True Professions

What do you call whores who don't have sex and porn stars who don't get paid?

"We're all whores," argues Stacey Whitaker, a 26-year-old dance instructor standing outside the Roxie Cinema, where the 24-hour-long San Francisco Sex Workers Film and Video Festivalis under way. Only six hours into the festival, Whitaker's friend, 27-year-old "Macho" Athanases, looks a little worse for wear.

"We're not all whores," says Athanases wearily, flicking a cigarette into the gutter.

"Are you going to tell me you've never done anything with your body that you wouldn't have done without the promise of cash?" asks Whitaker, her eyes narrowing as she prepares for the kill. "What about that party where you walked around in gold body paint for a bunch of corporate slobs?"

"That was six years ago, and no one touched me," snaps Athanases.

"I don't think that's true," says Whitaker sweetly, fluttering her eyelashes in coy triumph.

"Not in a sexual way," says Athanases with a pout. "No one touched me in a sexual way."

"And how do you know that?" counters Whitaker as she lovingly jump-starts Athanases' next cigarette with her own. "Isn't it possible that one of those men slipped in the bathroom for a wank after watching you all night?"

"No," says Athanases, looking a little mad now. "Shit, Stace, how would I know? I wouldn't have known."

"And isn't that more sad than if you had?" says Whitaker, condescendingly patting Athanases on the shoulder. "Poor, poor unwitting whore."

"Fuck off, Stacey," says Athanases with lackluster conviction. "I'm hungry."

"OK, yeah," says Whitaker, nearly chirping, "let's go get burritos and hurry back for porn tips." Athanases rolls his eyes and follows Whitaker, who is already halfway down the block, her bright fuchsia micro-miniskirt and knee-high go-go boots turning heads.

It's not the last of such conversations I will hear at the festival. Even among sex workers, what does and does not constitute a whore is a matter for debate.

"You can prostitute your intellect," says Nasta, a former call girl with long, curly, black hair and an exquisite silver collar around her neck. "You can prostitute your talents, your creativity, your vision. Is this a bad thing? Or does it just mean you're getting paid for it?"

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a prostitute is "a person who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse for payment."

By definition, this excludes a former dominatrix acquaintance who used to sexually satisfy her clients by dexterously wielding whips, insults, and, occasionally, condiments. It also excludes the strippers I have known whose intermittent lap dances carried customers to climax -- for wads of cash.

"Prostitution is defined by lawyers," says Nasta. "It's arbitrary."

Easy to say inside the warm darkness of the Roxie, where sex workers -- dancers, porn actors, prostitutes, doms, performers, instructors, and educators -- and their admirers can curl up in padded chairs to admire the trade in flickering sepia tones of humor and light. Harder a few blocks down, on Capp Street.

I saw an old friend named "Alice"standing on the street corner not long ago, teetering on plastic heels too big and too ugly for the recovering Mormon I had met 12 years before. Her hair was brittle and sallow, and her skin had a periwinkle hue, a pale and translucent palette for blooms of greenish fingerprints and plum-colored tracks. She tried to talk to me, like in the old days, but she stammered and her eyes fled from mine like those of a shattered bird. I remembered a number of years before, watching her get dressed for a "date," meticulously matching her hair ribbon and shoes.

"You have to take care about your appearance," she had explained, "otherwise nothing matters. They usually don't notice, but you have to do it anyway."

It had sounded like something out of Cannery Row, except there was no way to paint that hollow grief as feisty. Even then, "Alice" would not have appreciated the Sex Workers Film Festival. It was too late. It may have been too late when she was 9 years old.

"I was a prostitute for 20 years," says Scarlot Harlot (aka Carol Leigh), the vivacious director, founder, and procurer for the SFSWFF. "I still see an old client now and then, so you can't say that I've officially retired yet."

Leigh decided to explore her inner fille de joie at the age of 27, after completing grad school and finding few job openings for promising young poetesses.

"It seemed a natural extension of my feminist studies," says Leigh, "and I thought it would be good for my art. The role of prostitute is pivotal as far as feminine archetypes go. And I didn't have much shame in terms of sex and my body, and I was already questioning the negotiations I conducted with men within the confines of serial monogamy."

In the beginning, Leigh cruised massage parlors, but she didn't find what she was looking for until she hooked up with some call girls who worked out of Monte Rio's Bohemian Club, which Newsweek called the most prestigious summer camp in the world. "I had a customer pay me $1,000 to do anything I wanted to him," says Leigh, adjusting the folds of her diaphanous gown. "So I tied him up and sang him a song." She sings a few strains about looking for a better job, and laughs.

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