Paint brushes on a colourful palette

Is Sex Work Art?

Blurring Boundaries in Art

I was listening to a Talk Art podcast episode recently. It was an interview with one of my favourite artists, Rene Matic. Matic was explaining how their identity challenged conventional notions of white supremacist hetero patriarchy, being a queer, non-binary, mixed-race individual. Matic stated that their existence was ‘rude’. Rude for refusing to conform to societal expectations or predefined categories. Rude for existing in the ‘inbetween’. 

‘Rude’ is a word reappropriated from rude boy culture. Rude boy was a movement rife in the 1960s in Jamaica and subsequently also in the U.K. The rude boy movement diverged from the peaceful, spiritual, and loving characteristics of Rastafarian culture. Instead, rudeboys wanted immediate gratification in terms of money, success, and good times. In the realm of music, while the Rasta embraced reggae, the rudeboys favoured genres like ska, northern soul, and 2-tone. Rude boy culture was appropriated by skinheads in the 1980s and the culture quickly became associated with far right British political ideology. 

One of my favourite photos ever taken is a black and white photo of Matic taking off their shirt to reveal their back with ‘Born British Die British’ unfurling over their shoulders. A saying also associated with far right Britain. Matic questions what is to be British and delves into how their existence came into being. 

Art can be so powerful in changing perspectives, giving representation, and showing personal history. And I think Matic’s work is so important for doing that. Matic’s existence may be rude, but their art is so progressive. I really appreciate when art pushes boundaries and questions terms and ideas.

A woman pole dancing in a dark, sexy red room

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Is Sex Work a Feminist Act?

‘Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex’

Matic’s work has long been a favourite of mine and as much as it did change my perspective of things a while ago, the initial effect has somewhat worn off now. But through keeping on discovering new art, films and books that effect of ‘wow, I’d never considered things in this light before’ lives on. My most recent read did exactly this, it was the book ‘Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex’ by Sophia Giovannitti. It’s provocative to say the least. After having finished it, I went right into looking at reviews and it was a real mixed bag. You know a book is fairly controversial when it shows in the reviews. But I adored the book, and I’ll let you know why. 

Sophia Giovannitti

But first a little about Sophia Giovannitti. Giovannitti herself has worked in both selling sex and also in selling art and she claims they share a lot more similarities than we are often led to believe. She’s a conceptual based artist who started working in sex work when she was in her 20s and living in New York. She wrote a memoir for her experiences and her opinions on sex work and how, for her, sex work and art work really seem to have a lot in common. “Art and sex occupy similar positions under capitalism”, is how Giovannitti starts her book. “This is because we are told art and sex shouldn’t be commodified. Each is a seemingly sacred form of human expression, and we are taught to keep them close to ourselves, safe from capital’s voracious appetite” she continues. But, of course, like most things under capitalism, they can be commodified and they can definitely be sold. But why would someone want to sell sex?

Reasons for Doing Sex Work

It’s important to remember that not everyone does things for the same reason, and that goes for everything. We all have different motivations and aims. For sex work specifically, most people normally state that people go into sex work through some kind of coercion. Because they need the money, and sex work is a way of making good money, which is true. But there are people who do actively choose to go into sex work. 

Giovannti herself stated that she went into sex work because she didn’t want to work, she wanted time off to create and to be an artist. A job that takes little time but has good income, for her, was sex work. However, she does acknowledge that of course there are varying levels of privilege when it comes to those who do sex work. 

Her honesty was definitely a wow factor throughout the novel. She stated that she did sex work because it was “the best way to make a lot of money in a short amount of time.” And that’s that. But her honesty and openness is something that seems to be important for her now. She wrote that she used to create art, write essays, and do sex work under different aliases but now she just uses her own name. She said in an interview with culture magazine that it made her feel fractured and she doesn’t want to do that anymore. She also said that she allows herself to contradict herself now.

She talks about the benefits of sex work, the money she made, the free time she had, how it supported her art career, but she also talks about some of the bad experiences she had as well. Although, it did seem in the book she was freely talking about her experiences, but at the same time wary that those against sex work could use her experiences as argument for criminalising sex work, which definitely wasn’t her goal. But her contradictions make her book more personal, more human. It’s not an essay arguing for or against, it is just her personal experiences. Although her work is very much a personal memoir, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a kind of underlying message throughout…

A woman holding a silver butt plug wearing classy white lingerie

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Are Kinks Misogynistic?

Sex Work is Political

Giovanniti makes a point in one of the sections of the book named ‘On Violation’. She draws on the fact that women in all spheres of work will probably be violated in some form. Women get sexualised very often in the workplace and often also get in trouble for doing so. The jobs that she refers to are also lower ranking and lower paid jobs where women might just have to deal with more simply because they’re so reliant on these jobs and don’t have the power to speak out, nor do they know they could easily find another job.

Giovanniti states that the difference is, for example, working an office job with plenty of misogynistic men or working in a brothel is that one profits off being sexualised. And profiting off and being in control of when and where it happens does have a lot of power. Of course, in an ideal world, no one would be sexualised in the workplace (unless that is what the work centres around and consent is given), but we don’t live in an ideal world and I see her point. Misogyny is going to be a problem for a long time, I think anyway. So, Giovannitti says, profiting off exploitation has a strong link to sex work and that’s political, but does it to art?

Sex Work and Art Are Linked

“The sex and art marketplaces are cynical and cruel […] Both are intimately tied to state violence”. Sex marketplaces are massively disciplined by the state, the state tightly controls them, criminalises them, and everyone involved in them. In the art marketplace, it is near impossible to climb the ladder, full of money laundering by billionaires, and how much is invested into museums and any creative sectors is very dependent on our governments. Both industries are shaped by the whims of the powerful and hyper-wealthy.

Giovannitti goes further into how these both the art world and sex work are intertwined with politics and power, but I simply don’t have the space to get into it, nor do I know how to make it as compact as possible for you to get the reader’s digest version. 

I do, however, have a little space to talk about how much I love how she refers to so many art works, books, tv shows throughout the book. I especially love how she delves into how a lot of erotic art is essentially porn, another form of sex work, but because of where it’s shown it’s interpreted as something completely different and has lost most of its taboo meanings. 

Wrapping Up

Giovannitti finishes the book by stating that she aligns herself with criminals and argues for a ‘criminal utopia’. I find Rene Matic has a similar sentiment with her idea behind being ‘rude’. Both artists exist in spaces that our society generally doesn’t want to exist, but they do. They want to give a rise to those who are marginalised and not seen as ‘real’. And I agree, I don’t believe anyone should feel lesser for the identity that they have or the type of work that they do, and that for me includes all work including sex work.

I love art that makes you question life and see things from a different perspective. That’s what art is about for me. I found that listening to a lot of stories and experiences from those who work in sex work did a similar thing. So maybe thinking about sex work also has the same effect for me? I’d never really considered a link between sexwork and art but through Giovannitti I have, and honestly, I’m really grateful.

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