Ray Filar writes that sex work is service work, that capitalism dangles money and celebrity as gains one can make in the field of ‘erotic professionalism’. This illusory and elusive promise of autonomy, wealth and desirability elides the precarity and complexity of how race, gender, ability, class, and technological advances facilitate disparities in sex workers’ experiences and expectations.
I was introduced into this world by a guy who later sent me unsolicited dick pics. Whilst reeling from that and other existential concerns, my 2016 self thought it might be fun to appear in pictures like Helmut Newton’s, and get paid for it. After years of learning photography from professional photographers, I learnt that for all his cheek and shock value, Helmut Newton was the product of a different milieu, who created his pictures with people higher up the art food chain than he, for clients who tolerated him even as they socially outranked him. The artist Molly Crabapple, who was once in the erotic profession I’m still in, wrote this in her memoir Drawing Blood: “For legit photographers – in porn or in fashion – the point of any shoot was the finished image. For guys with cameras, the point was the naked girl in their hotel rooms. We called ourselves models, but we were more like private strippers. Their camera was the lie they told themselves.”
This is how the first hour of this job is spent: Getting into a van with someone I’ve never met. He’s looking at me with approval. He’s someone I wouldn’t date – he’s old enough to be my dad. I smile in a way that simultaneously conveys polite enthusiasm and casually set boundaries, with words like “My husband” and “I went to university”. He’s driving us somewhere with sketchy reception. Through strategically timed chuckles and vague “ums” and “yeahs” to his one-sided conversation, I’m praying he’s not a rapist. After I’m sure he’s not a rapist, I’m praying he’s not racist. I don’t take my boobs out for racists.
I should have known I was a sex worker, but I didn’t, not for a long time. Or I did but I wasn’t ready to face it. And now that I feel more comfortable saying it, it’s bizarre how easy it was to lie to myself, and to accept the lies I was being told by the people in the industry I had the misfortune of meeting before I experienced decent therapy, deeply honest friendships, and better self-esteem. Being a nude photographic model for guys with cameras that cost more than many times my hourly rate is an objectively strange gig. There’s no qualification for it. It’s unlikely a childhood aspiration. I’m the only one in my high school or university class doing it, that I’m aware of. No one sees what I do as a real job, in the Tax Office sense of the word. People look at my hourly rate and think I’m rich, even if most models – even the world-famous ones – don’t get booked eight hours a day, 365 days a year. Like massage therapists, piano teachers, and other professionals doing service work, the working life is a revolving door of strangers. I’d much prefer emotionally stable non-creeps to be walking though those doors – more so because I’m naked, and signing off perpetual rights to nude images of me, while working.
Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart explores the idea of emotional labour and the commercialisation of the customer’s entitlement to an acceptable range of service worker’s emotions. A common theme in my life as a nude model is the experience of acting as a proxy for a therapist; holding space for men who are tired, stressed, confused, broken-hearted, who need a place away from their usual haunts. A place where they can either be someone more successful and attractive than they actually are, or a place where they can be their authentic, lost, broken selves. Like a bartender, waitress, hairdresser, or live performer, a nude model is a fantasy worker.
To become someone’s fantasy is to become an object for shelf display, a collectible, a charming but uncomplicated procurement. Something discovered, conquered, and kept. Something you can admire without having to listen to it, because things are meant to be looked at, not listened to. Something that provides simple pleasures and comforts. Something that offers a predictable spectacle that simulates authenticity, not a complex encounter that brims with the simultaneously beautiful and messy shape of reality. Goffman, in his extensive work on the ‘front stage’ and backstage of foreign service workers and customer service staff, details the intricacies of curating an experience that feels authentic, a theatrical masterpiece made of a thousand strategic decisions. Filar describes the same thing, but calls this the sale of an ‘affected intimacy,’ a kind of ‘intimate care work.’ Smiles must ‘feel’ real, the voice must radiate warmth and sweetness, the interest must feel genuine, the laughter unaffected, the empathy sincere. You’re not allowed to call them out on their racism or get angry if they ask you “where’s that accent from?” You can try – but you risk turning the encounter sour, which invites the further risk of violence if you’re alone somewhere remote, unclothed, with a stranger.
Fantasy work is tiring.
I get booked, I am naked, I pose according to the photographer’s brief and direction, photos of me are taken, I am paid. I don’t engage in verbal or physical sexual activity during a booking. What the photographer has purchased, in the crudest sense of the word, is unlimited rights to edit, distribute, exhibit or sell the images he creates using my likeness. What he has also purchased is access to my time and presence, which he wouldn’t ordinarily have.
Do I make it sound terrible? When things go well, it isn’t the worst way to spend a few hours. There’s nothing wrong with paying a consenting pretty girl to have a conversation, and then get naked for photos, if you both own and honour the full truth of what you’re doing. Some guys have interesting life stories. Some of the photos boost body confidence during tough days. Some are decent humans, attentive fathers, loyal and loving husbands. Some guys have been through dark times, so they self-soothe through this practice, and are strong in their ability to separate their trauma from their photography.
The moments I feel most proud of myself as a worker is when a pose or facial expression photographs beautifully. This makes me feel effective, competent, and glad to be part of that process.
I can’t speak for anyone else, and there are as many stories out there as there are people who do this work. But I’ve found that this work these past four years has affected my erotic life. Being looked at and having my body discussed in particular ways has made me wonder if I am looked at and discussed in those ways all the time, even outside of work. Professional photographic nude modelling can be seen as a more bourgeois genre of sex work, yet whilst there is more body diversity in this genre than runway and photographic fashion genres, body, age and ethnic representation is still poor.
Some photographers say they refuse to pay models because they don’t see models as workers, and they think having expensive gear means that women should treat being photographed by them as a favour. Labour, for them, is the domain of the cis man, and being looked at by men – with photography as the ultimate extension of the male gaze – is the natural condition of femininity, that thus doesn’t warrant compensation. These photographers want beautiful young women to want them, to beg to participate in their ‘artistic’ ambitions, to bend over backwards for the glory of being in their pictures. These photographers won’t lift a finger to earn the wanting – and wonder why they’re lonely. They spend thousands of dollars on expensive equipment and workshops with celebrity older white male photographers, and balk at the idea of investing a few hundred in an experienced model.
“My artistic nude photography is not about sex,” is a common refrain I hear from these photographers. Many male photographers will disavow their sexual desire – or the model’s sexual desirability – as a factor in recruiting models for shoots. Assurances like “My photography is not about sex” is a defence against concerns about political correctness, but the underlying premises are ultimately self-serving. The first premise is that sex and desire are bad, so to insist on conceptual or artistic distance from sex is to make a claim to moral superiority. As if sexual desire, in and of itself, is such a terrible thing, and as if there were no healthy ways to articulate and express sexuality. The second premise denies a sexual quality to the structure of largely male artists photographing younger undressed women, and extends that deniability into their labour and the necessity of financial compensation involved in modelling. Their photography portfolios speak louder than their thin arguments, boasting an overwhelming homogeneity of body types: white, slender, sometimes respectably flat everywhere like the figures that grace luxury fashion editorials, sometimes with augmented breasts and bottoms like men’s magazine centrefolds, long hair, femme-presenting, straight-passing, under-30.
Occasionally a different look presents itself, like mine: darker-skinned and curvier. But even difference has to fit into a long-standing photographic archetype. Difference has to be made palatable in order to retain value, a variation on a theme rather than complete otherness. In this case, the value offered is a performance of eroticised femininity that enjoys, enables, and never threatens the photographer’s expression of his masculinity. Barthes wrote that the best photographers are mythologists. The further away a look is from mythic familiarity, the harder it is to make the case for why this person deserves to be photographed. Difference then has to keep making a case for itself. Models who are different in terms of ethnicity, body type, ability, or age get less bookings, get paid less, are expected to have a strong social media presence to compensate for their “unconventional looks”, are expected to perform more emotional labour to create a reputation that can take you further than your difference can, i.e., “she’s really nice” or “she’s not a diva” or “she works hard and is fun to be around.”
I wonder if the men I come across look at people the way the photographers do. If they look at me the same way. It seems irrational – but fantasy work is tiring. And fantasy work draws on the same energetic reserves that go into crafting the everyday moments. I am terrified that if I fail to live up to my persona as a sex bombshell I will lose the love I have. I am ashamed of asking for what I want because a fantasy worker is supposed to be wanted, not to do the wanting. I feel ashamed of wanting a more tender, ‘vanilla’ connection because I feel the role I’m expected to play is the dangerous secret fantasy. I am ashamed of having insecurities because a sexual fantasy is supposed to project absolute confidence. I am ashamed of my mental health conditions and I try to suppress them – and the more I suppress them, the more my paranoid traumas haunt my felt experience of sex and love. I am afraid of leaving this profession because so much of my friendships and reputation in the past four years is built on an eroticised image that people think is my authentic self-expression, but barely even begins to represent the parts of me that I think matter most. I fear people won’t find me interesting if I am true to myself. There have been times when I didn’t know what parts of my sexuality are honest, and what parts are performed, driven by the projection of expectations of people that I have internalised.
After taking a COVID-imposed break from nude modelling, I stopped thinking of myself as a model. I took down my portfolio nudes from Instagram. I started posting more selfies, and eventually more astrology posts. I taught myself draftsmanship. Tried spending less time on social media, an attempt I’m still failing. I booked a birth chart reading with a New York astrologer. Repaired a relationship that I had allowed to fall apart.
During the hard lockdown in Melbourne, I started looking at meticulously drafted surreal paintings and illustrations of animals and invented creatures. The works of Naoto Hattori, Shaun Tan, Beau White, Mark Ryden, and occasionally Hayao Miyazaki depict familiar shapes – sometimes in unfamiliar places, sometimes with unfamiliar elements like strange eyes and mixed-up limbs. The paintings look so real I can imagine them floating outside a tram on a sleepy winter morning.
Upon initial inspection, these creatures might appear like the mind’s creation during a potent high. They are fantasies. The best kind. The kind that spirits us into a different posture toward our capacity to imagine, to tell stories to ourselves about what we experience. I don’t know what I’m looking at. I can start with how it makes me feel and think. I am sharing space and time in this world with something utterly beyond comprehension. If wisdom begins with curiosity, it begins necessarily with a simultaneous experience of separation and strangeness.
The animal on the screen is familiar, having come to us through familiar codes enabled by the encyclopedia, biology class, documentaries, tabloid news, our own experiences with the animals in our lives. Can we say the same about the women and femme fantasy workers that come to life on our handheld screens? Creatures who don’t exist as they are pictured, surreal caricatures like these visions of beyond-realistic animals that remind us that we are creatures, too. Our shared humanity is a shared animality. That surrealism of the creature on the canvass is our own surrealism. We were made unmade and can keep making. The future is yet unmade.
Animality is fundamentally strange, and so are sex and sexuality. I’d rather adopt a humble and attentive curiosity about the fundamental strangeness of life, and the messy complexity of human desire. Racism and sexism homogenise, flatten, totalise, and compress a humanity and history that’s always already multiple, and always already infinite. If we are little more than the extent of our fantasies, why not broaden the horizons of our dreaming – be they sexual dreams or other kinds? Kay Gabriel reminds us that fighting to claim our lives, our bodies, our time from capitalism need not be a miserable project. Joy, sensuous pleasure and desire are possible beyond the seductions of consumerism. In her essay Gender As Accumulation Strategy, she quotes from Diane Di Primi: “Remember you can have what you ask for, ask for / everything.” A temporary break from the drudgery of the everyday under a colonially-enabled neoliberal capitalist patriarchy, satisfied by images of ‘women’ crafted for a very specific masculinist gaze, is surely not the extent of human longing. The courage to want deeply; to want from the belly-button of ancestral becoming that has culminated in you right now; to name what it is you want – beneath everything you are told you should want but don’t – is available to you. To me. With a limited future under a climate emergency, there is no better time to take risks for a meaningful love and a meaningful life than now.
This work benefited greatly from edits suggested by Astrid Lorange, Anita Spooner, and Olga Lorenzo, facilitated by Free Associations’ “Otherwise Possibilities” workshop during the COVID-19 hard lockdown months. I am grateful for their support and intellectual generosity. Any errors herein are mine, of course.