The Transactional Dynamics Between Art and Sex in ‘Working Girl’

In her new book, Sophia Giovannitti reflects on sex work as labour and its parallels to the art market  

BY Esmé Hogeveen in Books , Interviews | 06 JUN 23

In Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex (Verso, 2023), Sophia Giovannitti compares the metaphorical, affective and political stakes of art and sex work and their associated markets. The complex interconnections between these milieus have been considered before, but Giovannitti brings a fresh criticality to them – particularly when considering how expectations of intimacy and creativity intersect with workers’ rights and autonomy within late-stage capitalist anxiety.

Drawing on her own experiences as a conceptual artist and a sex worker, Giovannitti, who’s based in New York, mixes memoir with art history, political theory and labour studies to query desire’s commodification within aesthetic and erotic marketplaces. We spoke in April, as she was finalizing her performance-lecture Scorpion, Frog (2023), which reflects her interests in revenge, refusal and supra-legal responses to exploitation. These topics are likewise activated in Working Girl, in which Giovannitti powerfully critiques some of #MeToo’s limits and proposes alternative frameworks for freedom that can exist within and beyond the transactional dynamics of art and sex. ‘I do not wish anything to be taken from me,’ Giovannitti explains, ‘I wish to give freely, or to sell.’

Esmé Hogeveen: Did the act of writing Working Girl alter or challenge your previous views on the links between art and sex work?

Sophia Giovannitti: When I started writing, I was extremely frustrated by what I felt was a disproportionate focus by artists and writers on the metaphorical overlap between art and sex work – how these two markets function similarly in terms of selling intimate aspects of ‘self’. Such accounts fail to address the material commonalities between these fields, which is far more interesting to me, especially since so many of the same people are populating, producing value, and buying and selling the fruits of that production across both worlds.

Through writing, I’ve become interested in the metaphorical comparisons that I’d previously maligned: now, I feel they just don’t have to be made at the expense of material considerations. I appreciate artworks that comment on the overlap between registers, such as Marina Abramović’s Role Exchange [1975] or Andrea Fraser’s Untitled [2003], which, in their own ways, illuminate aspects of the affective relationship between the two industries.

Sophia Giovannitti book cover
Sophia Giovannitti, Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Verso Books 

EH: Are there any artists whose works you think are particularly effective in addressing #MeToo’s implications or limits within a sex work context?

SG: I’m interested in art, writing and action that calls for autonomy, revenge or extra-legal refusal as opposed to justice, equality or legal recognition. At the end of Working Girl, I cite ‘Beneath Everything’ [2019], a utopian manifesto by the Clandestine Whores Network, who write of an imagined future where inappropriate or unsafe clients ‘are added to a permanent blacklist, and face public shaming through offensive doxing, revealing their nature not only to sex workers but to anyone who might be subjected to their violence’.

I also admire Lee Lozano’s Dropout Piece [1970–99], where she deliberately boycotted the art world as a way to refuse a transactional self. And there’s Cady Noland, who disavows her own work when it is treated or sold in ways that violate her terms. Noland’s work isn’t about sex work, but it reminds me of escorts including clauses on their websites about the right to terminate sessions without returning payment if a client violates a code of conduct.

Collateral Cage Sophia Giovannitti
Sophia Giovannitti,  'Study 4: Collateral', 2022, install view. Courtesy: Verso Books, Duplex and the artist; photograph: Alice Wells

EH: I was intrigued by your descriptions of contemporary art piggybacking on the aesthetics of pornography production – specifically, the Lorelei Lee quotation you reference: ‘It’s like our performance is being viewed through the lens of someone who’s socially sanctioned as an “artmaker” [which] gives the general public permission to find meaning in pornography as a subject, but without centering [sic] the voices of people who are actually making pornography and losing social credibility for making those performances.’ Do you think the rise of OnlyFans and other hybrid forms of social-meets-artistic-meets-commercial sexual content has contested or diffused the line between ‘art’ and ‘pornography’?

SG: I find the distinction between ‘content’ and ‘art’ – or even ‘content’ and ‘pornography’ – very interesting. I tend to think the line between art and pornography is solely material. I believe what I say in Working Girl, which is that the difference, ultimately, is simply that art is more expensive. Though some people do make a huge amount of money on OnlyFans, their earnings tend to be an aggregate of smaller interactions and transactions such as pay-per-view videos, free subscriptions that lead to custom content and paid real-time interactions. In terms of a hypothetical line between art and content, if we interpret the latter as an output that needs to be frequently and consistently produced, as something expressing a necessary glut of itself, then there are some hyper-commercial artists that intentionally lean into prolific, machine-like production.

I think that the line between art and porn lies in what Lee says about context and wider social structures informing whether an audience interprets work as pornography-like art or artful pornography. The flimsiness of these distinctions would be silly if it weren’t for the ways they can be weaponized to promote financial, social and cultural mobility for some – at the expense of others.

Sophia Giovannitti Scorpion Frog Slide
Sophia Giovannitti, a slide from the Scorpion-Frog lecture-performance, 2023. Courtesy: Verso Books and the artist

EH: You dedicate Working Girl to ‘anyone who’s ever turned a trick’. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on the word ‘trick’ and how it may function in an art context.

SG: I love that ‘trick’ has an inconsistent etymological definition! I also like the phrase ‘turning tricks’ because it makes me think of the circus, which is an apt metaphor for the US economy. As slang, ‘trick’ also gestures towards an appropriately vague definition of sex work, which makes sense to me because there are many people who would never consider themselves ‘sex workers’ who, nevertheless, may have turned a trick – getting money or something else because of an informal sexual interaction.

I think that much of the art market also involves trickery, often in the form of calculated misdirection or elaborate deception to encourage audiences to believe in the ever-increasing value of something or to create a false sense of scarcity. I love scams, con artists and magic, and I deeply appreciate those who are desirous of and willing to spend money on sex: I love tricks in every sense of the word. To me, tricking seems like a viable and interesting way to interact with what is an increasingly dystopian and unreal reality.

Sophia Giovannitti's Working Girl: Selling Sex and Selling Art is published by Verso Books

Main image: Portrait of Sophia Giovannitti. Courtesy: Verso Books; photograph: Toni Esposito

Esmé Hogeveen is a writer based between Tkaronto/Toronto and Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. Her writing has appeared in Another Gaze: Feminist Film Journal, Artforum, Border Crossings, The Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art and cléo.