Sex work is not a monolithic culture of human trafficking and abuse. Conversations that break stigmas, explore empowerment, and encourage consent are a huge part of the adult industry. This isn’t to say that people don’t become involved in sex work because of unfortunate circumstances or that human trafficking isn’t an alarming concern—those fears are valid. But as a former sex worker and current artist, I know what it can be like to be in the adult industry in the public sphere. For some artists, traumatic stories and personal histories are shared through their art. For others, documentation of queerness and sexual liberation accompany their erotic work.
I first got into sex work while writing about sex. After researching the work of financial dominatrixes, I decided to dabble in cam work, and eventually found my place as an online humilatrix, humiliating cis men with daily tasks. My artwork is heavily focused on the body, sexuality, and personal narrative, so it was only natural to eventually interweave the two. My visual art references video work, text, and still images from my time in the sex industry as I interacted with most of my clients through the Internet. Not only did my time as a sex worker benefit my creative practice financially, but I was able to experiment with a new body of work based off of my experience as a femme sex working artist.
Former sex worker Annie Sprinkle once said in an interview that “almost all top women performance artists have told me that they were in the sex industry as streetwalkers, go-go dancers, etc. I think the sex industry is a much bigger funder of the arts than the [National Endowment for the Arts].” Artists like David Wojnarowicz and Kathleen Hanna were also sex workers before they began their other careers. Flexibility with time and increased revenue are all essential to the life of an artist—these two paths intersect more than we think.
Julia Arredondo, 32, first got into sex work in 2016 when she moved to Chicago. After watching a documentary on “sugaring” (receiving financial compensation in exchange for some kind of relationship), she made a Seeking Arrangements profile and began going on dates. “Sex work provides me more pay—and sometimes more respect—than many of my regular employers,” she says. Inspired by her dates while sugaring, Arrendondo, a publisher, printmaker, entrepreneur, and product designer, wrote a collection of poems detailing her time with rich, older men titled Addicted to the Money. “I don’t want to marry him / I want to become him,” she writes in the book published by Vice Versa Press. Her zines “Guide to Being Alone” and “Empty Bedrooms” are about navigating solitude and exploring empty spaces. Since her sex work is typically confined to the night shift, Arredondo has the freedom to work on her creative practice during the day. Her next installation, No More Lazy Lover Altar, which pays homage to botanica culture and ritualistic forms of healing, goes on display on Friday, October 18, at the Arcade Gallery as part of the Weisman Award Exhibition at Columbia College.
“Although creative work is just as labor intensive, the market has yet to understand creative work as an equally equitable labor, so fighting for fair compensation is something I do on the [regular],” Arredondo says. The Humboldt Park resident isn’t in the position to take out loans or to take on more debt, so sex work has given her the “capital to kickstart a few businesses” and to also continue her art career. “I was able to save, and to take better care of myself, due to the income I was pulling in,” she says. “Essentially, I’ve been monetarily empowered.”
Since becoming a sex worker, Arredondo has grown a great amount in terms of her self-worth and self-respect, she says. “My clients treated me better than many of my lovers, and they essentially invested in my future,” she says. In her piece Fuckboy Compensation Invoice she comments on how all of her relationships are transactional. “Whether or not money is involved is besides the point,” she says. “Essentially, our relationships are a balance of give-and-take, and the Fuckboy Compensation Invoice is a tool used to reclaim that time monetarily.” Arredondo is showing at Cleveland’s Morgan Conservatory in an exhibition titled “Printmaking as Resistance” from October 18 through November 16 and is working on a book through Lit Riot Press in New York.
In the 1970s, women-identifying artists explored sex work as a vehicle for questioning identity, publicity, and performance. Rebecca Schneider’s The Explicit Body in Performance discusses the way that performance artists have similiarties to sex workers and how many were involved in the sex work industry. Julia Bryan-Wilson writes in Dirty Commerce: Art Work and Sex Work Since the 1970s that, “Given the amounts of money that continue to change hands in the art market—a culture of seductive commerce that flies in the face of the current worldwide recession, described in broadly sexual terms as ‘overheated,’ ‘frenzied,’ or ‘near a climax’—art is widely recognized as libidinal, desirous, and transactional.” The parallels between art and sex are undeniable.
In early 2019, in honor of International Sex Workers Rights Day, the organization Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago (SWOP) coordinated an exhibition, “Chicago Sex Workers Art Show,” at Agitator Gallery. (Full disclosure: I have a short video piece and a few still images in the show from when men paid me to humiliate them.) The gallery’s goal was to celebrate sex workers along with their resilience and creativity. Another collaboration between Agitator and SWOP, “Redlight: Chicago Sex Worker Performance Series,” featured burlesque, music, and spoken word presented by sex-working artists. SWOP Chicago is a grassroots organization that began in 2006 as a chapter of the larger organization that works to improve the lives of former or current sex workers. SWOP’s goal is to fight stigma, provide a support system, and encourage safety. The chapter offers guidance and resources and even has a base specifically on the south side of the city. Organizations like SWOP are popping up around the globe as people learn about and engage more openly with sex work.
Black trans sex workers are especially at risk for violence. Georgia Amarillo, a 26-year-old Hyde Parker, spoke on two panels about Black women in the sex industry at the Annual Conference for Women of Color in Europe and at CatalystCon here in Chicago. “Audience members had so much to say about the prejudice they’d experienced from clients, agencies, law enforcement; the code switching necessary to navigate the industry; the lack of mentorship available to sex workers of color,” she says. “I couldn’t even get through the end of my presentation. It was powerful, there was so much silenced for these individuals and so much to be unearthed.” Amarillo also points out that many of the conversations surrounding Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA/SESTA) have been dominated by white cis women’s voices. “Intersectionality and sex work—especially as it applies to race—is so severely ignored [that] it’s disgraceful. Particularly when we consider the significance and proliferation of sex work in communities of color.”
Amarillo began working as a sugar baby in 2016 and is now primarily a dominatrix. “In the past year I’ve traveled to seven different countries, choreographed and produced my own show, trained in aerial dance with world champion performers—none of this would be possible without the freedom and fiscal empowerment sex work has afforded me,” she says. “Being a professional artist is . . . hard. Not only is it a severely underfunded pursuit, attaching one’s creative process to financial ‘success’ or recognition can be a halting, demoralizing experience.” A poet and a storyteller most of her life, Amarillo is a dancer trained in hip-hop, contemporary, and dancehall whose work has been presented at New York’s MoMA PS 1 and here at Links Hall at Constellation. Her choreography represents sex work and its influence on a person’s identity and perceptions.
London’s The Sex Workers’ Opera, San Francisco’s SOMArts exhibition “We’re Still Working: The Art of Sex Work,” and Nuit Blanche’s “The Viminal Space” in Toronto are examples of performances and exhibits navigating the conversation of sex work and art work on a global scale. The rise in exhibitions, performances, and panels uplifts the visibility of sex workers and artists. Artists involved in this work aren’t outsiders—they are at the center of the narrative of what it means to be a sex worker.
When Jenna (who asked that we omit her last name) first began webcam modeling, she was 18 and about to begin college. “After that, I tried out a handful of other jobs in the industry before stepping foot into my first strip club, which I’ve stuck with for around two and a half years now,” she says. Jenna, now 24, lives on the northwest side of Chicago and finds that sex work gives her the freedom to work on her creative practice more than a to a nine-to-five job. Jenna’s photographic work includes portraiture and scenes of Chicago and people in the city—many of her compositions are up close and in color. She’s also a designer and has created posters and flyers for events in the city.
“Creating art is an investment in yourself, and as a creative person, reconnecting with that part of my mind after a workweek is invaluable,” Jenna says. “Sex work is tough, undoubtedly. But after a challenging workweek, it brings such serenity to be able to spend some time in another world, creating beautiful things.”
Jenna says that her sex work persona is influenced by her art and that creating artwork makes her better at her job. The flexibility of her sex work schedule helps her not only create, but also better deal with mental illness.
Ramona Slick, 23, finds the “bearings of capitalism to be far more degrading” than the work she does in the sex industry. “I can’t see what’s possibly degrading about being my own boss, being financially secure by my own means, and still having the time and emotional energy to be able to pour into my art,” they explain. Apart from working in stripping, fetish work, sugaring, and camming, the artist is a performer and digital illustrator. “My art, much like my life, is inherently queer, high femme, fabulous, and very sexy.” Slick, a performance artist, incorporates femme confidence with campy and elaborate costumes to play on their experience as a dancer and dominatrix.
It is, of course, imperative to acknowledge that all sex workers have different backgrounds, and that not everyone comes into—or out of—sex work with a creative lens. But it is essential to understand that sex work exists all around us (and it can exist consensually) in order to normalize and decriminalize stigmas and taboos. This also isn’t to say that sex work doesn’t involve trauma and violence, but it is saying that sex work is real work. The solidarity between those in the sex industry and artists is still prevalent in 2019 and reshapes how we think about the exchange of labor, queering the body, and how the art market is influenced by sex, power, and identity. Chicago is a microcosm of a much larger and broader web of sex-worker artists.
We are all of the parts: the kinksters, the queers, the artists. “I make what most people make in a month on a good day,” Amarillo says. “But perhaps most importantly, sex work has made me a stronger femme, has taught me how to advocate for myself, and how to navigate a patriarchal, misogynistic society that does everything in its power to disenfranchise femmes. And for those lessons, I will always be grateful.” v