Sophia Giovannitti, 2023. Image credit: Daniel Arnold

In Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex, Sophia Giovannitti considers the material and metaphorical overlap between the sexual and artistic marketplaces. Exploring themes of authenticity, intimacy, violation, and legitimacy, Giovannitti not only presents points out the parallels between the two spheres but also argues for the absolute legal and social acceptance of sex work. In this conversation with Public Seminar’s Josephine Houman, Giovannitti draws on her own experience as artist and sex worker, as she expands on the lessons of Working Girl and why sanctity doesn’t mean unsellable—nor should it.

Josephine Houman: A theme of Working Girl is that fantasy is a big part of selling both sex and art. You write that “there is a basis of holy beauty to sex and to art that is then bought and sold. The holiness precedes the packaging”.

Sophia Giovannitti: It’s not that I don’t think that these things are sacred, because I do. It’s just that I don’t think their sacredness, holiness, whatever you want to call itis above the material world. To me, that has no bearing on whether something can be “commodified.”

I—and, obviously, tons and tons of other people—have a really profound and deep relationship with art and with sex, and I think they can be really transformative and take you outside of this world. I just feel like sometimes the response—and especially the American response—to anything that’s adjacent to religion, holiness, or sacredness, is this idea that it’s somehow outside of the economy, or outside the commodifying structure. And I just don’t think that’s true.

A lot of people also think if you buy and sell your art, you’re ruining it: you’re tainting it. There’s a sort of internal battle of “I make my art and I have my creative practice and that’s this sacred thing to me; and then as soon as it’s out in this monstrous world, it becomes twisted by these market forces and it’s gross.”

Houman: How dare you let them win?

Giovannitti: Yeah, exactly. I think the whole point of my book is that they’ve already won. This could seem fatalistic, but I just don’t think that it’s worthwhile to fight against a totalizing machine and keep my art private; or only fuck my boyfriend in the privacy of my own home. 

My whole world and everything that I touch and that touches me is already available for commodification. That’s just the reality we live in. I hope that one day we don’t live in that reality, but, for the time being, if we do, I think it’s actually really shooting yourself in the foot to think that you have any control over that.

Houman: You mention the “public’s distaste for sex work,” and you imply that it stems from the fact that people recognize that, if sex work exists, “then anything—no matter how sacred—can indeed be bought and sold.” Is this what you think is behind the taboo surrounding sex work?

Giovannitti: I think that outlawing sex work is a form of social control, and then the way that it becomes entrenched or ratified is by stoking fear in people about what sex work means and what it indicates. 

I do think that it’s really frightening for people to think about what it means if we live in a system where anything can be bought and sold, regardless of what it is. It’s frightening for people to think about how totalizing these systems are.

And, well, Americans are really fucked up about sex. I think that a puritanical characteristic of American culture makes people really attached to a specific idea of what sex is and should be: that it’s private and between a man and a woman and that it happens in the domestic, legally married family with consenting adults of a certain age. That myth functions to, again, reproduce a lot of social control, and anything that seems to threaten that is then threatening the fabric of American society.

Houman: You write, “I’d probably do well to heed Fraser’s warning: I’ve always wanted attention, although I would have preferred to get this kind of attention for some other things I’ve done.” What are you implying?

Giovannitti: I think my whole style of thinking—and therefore writing—is very self-contradictory. And I’m comfortable contradicting myself.

I get equally anxious about being subsumed into both sides of the argument. I’m fearful that the anti–sex work feminists, who think they’re protecting women by trying to eradicate the sex industry, would twist my words to support their cause. Similarly, I abhor the sex-positive, sex-work-empowerment, “feminist” narrative—I think it’s equally untrue.

With regard to the phrase you quoted: I’m well aware that I might have regrets. For example, I have tied myself to a public-facing identity as a young woman that has to do with sex: that’s very pigeonholing. And the effects of that can be really unpleasant and frustrating and can make me feel like certain aspects of my work are glazed over in order to focus on other, more sensational ones.

I think it’s possible that I’ll regret some forms of attention, but I have to do things I feel compelled to do in the moment: right now, that’s this public exploration of sex. 

Houman: I’m someone who’s very interested in sex, the porn industry, and so on, but the more I think about it, the more I question why I’m interested in those topics. Growing up as a woman, I’ve been told that all I really have to offer is my body and my appearance. Have I maybe subconsciously thought the one way to feel like I’m gaming the system is by learning so much about it that I can almost convince myself that I’m interested because I’m interested, and not because I’ve been told to be?

Giovannitti: I relate to that so much. I think there’s such a reality to that, to being like, “Well, why am I interested in this?” Is it to feel less disempowered by the conditions of growing up as a woman in a society that really hates women and hates anyone that’s acting outside of gender norms?

The answer is: we’ll never know. And I think we are in dangerous territory when anti–sex work feminists say, “These women that think they’re empowered or making their own decisions: they’re not, and this is just the consequence of a patriarchal society.”

Houman: Like, “We have to save them.”

Giovannitti: Exactly. It’s this very “save you from yourself” kind of thing.

I’m totally in the same boat as you of wondering about all that. And I think it’s so fucked up when people take that up on a larger, legislative scale: “We know you better than you know yourself; you don’t really want this and if you didn’t grow up in this society, you would never choose to be a whore,” or whatever else. But none of us will ever know, including the legislator.

Houman: Which is so unsatisfying, isn’t it? 

Giovannitti: Totally. And as you point out, both things can be true. Something can be really horrible and interesting, or really self-destructive, as well as intoxicating, or fascinating. You could be really interested in porn or interested in a particular aspect of sex or the sex industry, and that thing could be simultaneously fucked up and great.

Houman: Thinking about it now, I don’t really think I’m interested in anything that isn’t fucked up.

Giovannitti: I know.

Houman: You write, “It is the daring and brilliant girls who go the deepest and the slipperiest, reveling in the unrestrained play of their work, knowing the last laugh will always be theirs.” Do you feel like you’ve hacked the capitalistic system?

Giovannitti: I could never be so bold as to say that, but I do think that a good attempt at a hack is to try to have more time in your life that’s dedicated to you.

I’m attracted to anything that’s outside the system, whether that’s extralegal justice or informal economies: ways of existing that are at least attempting to be a bit outside of the disciplining apparatus. There’s some people who are fighting for sex workers’ rights, who I think are much more interested in assimilation instead, and in being like, “Okay, this is a job and you pay taxes.” Whereas, in my mind, if you figure out a way to not pay your taxes and not get caught, to not be in the formal economy, then good for you.

But, for me, the single most appealing thing about sex work is that it’s a very high hourly rate, and that’s a huge plus on the autonomy scale. Of course, I’m only speaking for myself: because of who I am and my privilege. I’ve never been in a trafficked or forced labor situation. I never feel full agency, but within that, I have choices.

But I definitely think sex work should be decriminalized, a hundred percent.

Houman: What does safe, sustainable, successful decriminalization look like to you?

Giovannitti: The only real decriminalization is full decriminalization. For example, I don’t believe in the Nordic model of criminalizing clients. I also have a very specific perspective, because I’m pretty much an anarchist, and in general, I don’t think laws are the solution to regulating anything or making anything safe. Disentangling the law as much as possible from the sex industry is really the thing to fight for. I wouldn’t support legalization, which would put additional laws in place.

The relationship between police and sex workers is so violent, often sexually violent, that putting police in any kind of position where they are ostensibly supposed to enforce the safety of sex workers is just a joke. It’s just like when cops are running these stings and also patronizing sex workers: at what point are they just a client—or a rapist? This idea that there’s people in uniform and thus something totally different than what they’re pretending to be. It’s just baffling to me that people still think that that’s viable.

Houman: You write about Jeff Koons and Ilona Staller’s art, describing a photograph as being “gorgeous; a perfect depiction of woman-as-object.” Later, texting your friend, you write: “I look really beautiful when I give head. […] eyes shine, tearing up while you choke.” I enjoy being objectified during sex, until the moment that I start to think about why I’m enjoying it, and especially why my boyfriend is enjoying it. Do you have thoughts about coming to terms with objectification? 

Giovannitti: I’m really interested in objectification. I think it’s such a huge part of both art-making and relationships. I mean, I definitely objectify my boyfriend, and people that I want to have sex with or am fantasizing about. I think it’s part of making art and having sex and being in love and maintaining desire and all this stuff. I think you often need to experience things at a remove in order to find them beautiful. 

Regarding the “what’s making this feel good” and “what’s making that feel bad,” I feel like it’s just such a losing battle to try to make any of one’s sexual desires map onto what they feel or believe politically. One thing that’s really unique about sex is it being this experience field within which everything is so irrational. And I think it’s great to just let it be that.

Houman: You were interviewed for The Creative Independent two years ago, and when asked about Working Girl, you said: “I’m honestly also curious if by the time it comes out, I’ll think totally differently about it. It feels like a distillation of a certain moment in time around my thinking, which is cool.” So, do you feel differently about any of it?

Giovannitti: I think I’ve definitely tried to come to peace with how the book is representative of a time and a place. Now, I’ll read something I wrote and think, “oh, now I could write a whole other piece that’s based on the same personal experience that would say the opposite.” That’s also part of why it felt really important for me to include some of my more contradictory thinking. I don’t want the book to feel conclusive; I’m just not, so that wouldn’t feel accurate. I definitely stand by it. And I think I feel, you know, pleasantly surprised by not being simply horrified.

 Sophia Giovannitti is a writer and conceptual artist based in New York. Her book, Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex is forthcoming with Verso in May 2023.

Josephine Houman is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research and Public Seminar editorial intern.