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"reclaiming my worth"

Why would a "Capital-A Actor" choose sex work? It's more than just the money writes "Adelaide".

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“You are critically acclaimed, it’s heady and thrilling”

Date: 30 Sep 2018

My first audition in a month, completed.

In the grey fog that comes after, assuming a failure, I scrape a minute smear of margarine on a toasted crust in the unheated kitchen of my flat. There isn’t even vegemite enough to make this venture more palatable, and grinding the dry heel of the bread is a physical feat of endurance and determination.

The tea caddy is empty so I prepare a cup of hot water and nurse it in my lap as I wait for the small fan heater at my feet to start to warm me. Vapour clouds in front of my mouth, mixing with the steam from the hot cup. I’m not sure I can do another winter.

When you work in a job where your body is the commodity, it’s easy to lose a grip on reality.

Long ago, I lost the ability to accurately invoice my time and worth. These days I take what I can get, and as I enter the invisible zone for female actors – no longer an ingenue, not quite a ‘hag’ – jobs become fewer and farther between.

The price on my body drops, and drops further. Things get tighter. I start making appearances for ‘exposure’ again. I allow myself to get talked into unpaid gigs and vaguely raise my hand to start some teaching.

As the festival work dries up for the year, the pull of comfortable, ‘safe’ employment calls. I wonder what it would be like to be paid for holidays. I eat less, change my hair, wondering if my look is stale. It’s not, and the thinness just seems to make me fade further into mediocrity. I inspect my new sharp angles in the mirror.

Still the phone doesn’t ring.

I did have and hold a day job for a time. For five years I worked Monday to Friday, earned holidays and sick days and had a routine and a uniform. Then one day I called in sick. Then I called in sick the next day. I called in sick for three weeks. I ran out of sick leave, and still I stayed away from work, breathing the sour air in the tousled bunker of my bed. I ended up in hospital, I left my job, I realised that my life without art wasn’t one that was going to make me thrive.

But how to survive in an industry over saturated with talent and a virtual desert in terms of employment? I used to be happy for my colleagues when they got jobs. Now I struggle to make niceties with them while I assess their worth, their wares, what they do better than me. We become adversaries to each other, us who were a giving and supportive community.

As the weather cools and the nights stretch their arms further and further into the day’s lit hours, the prospect of another winter living contract to distant contract and on the dole (the actor’s constant saviour) not only holds no appeal, it seems impossible.

However, even if I get a job interview for one of the many jobs I am required to apply for to continue to receive government funding, they are always turned off by the fact that I will have to have time off, that I will potentially have to leave, that I can’t work nights, that I have to be available for auditions last minute. They do not want to employ someone who will leave a few months in, and I don’t want to be that employee.

At this stage of my life, I am a capital-A Actor and I made the commitment that acting work would take priority, when it arises. This attitude that I have worked so hard to cultivate and make strong within myself does not gain me popularity amongst prospective employers of retail or hospitality work.

It seems like there are only two options available to me at this stage. They are, give up acting and get a structured job that will pay well but potentially make me miserable, or to continue acting and sink further into poverty.

I need a job that I can do on my own roster, that pays well, and that I am good at and feel confident doing.

An idea had been itching at the back of my mind for a few years now, waiting for the moment when I would be desperate enough, bold enough to try it out.

I want to preface this next part with a few facts.

I’m single. I don’t have any children. I don’t own a house, I have no debt (I’ve never earned enough to be honoured a loan). My sexuality is vague these days but for a long time I identified as very strictly gay. Not that I have anything to prove here – I just want to state that the decision was very, very much an independent one. My own, entirely.

A trusted friend (also in the industry) helps me make the transition into sex work.

A nervous wreck at first, the other workers I meet are kind, engaging, and so so helpful. They gather around me in a supportive cluster, advising me, making sure that I am making a decision that is right for me, giving me tips I never would have thought I needed, and above all, making sure I stay safe.

It takes time, it takes nerves, it takes guts. But eventually I am ready for my first job.

After working in an industry where my body is my tool, I prepare mentally for an onslaught of self-esteem depleting self-criticism. I prepare for the scrutineering of my body, for dismissive looks that imply that I’m not what they were expecting and I’ve wasted their time. To be sent away after a few minutes after they rub their temples and say they are sorry (not as sorry as I am) that I’m just not ‘right’.

My body is tensed and ready to fight, to dazzle. Audition mode is locked in.

I am shocked and then amused to find that it’s not needed. The first client I encounter is gentle, and looks at me in awe. He says that I am beautiful and that he feels so lucky. He appreciates me being here, makes the most of our time together, gives me a tip. He says my body is perfect, that I am electrifying – he savours my body as if it is something wondrous, to be treasured.

I walk out of my first encounter elated – feeling good about my body and richer in an hour than I have been from entire seasons of profit share endeavours.

It seems too good to be true.

Historically, actresses have always been synonymous with ‘whores’. I’m sure you’ve heard all of those ‘said the bishop to the actress’ jokes?

More than anything, sex work feels like just another acting job. A well paid, well received, short term acting job.

A short, improvised hour long performance piece that always ends in accolades. No passive aggressive criticism afterwards suggesting that you were mis-cast, or that they didn’t enjoy the way you played the role. You are critically acclaimed, it’s heady and thrilling.

I try not to delve too deeply into the psychology beyond that. Why it is that sex work makes me feel like I have more value than as I do as an artist, why an hour’s improvisation pays better than months of a backbreaking, soul churning, all-consuming profit-share project that barely fills a blackbox theatre and leaves its artists wretched and pained. Why sex – so common – is the well paid commodity and art is discarded as a waste of money. It’s all acting.

Whether you see me in a play or you see me in a hotel, you’re getting the same skill set every time.

Why is my body performing a sex act so much more valued than my body performing a craft I have taken years to tightly hone?

The number of unemployed artists in Australia is gob-smacking.

The statistics on mental health issues in the arts are extreme as well. Artists have one of the highest and fastest growing rates of depression and anxiety, and is it any wonder when we are all bereft of jobs? More courses keep appearing, pumping out more graduates every year into an industry with less and less work.

A call out on Twitter for fellow sex workers shows that many have decided to side their artistic practises with sex work. No other job offers the freedom or the money that sex work can provide, and when artists desperately need time to create their works or to be available for employment, it ticks a lot of useful boxes.

Until the culture in Australia around the arts changes, arts practitioners will have to continue to find other ways to support their lifestyle. Perhaps sex work is slightly less of a jump for artists (already often fringe-dwellers and envelope pushers) than for perhaps someone who does tax returns for a living, but again, it’s not what we have spent thousands and thousands of dollars at universities studying to do.

There is an enormous irony that the highest form of culture (the arts) is partially being funded by what has previously been considered the most common work.

The arts sector is hugely misogynistic. Hugely, problematically. There are very few women at the top. Even if we do excel in our professions, we are statistically less likely to end up in managerial or directorial positions.

I know that all artists are having a hard time, I do. I know we are all fighting for jobs regardless of our gender. But starting out female puts you behind the eight ball to begin with. There are less roles for us. If you do musical theatre, be prepared to audition for shows that have ten leading men and one woman (who doesn’t even get a good song).

However, this isn’t an article about the misogyny of the sector. There isn’t enough writing space for that report. But it would be remiss not to mention that we have less work to start with.

It feels strange to be taking on something that akin to cooking and cleaning, is considered traditional ‘women’s work’. Sex workers are nearly exclusively women. As much as I feel like I am owning my own agency in choosing this work, it comes with a lot of psychological tension about my worth as a female.

I rise above it.

I feel powerful. I choose to see this work as a way of reclaiming my worth as a woman and using it for monetary gain.

I say that men don’t deserve their money, that I deserve it instead.

I like knowing that I can afford to get my haircut at a salon before an audition.

I can not only afford to go out for meals, I can shout my friends as well.

I don’t want money to define me but it does. I love the feeling of being able to buy groceries without having to tally the amount in my head.

I buy proper hummus for the first time and feel like royalty. I feel sexy, a lot. I sometimes feel crap too, but that’s not necessarily a work thing but a feeling from my station in life, my position in society. I feel more shame as an artist who has to borrow money from her parents again than I do for performing sex work.

The phone rings, sometimes, and I am always available to answer it. Auditions come and go, some successful, some not so, but people compliment me on my complexion, the spring in my step. They ask have I done something different? I seem so positive, so changed.

All I can tell them, is that I’ve finally figured out how to make it work. For now.

I’d rather not be a sex worker. I’d rather be an artist full-time. But until political, social and cultural value of the arts in Australia shifts significantly, myself and many other actors and artists like me will be using our instruments – our bodies – to pay the bills.

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