In her provocative new book Working Girl, the artist and sex worker reflects on her career so far, and the perils of trying to live, work and create in a capitalist world
Conceptual artist Sophia Giovannitti finds it difficult to recall exactly what led to her decision to become a sex worker. But she knows she understood it as the best way to make a lot of money in a short amount of time. And time was what she wanted most – time to make art work, instead of filling her hours with more conventional work, which she professes a “near categorical hatred of”. Sex work seemed to be the solution, allowing her to work less and do what she loved more. “And”, she writes in her new book Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex, “it combined two things I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about – sex and capitalism.”
Working Girl also combines these things, and is clearly a product of a great amount of thought: Giovannitti describes it as a “series of ruminations based on things I have sold, experienced, made, watched, felt, hated, and wanted”. But it could also be described as a treatise of sorts, for it is a personal, provocative and, above all, sharply intelligent exploration of the contemporary world, and how to survive and even thrive within it.
“Art and sex occupy similar positions under capitalism,” Giovannitti writes at the beginning of the book. “This is because we are told art and sex shouldn’t be commodified. Each is a seemingly sacred form of human expression, and we are taught to keep them close to ourselves, safe from capital’s voracious appetite.” Of course, this is a fantasy. Sex sells, art sells; both are lucrative products in a global marketplace. But, crucially, Giovannitti notes the rampant commodification of both is a source of anxiety – subject to questions of ethics and purity. As she puts it, the art and sex industries “are actually capitalism’s stress points”.
And so, Giovannitti ramps up the pressure, mining her own histories with clients, examining artists using sex work as a metaphor, and deftly considering how the art and sex industries are entangled with state and corporate violence. “I’m trying to figure out what it means to be the metaphor,” Giovannitti writes: “the prostitute moving through the world of cultural production; the whore at her own exhibit opening”. Perhaps even more than this, she is also trying to “figure out” how to live within systems that pit life and work against each other, or make “life, the wave, and work, the ocean”. Sex and capitalism, art and work – all these things, Giovannitti makes abundantly clear, are intimately and inescapably connected. Here, Dazed speaks to Giovannitti about performing authenticity, criminal utopias, and imagining the end of the world.
In 2021 you decided to ‘collapse your identities’ and go by your real name as artist, writer and sex worker. What led to that decision?
Sophia Giovannitti: There are a bunch of different elements to it. One is certainly just practical, right? There’s so much pressure or expectation now to maintain a persona and brand yourself, and make yourself accessible. There are a lot of escorts that build really big online brands, and it’s a huge amount of work. Then simultaneously as an artist or writer or freelancer, you’re going to be building your own social media and online persona and it’s just twice the work!
For me, there came a point where I felt the cost-benefit. Because of a lot of various factors that make me really lucky – I’m white, I’m cis, I’m documented, I’m a US citizen – I‘m not at great risk, the way a lot of other people are. And so, for me, the risks of being “visible” and having all of my identities tied together – at a certain point the benefits of doing that outweighed the risks.
What do you think about ‘influencer culture’, and this sense that art workers also have to perform like influencers?
Sophia Giovannitti: Escorts and people that have been working in the sex industry for a long time always talk about how different it is now. Now it is the expectation of the job to be an influencer. It feels like everything across industries has been influencer-ified… It turns everything into this hyper-hustle, gig-type economy. If people were adequately paid for their work, or if structures were in place so that it wasn’t such a monstrous task to get to make the work that you want to make, or have that work be seen, I don't think the infiltration of social media in these industries would necessarily be as intense.
In the book, you interrogate coming up as a writer ‘in the personal essay boom’. You question your urge to write in a confessional mode, and also question why that mode is expected of marginalised people in particular.
Sophia Giovannitti: The personal essay boom hugely influenced me. I definitely also think – with all the stuff we're saying about social media – if people feel they are receiving something authentic, that is a hugely compelling thing to consume, to pay for.
[But] I think there is this particular hostility toward it because it’s this ‘women’s form’. And there’s a lot to be critical of around it, but it also gets this vitriol. It becomes about the person, and somehow people are really quick to erase the craft and the work that goes into it.
I am really drawn to self-mining and self-exposure. I’m really interested in female narcissism. Honestly, I’m interested in narcissism of any gender, it’s endlessly fascinating. And I like attention. I do feel that I am following my desire. But I also simultaneously feel so frustrated that that is expected of me, and expected of women. I know some people won’t take it seriously because it’s the route I'm taking. It feels like this double bind.
That feeling seems similar to how you write about late capitalism – you want to resist it, but you also confront the fact it swallows every facet of existence, so everyone is always operating within that system. Gendered expectations seem to operate in a similar way.
Sophia Giovannitti: It’s totally the same thing – these ever-present, domineering structures. But then it’s like, well, OK, even if my desires are shaped by these things, I’m not going to renounce all my desires.
Towards the end of the book you write, “I align myself with the criminals” and argue for a criminal utopia. How does this idea relate to decriminalisation, which you also argue for?
Sophia Giovannitti: I absolutely believe in decriminalisation. I’m a proponent of decriminalisation in general, but definitely specifically with sex work. To me, the difference between decriminalising something and legalising something is you’re essentially rolling back laws. You’re not instituting new laws and regulations. I think sex work should be decriminalised, I think clients should be decriminalised, and I don’t support any of the partial criminalisation models. I also don’t think that any government should regulate sex workers in any way. Because that relationship is historically so violent, and I don’t think it can recover from that.
“I’m always more inspired by people who are trying to live and work and exist outside the law, or outside formal life. I think those are the people that are really creating new and amazing and antagonistic ways to live” – Sophia Giovannitti
With all the stuff around criminalisation, it’s complicated to talk about because these are just my thoughts, and I’m not a criminalised person. I’m not a marginalised person. Yes, society hates women writ large – but also the institution of policing and prisons is basically set up to protect the virtue of white women. It’s so racist, it’s so violent. So on a political scale, I definitely try to follow what people with more related lived experience are calling for. There are a lot of leaders in sex worker activism and the sex workers’ rights community – black women, trans women, gender nonconforming people – who are all calling for decriminalisation and I fully support that.
Also, there are a lot of people theorising around the way sex work can be anti-work, or the way it might actually benefit it to be outside the formal economy. I think as the sex workers’ rights movement has been sort of mainstreamed, it can end up feeling like a monolith. And I don’t necessarily have anything political in common with anyone who is a sex worker – if you’re an anarchist sex worker I probably do. So I think there are a lot of different things people are calling for, and I’m always more inspired by people who are trying to live and work and exist outside the law, or outside formal life. I think those are the people that are really creating new and amazing and antagonistic ways to live.
I want to ask about feminism’s new “sex wars”. Feminism is very tricky as a politics right now – it seems like we’re still caught between the view of sex as empowerment, and an anti-sex perspective. At the same time, young people are often described as puritanical.
Sophia Giovannitti: I think feminism is super tricky for sure. For my whole public writing and art life, I was really resistant to my work being categorised as feminist, because I disagreed with so much mainstream modern feminism. So much of it is really hostile to sex workers, to trans women. It feels like a lot of modern feminism of the last 10 years has returned to some of the sex wars, and returned to this anti-porn sentiment, and this lesbian separatist perspective that I find super reductive. But, I also have been thinking more about writers and artists that I really admire whose work I would consider feminist, and that does feel totally distinct from this other stuff we’re talking about.
In terms of Gen Z right now, I feel like it’s really hard to be raised in modern society. Certainly, as a young woman, I think it’s hard not to go through a pretty reactionary phase. I remember when I was 18, I had a lot of thoughts about men and misogyny and porn and sex work that I completely disagree with now... I think that’s really common.
I just think it’s complicated. I understand why people fear and sometimes revile the sex industry. I get why it’s scary for so many people. And also it makes me so sad because I feel a really strong relationship between that fear and the maintenance of these material harms to a lot of precarious women. I don’t consider myself “sex positive”. I’m just personally very fixated on sex. Simultaneously, I hate my work being used in any kind of anti-sex work, and I also don’t want it to be used like, “oh, sex work is empowering”. I don't think it needs to be. I think women and everyone else should get to have whatever relationship they want to have around sex, and around work.
“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. So imagine the end of the world, and find hopefulness in that. From the rubble, what will we build?”
Moving from “sex work is work and work is good” to “sex work is work and work is bad” seems both like a progression of thought, and two very distinct schools of thought, right?
Sophia Giovannitti: I can only speak for living and working in the US, but I think the cultural understandings and worries around sex and around work are so fucked up. There’s no comprehensive sex education. Everything is hypersexualized. It’s just this endlessly complicated disaster! I just think the conditions we live under are really limiting opportunities of what relationships we can have around sex and around work.
Talking about how capitalism has its grip on everything it is easy to fall into nihilism. But instead, you end the book with hope.
Sophia Giovannitti: I definitely have had moments that are really nihilistic. But I do ultimately feel really hopeful. I think what I find hopeful is understanding these totalising systems and understanding the degree of the domination. There’s that super famous quote from Mark Fisher: “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” That’s what I was thinking in 2020, during the riots in New York around police brutality and fatal violence against Black people. It was so wild to see, these intense riots where things were on fire and all the windows were smashed – it was stuff I never thought would happen in New York, just because there were so many police. It was so inspiring and exciting, and also obviously it was grounded in so many things that were really heartbreaking, but it was an amazing time. There was this graffiti everywhere that was like, “another end of the world is possible”. I feel like, yeah, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And so then, imagine the end of the world. And find hopefulness in that. OK, so we’re at the end of the world. What can that mean? From the rubble, what will we build?