Each photograph is a hand painted silver gelatin print, and ranges in size from 30"x15" to 40"x50"
Reclamation and (Dis)atonement
I am creating a collaborative photography series with other sex workers to explore our relationship to female iconography and archetype within, and in conjunction to, the western canon of painting.
Throughout time, the sex worker’s history has been, altered, erased or left undocumented. Our subjectivities, abandoned in the name of art, god, and man. We have been the muses and models of masterpieces. Our bodies coveted, condemned, co-opted.
Processing this knowledge, I had a distinctive urge to insert myself and other sex workers into the paintings of our choice: any western painting that used, attempted study, or creation, of the feminine archetype, trope, or otherwise perceivable.
Face the allure it carries, and mirror the problems it projects forwards.
Allowing ourselves a multiplicity of space to imagine, desire, and fantasize. We don't run away or deny the context of where or how we exist in the world, and in our bodies: we use it - play with it - taunt it - invert it - thrive of(f) it.
Our actions force a questioning of our performance(s)' authenticity. The audience/client wonders, "Will I know if "she" reveals her true self to me?"
We give everything and nothing away by performing these already established “masterpieces”, and it is within the lived duality of this performance that we offer something both to ourselves and to the reflected viewer.
In so many ways we are trained from birth for the job of a sex worker.
“To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another....One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” --John Berger
“Man can never know the loneliness a woman knows. Man lies in the woman's womb only to gather strength, he nourishes himself from this fusion, and then he rises and goes into the world, into his work, into battle, into art. He is not lonely. He is busy. The memory of the swim in amniotic fluid gives him energy, completion. Woman may be busy too, but she feels empty. Sensuality for her is not only a wave of pleasure in which she is bathed, and a charge of electric joy at contact with another. When man lies in her womb, she is fulfilled, each act of love a taking of man within her, an act of birth and rebirth, of child rearing and man bearing. Man lies in her womb and is reborn each time anew with a desire to act, to be. But for woman, the climax is not in the birth, but in the moment man rests inside of her.” --Anaïs Nin
We have lived this. Learned this.
As a woman/feminized person, I cannot deny this socializing within myself, but as a sex worker I actively choose my relation to it.
"On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself – on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger. In the meantime, love represents in its most touching form the curse that lies heavily upon woman confined in the feminine universe, woman mutilated, insufficient unto herself." -Simone de Beauvoir
In victorian ethos women were, scientifically and socially, understood to have no sexuality.
Modernity has now allotted a space for such activity. However, with our (the feminized) relatively newly allotted sexuality, it is expected that our sexuality exists only when a true revealing of oneself (a confession, if you will) and vulnerability is present. If we are able to be sexual without a "revealing" of ourselves, it shakes the foundation of heteronormative hegemony.
There is a social hostility and deep fear towards the embracing of performativity and guise, and it stigmatizes sex work, along with other activities that subvert the normal.
The world made me a sex worker, but sex work is also how I make the world.
Collapsing and collaging female stereo/archetypes. Refusing to hold any one of them alone, she is all of these, and she is none of them: the whore/little girl, the martyr/self-absorbed, the sex goddess/fertility symbol, the sacred/shady madonna.
Sex work is drag. And like gender bending drag, sex work is a "sexual deviancy" where by "copying" an accepted social norm, it reveals the norm to be a creation it’s self.
For those of us who have been constructed by others as objects of desire, and non-desire, performance is one of the most effective means to enter into discourse and create an immediate subject position from which to address the social. We can reconstitute ourselves in the performance medium as living embodiments of resistance, remapping, redefining, and reclaiming the deviant body, the body of the sexual outsider and social outcast. (Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body By Shannon Bell)
We are “…both the signifier and that which is signified.” --Catherine Elwes
"Projected identity is a group phenomenon. Self-transformation is an artist's turf, and many who have mastered self-transformation go unrecognized as artist" --Lucy Lippard
Identity is not false, but that doesn't mean that it is not constructed.
The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women. . . . Why are men not objects of exchange among women? It is because women's bodies —through their use, consumption, and circulation —provide for the condition making social life and culture possible, although they remain an unknown "infrastructure" of the elaboration of that social life and culture. The exploitation of the matter that has been sexualized female is so integral a part of our sociocultural horizon that there is no way to interpret it except within this horizon. --Luce Irigaray
The prostitute is paid money for her body currency; moreover, (she) has gained access into the symbolic order of the economy... she is also not silent. By bartering and naming her price she is breaking the "silent" exchange of women. By naming it and defining it and consciously bring into light what has traditionally been repressed she is no longer a passive participant in the exchange. --Janet Feindel
Trauma is caused by a physical or psychological threat or assault to one's physical integrity, sense of self, safety or survival. We all revolve our lives around isolating and neutralizing unwanted sensory experiences-- dulling our intolerable inner worlds in whatever way we can. Everyone has experienced it, and each of us react to, and within, our traumas in different ways. It is when our reaction (and interaction) to trauma differs - or deviates - from the desired norm, that we are viewed as troubled or engaging in risk-taking behavior. All reactions to this, and choices around this, are valid. Sex workers, and other "sexual deviants" have the full capacity to define their own relationship to their past, future, and present. Yet time and time again, we are denied this right. We are told who we are, what has made us, and what we need.
As modernity grew an obsession with science, statistics, and the medicalization of the body, the prostitute was territorialized as an "object of inquiry". These studies and inquiries produced an entire "body of knowledge" created entirely by the hegemonic male voice. That of the doctor, the lawyer, the judge, the policeman, the politician, the administrator. Our bodies have largely been related to by these groups as grotesque and diseased. Something to be regulated and protected from. Something to ignore and erase.
This attitude is ever-present. Around the world, whether our work is legal or not, sex workers are actively marginalized, stigmatized, and otherwise oppressed. International laws forbid us to travel, to raise our children (we have our children taken away time and time again, and even given to abusive family members who are deemed "more fit"), to have roofs over our heads (landlords are threatened by police with being arrested if they don't kick us out of our homes) , to have friends or lovers (without risking them be called pimps), to use protection (carrying condoms is used as evidence of intent to prostitute), and the right to protect ourselves from violence (it is common for cops to blackmail sex workers, and those who commit violence against us, even murder us are time and time again exonerated by the law). Thereby we are refused the right to our own humanity.
If "woman" is "man's" other, than the prostitute is the other within/to the other.
The feminized have long been segregated into social categories on the basis of their sexual labor and/or identity. Solidarity amongst prostitutes, people of color, working class/poor, feminist, trans, queer, and gay/lesbian struggles is necessary to break down stigma that weakens our resolve and capacity.
My deviancy is how I express outliving my trauma. Turning its effects, and impact, into tools for my survival. Not my demise. How do we speak of our our pain? Of never quite feeling comfortable in ours and others projections. Recognizing that the more we learn of the world, and of ourselves, the less words we find ourselves having left to discuss, or define, anything around or in us. A social struggle or existential reality. A vessel in need of a savior or an empowered post-modern burden of agency. False and forced identities of being victim, object, exotic, seductress, or invisible. A spectacle, or not human, or both.
Being a victim and being an agent are not mutually exclusive.
"To embrace the identity of prostitute is to embrace a multitude of contradictions" -- Tracy Quan
We are owners and producers of vast knowledge.
In this project I attempt to "destabilize the boundaries between what are traditionally considered "high" and "low" sites of discourse" (Shannon Bell). Appropriating the imagery and scripts of our visual history for the project of validating sex workers' voices, bodies, identities, and knowledge(s). Inverting the sacred and obscene in the same body. This project, and everything I do, is done to accept and affirm our humanity. This is the real empowering act.