At 4 pm sharp on a sun-drunk Friday afternoon, I slide into a booth in the back of the bar at Charlie’s on Broadway. I’m here to meet X, a female artist who also works as a stripper. Or did.
I should preface this by promising to shut up already about CHAT soon. But as long as we’re talking about stripping, it seemed salient to ask X what she had to say about negotiating audience, objectification and the intersection (if any) between artistic performance and sex work. X didn’t see the film, but she read about it.
X: I thought it was interesting for Greg to point out that some sex workers are victims, because I think that the stereotype of sex workers as survivors is somewhat incorrectly spoken. It’s a stereotype propagated by the media. He’s reinforcing that. What bugs me about the stereotype of sex workers as victims—that we must have been molested as children, otherwise why would we do this degrading work—is that when you look at the statistics on abuse and assault, it’s staggering and in every single community there are survivors. That’s the reality. But there’s really no other field of employment where people automatically make that connection.
Amanda Manitach: Can you describe what you do? Do you still do it?
No, I’ve been retired for about a year and a half. I used to be a peep show girl, first at the Lusty Lady, then later at Deja Vu when Lusty Lady closed. As a peep show girl you work in a plexiglass box. People put money into a bill acceptor that raises some sort of curtain or divider next to a plastic window. You have a girl to look at. She puts on a show.
How many years did you do it?
About three and a half years.
What’s the reality for you when it came to negotiating power in this situation?
People are always throwing around these words. To be a sex worker is very much about negotiation of boundaries. That’s something that we do all the time everyday already. So that kind of work is a very good way of learning to establish boundaries very directly, very tangibly.
Which isn’t too different from the idea of a chat girl, who is physically removed from the audience.
Yeah. In my experience that physical boundary is enormously liberating. I mean, that’s the reason the world is an unsafe place for women to negotiate: the lack of physical boundaries in a lot of situations. It comes down to very basic things like men generally being stronger than women and having the ability to overpower women. It’s as simple as that, unfortunately. I was also thinking about the Susie Lee interview and the idea that if you can’t be safe how can you have fun? It’s so true, and I never thought about it that simply. Being a peep show girl is fun because you’re totally safe. You can get as sexy as you want for a total stranger because of the wall. Other aspects of the architecture of the peep show space create a power dynamic: The peep shows that I worked in, you’re on a stage and the customer stands a good two and a half or three feet below. In terms of female versus male gaze, he’s looking up and she’s looking down. The john is down by your knees or your feet. It’s a very animal dynamic. This might be a topic for another time, but even the power of heels—what it symbolizes, its history…
I want you to talk about it! I love heels.
There’s a reason a dagger is called a stiletto and a stiletto is called a stiletto. Anyone who wants to write off heels as something that’s crippling to females is missing a big point about power dynamics and sex and fashion. But I never ever wear heels except as a stripper. And then it’s like my work shoes.
Is it naive to wonder if your being a sex worker has any bearing on you as an artist? Or vice-versa?
It’s a huge component of my identity as an artist. As an artist, the human object and human-object relationships are interesting to me. I’m fascinated by the dialogue around objectification. Not to reduce third-wave feminism to a simple statement, but I think there’s a component of third-wave feminism that’s like if I’m going to be objectified, I’m going to be objectified on my terms. And I’ve done that. My art is about that. My art’s not sexy. Sex isn’t an interesting thing for me to utilize in my art, maybe because as a sex worker I’ve had this other creative outlet for my sexuality. But I do make art that uses my body in a very object-y way, as an inanimate object that’s not sexual, that is just a thing. Because to be an object is not the worst thing. The reality is that human-object relationships are incredibly complicated, and people treat their treasured objects like close friends and family and treat other human beings like shit. Like, we have the capacity to totally pamper an object while writing off an entire human’s existence.
So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be an object, as long as it’s a treasured object, you know? So much of the conversation about objectification doesn’t factor in how value relates to class, race and gender; it focuses on how some people got real uptight because some young, white woman wants to put herself through college making porn. And we get really freaked out when something to which we attach a very specific kind of value—this young, white flesh—is objectified. While the people who mow our lawns or build our buildings and clean our toilets aren’t treated like objects. They’re invisible. So is being visible the worst thing?
That makes me think of Rodrigo Valenzuela’s work, how he focuses the gaze on people who would not typically be objectified in any context. Especially when he films male migrant workers.
To me that’s way more interesting than a cam girl.
Do you feel that the sex-work audience is much different from people viewing an art performance? Or is it the same? (Except that they’re not jacking off at an art performance…)
One of the things that’s kind of cool about working the peep show is that, while the interaction has the potential to be complicated, it can also be as simple as walking in to your coffee shop and ordering a latte. You know what I mean? I give you money, you give me coffee. You give me money, I get you off. It’s very straightforward.
More than art usually is?
Art’s complicated! Audience expectation for an art performance is complicated. They’re not paying by the minute. Just paying by the minute changes how people streamline things. Maybe I should do an artwork where people pay by the minute. Durational performance where you have to constantly feed quarters for the duration if you want to watch the whole thing.
There have been a few installations around Seattle that played with peep show formats. Oh, and speaking of Greg, he went there with Walden 3.
It’s a format that works really well because it’s like theater. People don’t do art on stages as much as they used to, and that makes it messy. And potentially awesome. But personally as an artist, I think my need is to control, to make sure I have my audience exactly where I want them.
Different from the artists yearning to make interventions in everyday spaces.
To look at performative art and wonder, Where do I stand, where I am supposed to be, how close can I get, can I touch? Playing with that kind of ambiguity can be fun, creating situations where people don’t know what to do. But it’s not comfortable. We like being told where to sit. That’s comfortable for us. That’s one of the things about having a nice plexiglass window. We like it when we can walk in and know exactly what to do.
Image courtesy of the author (The Matador, video still, 2011).