The sex industry is built upon the objectification and commodification of women and is therefore inherently sexist and degrading, according to radical feminists. Striptease artist and men’s magazines model Zahra Stardust acknowledges the industry’s imperfections but argues there is an alternative feminist narrative that’s not so straightforward. She spoke with Katrina Fox.
14 November 2010
How long have you been working in the adult industry?
Seven years, on and off.
Exactly what you do you do?
I currently teach pole dancing four days per week at Suzie Q Pole Studio and V Club in Sydney, Australia, perform at professional striptease, burlesque and pole competitions/events interstate and overseas, and do shows at a range of venues in Sydney from strip clubs, private parties, Sexpo and swingers clubs to lesbian/queer nights, fringe festivals, fetish events, circus events and theatres.
I have worked in a range of media from exotic dance, bucks’ parties and feature strip shows, to neo-burlesque, pole, life drawing, trampling (walking on people in high heels) and modelling for adult magazines, calendars and erotica (porn) websites.
I was the Penthouse Pet for October 2010, Miss Centrefold Oceania 2010, and the Australian Pole Dance Open Pairs Champion with Stacey Minx for 2009. I have done workshops and shows in Tokyo, Wellington, Amsterdam, Stockholm and recently Austria for the World Bodypainting Festival and Germany for Miss Pole Dance Bavaria.
I would like to start making more queer porn and modelling for fetish photography.
What age are you?
Do you consider yourself a sex worker or artist or both?
I consider myself both a sex worker and artist. I see myself on a historical continuum of women who have been using their bodies as a canvas and site of artistic disruption.
The adult industry has led me to some of the most wonderful fringe and artistic niches all over the world, and to some of the most creative people. I have had the pleasure of pouring icing and candy over my body, painting myself in glow plaint, playing with fire, flying about with pink metallic Wings of Isis, tying and untying myself from a fetish rope bondage harness, dancing with bubbling cups of dry ice, adorning myself in giant silver wings made from tortured willow and wire, modelling latex superhero costumes and having champagne baths onstage.
My job has provided a form of sensual expression, theatricality and performance art. I consider myself a sex worker as I explore sex and sexuality in my workplace, and am proud to be part of a broader sex worker rights movement which has been at the forefront of campaigns for social justice, anti-discrimination and human rights.
How did you get into the adult industry and what attracted you to it?
I experienced something of a 'sexual revolution' when I was about 20. Always inspired by the nude paintings of artists like Egon Schiele and Gustave Klimt, I loved to draw the female figure and read erotic writings by authors like Anais Nin.
By far my favourite material at university was the unit reading on pornography for `Law and Gender`, and as I discovered more of my sexuality I began to write my own erotic fiction before I started working as an exotic dancer then showgirl.
My love affair with pole began when I was doing my undergraduate Arts/Law degree and I started an interdisciplinary women’s journal called Yemaya for the Sydney University Law Society, for which I wrote an article called ‘The Art of Pole’ and immediately became addicted.
I had always been interested in gender and sexuality as well as in sport and girls with great biceps, so it was a match made in heaven! Plus I loved not existing in that 9am - 5pm matrix of suits, menial labour and corporate jungles.
Has your legal/gender studies background informed what you do in the adult industry?
Most definitely. Although I eventually I soon abandoned my legal career to pursue slightly more twisted pursuits, I have always been interested in human rights and ending gender-based harm and discrimination.
In the past I have worked and volunteered with organisations such as Amnesty International, Animal Liberation and the United Nations, the latter in Australia on anti-discrimination measures and in Eritrea, in the horn of Africa, on sexual and reproductive health.
Since I left law for public undressing, I have had my fun bits photographed for ABC television in a protest of the airbrushing of women’s labias in men’s magazines, lent my voice to a short film featuring animated vaginas giving their perspectives on sex, appeared in Cosmo features on pornography and body image, spoken out against the censorship of female ejaculation in adult films in Triple J, and run for Senate as a candidate for the Australian Sex Party.
Over the past year I have had the pleasure of speaking at a number of amazing forums, including the F Conference, where I held a pornography workshop, the Sheila Autonomista Festival, discussing the intersectionality of oppressions and the Femme in the Frame conference, on the politics and experience of being a queer femme and working sex.
Have you always been an out and proud ‘feminist stripper’?
For a long time whilst performing I had a lot of internalised stigma about the industry. I began to resent make-up as a tool of patriarchy, saw high heels as a Western form of foot-binding, and couldn’t help but despise all male members of my audiences, who seemed to bond and socialise over the blatant oppression of women.
I began to feel complicit in perpetuating an industry that seemed to be comprised overwhelmingly of female performers and male viewers, and could no longer justify my involvement in the sex industry to myself, let alone my feminist friends.
Yet at the same time as negotiating my anger towards sexism and my love for sexual display, I felt a certain camaraderie with my fellow strippers, who all seemed to bear the brunt of ignorance, stigma and unsolicited opinions about their choice of occupation.
I started to notice the plethora of other industries that appeared to rely on sexual imagery or gender stereotypes to sell their products. My colleagues joked that their lawyer friends had to spend as much time on their immaculate appearance and role play at work as we did as strippers, from fake tan, manicures, makeup, hair blow drying to expensive and decadent work uniforms. I started to resent that those industries were not similarly stigmatised.
I still feel ambivalent at times about the industry itself, and it is certainly not perfect. But I do think that strippers, sex workers and all us sexual vagabonds can be powerful allies, not enemies, of feminism.
What led to the change of heart?
I began to look more closely at the experiences around me. I would see that at bucks’ parties, strippers would use measures of crowd control, humour and taunt to dominate, humiliate and ridicule their male subjects.
Upon their podiums, exotic dancers viewed the celebration of the female body as an extension of ancient goddess spirituality and commanding female archetypes.
In their interviews, showgirls would illuminate the way in which their depiction of ‘woman’ is merely artifice.
During sessions, sex workers educated their clients about safer sex, female pleasure and employ kinky measures that defy and queer stereotypes of clients’ presumed heterosexuality.
From upside down, pole dancers would challenge expectations about female strength and passivity through defiant athletic and gymnastic skill.
Classical burlesque performers created acts to pay homage to courageous iconic female figures, while neo burlesque stars play with the bent, the grotesque and the bizarre to create theatrical narratives to question the audience.
And with their politically active performance art, queer performers around me would use the forms of strip, nudity and drag to play with ideas about the body, gender and dyke stereotypes to voice new aesthetics and iconography.
I think a popular misconception about adult performers is that we are selling our bodies.
We are not selling our bodies to be used and abused – we are selling skilled sexual services and professional choreographed performances.
Other genres of dance/sport where one’s body is used for income, or industries like film where one’s sexuality is used for income, do not suffer the same scrutiny.
I also like to look at the ways in which women resist commodification – we look back from the stage with an active unashamed gaze, speak back from the stage with our own narratives, visual and verbal, and reject assumptions the body is replete with messages for men.
Performers also use multiple forms of media to interact and communicate with their audiences, which subvert stereotypes of objectification.
Porn stars and strippers often host live Q and A sessions on their websites, hold webcam chats, write blogs and have columns in men’s magazines.
Exotic dancers talk one-on-one with customers when hustling and during private shows.
Sex workers have intimate opportunities to chat with clients before and after sessions.
Burlesque performers can use the narrative of a show to make political comments.
Appearances at Sexpo, signing opportunities, magazine and radio interviews, documentaries, the wealth of porn star autobiographies, and even social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, give erotic performers a space to include their personal experiences, thoughts and views and share them with the world.
All of these interactive moments are opportunities to give voice to performers and resist objectification.
I also like to emphasise that women’s bodies are not solely used for male pleasure.
While men have long had a monopoly on sexual services, women are increasingly becoming consumers of erotic materials.
Erotic performance does not exist solely for male pleasure – women make up significant proportions of audiences at pole dancing events, burlesque shows, strip clubs (Ladies Nights), and as viewers of pornography.
I feel it is important to encourage spaces that include and celebrate audiences comprising a range of genders, and promote erotic performance that caters to a plethora of individuals.
I would also add that we often experience pleasure through our work – it can be a means for women to explore their own desires and fantasies, and can be healing, educative, spiritual and creative.
What is your response to people who say that money and power are the underlying issues of the adult entertainment industry and that if you want to pander to men, you're not really contributing to the evolution of humanity, even if you love your body and are proud of its difference and 'flaws'?
I think reducing the entirety of the adult industry to issues of money and power misses the diverse, nuanced experiences of performers and fails to identify moments of resistance, subversion and reclamation.
People work in the adult entertainment industry for a variety of reasons, from self-expression to sexual exploration, healing, education, art, rebellion, dance and human interaction, as well as power and money.
Women have long been stigmatised for pursuing money and sex outside heteronormative family units, and it is important for women to have financial independence, freedom and flexibility, in a context where there remains a significant gender pay gap in various countries, including Australia.
Performers are also engaged in very skilled work and it is important that they be paid appropriately.
Our work often involves substantial degrees of dexterity, flexibility, strength, and significant physical stamina, let alone intuition, sharp perception, negotiation skills, emotional labour, wisdom and specialised knowledge.
Many strippers are highly trained in ballet, cabaret, jazz, tap, aerobics, personal training and contemporary dance.
Sex workers often refer to themselves as sex educators, educating clients about female pleasure and sexual health. The adult industry can also be a particularly healing place for people with a disability to access professional sexual services, and for performers and clients to explore a diverse range of (often queer) sexual practices without shame, stigma or taboo.
Performers sometimes cater to different audiences the same way other artists custom-make shows/installations/performances for specific clients.
Unfortunately I think pandering to men is rather standard in a range of areas, such as law, health, politics, but most performers I know don't blindly pander to male desire.
Most are acutely aware of gender stereotypes, and find ways to represent their own interests, preoccupations and desires on stage. Women can exploit male desire for economic gain, and also discipline men at work through sarcasm, rules, and crowd control skills.
Eva Pendleton, writing in Whores and Other Feminists, has argued that the act of charging money can be subversive because it reverses the terms under which men feel entitled to unlimited access to women’s bodies.
For many performers, their job has taught them invaluable skills about how to stand up for themselves and how to protect their rights, integrity, respect, comfort, safety, boundaries and professionalism.
Their work often gives them the vernacular and practical experience in their wider lives as women to speak up about their individual beliefs, take control of situations, and exercise increased confidence, self-esteem and bargaining power.
Certainly I think mainstream society could learn a lot from the fetish community, who has an emphasis on communication, trust, boundaries and consent that is often largely absent from other relationships and workplaces.
What are your thoughts on objectification and the concept that even if you are feeling empowered by stripping or posing for men’s magazines, you can’t control the way you are perceived, so while you may identify as a political, radical, liberated alternaqueer woman, all the male consumers see is a ‘hot bit of pussy’ to ogle over?
Certainly, the subversive effect of a performance is impossible to predict or control.
Picture magazine frequently features photos of naked animal rights campaigners where the animal rights message is ridiculed or completely disregarded and instead replaced by sexist commentary. This is a source of constant frustration for me.
My queer feminist understanding of a performance may be completely lost in translation, but I try to use magazine interviews, panel presentations, my website, and discussions with audience members to elucidate on my politics.
It’s not always successful – recently I appeared in a men’s magazine where the interviewer kept asking ‘but you don’t hate men, do you?’ (after I said I had a girlfriend). In the published version I am quoted as saying ‘I’m not strictly gay’, by which I meant I was pansexual (and had spoken at length about gender diversity) but of course the quote is situated to suggest that I am straight by default, but merely playing gay for the titillation of male viewers.
Now I try to do more shows with unambiguous narratives – my next pole show is called ‘In Feminist Defence of Pole’, a response to popular misconceptions about pole dancing.
In terms of being a ‘hot bit of pussy’, while I’d like to be appreciated as a thinking individual, I also love my vagina, and I am happy for people to admire it in all its beauty. It is not a ‘neat’ tidy vadge that is replicated in commercial mainstream porn.
But I believe all vaginas are unique and stunning, and sometimes I see appreciation of the female form as part of ancient worship of the 'wondrous vulva'.
Other athletes and dancers are celebrated for their bodies yet women are often embarrassed about, ashamed of, or lack understanding of their own anatomy and vulva diversity. I am proud of my vagina – she is intelligent, witty, and she talks back!
Following on from that, some feminists would argue that no matter how personally empowering your work may be to you, you’re doing a disservice to women by reinforcing the notion that women are sex objects. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t believe that adult performers reinforce the notion that women are objects, mannequins or dolls.
Conversations with and writings by adult performers reveal that we are often intelligent, passionate women who exercise agency, desire and innovation onstage. It is possible to have sexual agency without being a sexual object.
I don’t believe that women need to be chaste, monogamous, passive or modest to be considered a ‘proper’ feminist. Instead, sexually explorative women who move beyond middle-class standards of ‘appropriate’ female appearance and behaviour have amazing things to contribute to feminist discourses.
I also think the burden should not be placed on women to control misogynist and sexist readings of their bodies and behaviours. People who interpret the nude female body as merely an object should be answering to feminism, not the owners of those bodies.
In terms of doing a disservice to women, for me, erotic performance has never been an individualistic pursuit that divides women. Rather, I experience it as another means of connecting to women and spreading love around the world.
Teaching pole has been a means for me to help women feel good about their individual bodies, and backstage spaces at strip venues have been amazing sites of solidarity, networking, support and education among women.
I see my performance work as part of a continuum of other work I have done in areas of gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health and human rights.
What are your thoughts on Adams’ analogies of sexualised images of women and butchered animals, and as women as ‘meat’?
I think Carol J Adams makes some highly relevant, unique and important points.
There is often a distinct absence of self-reflexivity or critical awareness of issues like misogyny, racism, classism, sexism and homophobia in meat advertising, and I think she draws some illustrative analogies that allow us to link oppressions, and allow us to critique relationships between masculinity and virility, women and consumability, and which bodies are considered ‘sub-human’ and expendable.
I do, however, feel that radical feminist discourses have left a lot of open wounds by failing to listen to complexities and nuanced voices from within the sex industry.
They have sometimes acted to reproduce the patriarchal discourses they seek to critique in placing further limits and moral judgment on what women are allowed to do with their bodies.
Many of these texts have left adult professionals in automatic defence mode, which hinders candid and open dialogue about industry reform.
Performers and sex workers would be more willing to speak out about problems within our workplaces if we did not feel the constant need to justify and defend our profession in face of public stigma and misrepresentation.
Attacks often come from people who have never worked in or been to a strip club, visited a sex worker, or done a pole class, and there is a distinct need to listen more actively to the wonderful, feminist, activist things performers are already doing to combat sexism and misogyny in the workplace.
The animal rights organisation PETA often cops flack for using young, naked women, usually of a particular look or body type, namely white and thin, in its animal rights campaigns. What are your thoughts on the use of nudity in activism?
I like nudity and I like activism, but I also like to see a variety of different body shapes, sizes, ethnicities, abilities, classes, ages, cultures and genders engaging in nude activism. I don't like seeing one prototype used to the exclusion of all others. I like nude activism to be available to everyone.
Despite all the anti-sex-work rhetoric, feminist porn and feminist sex workers exist – Annie Sprinkle springs to mind for example, and Jiz Lee, who was interviewed in The Scavenger recently. And you’ve been involved in feminist pornography websites – tell us about this, and how does feminist porn differ to mainstream porn?
There are increasing initiatives to create porn that is by women, for women and about women, and which reflects a diversity of genders, sexualities, abilities, ethnicities and body shapes that exist outside binarised categories of what is desirable.
Some examples include: lesbian sex/culture/politics magazines like On Our Backs and Slit, couples porn like Carol Queen’s Bend Over Boyfriend featuring her and her partner instructing viewers in the art of male-receptive anal sex, Candida Royalle’s Femme Productions which includes storylines, original music and characters, forthegirls.com which features photos and videos of naked men masturbating, purecunninglingus.com with over 1700 photos of men giving women cunnilingus, sites like Suicide Girls, Burning Angel and Abby Winters which purport to represent alternative female beauty and creativity outside conventional paradigms, and queer porn companies such as Pink and White Productions.
On www.kink.com, a BDSM website, there is even comprehensive information about values of ‘respect and trust’, upholding a safe, consensual environment, explicit model rights, and policies on equal opportunity in the workplace.
One of my favourite sites to have worked with is Feck, which has sites such as I Shot Myself featuring women as directors and subjects of photographs and Beautiful Agony, of people masturbating but only featuring their face – a part of the body often ignored in mainstream commercial porn.
Feck’s philosophy includes ensuring all contributors have a positive experience, engaging the mind in the sphere of erotic experience, showing beauty in all bodies, and subverting all the dominant models of erotica to show women as powerful beings, independent of men.
Where would you like the industry to head in future?
I wish there was more solidarity and support within the adult industry that celebrates, rather than polices, all women's bodies instead of just an elite few, and provides more venues that are respectful and safe for women, include open minded and gender diverse audiences, and which give creative licence to performers to interpret eroticism in individual, unique, self-deterministic manners.
I believe you’re a member of the Australian Sex Party – tell us about this and why it’s important to have a political party advocating for sexual freedom.
I was thrilled to be the NSW Senate candidate for the Australian Sex Party, whose policies on sex, gender, human rights and equality are very close to my heart.
One of our fundamental concerns is equality – including paid maternity leave, decriminalisation of abortion, enacting more comprehensive federal anti-discrimination laws, creating total equal rights in all areas of the law for GLBTIQ people, overturning discriminatory laws in the Northern Territory banning Indigenous people from possessing erotic media, ensuring the sexual rights of the elderly and people with a disability, convening a Royal Commission into child sex abuse in religious institutions, establishing a national sex education curriculum for children, and establishing a uniform classification scheme for non-violent erotica.
We believe that the personal is political, and we’re serious about sex and the way that it directly affects individuals in areas of health, censorship, discrimination, workplace, education and equality.
Any final comments?
I should add that I am a shameless utopian.
Perhaps my experiences in the adult industry should have led me to have more cynical views about the existence of the striptease and my role within it – and admittedly I do often meet with disappointment and disillusion – but being a romantic who believes in flower power and revolution, I can’t help but remain idealistic, even if unrealistic, that erotic performance can be a vital creative force to change the world!
See also Cruelty-Free Striptease: The art of ethical undressing, which is Zahra’s take on the intersectionality of oppressions within the adult entertainment industries.
Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.
Images from top: Sofa shot – photo by Tony Hunter; Pin-up – photo by Selina Vixen; Pink boxing gloves flyer – photo by Gary Holmes; Penthouse cover – Penthouse; Stage shot – Miss Centrefold Oceania.