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Boston's Theatre Artists Talk About Their Realities of Sex Work: A Tool for Empowerment, a Subversion of Power, and a Means for Survival

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The theatre has always been entwined with sex work. What does that relationship look like in 2020?

Boston's Theatre Artists Talk About Their Realities of Sex Work: A Tool for Empowerment, a Subversion of Power, and a Means for Survival

In a 2002 public report on the spread of HIV through commercial sex, the World Health Organization defined sex workers as "(sic) people who receive money or goods in exchange for sexual services, and who consciously define those activities as income generating even if they do not consider sex work as their occupation." This is a state-sanctioned definition of a term originally coined in 1978 by Carol Leigh (aka the Scarlet Harlot) with the intention of defying stereotypes created by the puritanical anti-porn movement. By this broad definition, the term 'sex worker' applies to a much wider range of people than the theatre may represent with the comical strumpets of Shakespeare like Mistress Overdone or Doll Tearsheet or the tragic fallen women of musical theatre like Aldonza "the whore" or Nancy "you can always cover one 'til 'e blacks the other one". By this broad definition, the term 'sex worker' can apply to those who engage in entirely legal practices (ie. stripping, escorting, pornography, erotic dancing, premium social media accounts, and generation of online content) as well as those who operate outside of legal confines. Aside from its shoddy representations, the history of theatre is inextricably linked with the practice of sex work. Movies like Farewell, My Concubine, plays like Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and musicals like Gypsy highlight the ways the theatre has existed in tandem with and benefited from sex work across cultures and throughout time. Though it seems a recurrent trope of art history to believe one cannot recognize when one is living through a historical movement, perhaps we may succumb for a moment to a collective narcissism and concede that, in 2020, we appear to be laying the groundwork for major shifts within our society and within our art form. How, then, do we continue to draw from the sex work being done in our time as our predecessors relied upon the brothels, concubines, burlesque performances, and pornographers with whom they shared an audience? What can we learn from an industry that has been converting to the virtual realm for health and safety reasons for over a decade? Though their names and some demographic information have been changed to protect their identities, I chatted with several Boston-based and formerly Boston-based theatre workers who additionally engage in sex work to hear what theatre artists need to learn about and from sex workers as we rebuild.

"I remember in undergrad, sex work was synonymous with embarrassing yourself. One acting professor in particular used to deride anyone who was 'mugging' or 'playing for laughs', saying they were nothing better than 'prostitutes on the corner'. It always caught me off-guard because as a queer woman of color studying acting at a major academic institution, I needed to rely on a few regular clients to make ends meet. Yet here was this old white dude making a joke at my expense without even realizing it. It became just another part of my identity that set me apart from everyone else in that room." Unfortunately for Tiffany, her experiences of facing negative stereotypes as a sex worker have continued after she graduated.

Before being furloughed in the pandemic, she was working as a front of house associate in her home state. "There was only one other Black woman who worked with me, so when we had shifts together, we were definitely able to connect on a different level." Despite an age difference, Tiffany says she developed a close relationship with this coworker. "I remember her asking me about what I did because ushering was obviously not a full-time gig. When I told her how I was nannying but also made most of my income from two sugar daddies, she laughed. She asked if I really thought I should be allowed near kids if I was a sex worker." Tiffany feels that a generational divide contributes to the misunderstanding that engaging in sex work taints an individual and all of their professional exploits.

A couple years older than Tiffany, Boston-based technician, Catherine seems to agree. "Sex work is like other 'unprofessional' things with absolutely no bearing on my ability to complete my work. Just like having colored hair or visible tattoos, it has no overlap with my job." She reasons that she prefers her coworkers not know about her online work, but only on the same grounds she prefers her family not know about her work; "it's none of their business." Because she creates virtual content under a pseudonym, she feels if a coworker or family member ever confronted her about this work, they would need to feel comfortable admitting they had been looking for content like hers. Catherine acknowledges that it is a privilege that she has been able to create content for a virtual subscription site to supplement her income during a recent furlough. "If this was a means of survival, I would certainly approach it differently. But as is, this is an aspect of myself that I enjoy sharing and I like interacting with people who enjoy it. (Sex work) has a similar feedback cycle to making theatre, even if you sometimes put in a lot of work for very little feedback."

Echoing the opinions of Catherine and Tiffany, Hassan laughs and throws their hands in the air. "I mean, do I think people I've done theatre with would be understanding if they knew how I'm making money right now? Absolutely not. With our industry extremely limited for the foreseeable future do I see a ton of other options? Also no. So what do we do about that?" While Hassan has been generating income through sex work both virtually and in-person for the past three years, they admit that the portion of their monthly budget reliant on this labor has increased due to pandemic conditions. "There's no stimulus money coming and no bailout for entertainment workers in sight. So I feel like everyone needs to get cool with sex work quick or shut their mouths." They analyze that, as an artist who has worked in Boston's theatre but also in Boston's burlesque and circus scene, there is a divide in the acceptance and expectation of sex work within the respective communities. "In the burlesque and circus communities, it's almost a given that people are engaging in this work, so that can be more freely communicated in those spaces. Those communities are less formalized and less institutionalized than the theatre in Boston. Theatre- especially musical theatre- can have this reputation of being the hokiest art form. Not serious like opera or ballet. So theatres on Broadway or the Huntington want to show us they make respectable art. Those large non-profits operate like commercial enterprises- the establishment gets so focused on being taken seriously that they try to distance themselves from performance art, experimental work, or any nitty-gritty stuff for 'poor people'."

"As a sex worker, I know how to let you know what you want," boasts a jaded Ana, "and I'll make you think it's what you always wanted. That's what the theatre needs to learn. No more audience surveys. No more talkbacks where you ask me what to program, thinking that means I'll give you money. Truth be told, none of us really knows what we like. If I ask a guy what he wants, he's gonna say he wants me dressed as Little Red Riding Hood and he's gonna be the Big Bad Wolf. Red is not my color, and I'm not into hairy dudes, so that's not gonna be fun for me. So when I get there, I take the latex gloves and the furry mask and put them on. I tell him to wear the little cape. I tell him this is going to be way more fun, and whaddya know? It is! In art-making, in entertaining, in sex work (which are all just the same thing with different costumes on), we need to remember that the customer is always wrong. That's a problem in Boston, where these institutions want to make things that they think people want to see but the artists at the top of the pyramid rarely have specific things they are dying to make. I'd rather sit through a million crappy passion projects than one show that was just polished in a New York run and ticks all the boxes of a demographic study."

Catherine seems to concur. As a consumer of independent pornography, she "buy(s) content not only because I like the content, but also because I am drawn to the person who makes that content. I think that's different when we talk about a company generating a production versus a person generating a video, but the principle is the same. Boston theatres talk a big talk about engaging with their community, but the way we do that traditionally- we present something and the community comes to see it- can't happen safely right now. We need to not only think about digital content, but be thinking about content that is meant to be absorbed digitally. There is a robust amount of virtual sex work concerned with the 'real life' experience. How do theatres take our 'real life' experiences and translate them to the internet? There are so many different digital experiences sex workers have created that people are willing to pay for. Some of them are polished and professional, but some people will buy a video of you (redacted)ing on your phone! Some companies are hesitant to put out work that sucks, but there are some allowances here. You've been a live theatre for fifty years and you've been creating digital content for seven months. We'll forgive you if your digital media looks like you've only been doing this for seven months. But there are other options than outdoor theatre- which is not entirely safe- and Zoom readings."

As with the ancient Greeks and Chinese, the Elizabethans, the French courtiers, the American Vaudevillians, and so many others, our theatre workers and our audiences continue to overlap with our contemporary sex workers. Talking with sex workers of varying experiences who also work in the theatre called attention not only to the ways our art form can continue to develop thanks to the trailblazing of sex workers, but also to the ways in which the theatre must adjust its collective attitude toward sex work. After decades of unfair pay, it should be no surprise that theatre artists have turned to any work possible to make ends meet. As subscription-based platforms and services increase in popularity, it stands to reason that the number of people we know who engage with sex work will congruently increase. In this moment of collective reckoning, we could all afford to explore our own biases toward certain professions, certain laws, and certain tenets of morality which may be based in oppressive practices we had not realized before.

Photo credit: Boston Public Library Digital Commons, Boston Burlesque Performers

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From This Author Andrew Child