In a society where making art lands you in the unemployment line, artists face an uncomfortable choice. Work a nine to five job and come home too exhausted to create, or balance multiple jobs in hopes of carving out more time for art. Writer and visual artist Robin Hustle knows all about the latter, but she’s found an interesting, if controversial way to fund her art. Hustle first caught my attention after a piece she wrote for Jezebel on coming out as a prostitute to her parents received a slew of passionate comments. She spoke with Our Town about how her “day job” in sex work informs her art and vice versa.
Our Town Artists tend to choose between working nine to five jobs and fitting in art where they can or putting together a hodgepodge of gigs in order to make time for their art. You seem to have chosen the latter. Pros and cons?
Robin Hustle The 40-hour work week was established in 1886. It's shameful that we haven't made any progress since then, that we're expected to take our work home with us, that we have to work overtime to stretch minimum wage into something closer to a living wage. It's a system I'd want to work outside of even if I wasn't an artist. Making a living as I do allows me to wake up early and write or stay up late and draw. It spares me the monotony of a full-time job. After a decade out of school, being self-employed has allowed me to start working toward a degree in a healthcare field without giving up writing and making art.
OT You recently wrote a piece for Jezebel discussing prostitution. What made you decide to write publicly about it?
RH Prostitution has been my primary source of income for about eight years, and I've been writing about it for nearly as long. My zine Mirror Tricks, about working as a prostitute, was also a slide show that I presented dozens of times around the country, and I've written critical essays on sex work, given talks about prostitutes' health issues, etc. Until recently, I'd planned to take a break from writing about sex work because I felt like I was getting too comfortable, limiting the scope of my writing and neglecting other ideas and projects. Then a friend asked me to write some pieces for a mainstream website on the subject, I did it, and I quickly became addicted to the idea of reaching a wide audience really, really fast—something that doesn't happen through self-publishing and small press. When that series ended, I pitched the idea of an ongoing column on sex work to Jezebel, and I'm thrilled that they were into it. There was never a question of whether I should write publicly about prostitution. It fascinates me from a personal and a conceptual angle; it forces tricky questions about sex and feminism and labor and public space. Essentially, it holds all the elements that excite me as a writer, and also happens to be my job, a job that's highly stigmatized and considered shameful, so how could I not write about it?
OT Commentators seemed angry at you for writing from your personal experience, that of a white woman who has chosen prostitution, but isn’t that the point of a personal essay? To write from your experience? Thoughts?
RH Many of the people who responded to my first piece on Jezebel wrote that they connected with it, as a coming out story, as an experience of growing up in a radical family, as a difficult part of being a sex worker, but the loudest voices were the raging ones. Frankly, I don't think those commentators read the piece: they skimmed to see if it said "I'm happy being a sex worker" so they could tell me that my experience is so rare that I have no right to write about it, or that I'm ignoring the plight of trafficked women by writing about myself. A few comments really stuck with me, and they weren't from either end of that spectrum. They were from readers who have mixed feelings about sex work, how it fits into feminism, the degree to which it is or isn't exploitative. They didn't get any answers from my piece but they thought hard about the questions. That's the kind of reader I'm hoping to reach by publishing in such a public forum.
OT Were you surprised by the negativity of peoples’ reactions?
RH I live in an incredible community that shields me, to some degree, from the nastiness of so many mainstream ideas about sex work, but even within that community I've been subject to scapegoating, tokenization, and other less vehement forms of bigotry than what turned up on Jezebel. I'm not oblivious to the gut reactions people have to sex work, or the misinformation they're fed. But it did catch me by surprise, because I thought I was publishing an uncontroversial, sappy piece about coming out to my parents.
OT How does your involvement in sex work inform your art? How do your visual art and your writing inform one another?
RH My visual projects often involve text, my writing projects are often very visual, and in self-publishing, I've always brought my writing and art together on the page. A recent project, Curdled Milk is a series of drawings with repurposed text from Émile Zola's novel Nana which approaches class, labor, and prostitution in a manner very different from my own. For a few years, I was living almost exclusively on money from a professional involvement with a commodity trader, and Curdled Milk re-contextualized text from the novel to address my feelings about earning a living through the market in imaginary food, an aspect of capitalism that I find particularly abhorrent, and my understanding of the relationship with this particular person. So it was a piece of literary criticism, an original and borrowed text, a personal account of sex work, an anticapitalist critique, and a series of drawings.
OT What do you hope people take from your visual art?
RH I use a lot of humor in my work to get to heavier ideas. My art is definitely more intellectual than emotional, but intellectual the way a Nancy comic or a Pasolini film is, with a heaping dose of gags, puns, and sex. I hope my art makes people want to meet their friends at the library to masturbate in the stacks and read out loud to each other.
Robin Hustle is a writer, artist, and musician living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in $PREAD Magazine, Vice, and the Journal of Radical Shimming, and her visual art has been exhibited in group shows at Woman Made Gallery, Roots and Culture, and Gallery 400. She archives her writing and drawings at robinhustle.blogspot.com.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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