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Sex, Art, and Money: Does Sex Work Subsidize The Arts?

Credit: Ivanchik/Shutterstock

My name is Lotte Latham. I’m a sex worker and an artist – for me, these are closely linked. Sex work, a so-called unskilled labor, hinges largely on communication, empathy, and problem-solving. These attributes are key in my creative practice, but so is the income I derive from sex work. I use escorting as a means to support and fund my projects. I am constantly juggling this balance of creation and labor in order to stay afloat, much like other working artists.

My perspective is formed from a place of privilege. I’ve been lucky enough to have a career in the arts before I ever got involved with sex work. And, I’ve witnessed just how messed up the creative industries are first-hand.

As a sex worker, the ability to draw boundaries in how we offer services is distorted by all sorts of biased like class, ethnicity, and ableism. Not all sex workers are in a position they can support themselves and fund projects with their earnings. However, I know I’m not alone in using sex work to bolster my creative pursuits.

I’ve just spent the past six months working on my recently released book Dear Mr Andrews. Through this period, I leaned heavily on sex work so that I could make the time and emotional space to write, edit, and publicize it. Because my book is about sex work, subsidizing it via escorting seemed apt. Since the book is a passion project produced with an indie publisher (i.e. no advance, no immediate returns, maybe no returns ever…) being a full-service sex worker has literally enabled me to make it a reality.

Far from being a tragic tale, I’m proud to admit that I prioritized what was important to me rather than giving up on this ambition.

The Trouble with Hustle Culture

My entry into sex work was exacerbated by hustle culture. After all, hustling is another transferable skill that lends itself to the gig economy many of us live under.

I’ve always felt conflicted about the “Better werk bitch!” narrative. Our culture puts workaholics on a pedestal, reiterating that hard work reaps big rewards. Even if we have “the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé,” luck and circumstance always play a big part in success, whoever you are. 

Moreover, narratives about young people trying to make it in the big city are heavily gendered. Often female role models are elevated using clichéd imagery of what hustle culture should look like. I’m thinking; Showgirls, Zola, The Devil Wears Prada, and Desperately Seeking Susan. Surely this is capitalism telling us to internalize a shared struggle and come out victorious regardless of the conditions. What this also tells us is that if you’re unable to do so, you’re the only reason you’ve failed.

That couldn’t be the furthest thing from the truth: creativity and drive don’t pay the bill, and success isn’t a guarantee. 

During the pandemic, people turned to creative outlets in their droves. They finished projects they’d had on ice for years and started new ones. The fact that more work was being created at this time surely dispels the myth that “the artist in you” will just out itself regardless of the time available. Whilst some people thrive under pressure, the capacity for rest and relaxation fuels projects for others.

I wrote the main body of my book during lockdown at a time I received a government stipend. I had more financial stability in lockdown than I’d had for years; which led to productivity.

Artist? Sex Worker? Both?                                  

It’s hard to say what percentage of people are supporting their creative endeavors with sex work because the stats are notoriously skewed. The stigma makes it impossible for real data to be gathered particularly about full-service work.

Historically, there’s been a massive crossover between art and sex work. Some of my idols including Chris Kraus, Annie Sprinkle, and Cardi B, have been able to talk about this without it affecting their career. How many more revered artists have whored in silence?

This year there’s been some reframing on how prevalent sex work was within the 1980s New York art community. In Laura Poitras’  documentary “All the Beauty and Bloodshed” (2023) Nan Goldin purports to be an ex-sex worker and confesses that it’s not something she’s felt able to disclose until recently. Lizzie Borden, a contemporary of Goldin, directed a film called “Working Girls”  in 1986. Set in a middle-class brothel in New York, the main protagonist is a college graduate using “prostitution” to support herself.

The type of sex work depicted in the film is well-compensated. Even so, it entails a lot of the same challenges and emotional labor that other sex workers share. The film draws from Borden’s own experience, and she based the characters around her peers.

And things don’t look a whole lot different in 2023. A friend of mine (who wishes to remain anonymous because of the pervasive stigma around sex work) agrees that it’s been integral to her design career.

She says, “Sex work has absolutely made it possible for me to live as a creative in London. In fact, I have recently started sex work again because my design career doesn’t pay enough, and minimum wage jobs aren’t enough to subsidize the lack of pay in the creative industries.”

It’s not just about “breaking into” the arts, it’s also about sustaining your career once you’re there. At my day job, I’m constantly reminded of the other people who are there to replace me, who are often willing to work for free, or lower wages to get a foot in the door. Many creatives are self-employed, and freelancers haven’t been able to demand more pay in line with the skyrocketing inflation. As bills go up, it’s getting harder and harder for artists to support themselves.

When faced with an option of a minimum wage job that will eat up most of your time, earning money simply to survive becomes a cycle that traps you in a low-paying job by depriving you of the energy to build the portfolio required for you to progress, is sex work not the only place to turn? We all sell our bodies, in one way or another.

It’s a catch-22.

Sex Work As Art

Some artists see their sex work and their creative practice as one and the same. The prevalence of sex worker aesthetics in pop culture is rife, but only recently have its origins been applauded. 

The physically demanding acrobatics of stripping and pole dance require skill and training. These art forms are starting to gain traction outside of the strip clubs. Sexquisite is a sex worker cabaret in London that showcases sex workers’ skills as dancers, singers, raconteurs, and comedians. The eclectic line-up demonstrates just how varied the skills of sex workers really are.

As technology develops – online sex workers are ever finding new ways to express themselves. Viola Vee, pornographer and online sex worker, enjoys playing with the paradigms that exist when it comes to sex, money, and art. 

For Viola, as a political anarchist, creating erotic content allows her to play with other structures of exchange outside of wage labor. “The Book-Porn Economy Project” is one example of this: She has a wishlist of art and philosophy books, and if someone buys her a book from the list, she makes them a private video of her enjoying it. This symbiotic exchange redefines the traditional erotic transaction. She says; “I usually put the money I earn from sex work back into facilitating pornography. So, when I sold panties I used the money to buy more lingerie for photosets, or money from clip sites goes into buying new lenses or lighting equipment, etc.”

Viola’s approach sits well with the premise: if you like a creator’s work you should support them to make more of it.

We’re Not As Different As You Think

As a follower of the “sex work is work” ethos and a believer in decriminalization, I hope that discussions like this are going to shine a light on the similarities between industries. We need to acknowledge that sex work isn’t unskilled labor as it’s so long been dismissed as. We are photographers, marketers, content distributors, editors, and client interaction experts, even if we choose to do nothing but sex work.

Perhaps, if the creative industries were less hostile, then people would be faced with more favorable choices. But could the same not be said for any industry? Everybody wants, or rather, needs, a living wage. 

The artists/sex workers I’m lucky to call my peers are bringing so much to the table. It’s time we started celebrating them for the choices they make instead of despite them. Even if we can’t quantify the extent to which sex work is supporting artists, it’s happening everywhere. It’s a choice I make and faced with what’s available, it’s the only option that truly allows me to create on my own terms.