Photographs and Texts by Erika Langley
by E. J. Levy
I am inclined to agree with the man in the trenchcoat who reproved Erika Langley as he waited on line at the Lusty Lady, the Seattle sex club Langley documents in this eponymous photo-journal. Dismayed by Langley's crude attempts to attract customers, he said, "'You have a dirty mind. . . . This is about art and beauty."
Langley, who joined the Lusty as a nude dancer in 1992 in order to document sex work from the inside, presents her story as a post-feminist narrative of sexual transgression, with herself as a George Plimpton of the demimonde—joining the ranks to get the inside scoop. But her book seems less about documenting the art of sex work than a means of making a buck and a name.
In a telling foreword, Langley recounts how she came to Seattle and the Lusty. "My friend Ed told me, 'Move here, just move here. You can make a mark on the world 'cause the lines are shorter.'" Finding herself out of work, Langley—who'd been schooled as a photographer and had worked as a photojournalist--brought her portfolio to editors who told her that her work was "competent but average. They were looking for someone gutsy and radical. I'd noticed Seattle's many topless bars, and thought maybe I could do a photo project on strippers." Thus Langley joins the ranks of those who've cashed in on others' clits.
Spruced up by carnivalesque detail—the man who likes to stick a pen in the tip of his dick, the john with the dick the size of a soda can, Langley's first experiences of S/M and same-sex desire—the routine Langley describes is, for the most part, just that. Much of what she narrates is dull as temp work. The flatness may be due to Langley's approach more than the material. Whether in the interest of maintaining a documentary distance, or seeking a semblance of objectivity, Langley rarely inserts herself into the scene to comment. When she does, her observations are purely personal and often banal (e.g., remarking with schoolgirl wonder on how she has come to like her body, how she is surprised to find herself attracted to other women, her fear that dancing will make sex with her boyfriend difficult).
Despite the rich ironies of the situation (such as the fact that the club faces the Seattle Art Museum), Langley's tone is more dead than deadpan. She doesn't comment on the incongruous corporate speak of the Lusty's "Performer's Standards," which states, among other things, "I understand that my appearance as a performer is vital to the success of the show and will groom myself accordingly." Nor on the club's double standard of promoting nude dancing as a means of getting in touch with one's sexuality, while at the same time monitoring dancers' weight and restricting body modifications, such as piercing or tattoos. Nor on the curiously antiquated notion of female beauty suggested by "a sign on the wall [that] reads, 'We only hire attractive women. Short-haired dancers must wear wigs.'" When Langley shows up for her interview, she goes with the show director to observe the dancers. The director points out that one dancer is wearing a shred of a t-shirt in order to hide a tattoo, while maneuvering the "shirt around . . . so her breasts and genitals are exposed at all times.'" What is hidden and what is revealed remains strangely unconsidered.
Langley succeeds, however, in complicating popular equations of sex work with exploitation. In a section titled "Dancers Talking," she interviews seven dancers, one of whom is a graduate student in history, several others married moms, one trained for the ballet, another a dyke who became a prostitute while attending a private women's college in the South. Langley is also to be credited for including views that contradict hers: "I've heard that your spin is that this is not exploitative," says one dancer, named Cat, "and I don't agree with that."
What's shocking is not that these sex workers turn out to be such "nice, normal girls," but that the pay is no better than this: Dancers start at nine dollars an hour, less than most temp agencies offer a typist. Top pay is twenty-four dollars an hour. Given that sex work and modeling are the only two professions in which women consistently earn as much or more than men for comparable work, the wages are scandalous. All the more so because workers are not full-time, and like many UPS workers, are kept at a part-time schedule that renders the hourly wage insufficient.
Langley's grainy black and white photographs have a chilly Germany-in-the-thirties look about them, with their mirror distortions, bright lights, and nude bodies unflatteringly exposed. There are a few poignant portraits, but most depend on nudity for their edge. Except for a few unsettling shots of clients holding their dicks or rubbing off on Barbie, the overall effect of the images—like that of the book as a whole—seems less documentary than like taking the show on the road.
Thumbing through the pictures of Langley and her colleagues holding their breasts up for us to admire, spreading their thighs or masturbating like an Egon Schiele waif, it's hard not to recall director Hal Hartley's rationale for avoiding nudity in his films. He said that whenever people start taking their clothes off in a movie, he is reminded that he's paid money for this. Flipping through Langley's comely volume, past all the tits and clits, it's hard not to feel like just another customer at the show.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998