MARCH 27, 2018
How old are you?
Where are you from originally?
I am originally from a remote little valley in Northern California.
How long have you been in New Orleans?
I’ve been here off and on for four years.
What brought you here?
I fell madly in love with my sweetheart and ever since then this has been a place I have revisited.
Why are you still here?
I needed to take a year off from travel to heal, ground [myself] and to focus on creative projects that have been left unfinished during many seasons of rambling around.
How do you refer to your work?
Sex work. I have worked within multiple facets of the industry, though I am predominately a dancer right now. I don’t know if you want me to give a synopsis of the different roles I’ve played in the industry...?
If you’d like.
I’ve done a lot of different things. Dancing is the most accessible for the sake of what’s legal and can be publicized without repercussions for the people you’re interviewing. But I’ve been involved in everything from go-go dancing at night clubs and nude modeling for fine art to acting in pornography, stripping, choreographing porn and live sex performances and working as a pro dom in dungeons. San Francisco hosts a very large community of BDSM enthusiasts and is where I feel I came of age as a sex worker. Granted things are changing in the Bay Area very rapidly but BDSM has been at the core of my professional practice and my personal life. Although I now live in New Orleans, I am still flown out for the Folsom Street Fair to choreograph & perform in live shows annually. In regards to dancing, my most memorable initiation was at the behest of a former Madame of the legendary Lusty Lady; the female owned peep show where I worked cooperatively alongside a diversity of women in the Red Light District of San Francisco up until her debaucherous burial in the fall of 2013. I remember she gave me her own well-traveled pair of black patent leather Pleasers and advised me to stand a mirror before me and practice seducing myself. I passed many red lit hours wearing nothing but those mesmerizing heels, falling into myself and was forever transformed. I went by Dusty Chevrolet back then but after the closure of our beloved club, I surrendered that title and live on as Elle Camino.
Do you feel comfortable saying where you work or have worked in New Orleans?
I currently work at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club on Bourbon Street.
How long have you been there?
I’ve been at that club for a little over a year now, though when I'm out of town traveling around the States I often dance at other clubs.
How long have you been a sex worker in totality?
This will be my ninth year.
Do you like it?
Yes, I love working in an industry where I can express myself as a sensualist. I feel pride in my practice and see myself and the work I do as part of a great legacy of workers who have preceded me since Aphrodite's temples were frequented in ancient times.
When you were younger, do you remember being taught or told anything regarding the societal expectations that come with being a girl?
As a child growing up in the country, I was fortunate to have plenty of space to play in the natural world and was raised in a very unconventional sphere. I used to run around barefoot and naked and have fond memories of square dancing with the Radical Faeries. I was boyish and idolized many of my male role models, mostly cowboys and bronco busters. My parents encouraged my diligence as an artist and my father specifically took me out of town to play in his Americana band. In the most immediate sense of my family, I didn’t feel limited based on gender. As I neared puberty and was more exposed to mainstream society beyond the sheltering hills of the valley, the pressures to conform became immense. As I came into the awareness that girls around me had been and were being molested and raped, I became vigilant of my existence as a woman. But in general I was very encouraged to do whatever I wanted and was supported as a young person.
Can you define sexism?
This is the hardest question. I think questions are ultimately more important than answers especially around a topic which is so multifaceted and affects such a diverse population of people. I feel we all need to be having more conversations around our personal boundaries so that we can deconstruct the aspects of our culture which are innately oppressive. We cannot deny it’s a conversation beyond having a womb, being a woman, or simply being femme-presenting: it's so much more complex. I can speak to my own unique experience as a female-bodied person who is also high-femme presenting, as I feel this is the precedent for the vast majority of the sexism I personally experience. Sexism in my experience is the prejudiced belief that people of a certain sex or gender representation are inferior to that of another. Most of the sexism I experience is unanimously directed at me from men: cis het men, gay men, but I also experience a ton of sexism from women and plenty of transfolk as well. I get sexist remarks and reactions to what I am from all sides. At times it’s really challenging to be a high-femme woman just trying to walk a couple blocks in a dress and heels and to not be bombarded by the entitlement of others as they give me side eye and cat call me.
Can you explain what high-femme is and what that means?
High-femme is choosing to access what I feel are the most potent aspects of what it is to be feminine. It is an active embodiment of the divine feminine archetypes and thereby the Goddess. Femme drag and stripping are both performative acts which play upon feminine identity through masquerade and in a magickal sense have the potential to be ceremonial acts of invoking "Her".
How does being treated in a sexist way make you feel?
It makes me cringe...it makes me feel coddled. This imposing bias manifests for me in the experience of sudden, acute, and pained awareness of my body. It feels gross that people are looking at me and making assumptions around what they think I’m capable of and incapable of...how they see me in relation to them in a hierarchical and/or sexual way.
Do you have any lingering experiences that have stuck with you?
So many. But the experience I will share with you is not one that I had in the sex industry. I had it when I was like 20-ish at a café job. I want to tell this one because sexism, whether you’re a sex worker or not, has the potential to happen in every context. I want to give voice to this experience because of that and because it prompted me to delve more deeply into sex work. I was working as a bartender at a small café a few houses down from my apartment in San Francisco. I remember it was a busy night and I was working in the narrow gully behind the bar. My co-worker, an older man who I considered a friend, kept touching my hips to move me out of the way. It was very uncomfortable. I was not ok with it so I calmly said, “Can you please use your words? I need you to stop touching me.” Rather than responding with understanding and professionalism and taking that boundary and abiding by it and acknowledging that that was something I needed, he lost it on me. He started yelling very demeaning things at me and basically treated my boundary as an accusation that he was a molester. Rather than accepting it, he caused a scene on a very busy night. Multiple guests approached me and gave their phone numbers to ask what was going on and voice their concern. I am a very strong person but I was almost in tears because I was in disbelief that someone who I considered a friend would feel such physical entitlement and because I was demeaned and violated in a space that otherwise felt safe. I was being kind in asking him not to touch me. In another work situation where I hadn't considered him a friend, he would not have been granted that grace. Needless to say, it was very tense for the rest of the evening. He was huffing and puffing around and slamming pots and pans and stuff. A couple days later I was talking with the boss who was also male. I was bringing this concern to him because it hadn’t been resolved and was creating a really hostile work environment. He ended up firing me in that really passively insidious way that bosses sometimes do when they say, “We’ll call you if we want you to pick up a shift or something,” and had the audacity to tell me I wasn’t cut out for that work, which I had been doing in a variety of forms since I was sixteen years old. I was overqualified if anything. He told me I should try getting a job as a desk girl at a hotel. He was like, “You’re not cut out for this work, have you thought about this?” as if he was handing me salvation. It was so insulting. I noticed they didn’t have any women on their night shift after that so clearly rather than dealing with the misconduct of a male employee, they just fired the only woman. We all have these stories. And there are so many more sexist stories that I could bring up that involve real assault but this was a pivotal moment and it didn't happen at the [strip] club.
Following that I didn’t have regular work. I ended up getting a series of service industry jobs, selling my artwork and continuing to collaborate in paid nude photo projects. I had already been doing this nude modeling for awhile and had befriended the visionary erotic photographer Charles Gatewood. I didn’t model for him, but he was a true visionary whose work and life philosophy encouraged my own journey as a libertine. Through that fumbling moment of uncertainty, I was able to bridge over into doing more go-go related stuff, dom work and dancing. Over the years as a dancer and actress in pornography, I've experienced sexism as a result of the "male gaze" and how we are supposed to look and act relative to what cis heterosexual men deem desirable. Most of my female and male bosses have been conduits for misogyny, policing the bodies of those they employ and treating us as an expendable commodity rather than the dignified human beings we truly are. Too often these misguided ideals have been enforced through the use of hypercritical and demeaning language. I am completely disinterested in a homogenous model of beauty and femininity and know from my own experience that it isn't the only canon in the industry that is desirable or lucrative. This is also why I find alternative porn, queer porn and the many "renegade businesses" which uplift a diversity of sexual expressions to be so refreshing.
What’s the best part about being a sex worker?
Basking in my sensual glory and getting paid for it.
And what’s the hardest part?
The hardest part is criminalization. Criminalization brings fear and vulnerability too often to the front of the work that I do. With the raids and everything, what have previously been tacitly condoned behaviors are now the premise for all sorts of legal repercussions. Never before has the government so clearly sought to condemn and endanger sex workers through restricting the avenues we have adopted as safe mediums for doing our work. We are undeniably under attack. With the government's recent adoption of the SESTA/FOSTA bills, we are facing the threat of having the very forums that have given us some semblance of security and discretion eradicated. Rather than making our work safer, taking away these platforms puts women back on the street and in situations where it is much more likely for trafficking and assault to occur. Getting rid of things like bad date sites, a key tool for workers to protect one another, makes it even more volatile and endangering because if someone does something terrible to one of us, how can we report it? Can I actually tell a story around that?
The first night that I moved into the apartment that I lived in on Folsom Street in the Mission District of San Francisco, a sex worker was raped on the other side of the wall from my room in a building that was next to me. I’m hearing these folks having sex and then the next thing I know I hear this gasp and a weapon being drawn. There’s a sound that a gun makes in the silence it presents. I feel comfortable historically identifying as a prostitute and thus feel comfortable calling other people prostitutes. This john demanded his money back after paying for sex...he fucked her, raped her, and the entire time it was happening I was banging on the wall, crying. I was weeping, infuriated. I fucking called the police. I’ve only called the police two times and they have been useless to me and both have been situations like this. Even though the cop shop was two blocks up the street they didn’t show up until after she had escaped. I tried to run after her but she was gone. [She] lost her money and was raped. I didn’t want to endanger her but I wanted there to be justice. And then I had to share a wall with this fucking piece of shit. This house was crawling with men. It was a terrible place to live next to. That’s the worst aspect of this industry. Knowing that you could be criminalized for the work you’re doing and because of that you get put in situations like that where you can be assaulted and won’t be able to legally go to anyone about it. It breaks my heart all the fucking time.
What are the biggest misconceptions about working in strip clubs or in the industry as a whole?
That we’re victims. That’s something we have had to address constantly and are currently confronting through self-representaion. This misconception has great longevity: that we’re doing what we’re doing because we’re down and out, that we’re victims of sexual abuse, and that’s why we turned out this way. Those are sadly very common misconceptions which allow so many sexist ideas to persist and to become actual legislature which puts us at actual risk of exploitation. Even if most of us are survivors of assault, there’s not a single woman I know personally who hasn’t been raped or molested. To say that what we’re doing is a result of that based on the fact that we all have experienced it is absurd. We are all living in a rape culture, so don’t say that my industry and what I’m doing is because I’m a victim first. My story is that I am a very empowered woman and have chosen this actively and passionately and want to defend it and cultivate my practice. It’s ancient and it’s dignified and it has a place and that’s why it hasn’t disappeared. The idea that we’re victims doesn't help us develop safer practices, it diminishes them. This is exemplified by the work of a lawyer who is too pathetically vile to be named and has built his entire career on condemning dancers and sex workers across the country. He touts the incredulous Adult Live Performance Venues study which we will continue to combat with our own elucidating testimonies and evidence until it is dismissed as erroneous and is no longer used as false leverage against our profession. These fools keep burning women to kill the witch but she won't die. Stop stoning us with your ignorance. You haven’t found the evidence you sought because it doesn’t exist in this context. An important theme in our conversation with the New Orleans City Council is that if you actually care so much about the plight of people being trafficked, look to where it has been proven time and again to exist within the agricultural industry and as an extension of that, the unspoken workforce of individuals who have not been granted citizenship and therefore work illegally within the United States. I’m not going to a point my finger to redirect the focus of these tyrants and thereby scapegoat any other worker within the sex industry. We are standing in solidarity with one another.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
We are constantly having to navigate a patriarchal and hierarchical structure within and without the sex industry. As I mentioned, I was an owner and worker at a cooperative female-owned peep show in San Francisco. I have lived the seemingly-utopic version of what a female-owned, all body inclusive, non-ageist, completely non-conformist strip club would look like and we still closed after only 35 years because we couldn’t pay the rent due to inflation. In the mainstream industry whether our bosses are male or female, they still decide based on the "male gaze" whether or not we make the cut. We’re treated as expendable, and I want to see that change. I realize this is not specific to the sex industry but do see it as acutely visible in our work negotiations. Within the industry, I would like to see a higher level of professionalism, inclusion & humanity. I love being an independent contractor and I like making my own hours, but at the same time I don’t think that a boss should be able to cut your contract because they haven’t communicated with you about something you could’ve actively improved upon. There is no desire on their end to even have a conversation. Having been a manager, I would never do that to someone. There would have to be a goddamn good reason for letting someone go, especially if they had the skill set that made my business profitable. Within the actual industry there is a ton of sexism, but I do not wish to infer in any regard that I, nor that my colleagues, are victims. I believe that we are reaching a revolution where the roads of civil liberties, labor rights and human rights will meet.
Do you think that the sexism you experience within the industry and the sexism you experience outside the industry are different in some way or that it’s all just one beast?
I think it’s pretty much the same thing. I think they inform each other like all discrimination informs itself. But with professionalism it shouldn’t be excusable. In spite of how rampant sexism toward sex workers is without and within our industry, I strongly feel racism is a much more monstrous and unspoken issue. The racial element is so visible which is also why it’s so important that we effectively opposed the recent proposal for a club cap in the Vieux Carre. To diminish the number of clubs that women of color have the opportunity to work at is tacit racism. The ratio of black women to pale women I work with is consistently so uneven. When the City Council tries to hide behind this being a zoning issue or a land issue, all I hear is that women of color work there and they don’t want them around. We are all in this together, whether the club where I work is under threat of closure or raiding doesn't matter so much as whether our collective work is secure so that we can continue to provide for ourselves, our families and our communities.