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'Porn Life Drawing' Wants To Change The Way You View Sex Work

"I’m trying to create an alternative space ... that recognizes sex workers as human, and sex work as work."

A water colour painting from tonight's Life Drawing class

A photo posted by @_lzlm on

"It's not uncommon to use sex workers as muses in art," artist LZ explains in a description of her work. 

And she's right. For centuries, mostly male artists have modeled the nude women in their work -- from Edgar Degas' impressionist paintings to Gustave Courbet's realist depictions to Jeff Koons' shiny sculptures -- on prostitutes, courtesans and porn stars. The difference between LZ and these established icons of art, however, is that LZ's goal is to challenge the politics around power in art, not reinforce them. Her muses are not quiet models destined to disappear into the frame of a famous painter; they are real women who want to take part in a broader conversation about sex work today.

LZ's "Porn Life Drawing" project is a London-based life drawing class that employs sex workers as models for students who not only want to perfect their sketching, but also capture a nuanced image of women working in the sex work industry. The classes involve both still poses and stripteases, some re-enactments of BDSM and other performances, all guided by a life drawing tutor. LZ (who preferred not to use her real name for this piece) was motivated to start the class in part by her desire to see sex work decriminalized in the U.K., and also by her past experience working as a nude model.

"I’m trying to create an alternative space," she explained to The Huffington Post via email. "A safe space and an education space for women and LGBTQ+ to be able to learn and access a social and therapeutic space that recognizes sex workers as human, and sex work as work, and enables the understanding that just because someone is naked, or is being sexual, you do not have the right to be involved sexually with that person without their consent."

Here's what LZ -- who works with the Sex Worker Art Collective -- had to say about the power of art as therapy, the reality of sex work in London, and the kinds of conversations she hopes to spark in her class.

Sex work life drawing

A photo posted by @_lzlm on

What inspired the "Porn Life Drawing" classes? Did the idea spring from your personal experience or was it more of a concept born of shared stories?

The concept came after I was sexually assaulted when life modeling, and the police said, "Do you not understand the nature of your job?" Many people I turned to for support said it must have been my fault because I was naked, I must have "lead him on."

I had this hanging over my head for a while, and I just really wanted to do something within my art that would address the wrongs of victim blaming and slut shaming. I ended up working with my university sex worker solidarity society for a variety of reasons, but this was one of the main reasons. When I spoke of this experience as a life model, although life modeling is not sex work, I learned that this is how authorities frequently treat sex workers. I know sex workers who are treated like this or worse by police and medical staff and it’s just something that is disgusting, degrading and is not safe.

I’m also near the end of my degree where I’m noticing the inequality of opportunity that women, working class, LGBTQ+ and people of color have compared to white men, particularly middle-class and upper-class men. The art industry is elite. I’m trying to create an alternative space; a safe space and an education space for women and LGBTQ+ to be able to learn and access a social and therapeutic space that recognizes sex workers as human, and sex work as work, and enables the understanding that just because someone is naked, or is being sexual, you do not have the right to be involved sexually with that person without their consent.

How do you find the models for your classes? And how are they paid exactly?

The models are paid out of the fee charged for the classes. I try to make the classes as affordable as possible. The last class I did I made no profit for myself, I paid my workers, and paid for resources. I didn't mind making no money for my work to experiment for the first event, but I hope if these events become popular, I will work out a way to make money for myself and my workers while also keeping them very affordable. 

Due to being a part of a sex worker solidarity network based in London, I am able to find working performers who are politically involved in this activism, as well as facing discrimination in the line of work they do. So I am able to offer a safe environment for the workers I hire as well as class participants. The classes then become quite democratic. The performers have power over their bodies and movements, and interact with the class.

Biro drawing from the kink life drawing class #bdsm #sexworkersrights #lifedrawing

A photo posted by @_lzlm on

What are your opinions on the decriminalization of sex work and anti-vulgarity laws? Do you discuss the realities of sex workers in the class?

I am 100 percent in favor of decriminalization.

I can’t stress enough how important decriminalized sex work is for workers. I do talk about the double standards in the pornography regulations that were enforced in 2014, and I do talk about the benefits of decriminalization. I also speak about the difference between decriminalization and legalization, and I try to speak about global politics around sex work, so I do go into how the Nordic model is bad for workers. I think its important for people to know the ins and outs of what they’re interested in.

How do you respond to students who question the difference between drawing a sex act and sexualizing a nude model? Do you get asked in these classes about the nuances of sex, sexuality and nakedness?

I’ve not been confronted with that question as I think what I am doing is quite obvious, and visually obvious, in the class. I think models are objectified, and sexualized; however within my class they are reclaiming their positions to just be "sex objects." They’re paid well, given voices, able to interact, given power. They’re not exploited. 

I offered to life model for a painter recently and asked what the pay and hours were like. To that he said, "Ha, I don’t pay, I want models to WANT to sit for me." I said, "You’re exploiting people for their labor, you’re disgusting." 

Sex work life drawing

A photo posted by @_lzlm on

What do you think your class achieves in furthering conversations like these? Or, how does the act of making art help people better explore the issues?

I think that art is fun or therapeutic for many people, and I consider modeling also as fun and therapeutic. I have found both have tested my patience and endurance, and after a session of drawing or modeling, I feel proud of myself. I feel more in touch with my body and my movements. Because the space is aimed at being a "safe space," people do feel like they can create conversations that aren’t dominated by anyone in particular. I like that a lot about the classes.

Are you hoping to exhibit any of the drawings that have resulted from the classes?

I’m planning to set up a sex worker-run art show which will include some works from the classes!  I hosted a sex worker-run art show with Goldsmiths' Sex Worker Solidarity Society at the start of this term, as I am vice president of the society, and found that creating art was a great way to communicate the importance of decriminalization and other political issues around sex work. The outcome was incredible and was overwhelming. I want to do it again but with non-student sex workers also. Exhibiting some of the drawings will be great, as some of them, the class participants are proud of [them]. I’m also fine with people not wanting to display them -- like I said, some people use classes for therapy, socializing, safe space, not just for learning or for "producing" art.

 

I've been life modelling again. Does this count as posing nudes on the Internet?

A photo posted by @_lzlm on

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