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Working Girl

In 2021, I collapsed all of my identities onto themselves. Previously, I had written under my legal name – essays and reviews – unless I wrote about sex work, in which case I published under one or two pseudonyms. I solicited clients and created a public-facing escort persona, social media and all, under an entirely different name, and referred to myself as such with people who hired me. I had a whole other name to reveal to them as my real name – also fake – if they pushed too hard. 

 

I was never very good at convincingly committing to multiple identities, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I was lazy about it. My efforts at promoting and becoming the me’s without my real name were halfhearted, and it showed. Slowly, I thought, why not remain Sophia, full-time? I became myself and I quickly developed a higher retention rate with men who wanted to pay to sleep with me. Everyone preferred Sophia, which is to say: what people really want to buy from sex workers is not sex, but a mode of authenticity with fewer imperfections, and it was easier for me to feign this when I was pretending about other things less. I will always answer more warmly – more truly – to my own name. 

 

The art and sex markets are ripe for scam – for price gouging and asset manipulation – because consumers are purchasing a conduit to a feeling. Each buyer is in search of a particular state of being and wants to see that state reflected back to themselves. Whether meaningful or shallow, the particular state one desires is priceless, as in: ever fervently and desperately sought, intrinsic to desire itself, commanding at whatever level of the market one is dipping into. The buyer is seeking confirmation of who they are, or who they want to be, or who they were, in purchasing a painting or an overnight: a virile man; a widow with taste; a just-promoted banker; a cheating spouse; maybe a failson who wants, violently, success. I spoke with Sarah Michelson, a choreographer, about this phenomenon in a series of conversations in the summer of 2021; she assigned gestures to these ego relations, getting at the core of it. ‘Also like, what’s driving sex work?’ she asked. ‘In the gendered version of it. I guess it’s ego related, you know …  – “I’m throwing down my car key, I’m throwing down my wallet.”’ I answered her, ‘Right, those embodied actions that reflect back to yourself who you are, what kind of man you see yourself as. The way these gendered gestures build our selves for our selves: “I’m okay. This is what I’m doing, this is who I am.”’ As a salesgirl and as a worker, I am able to produce these feelings for people more easily under my own name. This means: I can make more money. 

 

In 1974, the Argentinian conceptual artist Carlos Ginzburg staged a performance in Belgium, the photographic record of which would be called Latin American Prostitute. He negotiated with an Antwerp pimp who hired him out an Argentinian woman, reasoning that she was from his own country of origin. Ginzburg sat her in a gallery, holding a white sign with dark letters, reading, in French, ‘What is art? Prostitution.’ This is a quote from Charles Baudelaire’s private journals; in the same passage, he writes, ‘Love is the desire to prostitute oneself. There is, indeed, no exalted pleasure which cannot be related to prostitution.’ By prostitute oneself he appears to mean to lay oneself bare; the definition seems less to do with money and more to do with a state of romantic, or ecstatic, abjection – to throw yourself at the feet of your beloved. 

 

Of the piece, Ginzburg explains, ‘Of course it was a pure fiction; prostitutes are not working in museums with Baudelaire’s quotation. But also it was not a fiction, and she was practicing prostitution. This total indetermination of the situation was very disturbing for everybody because there was the intuition and feeling she was doing real prostitution.’ Prostitutes are working in museums though, and I say this with the confidence of a person who knows and sees that prostitutes are working everywhere. According to art history scholar Julia Bryan-Wilson, ‘The woman was paid somewhat less than her usual fee for an afternoon’s work’ for executing Ginzburg’s piece. I wonder why she was paid less, and why her pimp would agree to a discount – perhaps he was interested in the cachet of the art world? Bryan-Wilson adds, ‘It was rumored that she and a few male gallery-goers exchanged phone numbers and made dates for later.’

 

That a prostitute exchanging phone numbers with male gallery-goers qualifies as a rumour implies there is something surprising or unlikely about such an exchange. Since this is an aspect of the prostitute’s job – a simple and mundane transfer of information – what is surprising or unlikely, then, must be that she is doing her job in this setting, rather than offering up her visage as someone else’s silent commentary on her job. It also seems to add frisson to the fact that men in this esteemed setting are interested in her services. Such positioning – finding a virtuous reason to enter a monied institution, and a way to slyly reveal what one does for a living, offering others a cover on how to talk to her about it – is familiar to prostitutes. I’d like to imagine the woman in Ginzburg’s piece using the opportunity to make appointments her pimp might not know about, from which she could keep all the money. Men got to talk to her through the cover of engaging with an artwork, but of course what they really wanted was her; they always do. Ginzburg describing this framework as a ‘total indetermination’ that was ‘very disturbing for everybody’ belies the fact that what is happening is quite common and exceedingly decipherable. The inability to determine it is wilful, for those who don’t want to know what’s going on, or for some reason can’t. 

 

The wilful confusion that is so easily generated by placing a whore in a different context than one expects to see her in remains a commonplace, pseudo-intellectual trick today. At a 2020 roundtable for the magazine Sublevel, the writer and pornographer Lorelei Lee criticised a frequent practice: 

 

It happens pretty often that artists, or writers, or documentary filmmakers, will want to make pornography their subject. They’ll come to set and they’ll frame the same photograph that the production assistant was just framing, or they’ll take a shittier photograph behind the cameraperson who is actually creating pornography. It’s like our performance is being viewed through the lens of someone who’s socially sanctioned as an ‘artmaker’ [which] gives the general public permission to find meaning in pornography as a subject, but without centering the voices of people who are actually making pornography and losing social credibility for making those performances. 

 

An artist comes in, and suddenly everything is not as it was: this veil of wilful confusion – this affective state called forth by a respectable artist’s participation in an unrespectable aesthetic or event – has a sharp, and often cruel, edge. The whore is stripped of her intellect, as though she couldn’t possibly be smart enough to create her own commentary on what her presence within a gatekept institution might signify. 

 

Melissa Gira Grant defines her coined term the prostitute imaginary as ‘the ways in which we conceptualize and make arguments about prostitution… driven by both fantasies and fear about sex and the value of human life.’ For my part, I think there is a corresponding artist imaginary, driven by fantasies and fear about the value of human expression. Each imaginary centres around an irreconcilable conflict between fantasy and fear: the fantasy that something’s price can or should correspond to its value as determined by the market’s invisible hand, and then the fear that those matters of spirit that Judeo-Christian liberal capitalism teaches us are beyond the material world, including human life and expression – art, sex, love – are actually not beyond it, and can indeed be quantified or contained by its laws. The fantasy of capitalism as inevitable and rational collides with the fear that if it is, then anything – no matter how sacred – can indeed be bought and sold, with little fanfare. 

 

I am a product of my environment. In their petite red-orange book, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, translated to English in 2011 as part of Semiotext(e)’s Intervention series, Tiqqun writes, ‘The world of the Young-Girl evinces a singular sophistication, in which reification has made added progress: In it, human relations mask market relations which mask human relations… Nothing is less personal than the “personal value” of the Young-Girl.’ In the right context, the consumption of my body, and its attendant value, does not feel personal. There are two me’s – even if we both go by the same name – and the me intentionally masking human relations with market relations is simply aggregating that experience into a particular track of my life, and, at times, bracketing it, so that the rest of my life feels less market-saturated. Perhaps this, too, though, is a fantasy: that I could effectively compartmentalise my own explicit commodification, making its edges neat so one me doesn’t bleed onto the next. But at least it’s my fantasy. 

 

A friend wrote an article for a legacy publication on the rampant popularity of the porn site OnlyFans; the photographer for the magazine asked to photograph content creators at work, and then complained to my friend – as though astonished – when the creators told him, ‘No, you cannot shoot us at work, because what you will be shooting, then, is porn, which your magazine will not accept.’ Upon final review of the piece, the standards department questioned her use of the phrase ‘jerk-off instruction (JOI)’ in the opening paragraph. She lamented: ‘What exactly am I supposed to say? You hired me to write about porn and then you don’t want me to write about porn.’ 

 

The women profiled for the piece received, essentially, free advertising in the form of sultry photographs in the pages of a nationally read magazine, the photographs – licensed from their social media and fan pages – cropped so as not to appear truly pornographic, but suggesting the reveal of a naked body, or the presence of a strap-on. I would imagine they encountered an influx of new subscribers; I would also imagine that they were contacted by an influx of men explaining why they did not want to subscribe or otherwise purchase the services of a sex worker, but instead wanted to engage in conversation about what was said in the piece, if the women would be so kind as to indulge them. This wilful confusion, then, beyond erasing the intellect of sex workers, so too allows voyeurs and reticent client-types to engage sex workers as not-quite-sex-workers, allows them to act as though there might be any reason to fulfil their fantasies – discursive or not – for free. 

 

After I collapsed all of my disparate identities into one, someone wrote to me: ‘I came across your website and I read some of your writing. You are so provocative and potentially irresistible. But, alas, your rates are so high.’ I don’t know what possessed me to respond to such a whiny lament, but I did – I think because I no longer have rates listed anywhere and wanted to know what he was referring to. I replied, saying as much, and suggested he send a gift to signal his appreciation of my work, if he couldn’t afford to spend time with me. I hadn’t realised, but the same person had inquired about my rates months earlier, and that was how he knew. He wrote back, ‘You had responded a few months ago with your rate. Thanks for the idea of sending a gift, though it might not be overly orgasmic for me (though it’s better to give than to receive, of course).’ This is the kind of person who enjoys wilful confusion: someone who detests the idea of paying for your time; someone who thinks a firm price is applicable to others but not him, never him; someone who sees nothing you do as work. 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and conceptual artist based in New York. She has written on gender, sex and labour for The New Inquiry, n+1, Document Journal and SSENSE, among others; her videos and performance-based Studies have been shown at Recess, the Athens Biennale, Duplex, The Bowery Hotel, and PPOW, among others. Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex is forthcoming with Verso in 2023. 

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