Talking to other artists about their work
SEX, STIGMA and SERVICE:
An interview with Andrea Werhun by Laura Anne Harris
For a year I anticipated the release of my friend Andrea Werhun’s memoir Modern Whore, about her experience working as a sex worker in a Toronto escort service. I was excited because I knew my friend as a particularly hilarious performer so I was sure her book would explore a humorous and complex approach to the subject of sex work. After absorbing the book in just one sitting, I was not disappointed.
Modern Whore is a multi-genre, and multidimensional examination of sex work and its stigmas. There are personal accounts of Werhun’s time as a sex worker over a year long period working with an array of clients, but also fictional stories based on ancient myths that examine women who use their sexuality as a powerful tool. While sharing the positive aspects of sexuality and sex work in the book, there are also more nuanced moments of traumas which are told with hilarity as well as heartfelt pathos, rage and tenacity. Filled with colorful artistic photographs of Werhun by photographer and filmmaker Nicole Brazuin the book examines sexuality in all its forms with women at the center. The photos are vulnerable, taboo, sensual and hysterical, much like the book itself.
I had the pleasure of talking to Werhun before her book launch in New York City to discuss her time after escorting. Werhun is hopeful that a general audience will look at a sex worker and their decision to take part in that line of work in a whole new way. Hopefully with a level of understanding and empathy.
There are creative non-fiction stories about your work as a sex worker, but also fictional stories based on ancient mythology. What was the process of writing those stories and how did your editors help shape those pieces?
Andrea Werhun: My editor on the book was Fan Wu really helped narrow my focus in a beautiful and effective way. As far as the conception is concerned, I wrote a lot of the sections in the wake of not escorting anymore. [The stories] dealt with being a woman in society. What it means to be sexualize and what it means to take control of your sexuality and profit off of it.
With the mythological connections, speaking primarily of the fairy tale [in the book] Our Girl Violet, that was the story I wrote in my creative writing class when I was in university. It’s a story about a brothel in heaven in which one particular priestess discovers that she has a special skill which is when she has an organism she can tell the future. This kernel of a story was first a short story that I wrote for this class and then became hundreds of pages I wrote for a three day novel. I realized I need to figure out how to tell this story more effectively. Then I just buckled down with a bunch of fairy tales and studied their structure, and squished this story that I had written hundreds of pages for into four pages for the book. [The] story really means a lot to me because of the the intersection between spirituality and sexuality that is so often shamed in our society.
What do you mean by the intersection between spirituality and sexuality?
AW: As far as my research into the origins of prostitution is concerned what continuously comes up is prostitution started in the temples. Dedicated to the Goddess of Love, which differentiates based on which region you are in. She has a different name everywhere, but she has the same qualities. The role of the priestess is that she initiated the worshiper who was a stranger into the mysteries of the divine Goddess through sexuality. Pleasure and sexuality and divine knowledge were intertwined during this period in which women were running the temples. Where women had power and they were leaders in their community. They were respected as these sacred emissaries of the divine. So I’ve always been very interested in a time where spirituality and sexuality are not seen as counter to one another. They are in face seen as complementary and integral to the understanding of the divine.
Then male dominated [power dynamic] starts to take hold and it starts to shame women for their sexuality. Now we’re still dealing with the repercussions of this virgin whore dichotomy in women. That when a woman acknowledges her their sexuality that makes them somewhat impure person and flawed and broken. That’s all bullshit. I feel like it’s going to be a lifelong goal of mine to look at the ways those two can be reunited.
One section of the book that struck me in a good way was the review section. Where you show a reviewer reviewing your persona of Mary Ann and then you turned around and reviewed the client. Why did you include that in the book?
I included it because there is a certain kind of helplessness that comes from reading reviews of your work. [Furthermore,] when you are reading reviews of your own sexual style, you’re not reading it in a forum where [a] counter review would be welcome. In fact my counter review would disway potential clients from seeing me so I would have to keep my mouth shut and it feels so uncomfortable. Even if they are saying nice things, I know from reading these reviews on these public message boards that they’re making a lot of this stuff up. They’re embellishing things.
Escort review culture is so insidious and and polarizing within the sex work community because there are people that support it and there are many sex workers who have a strict anti-review rule. I see both sides of the argument. I see someone who is going to draw hundreds of dollars per hour is going to want a service is going to want to provide a review for others. It’s a pretty weighty investment. On the other hand the review are often so de-humanizing as to totally demean the human being involved in providing the service. Because it is an integral part of the sex industry, it was [important] for me to include them. It was also important to take back my agency when feeling so helpless from reading these reviews online.
Why was humor important to you while writing this book?
I think the humor is an essential part of my process because my main mission with this book was to demonstrate the multidimensional quality of a single sex worker. I know that because the stereotype against sex workers is that we’re all just sort of like victims of our fate, we couldn’t possibly be the heroes of our own journeys. If people can relate to me, not only as sex worker but as a human being, a person who has multiple interests, and has worked multiple jobs. [Who] has [many] hopes, dreams, hobbies and powers. That means that we are a step closer to seeing other sex workers as fully fleshed human beings. That’s what’s missing in this conversation, about a highly marginalized group of people. If we saw sex workers as human beings we would not consider the laws as it stands to be just. They are a fragrant abuse of human rights to allow this group of people to continue to be abused.
I was born with a dark grotesque sense of humor and there’s no escaping that. There’s nothing about anything that I’ve gone through that doesn’t get seen through that lens. I am particularly interested in how trauma can be transformed by humor. Go, Leafs, Go [chapter] is particularly saucy. I’m laughing at it even though I went through this traumatic experience. There was something so freeing about that and it made the wound of trauma less seathing.
Society also shames men who seek services in sex workers, so what is your take on that aspect of the relationship or transaction?
Oh the men! Certainly there is stigma against men who see sex workers. Perhaps a different form of shame, depending on what kind of man you are [and] what kind of profession you have. If you look at high rolling business men, I mean they spend every other weekend at a strip club. Buying dances, procuring the services of sex workers whether they are having actual sex or not is really inconsequential. Escorts and high rolling men just go together. They’re kind of involved in a unholy marriage themselves. On a whole in society there is a shame for men to admit that they see sex workers. I think that there’s a sense that they’ve given up that they’ve not tried hard enough [and] that they could do better. I think that’ it’s important for people to acknowledge that there are so many reasons for people to see sex workers beyond just celebrating business successes. (We both laugh.) I wish that our client’s could stand up for us in public, but that can’t happen because they are ashamed of what they do and they are shamed by society for what they do even if they themselves don’t feel the shame.
We have to remember that we live in a society that is built around male pleasure, so they have this structure set up around for them. That they can just walk into on the massage parlour and get a rub and tug. They can just walk into a strip club and get a lapdance from a beautiful woman. They can call an agency and have a hot beautiful woman show up at their door. Women don’t have that same kind of access to pleasure, so there’s a lot to unpack when we talk about shame and when we talk about the stigma against men.
It’s important to acknowledge as well that while John’s face a certain level of stigma it’s nowhere close to the amount of stigma that sex workers endure, but a John is at a much lower risk of getting murdered by a sex worker. Whereas a sex worker is going to endure some form of abuse from a John statistically. It is far more dangerous for sex workers than it is with a John. It’s important to distinguish between those two forms of shame and stigma.
What do you say when people argue that a Harvey Weinstein type or other such predatory men should just seek the services of a sex worker?
I think it’s so unfair to think of a sex worker onto a predator just because it’s presumed outside the industry that that’s our job to have sex with predators because all Johns are predators. A predator is a predator that preys on vulnerable women. That instead of preying upon the so-called normal good women who exist in conventional workplaces he should prey upon sex workers that just perpetuates this continuous narrative that all sex workers are victims of assault. All sex work is a form of paid rape and we’re societies punching bags. It’s so disgusting and it makes my skin crawl. We know in the case of Harvey Weinstein and any rampant sexual abuser it’s not about pleasure. He gets off on scaring women and it’s the fear and the power he has over them. Why the hell would you want to put someone like that in a room with a sex worker who has fewer rights than civilian women? Unlike the normal good woman who can if she feels safe enough can go to the cops and say something about this attack, a sex worker cannot do that without fearing that she’s going to be put in jail instead. Especially if we look at the level of privilege that sex worker has. If she’s a woman of color, if she is working on a street level, if she is homeless, if she is addicted to drugs. There are so many ticks that go against you.
That’s part of the stigma against Johns. That all Johns are bad people who are abusers. And yet anyone who has worked in the sex industry would say that ninety-nine percent of the men that we see are kind, respectful individuals. There’s just this one percent of men who think they can get away with abuse because sex workers have very little recourse in our justice system due to criminalization.
I’ve done a lot of research into sex work, but I know I’m not necessarily the norm, so what was the most important message surrounding stigma in sex work you wanted to shed light on or banish for a general audience reading your book?
I particularly really despise the [idea] that all sex workers are damaged people and that’s why they are engaged in the work that they are [doing]. The benefit of #MeToo is we are all discovering that the vast majority of us have experienced sexual impropriety against us and in a way we are all kind of broken and we’re not all sex workers. It’s becoming more clear that everyone has been touched by some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime and we work in every single industry. I hate the idea that all sex workers were sexually abused as children. I despise that idea. It plays into a sort of victim trauma porn that we like to indulge in with this very specific group of marginalized people where we have to keep them down. We can’t possibly imagine a world where sex workers speak for themselves, dare say, “I like my work,” and it’s not just because I was abused as a child. Most of us [women,] in some way shape or form were abused as children even if it was just that we grew up in a culture that sexualized us from a very young age. That in and of itself is abusive and we’ve all had to come to terms with that and are still coming to terms with it. The reason why a sex worker might choose her work is not because she is broken but because she feels empowered by the flexibility of the work and the amount of money it can make her contrary to other positions she may have available to her.
Speaking of the #MeToo movement, a lot of your book speaks to those issues but obviously you wrote those excerpts months before this fall. What was your reaction to the #MeToo movement that came to the forefront this October?
I guess you can say I feel pretty lucky that I’m telling a story that probably five years ago probably wouldn’t have gotten any airplay and now it’s relevant. Now we want to hear the stories from women who have lived experiences. Whether it is lived experiences of being abused in the workplace or the lived experience of a sex worker. I feel honoured by the time that we exist in now that I can tell my story without fearing for my life. I feel vindicated by the time we are in right now and the power we are giving to vindicate women’s stories.
Granted I will say that I have certain privileges as a white educated young woman that grant me safety. That mean I can come out in my culture whereas the vast majority of people, especially sex workers could not come out with this information without facing some real serious danger in their lives. I’m grateful for that as well and I take that privilege seriously. It means that as a storyteller I have to push forward tell the truth of my experiences especially those who can’t do that.
Andrea Werhun’s New York Book Launch is happening March 3rd, 2018 at the Jefferson Market Library, 425 of the Americas at 10th Street from 6pm – 9pm EST.
Inside the Mind of an Animator: Ryan Whittal
Ryan Whittal is an emerging screenwriter for animation living in both the US and Canada. I never examined the differences between animation and live action before and wanted to learn more. I had the opportunity right after TIFF to discover some of those differences within the animation artform by chatting with Ryan.
Laura Anne Harris: How do you define as the art animation?
Ryan Whittal: I would define the art of animation as heightened storytelling within limitless worlds and characters who are utilized to express the common themes of our human experience.
LH: What attracts you to the art of animation?
RW: The freedom. It’s the excitement of knowing that, any world you can imagine, you can create and bring to life in the comfort of your own home or studio. This includes the weather elements of the world and the speed in which things can change and evolve.
LH: What makes animation storytelling different than live action storytelling?
RW: We enter the theatre of an animated film with a stronger sense of suspended disbelief. We aren’t trying to compare ourselves to, nor judge the performance of a real human on screen in their experience. Therefore [are] left more open to empathize and relate to a cartoon character, whether animal, human or inanimate object on their journey.
LH: Who are some of your influences?
RW: I am a huge fan of two storytellers in the animation world, Pete Docter and [composer] Alan Menken. Yes, Alan Menken. To me, he is a brilliant composer who easily captures the emotional tone of each heightened moment of a story, musically, while balancing a broad accessibility and relatability with artistic integrity, causing a perfect visceral experience for a global audience. I never get sick of listening to “Part of Your World” – the perfect example of an ‘I want…’ song. And Pete Docter, come on, so good! His heart fills, no, floods into each character that “stars” in his movies. It’s storytelling that combines adventure and character expansion, that we can relate to and truly care about during our time in the theatre.
LH: What are some of your current projects you are working on?
RW: I am currently working on several projects at the moment. One, a spec script of the “Mindy Project” for my Second City Chicago writing class. Two, I am constantly re-tweeking a short film that I wrote and first time attempted to draw and animate called, “Power Outage”.
LH: What area of animation are you most excited working in?
RW: I LOVE VOICE OVER!!! I have a strong background in Musical Theatre as an actor and the skills are very transferable. In live action, it’s the eyes that say it all. In animation, the voice tells the story. The dynamics and pacing of the voice are what helps to deliver the emotional arc of each character. Singing and laughing are common tools to really bring an animated character to life.
LH: What are your favourite films?
RW: Aladdin and Monster’s INC.
LH: Animation has grown from children’s stories to very adult themes, why do you think that is?
RW: This could possibly be because of the family dynamic of today vs the past. As society has evolved and the speed in which information is delivered has increased, I feel that children have more access to adult themed content at home, at school, and on the internet. So, rather than fight against or try to shield children from the future challenges they may face, storytellers have become more upfront with these now more familiar storylines.
LH: What was the best piece of advice did you receive from an animator?
RW: The best piece of advice I have received came from Pete Docter speaking at a TIFF event. He spoke of his time lines when working on “Monster’s Inc.” [and] said he would still be working on the movie today unless someone hadn’t told him, okay Pete, time’s up! The movie has to be produced now. So, all of his questioning and tweaking and rethinking of ideas and how to tell the story had to be let go. He had to give in to the schedule and business side of production and just trust that he had done enough and made the right decisions.
LH: How can the art from continue to grow and develop?
RW: There’s always room for growth and expanding beyond the boundaries. I think if animation continues to approach and address some our current socially sensitive issues, it can assist in the natural progression of art imitating life.