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Where Do We Draw the Line Between Sex Work and Art?

A message about International Sex Workers' Rights Day from the woman behind Sluts Against Harper's Votes4Nudes campaign.

by Jessica Simps
Mar 4 2016, 7:30pm

All photos by Cannon Show

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

On the eve of International Sex Workers' Rights Day, March 3, I found myself half a bottle of wine deep in a $12-an-hour Montreal sex motel with all my dildos stuffed into a tote bag. I was about to embark on what looked like a cheap porno shoot. You may ask how I got here, or may already be forming in your own mind a sad story of what could drive me to such a low and grimy place. But if you knew me a little better, you would know that this is just what I do for fun.

You might remember me as the girl who flashed her nudes for the entire country during Canada's last election with my campaign Votes4Nudes, which was run by the Sluts Against Harper. Well, not much has changed... I'm still nude. And I'm still a slut. And still a performance artist with a passion for getting political. Though this time, I found myself on a round bed below a mirrored ceiling, thinking,Was this still my performance, or was it just porn? And that's when things got interesting.

I've been performing the "slut" through my Instagram account for a while now, but there's a question of: When do you stop imitating the camgirl you feel the pressure to be, and when are you actually just a camgirl? I justified my work as still performance art because I sure as hell wasn't being paid for it. Not that people weren't offering, but I don't think they wanted to buy my... piece of work. So where do we draw the line between sex work and performance art?

As a femme woman, I often feel that because your main social function involves your sexual objectification, small daily tasks carry with them an element of sexual labor or work that is imposed upon you. Whether it be making yourself up to be sexually appealing in order to have access to certain spaces, jobs, opportunities, or respect, or just putting up with micro-sexisms like unwanted touching or being expected to take a backseat in a conversation, all femme women, in a sense, perform sexual labor.

Feeling conflicted over this line between performance art and porn was one thing, but adding the unpaid sexual labor women perform constantly through small gestures to the equation, the lines become more blurred. How is a woman explicitly exchanging sex for financial security any different, besides bearing the heavily stigmatized label of "sex work"? Sex work may be so heavily defamed because it reminds us that maybe sex was never really free—that sex is not immune to commodification as it has always been traded for security, land, goods, or money.

So if sex is never free, then it must be a powerful resource—one that sex workers have fully harnessed to survive. But here I am in nothing but stripper shoes in the motel shower, performing this labor freely and wondering if I should really just go all the way and make a buck while I'm at it.

The reason I stray from being tempted to earn a living wage from these explorations is not because I want to draw a line in the sand between "us" and "them"—artists working with sex as a theme versus those who do sex work. I want to make the point with my work that we may all be doing sex work whether you find yourself like me in front of a camera in your undies wearing only your best dildos, or a proud workin' girl, or just that person trying to grin and bear it as your boss continues to make you uncomfortable with his vaguely inappropriate compliments. So I think we should recognize that we're all in this together, and we all wield the powerful resource of our sexuality. And we should all work to break the stigma around those who choose to use it.

After all, it's this stigma that prevents the people who provide sexual services from having the basic human rights that all other laborers in Canada receive, which is what International Sex Workers' Rights Day is trying to shed light on.

So here's to you, my sisters, brothers, and sluts. This motel room is for you.

Join the movement by posting your own slutty selfie (hell, get your own $12 motel room) and hashtagging it with #istandwithsexworkers to show that you're down to get down, or that at the very least, that you're cool with it.

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