There is no water cooler. There are no memos. In most cases, sex workers aren’t walking into an office on Monday mornings — or even late Saturday nights — to punch in and gab with coworkers about the last shift. Sex work is a umbrella term pertaining to a multitude of professions, including but not limited to prostitution, porn, burlesque, modeling, and stripping. Most sex workers are independent contractors, freelancers, and individuals running their own businesses.
So in a way, the seventh San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival (May 20-29) serves as the city’s whore company party, run with the intention of unifying a community in an ironically isolating line of work. Because whatever your profession, talking to a coworker about the daily grind is always extra-satisfying.
All but a select number of events during the festival are open to the public — we’re not talking about an exclusive trade show here. Organizers have packed nine days with musicals, cabarets, workshops, and parties, so whether you’re in the business, out of the business, curious, or supportive, this sex fest will do the trick.
The decision to base the festival around this kind of openness was intentional. Once the workday is done, where does a sex worker go to compare notes, swap secrets, laugh, or cry? The stigma around sex work can make talking to friends and family who don’t pole dance or film masturbation for pay awkward.
Chloe Camilla, a member of the festival’s planning committee, is still relatively new to the sex industry. She’s been doing a mix of porn and modeling for the past few years and remembers how intimidated she felt in the beginning.
“It’s strange — you’re shooting your first anal scene and you just want to ask somebody, ‘Uh, what do I do? Who do I talk to? Where’s the handbook?'” She and her friends have been talking about putting together a training manual with chapters on things like how to file your taxes, develop a marketing campaign, and learn screen tricks. “There should be a ‘Welcome to porn, here’s what to expect when you show up on set’ book.”
Camilla will be teaching “The Art of Webcamming”, a workshop she put together in response to peer requests. Webcams are a great introduction to the sex industry: cheap, easy, and gatekeeper-free — the Internet is an equal opportunity employer.
“Everyone can find their own market and niche. There’s room for all bodies and genders out there,” Camilla says, hoping her class will get people online and making money fast.
Festival founder Carol Leigh, a.k.a. longtime pro-sex activist, sex worker, and performance artist Scarlot Harlot, started the festival in 1999 to help foster supportive peer relationships while simultaneously urging hookers to use their collective voice to speak out on their own behalf and fight marginalization.
“I’m basically Grandma Scarlot Harlot now,” she smiles, her crimson lips matching the shiny paint on her fingernails. After years of marching up and down capitol steps, Leigh realized the creative potential of the people rallying around her.
It’s what she calls the “whore’s eye view:”
“As a group that’s oppressed with a stigma, there’s a kind of wisdom that grows from that stigmatization. Because we’re not accepted, we might not necessarily buy into mainstream values. Therefore, we do and see things differently,” Leigh says. Through art or film, sex workers can find their voice — even if they can’t be open about their profession because of child custody laws or a conservative day gig.
Now 60, with more than 30 years of advocating for sex workers’ rights behind her, Leigh says the festival’s relevance has expanded to respond to the community’s current needs. The back-to-back workshops at SomArts Cultural Center on May 27 most accurately reflects this year’s current list of hot topics: self-care and eco-sex, building bonds between male sex workers, and love advice for partners and pals of sex workers.
Although parts of the city’s sex worker community are tight-knit, festival organizer Erica Fabulous admits that closeness can depend on where you work and whom you work with. Getting politically active sex workers to attend is a snap, but festival organizers hope to reach past clubs and into the streets, pulling in workers from every corner of the industry.
“Sex work is raced and classed just like anything else — that’s why I’m so proud of the diversity of viewpoints that will be represented during the festival,” says Laure McElroy, the festival’s film curator.
Nearly 40 sex-worker-themed flicks will play at this year’s festival during a one-day marathon. Stories from Canada, Holland, Germany, Cambodia, and the U.S. will lay bare the work and lives of strippers, whores, masseuses, peep show gals, erotic performance artists, survival street workers, and escorts.
The diverse viewpoints echo another of the festival’s underlying missions: “These films are a glimpse of what’s happening out there — the people who are out there,” McElroy says. “I want people to walk away from this festival knowing that there isn’t just one way to think or talk about sex work.”