First Blackbook asked me to interview Nadya Tolokonnikova for their A Woman’s Right to Pleasure podcast. Then she interviewed me for the University of the Underground. At the end of the interview, previous cohort members asked questions—brilliant questions that showed depth of thought. As Nelly Ben Hayoun, head of the organization, was wrapping up the livestream, she mentioned that they’d be studying belief next.
I followed an impulse and applied for the program. An OnlyFans subscriber helped me academize my cover letter and portfolio. I was accepted. I proceeded.
The lectures and workshops were largely fascinating, even as I disagreed at points or found myself dwelling on opposing first principles. In the spirit of UU’s pluralism, I did my best to remain open. At the same time, my interest for my individual project was how sex workers interact with belief. I knew my own relationship to faith. I knew spell-wielding burlesque performers, and porn stars who’d purposefully left the church. And I knew that of all the things I’d been asked in my decade plus giving interviews as an adult entertainer, I couldn’t recall faith or belief being a subject.
I did several web searches and turned up one academic paper on a handful of direct providers in Thailand by someone whose focus is that nation. I put up a survey and asked the Free Speech Coalition to help me circulate it. The results inherently skewed Anglophone and internet-connected. I conducted nine video interviews, with sex workers of various backgrounds and various connections to spirituality.
Part of the University of the Underground requirements was to work with at least one organization we weren’t already involved with. I contacted several church-organized outreach programs, but only one responded to my email and that was to decline. Judson Memorial Church sent over material about Pleasure Activist Sunday and Rev. Moody’s outreach work among street-based sex workers in the 70s. The Old Pros network gave me several projects about spirituality by sex workers. Lazara Marinković connected me with Skopje’s STAR, the first sex worker led collective in the Balkans.
At this point the University of the Underground pointed out that I was doing stellar journalism, and they were after art. Several panic attacks, one tarot reading, and a conversation with an art professor later, I had my idea. I did one last round of interviews—two women and one man from STAR’s pool of activist sex workers—and selected screen captures from the videos. I printed the images on Instax film using a Fuji LiPlay, distressed the prints, and began sewing them to a wool dress.
As a nod to the history of North Macedonia, the garment is rectangular when laid flat—like the regional rugs called ćilim. The images are arranged in a traditional burdock pattern, which confers wishes of abundance. As a nod to the fact that sex workers come in many dimensions, the garment is draped to accommodate a range of widths.
You can view the entire I Want to Believe program final show here.
You can watch excerpts from the Anglophone interviews here. Featuring Aaron SmallHands, Violet Way, Tate, and Althea Adair.
The mixed media work is cool and all, and I’m particularly fond of the corner tassel detail, but I’m also interested in the data. To that end, I accepted an invitation to Red Rules’s Red Edition conference in Vienna. I enjoyed presenting my work, and also listening to and meeting activists in sex work outside of pornography. I learned that only 6% of articles about sex work are written by people who have done the work, and wondered what that percentage is like in other fields. I heard a great rendition of “Is sex work feminist?” that I barely needed a translator for because the discussion is the same everywhere that feminists and sex workers meet. I saw City of Whores, which explains the whole whorearchy through monologues and movement, twice. I’d see it a thousand more times if I could. Jamal Phoenix, who performed in City of Whores and presented at the conference, is a star.
The moderator gave amazing hugs. And when I expressed joy at receiving applause—god, I missed applause—I was showered with more. I’m still glowing.
Red Edition was a very special event. It’s rare to bring porn performers and direct providers together, though that divide has lessened greatly due to COVID. It’s rare for sex workers to have a chance to present our thoughts to an audience that is open to the fact that our work is real work, though that’s changing, too. I believe Red Edition is part of that change.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping to collaborate with someone who understands how to phrase questions in a way that is quantifiable. Once I have a standard study, I’d like to conduct it with several different populations. I want to know what sex workers’ relationships to spirituality are, what each worker believes their community believes about them, and what their community actually believes.
I think there’s something interesting there.
If you do, too, and you have the skills to help, my contact form is open.
Anna Monoxide by Steve Prue, New York City, 30 August 2021
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