Helen Hester: Despite the absence of human bodies in these photos, it is clear that (in one sense, at least) they depict the obscene, in the sense of that which is literally ‘off the scene’ within a lot of adult entertainment. You choose to displace the pornographic performance itself in order to foreground the routine and banal labour that underpins and enables it. The images show the work of preparing and maintaining the body, of arranging spaces before and after shoots, of washing the various costumes and props and of keeping all these things in good order. Adult entertainment’s fantasy worlds are de-exoticised, to some extent, and shown to be part of (and dependent upon) quotidian forms of reproductive labour.
Interestingly enough, there seems to be something of a twenty-first century micro-trend for documenting adult entertainment’s own realm of obscenity. Jo Broughton’s Empty Porn Sets, Larry Sultan’s The Valley, Sophie Ebrard’s It’s Just Love, and Jeff Burton’s Dreamland, amongst others, all seek to decentre the pornographic performance in order to capture the moments and materials that surround it. The periods before, after, or in-between shooting are emphasised, along with the spaces, people, and equipment that sit just off camera. These photographers, however, are largely visiting the pornographic workspace as outsiders, or approaching it as somebody who works behind the scenes (Burton is an on-set stills photographer, for example, whilst Broughton worked as a set cleaner).
How do you think your standpoint as a performer informs your relationship with the behind-the-scenes labour of adult entertainment? And why do you think this labour has proved so interesting for art photographers?
Zahra Stardust: There is certainly a renewed fascination with what happens peripherally in sex industry spaces. In the series you mention, sex work is presented not as glamorous, but as ordinary. The shots reflect moments of introspection, stillness, camaraderie, even boredom.
I wanted to depict the way in which the labour of sex work bleeds out into domestic space. In sex work we reproduce formulaic manifestations of gender. We smooth foundation over our scars, tend to bruises with arnica cream and strap our PVC boots with gaffer tape. We sterilise our sea sponges, spray our dildos with anti-bacterial spray and do countless rounds of laundry. It’s work – so I like the juxtaposition of sex industry objects within domestic space. Both realms are largely feminised forms of unpaid, undervalued or precarious labour. Both use the body (carpet burn and knee injuries are common in my job) and both involve emotional labour (the baby bottle beside the nipple clamps speaks to the relational work we do taking care of others – infant or adult).
In 2012 I made an endurance art film called Beautiful Monotony, exploring intimate encounters and erotic labour in the context of the lap dance room. It was three hours of lap dancing in fast-forward. I wanted to show the mundane and formulaic aspects of stripping – repetitive floor work, changing tampons, eating dinner – but also moments of genuine pleasure (in one scene I give my mobile number to a patron and in another a customer gives me a spontaneous lap dance).
We are increasingly seeing behind-the-scenes content released by porn performers. In part this has been a response to stigma and a strategy to humanise sex workers, deconstruct stereotypes and demonstrate consent. In a practical sense, illustrating that sex work is work is a call for labour rights. But this practice of ‘documenting’ our sexual subcultures also responds to a desire among audiences for content that is ‘authentic’. A backlash against mass produced pornography has sparked an interest in local, customised, limited-edition content. Playboy Magazine no longer features nudes. Madison Young releases handcrafted anal prints. Porn is marketed as organic, green and fair trade. The cultural value of pornography is no longer in its explicitness – it is intimacy for sale to a new income pool of ethical consumers.
The irony is in the labour it takes to curate this mediated self. There remains an element of entitlement – audiences want to feel like they are seeing part of women’s sexuality or home life that they could not ordinarily access. In her ethnography on webcam, Terri Senft (Cam Girls, 2008) writes that the historic slogan ‘the personal is political’ has a different resonance now that women are expected to perform confessional experiences via webcams, blogs and social media. Self and work become blurred. Sex work becomes an identity. Heather Berg (Business as Usual, 2015) argues that this blurring of work/life boundaries in pornography has in fact been another means for employers to extract more labour.
HH: I think that the labour rights perspective is an important one for any critical framing of sex work. In an article for Routledge’s recent collection Queer Sex Work (2015), I point to the fact that academic Porn Studies can tend to overlook or de-emphasize the issue of working practices. Partly, this is because the discipline has its roots in Film Studies, which takes the text itself (its narrative, aesthetics, mise-en-scène, and so on) as its primary object of analysis. This approach can lead to a really rich understanding of some elements of adult entertainment – a genre that is still largely talked about in generalisations – but it also pushes a lot of extra-textual factors to one side. This strikes me as a real problem, because it cedes the whole territory of working conditions and embodied labour to anti-porn feminists and other pro-censorship commentators, who underpin their analyses with sensationalised accounts of abuse, violation, and hyper-exploitation. These accounts are then weaponized against the entire industry.
As with many positions hostile to sex work, such arguments tend to scoop up problems with work in general, and then project these onto erotic labour in particular. Of course, the demands of the pornographic performance do need to be considered in all their specificity – knee injuries and carpet burn included! – but I can’t help but feel that, in setting sex work apart as a unique vehicle for precarity, vulnerability, and coercion, and in holding it up as the privileged example of Big Bad Work, we are letting wider cultures of labour off the hook. There is a need to balance sensitivity to the very particular demands of sex work (including an awareness of the different contexts and forms of labour that get lumped together within this category) with a viewpoint that does not sever it from the wider capitalist structures and complex systems with which it interacts and of which it is a part.
ZS: Sex work certainly becomes exceptionalised. Problems that are largely attributable to advanced capitalism, criminalisation and stigma are assumed to be inherent in the work and it attracts disproportionate scrutiny to other forms of alienated labour or exploitation. Sex workers have responded with calls for decriminalisation, workplace health and safety standards and anti-discrimination protections. We have organised to improve access to better work conditions, support services and justice and in the case of San Francisco’s Lusty Lady (RIP), even unionised.
In an article for Research for Sex Work (2016) I wrote about porn performers actively developing ethical standards around safe and secure sets, free provision of safer sex barriers, clean surfaces and equipment, genuine choice over activities, and transparency and informed consent around contracts. Production processes are gaining increasing attention in dialogue on feminist and ethical pornography.
Chanelle Gallant, one of the founders of the Feminist Porn Awards, writes in her reflections ten years after its conception on ‘What I Got Wrong’. She writes that in their efforts to make feminist content more visible and celebrated, their award criteria focused too much on the consumer rather than the performer’s perspective, and missed out on ‘working class feminism 101 – pay women well for work that is feminised, undervalued and often precarious, like sex work.’
The focus on fair wages (as opposed to shared ownership) is complicated too, because an emphasis on adequate pay can distract us from recognising who owns the means of production and actually accumulates wealth in a capitalist system. Someone is making big bucks from porn and it’s not the performers. With the rapid elimination of a work/life distinction and the glorification and naturalisation of work, porn stars are doing the labour of performing, marketing and promotion. We bear the burden of both risk and stigma. Meanwhile, tube sites, credit cards companies and payment processors act as gatekeepers, imposing ‘high risk’ fees or creating monopolies that make independent porn production financially unviable. The privatisation of online space and perpetuation of wealth inequality all leaves us with the question of what sex work might look like in an anti-capitalist, post-work future?
HH: That’s a really great question, and one that makes me think quite seriously about both the risks and the benefits of extending ‘post-work’ to ‘sex work’. In her 2011 book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries, Kathi Weeks touches very briefly upon debates about erotic labour. As she puts it, ‘Feminist analyses of sex work offer an illustrative example of the limitations of certain efforts to claim the title of work when that also involves making use of the legitimacy conferred by its dominant ethic’ (p. 67). That is to say, activism pushing for the acceptance of sex work as work – as a form of employment relation – risks reinforcing the perceived value of labour and its role as a discourse of distinction. In defending erotic labour in these terms, the risk is that work itself is upheld as the rightful bestower of social dignity – which of course plays into the cultural stigmatisation of those who do not or cannot work. In Weeks’s words, ‘The approach usefully demoralises the debates about the nature, value, and legitimacy of sex for wages in one way, but it often does so by problematically remoralising it in another’ (p. 68).
On the one hand, I can see where Weeks is coming from – to claim social legitimacy on the basis of one’s status as a worker does seem to imply something about the moral character of work. And yet, I tend to read the claim that ‘sex work is work’ rather differently. It seems to me that activism of this kind often aims to demonstrate the trouble with work in general – that is, it de-privileges erotic labour as Big Bad Work in precisely the way I was referring to earlier. In foregrounding the similarities between sex work and other forms of labour, it suggests not only that its potential pleasures and benefits are shared – for example, its status as a sphere of social connection and camaraderie – but also that many of its burdens are common. It is not just sexual labour that is sometimes precarious, sometimes exhausting, sometimes boring, always embodied, but many other more forms of labour as well – labour that, as you so rightly point out, seldom receives the same kind of cultural pushback.
Of course, sex work (including but not limited to the pornographic performance) is a special case for post-work politics because, like housework and wider forms of social reproduction, it has yet to receive even the ambivalent benefits that come from an activity being recognised and accepted as work. Any attempt to fold sex work into post-work must acknowledge this, at the risk of being seen to be abolitionist in quite the wrong way! It is work in general that must be perpetually interrogated, resisted, and problematized, and it is work itself that must be abolished.
Helen Hester is Associate Professor of Media and Communications at the University of West London, where she also serves as Head of Film and Media....
Zahra Stardust is a PhD Candidate at the University of New South Wales with a BA, LLB and MA from the University of Sydney. She...