Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex

In partnership withVerso
Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex
Sex and art, we're told, are sacred. Two spheres that ought to be kept separate from the ravages of the marketplace. Yet both are built on the commodification of creativity and desire argues Sophia Giovannitti in this excerpt from her astounding new book.

The first sex worker I ever (knowingly) met wouldn’t, I don’t think, have called herself that. In colloquial terms, she was an art girl, and if she was a worker at all, she was the kind who liked to fall in love with her clients. Ever pretentious, she would joke that the guy responsible for paying her rent was trying to turn her “into a capitalist,” which, frankly, didn’t seem like much of a transformation. She called relationships “durational performance art pieces.” We met through acquaintances, and, intrigued by projects she was working on, I pursued a friendship; it was short-lived.

By the time I met this girl, I’d been edging my way toward sex work for a while. It’s hard for me to remember the details of how and why, now, not because it was so long ago, but because once you have done something that comes to define a large part of your identity, it’s difficult to recall exactly what you thought about that thing before doing it. I know that on a practical level, I understood it as the best way to make a lot of money in a short amount of time, and I knew I needed to find a solution to my near-categorical hatred of work. I allowed myself to think of it initially as an art project, probably to rationalize a choice I was told was risky and to protect myself from the stigma that would come from making that choice.

Making art can justify a recklessness that making money doesn’t. And it combined two things I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about—sex and capitalism.

Naively, I thought I might dip my toe into the blurred lines of the market by selling a dual performance with my new friend. Something wherein we wouldn’t actually have to fuck clients, but could sell an allure, a way that they could watch us. To her credit, she didn’t see how this would benefit her financially any more than the situation she had already created: dating men who were likeable enough, who had more money than they knew what to do with and less access to women than they knew how to deal with, and who would gladly pay for a lifestyle that could support her making art.

She was right—it wouldn’t have—and we never worked together. As consolation, I suppose, for rejecting my offer, she gave me a book calledThe Art of Seduction. I only ever used it to prop open my broken window. It was stacked on top of a classic client-to-his creative-hooker gift: Patti Smith’s Just Kids. The books rotted on my windowsill for years.

Nonetheless intrigued, I followed her example and joined SeekingArrangement—the inevitable first step of the naive, collegiate, full-service sex worker—filling in the career box with “artist.” Still unsure about selling sex, I decided I was just in it for the experience. I met a married man for afternoon drinks who called himself an author and explicitly stated in his profile that he wasn’t looking for a pro. I wore a new white dress I still have, though it fits me differently now. After two Aperol spritzes, we walked a block together and he took my hand and asked if he could kiss me. I looked at my hand in his, and I felt neither attraction to him nor curiosity about him, the two things that would normally lead me to kiss someone.

Even at the time, knowing so little and still feeling reluctant to become the kind of professional he reviled, I felt viscerally that to kiss him for free would be an experience that would give me nothing in return, save for regret. I was slightly nervous to say no—he was standing close enough to me that it seemed he’d already taken my yes for granted—but I still said it, and pulled away, and left soon after. In the days following, though I’d refused the kiss, thoughts of irritation and regret shadowed me, specifically around the fact that I hadn’t been paid: Why did I gave this guy my time, for free?

I wondered. I knew vaguely that I wasn’t simply looking to have affairs with married men, but I couldn’t yet admit to myself the straightforwardness of what, exactly, I wanted.

In the beginning of my working life, I felt that I wanted to find a patron, not a client, and I wanted to sell a performance, not sex. I’m not sure what the physical difference was to me—I think I imagined there would be no penetration—but the actual relevant demarcation I know I made was between how the two scenarios might feel, and what those feelings would mean. If I wasn’t straightforwardly selling sex, I reasoned, but something more nuanced and shrouded, my relationship to sex, to myself as a woman, and to the world would not have to change quite so much.

The two scenarios, in the end, did feel different from oneanother, just not in the way I’d anticipated—the performance patron route simply felt like a lot more work, for a lot less money, wherein I was tasked with either deflecting requests for full-service or persuading someone that tipping me for my company wasn’t transactional but merely supportive. My friend, the capitalist, told me that unappealing men become hotter when they’re handing you cash. Sadly, cash has yet to turn me on. It’s just something I need.

My first real sex work experience ended up being both blessedly well-circumstanced and entirely unglamorous: I acted as a third for a queer graduate student and her buttoned-up, graying sugar daddy, licking his ass in a studio apartment he kept in Midtown for just such an occasion. I walked away after ninety minutes with a grand in an unmarked envelope, more than I’d ever made in a week, let alone a day or an hour.

It wasn’t sex, per se, but it wasn’t art, either.

The first time I sold sex alone was different. I met a man who proposed a complex allowance system, with amounts depreciating throughout the month and returning to full value at the start of the next month. I agreed, excited to be offered what felt like a contract, signifying my sexual labor as something that existed, though the terms, I realised after, were abysmal. He bought me a book and took me to an oyster bar. I’d never had an oyster before but I swallowed one so as not to look childish.

It was salty in a way that made me choke.

He took me up to a hotel room he’d already checked into. It was through him that I learned about Dayuse, a website that partners with various hotels to offer discounted rates for truncated, daytime stays; their “How does it work?” copy reads, “Your hotel room for few hours during the day! Work in peace, get some rest during a layover or experience a few hours away from your usual day-to-day! Dayuse, 1000 possibilities,” as though its purpose isn’t obvious, and singular.

The room was downtown, adequate but sparse. He had requested that I forgo perfume, something I never wore anyway, and that I leave no visible marks on his body. We had sex, and he smoothed my hair and was gentle, and that was the part I liked the least; it was the first time I realized how much more a stranger’s affection bothers me than their lust.

Affection is more particular and precious than sex. Afterward he offered me a warm, wet towel—to sponge myself off, I suppose—and he showered. When I got home I cried. It felt like release more than anything; a demarcation of myself moving from girl to prostitute. I cry at any kind of shift—age, season, move—whether good or bad.

I have many more of these memories, but a lot are opaque to me, having faded into the background and existing only in the recesses of thought. Sometimes they peek through the veil if I walk on a particular block, or smell a particular scent, and then I will marvel at my younger self, throwing herself before all of these people, in all of these places, and trying desperately to understand what it all meant.

There are all kinds of people who trade sex for money, and all kinds of reasons people do so—hugely varied levels of privilege involved, of choice, of coercion. The professional milieu I’ve found myself in is that of writers and artists living and working in socioeconomically stratified cities where both sex and creative industries thrive, and people who have other options choose to sell sex in order to support a certain kind of life with more free time.

Art and sex occupy similar positions under capitalism. The commodification of each, while rampant, is also rife with anxiety and subject to questions of ethics, purity, and meaning. This is because we are told art and sex shouldn’t be commodified. Both are seemingly sacred forms of human expression, and we are taught to keep them close to ourselves, safe from capital’s voracious appetite. And yet, art and sex— and specifically the art and sex industries—are actually capital’s stress points: two industries saturated in hyper capitalist relations while also existing on the outskirts of the formal economy.

This may explain their profound material similarity: both are filled with wildly stratified price points, scams, blurred legal lines, and exploitation. Art and sex are also connected affectively, through metaphor. Selling art has ever been likened to prostitution—to sell your art is to prostitute it—and both traffic in the ability to provoke a particular feeling in another person.

Just as prostitution is the oldest profession, this is the oldest metaphor. I’m trying to figure out what it means to be the metaphor: the prostitute moving through the world of cultural production; the whore at her own exhibit opening; the artist at the gallery dinner one night and the escort at the gallery dinner the next.

When I had yet to sell sex but was planning to start, I confessed to my boyfriend that I worried doing so would irrevocably damage my relationship to sex in my personal life—not because something bad would happen to me, but because I imagined I would disconnect during work-sex, and I didn’t want dissociation to become part of my sex life. In other words, I feared I wouldn’t have the capacity to differentiate between different kinds of sex in different contexts, and I feared this because it was what I had been told, by movies and articles and concerned friends, over and over. My boyfriend was matter-of-fact about my concern, saying he didn’t think I would stop being able to tell the difference between sex with him, for example, and sex with a client. “But how do you know?” I worried. “Because they’re different,” he answered.

He was right; they are different, and I still know they’re different. Selling sex hasn’t impacted what sex itself is to me, any more than any other sexual experience I’ve had; which is to say, of course it has impacted it, but in no unique way. My own sex work has had an equal effect on my sex life as the first person who begged me for head, in high school, citing Kierkegaard’s leap of faith as a reason to give it up. I’ve thought about each with equal fervour and curiosity, wondering, and never knowing, exactly how these experiences have shaped my relationship to desire and coercion.

The same goes for making and selling art and writing: I can discern for myself what is meaningful and what is bullshit; what I make that I care dearly for and what I make that is for money alone. I’ll never exactly know that my desires operate independent of capitalism—or rather, I’ll know that they don’t, but this would be true whether or not I ever sold an essay or an artwork in my life. In “Revolutionary Letter #48,” Diane di Prima writes,

sense & sex are boundless & the call

is to be boundless in them, make the joy

now, that we want.

The call is to be boundless; I would argue that the path to boundlessness begins with acquiescing to how fully bound we are. I grew up in a family of artists who refused to commodify their art. Their official position was a principled one: to sell art would be to sell one’s soul, tainting an object of unadulterated creation, irreparably, with cash. Offered opportunities at a young age to make money in the art world, my father instead turned to the honest work of construction, believing this would allow him to exist less subsumed by the monster of capitalism. His work was largely devoid of meaning for him, save for the satisfaction of technical expertise; he built homes for wealthy people. As it turned out, his life was subsumed by capitalism, his leisure time swallowed by sixty- and seventy hour work weeks. His art remained private, produced late at night in our basement, which he turned into his studio. But his art also remained touched by capital in every way, regardless of its refusal to willingly enter the market: flattened into the only pockets of time he could steal from his relentless schedule; restricted by which materials he could afford; abandoned, at a few low points, in his exhaustion, but always returned to; tended to with verve up and against every obstacle. He has made art quietly and dedicatedly for fifty years. His practice, simultaneously pious, constant, and constrained, has been both beautiful and brutal to watch.

From this I learned: there is no escaping capitalism, no protecting our expressions of love and passion from such a totalising machine. To attempt to protect art and sex from commodification is not only futile; it is also what capitalism insidiously steers us toward for its own benefit. It is in capitalism’s best interest for its subjects to maintain a stark separation between work and certain choice expressions of pleasure, because work, then, will always take up more of our time, energy, and resources. The secret that to make pleasure work means it is possible to work less—indeed, the reason so many sell sex, as it provides a higher hourly wage than most other entry-level work—is either kept from our discovery, or painted as unethical. When I say make pleasure work, I mean to sell sex and art—not because doing what you love makes work more bearable, but because the particular economic conditions in these industries facilitate manoeuvres and scams that allow people to work less and do what they love more.

I met with a mentor and friend of mine when I was planning a performance piece on work, desirability, and revenge. I had talked to her about hair braiding, and I had sent her a video I made of myself giving my boyfriend head outdoors in upstate New York while the sun was setting, where I look—and there’s no other way to describe it—like an angel who is on fire. I wanted her consult. We met at a bar. She showed me how she’d drawn a lovely and crude pen drawing of the video in her notebook, along with sketches of hairbrushes.

This woman is one of the most unusual and smartest people I have ever met. She once began a dance at one venue and had her dancers leave for another venue in the middle. I want to be her; I want to fuck her; I want her to be my mother, and I also want her to physically destroy me—that kind of thing. I don’t always take her advice, but I do always cherish it. This time, I took it.

She suggested that I treat my work as a series of studies— ongoing pieces, gestures, and attempts toward a greater whole, without forcing finality or ultimate certainty in any part. In art, a study is traditionally understood to be in service of a finished work but not a finished work itself—rather, a form of preparation; an attempt to understand further. Often shown in retrospectives alongside the final work they preceded, studies might expose the artist’s attention to detail, and points of focus, within the process of revelation and excavation. She herself, a choreographer and dancer, had executed many studies. She said it to me somewhat tentatively, as though she was worried she might offend me, but I was hugely relieved.

A study spoke to the ongoing nature of what I was working on, and allowed the very ongoingness to be the most interesting part—at least, to me. Every time I thought I found the thing— the way to make meaning out of trading sex for money to produce art; the mode through which someone would be forced to acknowledge their power over another, both material and ephemeral; the all-encompassing next topic, whether contracts, or debts, or heterosexuality, or collecting, or self destruction—I was wrong. 

Being wrong was ultimately more interesting than being right.

What follows is a series of ruminations based on things I have sold, experienced, made, watched, felt, hated, and wanted. I wish to truly understand the relationship between sex, art, and marketplace, but I have yet to; I imagine it would take a lifetime of study, if even that. What I thought was a fantasy was often indistinguishable from reality; what I thought would hurt me did not, and the opposite was true, too; and what I wanted to be legible was inscrutable. Why this is, I can’t yet explain.

In the old biblical fable, two women appear before King Solomon laying claim to the same child. Solomon suggests they cut the baby in two, so each woman can have half, revealing the rightful mother: the one who immediately relinquishes her claim to the baby, giving him up to the other woman so he might remain healthy, whole. To participate in the art and sex marketplaces as either artist or whore is to be at once both women, and the baby too. You are called to sacrifice yourself, or that which you hold dearest; you do things that were previously unimaginable to you; you are at different times exalted and exploited; and your ambitions, once ambient, crystallise viciously both in and out of reach.

Getting what you want means giving something up; every solution is beautiful, violent.

Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex
 is out now on Verso.

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