Sex Work and Art

[Veronica Franco, a courtesan in 16th century Venice, is confronted by the wives of the men she has slept with. After Giulia De Lezze, a jealous wife, demands to know why their men return to her bed, Veronica Franco takes a banana from a bowl of fruits.]
Veronica Franco [pealing the banana]: “The Latin for banana is arienna. Banana tree is pala.” [she swallows the banana whole, as the wives look on shocked] “A woman’s greatest, and most hard-won asset … is an education.”
Giulia De Lezze: “Just because you can say it in Latin doesn’t make it any less obscene.”
Veronica Franco: “Just because you took a vow doesn’t mean you know how to love.”
“Dangerous Beauty” (1998)

A blog posting on a German law blog (, written in German) recently talked about an interesting case: A sex worker wanted to have her “stage name” (“artist name”) officially registered in her passport. It was denied by a German court.

I don’t know the details of the case, just the lawblog posting, but I nevertheless find it an interesting case to think about the question: “What is art?”, or rather: “What defines an artist?”. After all, it’s the “borderline” cases that show you whether your definition is worth the electrons it was stored with. I left two comments on the blog, but as I had a lot of fun thinking about the topic, I use what I wrote for an updated and translated posting here.

First some necessary background about the situation in Germany:

  1. It’s possible to have your “stage name” or “pen name” (i.e., the name you use as an artist) registered as an official name in your passport. There’s a field for the “Religious name or pseudonym” on the German passport (the current version, it was not available between 2007 and 2010). You can then sign (in many cases) with your pseudonym and it’s legally binding.
  2. Sex work is kinda legal in Germany. “Kinda” because there’s still a lot of stigma attached to it — both to sex workers and to clients. It’s also unlike any other profession when it comes to offering one’s services (e.g., legal constraints where you can open a brothel).
    Note: While I shouldn’t have to spell it out (but I know I have to, due to some people’s warped views when it comes to “sex work”): We are talking “sex work” here (e.g., prostitution, escort services and the like). We are not talking about “sex trafficking” or “child sexual abuse” (aka “child prostitution”, a misnomer given that children cannot work as prostitutes — it is always child sexual abuse, not prostitution which would require sex-for-pay between consenting adults). Sex trafficking and child sexual abuse have as much to do with prostitution as forced labor in gulags have to do with legal work in manufacturing. And it goes without saying that the men and women involved in sex trafficking and child sexual abuse should be caught, convicted, and punished to the fullest extend of the law (and perhaps a bit more).

Now, what was interesting about the case is the justification the German court used to deny this sex worker the registration of her stage name. The justification was (according to

“Beim künstlerischen Schaffen im eigentlichen Sinn wirken laut dem Gericht Intuition, Phantasie und Kunstverstand zusammen. Dabei gehe es primär nicht um Mitteilung, sondern um den Ausdruck der individuellen Persönlichkeit des Künstlers.”.

which roughly translates as:

“According to the court, in the real sense of artistic creation, intuition, imagination, and artistic sense act together. The main goal is not communication, but the expression of the individual personality of the artist.”.


“Im Mittelpunkt ihrer Dienstleistung stehe die Erfüllung der sexuellen Bedürfnisse ihrer Kunden.”

which roughly translates as:

“The focus of her service is the fulfillment of the sexual needs of her customers.”

Personally, I totally agree with the court’s definition of an artist, but I totally disagree with their outright classification of sex work as outside the scope of artistic expression. And while I think that preventing sex workers to register their “stage name” in their passports is discrimination on “moral grounds”, I am not sure whether it is such a good way to strive for social acceptance of sex work this way. But it sure acts as a pretty good litmus test of social acceptance.

But one thing after the other.

Intuition, imagination, and artistic sense in sex work

First, let’s talk about the supposed lack of “intuition, imagination and artistic sense act[ing] together” in sex work.

It seems like the court sees sex work as, well, kinda like a McDonalds “restaurant”. No matter where you are (in a country), you get exactly the same. No sex worker uses even the tiniest bit of his/her (work-)personality. Intuition, imagination, and artistic sense — not required. Previous impressions, knowledge, or experiences do not play any role whatsoever. To use colloquial terms, “spreading legs”, “bending over”, or “opening the mouth” is all that’s required. Sex workers are completely interchangeable.

And yeah, there might be some or even a lot of cases — of sex workers or forms of sex work — where this is true. But I think this view does not fit well to sex workers having their own individual profile that attracts and holds regular clients. It also does not fit well forms of sex work that could be subsumed under terms like “courtesan” or “geisha”. I am pretty sure that there are at least some sex workers who aspire to offer more than the usual run-of-the-mill service and use their intuition, imagination, and artistic sense. Who interpret sex work in the context of the wishes of their clients/guests (and reject some clients for lack of compatibility). Not only because it’s a good business practice to go the extra mile if you prefer regular customers/clients/guests, but also because they strive to be very good at what they do for a living (basic self-respect) and see their job as a calling and want to excel in it.

I think seeing sex work as … well, a run-of-the-mill service without the possibility of artistic expression, shows a very low opinion of eroticism and sex. And of what sex can be. The discussion is also strikingly similar to other subjects where a socially ostracized group wants to use a highly-regarded term. Suddenly the pseudo-majority(*) has some kind of moral stomach ache and idealizes the term to deny the socially ostracized group the use of the term due to the (now) required attributes that the ostracized group is ostensibly missing. In an age where shitting on a flag or bleeding on a canvas is “art” that seems a bit insincere. The whole discussion of sex work being unable to qualify as art reminds me of the discussion of “what marriage is really about” in the context of homosexual marriage. Waow, so that’s the “real meaning” of marriage? Never would have guessed it.

Fulfillment of the sexual needs of her customers

I also found the reasoning regarding the “fulfillment of the sexual needs of her customers” interesting. First of all, the use of the term “sexual needs”. Not “wishes”, not “phantasies”, nope, “needs”. As if all the action comes from the client/guest. The sex worker is simply there to fulfill these needs, like simply flipping a switch and that’s it. I can’t help but suspecting the court has the impression that sex workers are passive enablers of services — without any agency or any (work-)personality or capability of expression. Just a catalyst. And I wonder — where’s the difference to, e.g., actors/actresses. They get chosen based on their fit to the role and they act according to a screen-play. But within the bounds of that script, they can interpret the role and express their (work-)personality. And based on how they express their (work-)personality we love specific actors/actresses. How is that different from a sex worker who does the same?

A comment on money

There’s this nice song “Money changes everything” — well, when it comes to art, the song should be: “Money enables many things”. After all, money does not taint art. On the contrary, it enables a lot of great art. At the very least, it funds art. And it often sets a lot of useful constraints in which artists can express themselves. After all, total freedom is totally paralyzing. Just think about the most beautiful and well known works of art in the past centuries — chances being, the artists doing them had patrons paying them for a particular kind of work. Or the artists were doing remittance/commission work outright. Art and money might seem like two contradicting terms, but they really are not. Very much like creativity and organization ;-). They enable each other. Applied to this topic, money really does not make a difference. Is something not art, because it was commissioned and paid for? If so, discard most of the paintings and buildings and statues of the past centuries.

Bypassing the problem

On lawblog, a couple of commentators pointed to a loophole regarding getting a pseudonym registered. For example, a soccer player wanted to play under the name “Zecke” (German for “tick”, i.e., the tiny insect). To do so legally he drew two images of a tick and sold them under the name of “tick”. That was enough to play soccer with a jersey denoting that name. But I don’t think it would be of use here. As much as the soccer player did not “earn” the pseudonym of “tick” for his artistic expression of soccer, the sex worker would likewise not be legally able to use the pseudonym legally due to her artistic expression of sex work, but due to some strictly unrelated work. The assertion would still be: You cannot be an artist in the area of sex work. There’s no art in it. It can be a service, but that’s it. It’s capped.

Personally, I find the view that sex work can ever only be a service, but not a work of art, unacceptable. Because it smacks of a moral barrier, not a barrier of what is possible from an artistic point of view. And why shouldn’t some expressions of sex work be a form of art?

What is art … or an artist?

Art is not defined by the subject matter (e.g., music, acting, etc.). On the one side, not every activity, e.g., playing of an instrument, is art. On the other, many different subjects can become a form of artistic expression. For example, graffiti can be artistic, so can be the building of sand castles or the tailoring of clothes. Hell, while most forms of serving tea and arranging flowers usually aren’t regarded as art, some forms can well be.

Art is also not defined by the quality of the work. While there is a difference between, e.g., just messing around with colors and painting very impressive paintings, we would not view a forger who perfectly replicates a painting on an extreme level of skill as an artist — but as a very skilful forger/painter. Not to mention that quality or even skill is sometimes hard to see (modern art where ostensibly “simple” works are regarded as art, or in general the gap between the vision of the artist and what was actually created). Also, the judgement of what is “quality” sometimes changes over time (van Gogh is the classic example).

So, I would totally follow the definition of the court — an artist is someone who regards him-/herself as an artist because this person aspires to do art by attempting to use his/her intuition, imagination, and artistic sense.

Moral — and not artistic — barriers

But why should some topics be excluded from being art just because some people find them morally objectionable or personally unsuitable to artistic expression? Personally, the only reason I see is that some people have a particular concept of morality that still regards sex work as “somehow different” or “morally objectionable” and unable to be done “artistically”. Which is strange in a country where sex work is officially legal and we (ostensibly) have the freedom to choose a career. It seems to be a long way until sex work is actually accepted as a profession that can be conducted on an artistic level. And sure, not all sex is art, but sex can be art. And no, it does not matter whether it is done by amateurs (= without monetary compensation) or by professionals.

But yeah, sex — and sex work — can be art. And personally, if you haven’t experienced sex as art, you got my sympathies. Or to quote one of my favorite authors:

“So far as I know, your culture is the only semicivilized one in which love is not recognized as the highest art and given the serious study it deserves.” […] I lay there a while longer, thinking about what she had said. The “highest art” — and back home we didn’t even study it, much less make any attempt to teach it. Ballet takes years and years. Nor do they hire you to sing at the Met just because you have a loud voice. Why should “love” be classed as an “instinct”? Certainly the appetite for sex is an instinct — but did another appetite make every glutton a gourmet, every fry cook a Cordon Bleu? Hell, you had to learn even to be a fry cook. I walked out of the steam room whistling “The Best Things in Life Are Free” — then chopped it off in sudden sorrow for all my poor, unhappy compatriots cheated of their birthright by the most mammoth hoax in history.
“Glory Road” by Robert A. Heinlein

I know that this is one of the topics on which people usually don’t leave comments. But I’m interested in your views. Can sex be art? Can sex work be art? What do you think? And why?



(*) “Pseudo-majority” (with a stomach ache when it comes to regarding sex work as art), because I am really not sure whether there really is a majority against sex work. Sure, talk to people, many will find sex work objectionable, esp. when they confuse it with sex trafficking (and like written, sex trafficking is not sex work, but something to be persecuted and punished). But some even think sex work itself (i.e., the exchange of sexual services for money between consenting adults) is objectionable. For example, as one person stated: “I couldn’t be friends with someone who has visited a prostitute.” Well, I’m guessing you don’t really “know” your friends, nor what some other of your friends are doing as a side job. It’s also why I love the topic, because as much as many people profess to be for personal freedom, as much do they deny people the freedom to provide sexual services. Astonishing and a very interesting example of cognitive dissonance. You are free to chose, but you are not free to chose that! But regarding the “pseudo-majority”, I really wonder whether most people today are actually against sex work, or just think they should be against it because — ostensibly — everyone else is. And who wants to come across as immoral? It might just be one of those “The Emperor’s New Clothes” situations. But still, even if the majority is against sex work, I can’t see any rational reason to be against it, nor why some expressions of sex work (or sex) cannot be art.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this article, it s clear that sexwork con be art. For a long time, artist explore sexwork and questionning the scheme “what is art?Prostitution”.Now, many sexworkers are also artists but they still have few visibility in institutions. Im also sexworker.

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