Feminism & Co. sells out a program on sex work

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Selling out for the first time since moving into its basement home at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Friday night's Feminism & Co.: Sex Work lecture had to turn many people away at the door. The expertly curated lecture series seeks out artists, scholars and women of all trades to speak about women's roles in art, sex and politics.

Each year has included an installment on women in the workforce, and this particular edition focused on the topic of sex work.

Feminism & Co.'s co-director Elissa Auther began with some history on erotic performance and legal, consensual forms of prostitution -- explaining that the term "sex work" was coined in the 1970s by prostitutes advocating for the decriminalization of prostitution. Auther's great primer shared a handful of stories about women of prominence in the field -- sex worker and performance artist Annie Sprinkle, musician and provocative poet Lydia Lunch, and artists like Catherine Opie and Nikki S. Lee among them.

The full panel then tackled the topic, with former prostitute and stripper, now exotic performer Cassandra talking about her thirteen years as a sex worker. "It all started with feminism," Cassandra said, speaking of a gender studies class in college where her peers suggested that strip clubs were inherently terrible places. On a mission to discover how she felt about sex work herself, Cassandra began stripping.

Getting paid to work out, and getting paid a lot to do it, were obvious perks, Cassandra said, adding that nakedness -- both literal and emotional -- was also an appealing part of the experience. She dispelled any myths about a behind-the-scenes cat-fight culture at strip clubs, replacing it with stories of camaraderie and a family bond.

She wasn't as explicit regarding her experience as a prostitute; a good portion of the way through the discussion, Cassandra revealed that she didn't have sexual intercourse with clients. Instead, her handpicked clients would ask her to do her homework in the nude, or take pictures of themselves with their partners.

Now retired from this type of sex work, Cassandra currently does performances in clubs using fire, electricity and bondage, and doesn't often take money for it. She also shared photographs of herself doing another style of performance -- walking through a crowded street topless and bearing a wooden crucifix on her shoulders. These images definitely offered a perspective on how sex could be utilized as work and art simultaneously -- and allowed Cassandra to address the idea that while sex work can be seen as dangerous (some public performances have induced physical reactions from crowds), so can most of life.

Next, Mistress Djuna entered the discussion, sharing early childhood fantasies that dealt with sex, sexuality and power exchange. This was the jumping-off point for her view of sex work from the perspective of a dominatrix, though she openly disagreed with the limitations of a term like "sex work." She, too, mentioned an experience in college that led to her interest in her work, one where she was stalked by a boyfriend, but it wasn't clear whether that directly related to her becoming a dominatrix.

While Mistress Djuna's expertise in domination was evident, what she did in her dungeon, exactly, wasn't exactly clear. She worked with her clients in an intimate manner, creating "scenes" carefully crafted from their desires and fantasies. Images of her work showing whippings and piercings of clients gave some insight, but for BDSM-newbies, this portion of the talk was a little vague, particularly since she used phrases and terms like "topping from the bottom" and "pro-domme" without offering any explanation.

Questions from the audience closed the lecture, and Mistress Djuna peeled back another layer of her domination work when she shared that she uses Tantra and often emphasizes a spiritual side when working with clients. She also revealed that she doesn't have sex with her clients -- which is partly why she felt like the term "sex work" was too confining.

I went to this edition of Feminism & Co. without any knowledge of BDSM whatsoever, which may be why I thought some of the discussion lacked clarity. Mistress Djuna was very honest about what she does, but I was lacking the tools to understand exactly what that was. Post-lecture, however, I found quite a bit of helpful information on Mistress Djuna's website.

But even for newbies, the evening was a fascinating look at sex work that left us looking forward to the next Feminism & Co.

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