Sex Art Sells

‘Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex’ By Sophia Giovannitti

VERSO, MAY 2023, 192 PP.

IN 2008, WHEN I had left a decade in the sex industry and was a year into my music industry life, the queer punk band I managed was invited to Art Basel Miami to perform at the party of a cool Soho gallery. Its ultrarich owner traded multimillion dollar works by Koons and Pollock like stock but maintained a frisson of danger by courting the downtown and underground.

For a sense of Art Basel’s saturation of wealth, art collective MSCHF installed a piece called “ATM Leaderboard” at the 2022 fair. It was a functioning cash machine which displayed the photo, name, and account balance of anyone who used it. The winning balance: $9.5 million.

We hung around and dined out with celebs on wealthier friends’ dimes. Saw hormonal work by the gallery’s cock-shock darlings Dash Snow and Dan Colen, gorgeous intricate sleaze drawings by Aurel Schmidt, and laser-carved cash sculptures by Scott Campbell. The party we’d come to perform for was the hit of Basel, and the gallerist was excited to take the singer to a show he thought she’d really click with having grown up poor and rural: Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s complete recreation of a meth house. A mazelike installation on multiple levels—burned out kitchen, rotting refrigerators, fried couches, cigarettes, jars and tubes and trash and destruction everywhere—it looked like a revved-up Hollywood set version of places we’d all been. I stood outside the poverty simulacrum chatting with the gallerist’s (stunning, young) companion who let me know the second he was out of earshot that she was a sex worker and left the lines blurred about what precisely she was doing there.

It wasn’t a surprise and it definitely wasn’t the last overlap or messy border between my old job in sex work and this new one, where I operated in professionalized spheres of music, art, and fashion. I regularly found I drew on the same skill set to navigate both roles, or more accurately, to navigate the gendered, racialized, sexualized, and class-stratified web of power that governs most of life, not just these particular industries. Sophia Giovannitti’s Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex plumbs these overlaps, drawing on Giovannitti’s experiences both as a sex worker and an artist to explore “the very similar work of selling art and selling sex.” In five chapters that move easily between cultural criticism, art theory, and sharply observed personal experience, Giovannitti raises fresh inquiries around fantasies of autonomy and authenticity in worlds heavily mediated by capital. In the chapter “On Meaning” she frames her argument:

Art and sex occupy similar positions under capitalism. The commodification of each, while rampant, is also rife with anxiety and subject to questions of ethics, purity, and meaning. This is because we are told art and sex shouldn’t be commodified . . . two industries saturated in hyper-capitalist relations while also existing on the outskirts of the formal economy. This may explain their profound material similarity: both are filled with wildly stratified price points, scams, blurred legal lines, and exploitation. . . . Selling art has ever been linked to prostitution—to sell your art is to prostitute it . . .

Which art? Which sex work? The terms are never defined, though you come to understand Giovannitti is referring to high-end gallery/institutional art systems and high-end hooking. The idea that creativity is held sacred from commodification, while lovely, feels ahistorical. Art patronage by a ruling elite dates back to Renaissance Italy and Ancient Greece. Contemporarily, not since Sonic Youth’s 2007 collaboration with Starbucks have I heard much cultural scolding over selling out, of protecting one’s art from commerce. On the contrary, the proliferation of direct-to-consumer sales platforms, sites like Etsy, and the rise of the side hustle have made it nearly mandatory to monetize one’s every creative impulse, be it art, craft, or vegan soapmaking. Instagram and social media have assisted a boom in online art sales—from six billion dollars in 2019 to over thirteen billion in 2021—and a thriving new crop of mid-range galleries and D2C-selling artists. The obvious sex industry corollaries are platforms like OnlyFans, an adult-content site that pays out five billion dollars annually to its two million-plus content creators, or Chaturbate, one of the world’s largest cam pages where anyone with an internet connection can create shows and take direction from viewers in exchange for tips.

These brisk transactional spaces don’t seem to be locations of anxiety around meaning or authenticity. Are meaning and authenticity only expected for certain people, at certain strata? In speaking about the rise of AI art generators—arguably the most terrifying menace to notions of creative authenticity—artist and writer Molly Crabapple observes “illustrators are the ones being fucked by the AI corporations, since their image generators can create illustrations faster and cheaper than any human. High-end fine artists meanwhile will be unaffected, since their work is purchased as a luxury commodity which can also be used as an investment. There’s zero interest in making it cheaper—not by buyers nor sellers.”

 That sex work is criminalized and socially punished while the art industry confers wealth and cultural acclaim is never directly addressed.

That sex work is criminalized and socially punished while the art industry confers wealth and cultural acclaim is never directly addressed by Giovannitti and the vacuum creates a shaky underpinning for her chapter “On Violation.” Giovannitti discusses the DHS raid of adult classified site Eros and the FOSTA/SESTA bills which are penal—not philosophical—attacks on sex workers. She notes the presence of tear gas mogul Warren Kanders on the Whitney Museum board, though such reputational laundering is not unique to art and is common across healthcare, education, and parks; the adjacency feels flat. Gossip quipped in Artforum—a joke about whether arms dealers were attendant at a Venice Biennale address by Ukranian President Zelenskyis presented as evidence that “The relationship between the art market and warfare remains as potent as ever.”

In a similar slippage of anecdote for evidence while (rightly) addressing the white privilege which informs being out as a sex worker, Giovannitti says, “The white girl can play the hooker, depict herself in art, gain cultural capital, and lose little in the process. Objectification and simple sexism are not that bad.” This is personal experience presented as universal. It also lacks an analysis of class as a complicating factor in safety, arrest, or outside employment concerns and fails to define the bizarre phrase “simple sexism.” This claim is soon followed unironically by an anecdote about the white porn actress Cicciolina losing custody of her child after being outed as a sex worker in court.

Working Girl is at its least compelling when trying to make these arguments about material congruencies. The answer to the question of what similarity exists between the sex and art industries might actually just be VIBES. Here, the project comes alive. Giovannitti is a brilliant observer—of her own desires, motivations, emotions, power, and those of her patrons both in sex and art. She’s cuttingly hilarious–asides like “…the classic client-to-his-creative-hooker gift: Patti Smith’s Just Kids” and “with a dick in one’s mouth, how many legible expressions can one even make?” are studded throughout. She’s unafraid of ambivalence and unafraid to say she doesn’t know (breathtakingly radical at this cultural moment). The section “On Legibility” nimbly ranges across confessional essays, the racist imperatives of trauma-mining, Giovannitti’s own installation pieces and self-portraits, the bankrupt traditional white feminist reading of Manet’s Olympia, the insistent joy and hotness of Tourmaline’s self-portraits—capably dismantling our hysterically policed notions of who gets to be read as a woman, as an artist, as a worker, as human.

In an early chapter, “On Fantasy,” Giovannitti’s invocation of Leonora Carrington allows what feels like a glimpse of her animating anxiety about her own place in the overlap between sex and art. Carrington was a muse to Surrealist artists and an artist herself. Not quite twenty, the “young, beautiful, wild” Leonora met and fell in love with forty-six-year-old painter Max Ernst. Carrington was “enveloped in fantasy,” the currency of her art and writing and life, until she was institutionalized following a psychotic break. Giovannitti sees herself in Carrington’s Self-Portrait (1938), both in the cloud of dark hair and the perceptibly “slim grip on reality.” Two remarkable passages follow this association, the first referencing The Sopranos:

These modes of reencountering—these objects of desire—are gendered: Carmela gets art; Tony gets sex. I, for one, want both—and there were times I thought I could have both only through embodiment; that the surest defense against losing access to either was to be sex and to be art—for the consumption of others, and for the reassurance of myself that I was bound up with what I wanted. But sometimes, to be inside something is to be very far from it.


I’m not sure how to address the looming reality that sex is the center of my life, and thereby the center of my creative work. If it’s a trap—and I’m quite sure it is—I’m not willing to fight it right now.

These moments reveal the contours of a feminine excess and feminine failure, vivid to any femme who dares to be both subject and object. To articulate them at all is a risk, and I love her for it. Will you be too smart, not smart enough; distractingly fuckable, not fuckable enough, to move with authority in the worlds you want to? Will your ambitions or emotions be considered unmanageable, too grand for the bounds of your relationships? If you center sex in your life or your art, will the market finally spit you out when your body, vulgarly, ages?

She’s right: it’s a trap. But Working Girl, in its final insistence on wresting meaning and pleasure free from capital through crime or love or just velocity, might be the start of a tunnel out.

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