many sex workers further into the margins. It deactivated some websites like Backpage and Craigslist’s personal ads—which had enabled sex workers to both advertise and screen clients— while also allowing remaining sites to remove many sex workers’ ads seemingly at random and expose their information to Department of Homeland Security databases.

But if the fight for sex workers’ rights is at this point a decades-long conversation, what feels unique, even radical, about Giovannitti’s book is how much she describes folding sex work into her own art, in that often they can seem indistinguishable. This wasn’t always the case. She confesses to illusions about being able to keep the two separate, to trying to “compartmentalize my own … commodification, making it neat so one me doesn’t bleed onto the next.” Working Girl can then be seen as an act of integration. At its outset, she writes of maintaining a variety of false names and burner social-media accounts, publishing any writing about sex work under an alias. In 2021, she decided to collapse all her “identities unto themselves.” She writes: “Everyone preferred Sophia, which is to say: what people really want to buy from sex workers is not sex, but a mode of authenticity … I will always answer more warmly—more truly—to my own name.”

The following year, Giovannitti staged a performance at the gallery Duplex on the Lower East Side whose title, Incall: Study 2; Contract, references a meeting place for prostitutes and clients. (And presumably she did meet clients there, noting that she expected them to see the show as a “wink and nod for what it was, window dressing for otherwise standard relations.”) Entry into the gallery space, which held only a canopy bed and two small stools, was set at one thousand dollars and involved the forming of a contract. Upon entry, participants were presented with a questionnaire. The critic Johanna Fateman, who visited the gallery, wrote in her review: “There were questions meant to elicit information about my social capital, such as it is, as well as my lifestyle, and, of course, my financial state.” Hardest to answer for Fateman was the question: “What do you want from the Artist?” She wasn’t actually sure, but knew at least she was there to write about the show, and thus a contract was formed in which Giovannitti offered that she stood to benefit from the review Fateman needed to write. “It felt slightly weird to say aloud,” Fateman writes, “but it was also a relief—instead of haggling, we spoke about bedding, the art world’s mysteriously moneyed, Me Too, and the relationship of capitalism to rape.”

The encounter, and much of the text of Working Girl, suggests the appeal or even the revolutionary potential of relating in such an upfront, contractual manner: that there might even be a cleansing element to addressing things in such blatant terms, equity in considering one’s time worth good money, and asking for it, especially in the contexts of the art world and sex industry, when participants often harbor vast wealth. As much as existing in a purely transactional world seems—if not a far cry from the one we currently inhabit—much bleaker, Giovannitti presents it as a better alternative to the implicit exchanges and abuses taking place across the art world without adequate renumeration: “The difference between the whores hired by dealers, collectors, and mega artists … and the gallery girls, assistants, and unpaid interns at their beck and call is that the former are paid to be sexualized, objectified, and sometimes degraded, while the latter are not even paid adequate wages for what’s in their job description, let alone the harassment tacked on.”

Having spent time as a distant observer of the art market over many years, I have a hard time arguing with Giovannitti’s sentiment that “it’s repulsive to have to pretend gallery executives champion and decry work based on what is good, or authentic, or new, as opposed to what is profitable. What is good or authentic or new might align, in any given moment, with what is profitable—but the latter will always trump the former.” I don’t think she means that all art dealers are lacking in integrity. It’s simply another example of how the moralism and shame that surrounds money can result, in the art world, in a disingenuous (and culturally stagnating) conflation of market performance for value. The dealings of the vastly more elevated spheres of institutional or commercial art come across as not so dissimilar from those of commercial sex—and not because selling your work makes you a whore.

Giovannitti, intentionally it would seem, doesn’t write much about her artistic practice as separate from her sex work, apart from alluding to a few videos she has made and her excitement at learning how to draw her own blood for her performance at Duplex. When a client supposes her work must “disrupt her ability to develop truly intimate relationships,” she is comforted by a friend’s suggestion that being an artist likewise impacts and disrupts intimate relationships.

Like all jobs or callings, sex work can interfere with one’s personal life, and like other forms of labor it can also bring about a sense of self-effacement, often of an unpleasant variety. While she begins her book with the sense of sex work as akin to any other kind of work, by the end she seems less convinced. Perhaps it is actually sex work’s de-professionalization that allows it to function as “a mode of social chaos” that chips into the convention that “one must work formally in order to live.”

Whorephobia doesn’t necessarily treat stripping as having the same revolutionary potential. Many of the texts included frame it more as gig work, a way to make money quickly in between or in service of creative pursuits, while also showing it to be a source of material and genuine inspiration for said pursuits. Borden writes in her introduction that her film Working Girls (1986), about a day in the life of a brothel in New York City, was inspired by her brief time doing sex work, and not the experience of a friend, as she had previously claimed. The film is subtle and reflective (its main protagonist is an artist); the critic Vincent Canby compared it to a documentary about “coal miners.” Yet Borden still felt secrecy about its autobiographical nature for years, a byproduct, she realizes, of her own internalized “whorephobia.” Her desire for her collection is to let well-known contributors, such as Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker, Maggie Estep, and the blogger Sassy Penny, speak about the variety of their experiences themselves, both through their writing and the accompanying interviews that Borden and others conducted with them.

Borden includes a previously unpublished story by Acker—who worked in simulated sex shows in Times Square as well as in strip clubs for about four years—titled “Stripper Disintegration.” The piece is polyphonic, swirling together testimony about sex and sex work with various persona into an intense poetic storm. In the proceeding interview, the executor of Acker’s literary estate, Matias Viegener, speaks with Borden about the influence stripping had on Acker’s writing. It became not just a source of narrative content but a way to understand “a set of dynamics, because there’s a complicated power relationship at stake.” The internalizing of these dynamics, according to Viegener, “changed [Acker’s] writing forever,” and stripping “fueled her radical dismantling and reinvention of narrative self.” Other cases presented are less expansive, showing the rigid upholding of a divide between stripping and different kinds of work, and the prejudice against sex workers that can keep them in the trade for life. Talking to Borden about her friend Susan Walsh, a stripper, writer, and journalist who disappeared in 1996 and is believed to have been murdered, the filmmaker Jill Morley says that the stigma against strippers haunted Walsh and prevented her from getting a steadier job at The Village Voice, which she wrote for.

Like Giovannitti’s book, Whorephobia presents stripping as a job that may be preferable to other typical day jobs like waitressing or working in an office, the two examples Cookie Mueller offers in her story “Go-Going—New York & New Jersey” (Giovannitti uses the same ones). “Actually it wasn’t such a horrible job, when I thought about it,” Mueller writes with her characteristic mixture of humor and irony. “I was just there exercising and getting paid for it … I began to wonder why every woman didn’t want to go-go.” In the story, another stripper tells the narrator to “make it personal” to bring in more money, and look people in the eye during her floor routine: “It worked immediately.” Other texts in the book, such as one by Morley, also examine how illusions of intimacy gird interactions at clubs (and the confusion when genuine intimacy seems to appear). Morley’s narrator is instructed by her more experienced friend that “a little moan” toward the end of a lap dance makes men believe “they’re pleasing you” and thus become more interested in having another dance. The exchange is reminiscent of the intangible aspect of sex work Giovannitti writes about: the men are not so much buying their own pleasure as, perhaps unknowingly, paying for the validation that comes from yours. “Also when you ask for a table dance, don’t just ask,” the friend says. “Word it like this, ‘I would love to dance for you. Would you like that?’ The semantics are more pleasing to the ear.”

The scams and schemes Giovannitti mentions are given full dimension in Whorephobia. Kraus’s fascinating piece on her years working at the Wild West Topless Bar, near Penn Station in New York City, explains that the real money at the club “was made by selling bottles of ersatz champagne.” She details the hustle in glorious specificity, as well as the material circumstances that led to the end of her stripping career: “the installation of a large restaurant exhaust system outside one of the two windows in my small East Village apartment.” The exhaust fan meant she could no longer sleep during the day after staying up late at night at the club. Not soon after its installation, a friend got her a different job at a college that was running its own scheme by enrolling “dead and fictitious low-income students and collecting tuition grant reimbursement.” Even though, as she says in her interview, Kraus sees her time stripping as distantly akin to the GI Bill, which let so many working-class men attend college and later become poets and writers, she is not nostalgic about the job; to her, it has no hierarchy of achievement outside of financial gain. After her teaching stint, she replaces stripping with other work that allows her to maintain financial independence (notoriously, she is a landlord), and not confuse the “singularity” of her writing with its initial lack of monetary success. For Kraus, at least, “performance and writing have other objectives than money.”



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