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True Professions 

What do you call whores who don't have sex and porn stars who don't get paid?

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
"We're all whores," argues Stacey Whitaker, a 26-year-old dance instructor standing outside the Roxie Cinema, where the 24-hour-long San Francisco Sex Workers Film and Video Festival is under way. Only six hours into the festival, Whitaker's friend, 27-year-old "Macho" Athanases, looks a little worse for wear.

"We're not all whores," says Athanases wearily, flicking a cigarette into the gutter.

"Are you going to tell me you've never done anything with your body that you wouldn't have done without the promise of cash?" asks Whitaker, her eyes narrowing as she prepares for the kill. "What about that party where you walked around in gold body paint for a bunch of corporate slobs?"

"That was six years ago, and no one touched me," snaps Athanases.

"I don't think that's true," says Whitaker sweetly, fluttering her eyelashes in coy triumph.

"Not in a sexual way," says Athanases with a pout. "No one touched me in a sexual way."

"And how do you know that?" counters Whitaker as she lovingly jump-starts Athanases' next cigarette with her own. "Isn't it possible that one of those men slipped in the bathroom for a wank after watching you all night?"

"No," says Athanases, looking a little mad now. "Shit, Stace, how would I know? I wouldn't have known."

"And isn't that more sad than if you had?" says Whitaker, condescendingly patting Athanases on the shoulder. "Poor, poor unwitting whore."

"Fuck off, Stacey," says Athanases with lackluster conviction. "I'm hungry."

"OK, yeah," says Whitaker, nearly chirping, "let's go get burritos and hurry back for porn tips." Athanases rolls his eyes and follows Whitaker, who is already halfway down the block, her bright fuchsia micro-miniskirt and knee-high go-go boots turning heads.

It's not the last of such conversations I will hear at the festival. Even among sex workers, what does and does not constitute a whore is a matter for debate.

"You can prostitute your intellect," says Nasta, a former call girl with long, curly, black hair and an exquisite silver collar around her neck. "You can prostitute your talents, your creativity, your vision. Is this a bad thing? Or does it just mean you're getting paid for it?"

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a prostitute is "a person who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse for payment."

By definition, this excludes a former dominatrix acquaintance who used to sexually satisfy her clients by dexterously wielding whips, insults, and, occasionally, condiments. It also excludes the strippers I have known whose intermittent lap dances carried customers to climax -- for wads of cash.

"Prostitution is defined by lawyers," says Nasta. "It's arbitrary."

Easy to say inside the warm darkness of the Roxie, where sex workers -- dancers, porn actors, prostitutes, doms, performers, instructors, and educators -- and their admirers can curl up in padded chairs to admire the trade in flickering sepia tones of humor and light. Harder a few blocks down, on Capp Street.

I saw an old friend named "Alice" standing on the street corner not long ago, teetering on plastic heels too big and too ugly for the recovering Mormon I had met 12 years before. Her hair was brittle and sallow, and her skin had a periwinkle hue, a pale and translucent palette for blooms of greenish fingerprints and plum-colored tracks. She tried to talk to me, like in the old days, but she stammered and her eyes fled from mine like those of a shattered bird. I remembered a number of years before, watching her get dressed for a "date," meticulously matching her hair ribbon and shoes.

"You have to take care about your appearance," she had explained, "otherwise nothing matters. They usually don't notice, but you have to do it anyway."

It had sounded like something out of Cannery Row, except there was no way to paint that hollow grief as feisty. Even then, "Alice" would not have appreciated the Sex Workers Film Festival. It was too late. It may have been too late when she was 9 years old.

"I was a prostitute for 20 years," says Scarlot Harlot (aka Carol Leigh), the vivacious director, founder, and procurer for the SFSWFF. "I still see an old client now and then, so you can't say that I've officially retired yet."

Leigh decided to explore her inner fille de joie at the age of 27, after completing grad school and finding few job openings for promising young poetesses.

"It seemed a natural extension of my feminist studies," says Leigh, "and I thought it would be good for my art. The role of prostitute is pivotal as far as feminine archetypes go. And I didn't have much shame in terms of sex and my body, and I was already questioning the negotiations I conducted with men within the confines of serial monogamy."

In the beginning, Leigh cruised massage parlors, but she didn't find what she was looking for until she hooked up with some call girls who worked out of Monte Rio's Bohemian Club, which Newsweek called the most prestigious summer camp in the world. "I had a customer pay me $1,000 to do anything I wanted to him," says Leigh, adjusting the folds of her diaphanous gown. "So I tied him up and sang him a song." She sings a few strains about looking for a better job, and laughs.

In addition to her harlotry and sex-worker activism, Leigh began curating video in 1985, and last year, inspired by Portland's Danzine Sex by Sex Workers Festival, she started the SFSWFF. This year's fete offers movies from all over the world, including portraits of sex workers in Brazil (Eunice Gutman's Amores de Rua); interviews with women working in suburban brothels in Melbourne (It's a Business Doing Pleasure With You); documentary shorts on the effects of incarceration (Salome Chasnoff's What We Leave Behind); contemplations of the stigmas facing transsexuals in the San Francisco Tenderloin (Dina L. Boyer's moving Study in the Life of Transsexuals With Kitty Castro); a fictional account of young Czech boys getting turned out in Prague (Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora); a real-life account of an American-Israeli gigolo working in Amsterdam (Yaron Ben Nun's Hell's Angel); helpful instruction on entering the porn industry (Porn 101: If you can't masturbate in a shopping mall, don't bother); helpful reminders that not everyone in the business takes it seriously (The Biters' Sex TV); and some hard-core triple-X goth-punk-tranny porn for those who do (Christopher Lee and J. Zapata's Sex Flesh in Blood). Some of the films are funny, some are sad, a few are even sexy, but all of them are interesting, and, while few people speak up during the question-and-answer period between screenings, the crowd is buzzing with conversation.

By 8 p.m. there is a line around the block. Inside, Annie Sprinkle and Scarlot Harlot bestow the Sex Worker Sinema Awards (glitter- and feather-festooned high-heeled shoes presented by scantily clad B-girls) on worthy local directors. Unlike the predictably gruesome Adult Video News Awards, Sinema not only admits but also embraces all that is underground, experimental, and peculiar in adult movies, and the clips prove it. Among the winners in the "Sex Art" category are Joseph Kramer for Zen Pussy, a meditation on 12 giant, full-screen vaginas that has audience members squirming in their seats and inadvertently saying "gross" before they compose their PC-ness; Joani Blank for Faces of Ecstasy, which offers close-ups of faces in the throes of orgasm (including some folks better left unseen, at least by me); and Cleo du Bois' The Pain Game, the debut by a longtime dominatrix that leaves my knuckles white and my chest aching out of sympathy.

Sometime after midnight, a group of women stand outside the Roxie trying to figure out what to do next.

"It's hard to come back into the real world after spending so many hours in there," says 23-year-old Jasmine Petrizze. "People aren't masturbating everywhere I look." But this is San Francisco, and there's not too far to go. Within minutes, someone has mentioned a fund-raiser and audition for a new lesbian porno production called Debauchery.

Even at full capacity, the Campus Theater smells like scented candles. A giant star hangs from the rafters amid multicolored Chinese lanterns. Women in latex maid's uniforms and cheetah catsuits parade across the overhead balcony while music pumps through the shadowy theater. The flamboyant leather-lace-and-latex crowd is reminiscent of gay-boy bars in the early '80s: Everyone has an outfit, a gimmick, a hook that sets her apart from the rest. This is the beautiful crowd. They watch blithely as a butch in chaps fingers and smacks a masked woman in a cage. The smell changes ever so slightly. The Debauchery Sluts feast on a well-oiled woman wearing a pig's head who is carried in on a silver platter. Near the beverage counter, a leather-daddy butch pushes her slave, who is wearing little more than a leather G-string, against a lonely dyke and begins to grind against them both; after a time (and some distinct grunts) the dyke moans, straightens up, and wipes the sweat from her brow. Fliers on the wall say, "Please fuck. Thank you. The Debauchery Sluts." Others warn that Debauchery Productions may use any images culled from tonight's festivities. Women climb into a photo booth set up by and pose -- shirts off, sucking each other, straddling each other. A couple comes out topless and panting.

"I wonder if those girls are getting paid," muses a young woman in a pearl corset and shiny blue hot pants as she watches the masked girl in the cage climax. "She looks like she's just having fun."

The young woman stops and looks at me seriously: "If you don't get paid, are you still a porn star?"

It's an age-old question.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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