2006_03_audacialg.jpgFeminist sex worker rights advocate Audacia Ray is part of a burgeoning movement of young women (and some men) looking to reclaim words like hooker, prostitute, and whore that were formerly used as epithets. She proudly takes off her clothes to reveal her ringlets of brown hair, glasses . . . and often not much else. But this naked girl uses her brain as much as her bod, whether it's working as Executive Editor of $pread magazine, reviewing porn sites for Sugarclick.com, getting her master's degree, or blogging at WakingVixen.com. She's also modeled—nude, in mud, in boxing gloves, in paint and on the New York City subway—for a host of alt porn sites, earning her the ranking of Fleshbot's #3 Hottie of the Year for 2005.

On top of her already full plate, she's curating an exhibit of sex worker art debuting this Wednesday called Sex Worker Visions, helping to organize the conference Sex Work Matters: Beyond Divides, and booking local sex bloggers for next week's Perverts Saloon. The silicone-free model, writer, organizer and activist emailed Gothamist about studying sexuality in Amsterdam, why she loves getting naked for her favorite photographers, running a magazine, being taken seriously as a sex worker and academic, and what makes for good porn.

Audacia Ray is not your given name—can you tell me how you came up with it, and how being "Audacia Ray" is different for you than who you were before you took on this persona?
A number of years ago, while doing research on the nineteenth century and the history of sexuality, I came across and fell in love with Victoria Woodhull. She was the first female stockbroker in New York, practiced free love, published a newspaper and ran for president in 1872. She created a good amount of scandal in late nineteenth century New York just being herself, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (yes, author of Uncle Tom) wrote a serialized story about a slutty loudmouthed character who was a thinly veiled version of Woodhull, and her name was Audacia Dangyereyees.

I chose “Ray” as my last name as another bit of homage, but this time to the surrealist artist Man Ray. My tattoo is inspired by Ray’s photograph “Le violin d’Ingres,” so I thought that would be fitting. I like homage, because it gives me a chance to show my respect (and over-demonstrate my fierce nerdiness) but I also take these things and make them mine.

How'd you get involved in the professional sex world, and how has your perspective on the field changed during that time?
I studied gender and sexuality in college and throughout that time my roommate photographed me naked, and it became a pretty normal part of my life. Eventually it progressed to her photographing my boyfriend and I fucking, and we started to talk about putting a porn site together. At the time I had also been working in the pants-on world of sex—I was head researcher and then assistant curator of the Museum of Sex for two years as the museum was just getting going. From there it was the proverbial slippery slope: after leaving MoSex I started doing public relations for a small porn company called RedLight TV, teaching HIV prevention workshops through the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, doing fetish sessions and sensual massage, and modeling more extensively.

Sexuality has been a mess (mostly good) of the personal and professional for me, and when I first dove in, I really dove in. I indulged in as much of the sex world as I could and didn’t have a lot of limits, and didn’t really understand what the big deal was about limits anyway. These days I have a more controlled view of what I want to be doing and exposing, partly because I want to work in sex (though not necessarily naked) for a long time, and I need to take care of myself instead of burning out and saying yes to every interesting or sexy thing that comes my way. I’ve been retired from doing private session sex work for almost a year now, and though I still model, I spend most of my professional time with my clothes on. Well, usually in my pajamas looking at porn.

You're part of Sam Sugar's new team of sex sites, reviewing porn at Sugarclick.com. What does Sugarclick offer that other porn review sites don't, and what do you think goes into making good pornography?
The idea of SugarClick is to have fun-to-read reviews of adult sites in a market that’s polluted with choice and has a dearth of quality. It’s different from other porn review sites because like many blogs we have open comments—so if someone disagrees with what we say they can call us to task right there in front of all the readers.

Good pornography is all about chemistry between the performers, and it is made by people who have a basic level of respect for human sexuality, the people they’re filming and the consumers. This combination of things is painfully rare. I’ve been really spoiled because my interactions within the industry have been with people who are true visionaries and love human sexuality—the vast majority of the porn industry is not like that at all.

What have been some of your favorite sites you've reviewed so far, and where do you find sites to review?
My favorite site so far has been TwoBigMeanies.com, which surprised me a bit since I typically am not that into BDSM smut or BDSM in general. Two Big Meanies is really fabulous because there is space for the performers to express their sexualities, plus there is lots of personality and checking in with the sub, something pretty rare in most BDSM smut. Though porn reviewing can get kind of rote, the best thing about it is that I watch stuff I wouldn’t think to watch on my own, so occasionally I see stuff that really knocks my, er, socks off unexpectedly. Last year I went through a spell of reviewing she-male videos, which I’d never seen before I was assigned them, and now that’s one of my favorite things to see on screen.

2006_03_audaciamag.jpgYou're also in school. How do you juggle your academic life with sex work, modeling and writing? Is that ever a conflict for you or your colleagues, in terms of your openness about how you make money?
I’m working towards a master’s in American Studies at Columbia, and I do work on gender and sexuality with a focus on identity and health. I chose the humanities route over other options because I’m really interested in the ways that culture and sexuality affect one another, and I like the kind of free-wheeling insanity of interdisciplinary study. While I’m not completely closeted at school, I don’t wear my sex industry street cred on my sleeve either, and it isn’t usually relevant in my classes, though sometimes I do shoot my mouth off.

Speaking of academia, you spent last July in Amsterdam studying sexuality. What was the program and how did it expand your thinking about sexuality and sex work?
The program was the Summer Institute in Sexuality, Culture and Society at the University of Amsterdam. I outed myself as a sex worker in the first round of introductions, mistakenly thinking that it would be a non-issue among academics and activists who specialize in sex. It turned out that everyone was really fascinated by having an actual specimen in their midst, and it was kind of creepy that everyone was interested in that one thing about me, and much less interested in the whole activist/grad student/HIV educator bit.

You've modeled nude for alternative sites like CityKittie.com, BellaVendetta.com, OnlyPaperDolls.com, and NoFauxxx.com and can be seen having sex onscreen in Benny Profane's upcoming porn flick Psychocandy 4. Firstly, how do you decide which modeling/porn jobs to take, and does the fact that these are all in the world of alternative/indie smut matter to you?
Pay rates are much lower in the alt porn genre than when you model for bigger porn sites or for a content producer who sells your images to someone else, but one of the big reasons I’ve stuck mostly to the alt stuff is that the companies typically have better business practices, and if you work for an alt site you probably aren’t going to see your image coupled with the words “skanky ass whore.” Though there has been some upheaval in the alt porn world lately with the drama at SuicideGirls and the transition many people are making into DVD, alt porn is very close to my heart, and I definitely prioritize those jobs over other ones, though I have also had some fun fetish shoots (feet, sleeping, and catfight videos). I am starting to shoot more with art photographers and I’m doing more intensely engaged shoots—shoots that aren’t explicit, but are more about digging into something deeper than skin-level sexiness.

About modeling, you've said, "The more a photographer pushes me to make sexy faces, the more ridiculous, out of touch with myself, and shy I get about it." You've written on your site that you like to mostly "be" yourself during your shoots, and you always wear your glasses, whereas I'd imagine that a lot of models like the dressup/acting aspect—they can do things they might not normally do "as" themselves. Why is being as close to your own everyday self, but naked/in sexy attire, important to you when you model?
First of all, I’m a really shitty actress, and if a photographer is annoying or making demands like “get sexy!” I’ll probably look pissed in the pictures. I like a photographer who gets me laughing and encourages me to relax into my natural gestures—I want to tap into sexiness without artifice. That said, sometimes outrageous poses and situations are awesome too. I just general prefer it when the photographer tries to know me as a person a bit, because I think it makes for much better photographs. I also think that a lot of sexy pictures are full of artifice and putting-on of sexiness, which is kind of silly—I’d rather try to bring out my natural sexuality. I know that sounds all hippy dippy, and maybe it is. While I do really dig pictures that bring something out in me, like I said before I’m a shitty actress, so I’m not good at being anyone other than myself.

You also prefer location shots rather than studios, and have shot everywhere from next to a waterfall to in an abandoned tractor trailor. Can you elaborate, and tell me about the most fun you've had during a shoot (if you want to give us the dish on rolling around in the mud, that'd be fun too).
Some of my most creative photo shoots have been with Brian Rawson, though usually by the end of a shoot with him, I’m cold and naked in an abandoned building or the woods somewhere and I hate him and hate modeling. It’s not always fun, and he pushes hard for good shots, but we also laugh a lot and fuck shit up. One time we shot me as a robot in an abandoned building—I wore the shell of a computer monitor on my head, various scraps of metal and tubes attached to my body and six inch stilettos.

When it started to get warm last spring we did a shoot that involved me rolling around naked in mud, so we lugged 6 gallons of water and a shovel out into the woods, he dug a hole and I got naked. What we didn’t realize was that we weren’t really in a super secluded area of the woods, and we kept seeing people peering through the trees at us, but no one complained. Also the whole area was really dry and a bunch of small brush fires kept popping up, so he’d go and stomp out the fires while I sat naked in my mud hole.

I’ve also really enjoyed shooting with Bob Coulter and George Pitts, two photographers with vastly different shooting styles. Bob shoots fast and loose and kept calling me “bitch” under his breath—I think he was kidding. George is very meticulous, and just sits in a chair and talks to me until he sees a gesture he wants to capture.

You took some shots pantsless on the E train and have flashed your bod in other parts of New York City. Has anyone ever caught you posing nude or have you had any close calls with the cops?
The naked on the streets thing is something that has amused me and photographer Logan Grendel (who took the subway shots, as well as street shots and me naked on a Manhattan rooftop in daylight) greatly. We never had problems with cops, but the rooftop shoot was fun because people in office buildings all around got a good show, and Logan and I got to laugh about how our jobs are much more awesome than the onlookers’ jobs. It’s pretty amazing how much you can get away with in this city. When we did our street and subway shoot, some people would stop and gawk (we had a few cabs screech to a halt and back up quickly) but LOTS of others walked right by and didn’t even see us because they were doing their own thing.

In your OnlyPaperDolls profile, you're wearing a t-shirt that says "silicone free." Do you feel pressure to get implants or to alter your body, and do you feel like it's a political statement to pose nude with your natural boobs?
I actually took that picture of myself the day before I flew to LA to shoot my hardcore scene for Profane Pirate—on their site they comment that I have “fabulous New York boobs.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that being natural and getting naked on camera is a political statement though. I don’t at all feel pressure to surgically alter my body—but a lot of that is because I’m in New York, I don’t model anywhere near full time, and I don’t have any delusions that I could have a supermodel body. Hell, I’m too lazy to work out, and my diet consists largely of ham sandwiches and whiskey.

I've only done a few nude photo shoots, and only twice for money, and while personally I (mostly) find it fun and freeing to expose myself, the main downside I've found is that then some people only want to look at my photos, and don't necessarily want to accept that I'm also a writer/thinker/person. Do you find that other people condescend to you because of the nude modeling and sex work, or do you think it's all part of one unified message you're sending? What do you say to people who admit they don't take you as seriously because they can see you naked on your site?
What’s interesting is that people have different points of entry into my little world—some discover my writing first, or my work with $pread, or my naked pictures, and then they see (or don’t see/understand) the rest of it. Basically, if you stick around my site a while, you’re going to see naked pictures and you’re going to read psychobabble and the people who dig it usually dig all of it, though sometimes the people who dig my writing in a deep way write to confess that they feel guilty also being turned on by my pictures. I tell them not to be sorry, to enjoy it all. That said, I have no problem with the idea that some people see me as just a curvy bespectacled girl to wank to.

Either people don’t really condescend to me about getting naked for money or I just don’t listen when they do (the second one is more likely). I see it as part of a unified message, everything is connected in a complicated way so that I don’t feel like I’d be doing what I do were pieces of it missing.

You said something very interesting in another interview, that you’re not shy about showing off your body but can be shy in person. How does this play out for you and why do you think you’re less shy about having your photo taken than talking to people at times—is it because they ask inappropriate questions about things they happen to know about you?
There’s definitely a difference between being an exhibitionist and being comfortable socially. I feel bolder and more loquacious when I’m naked, maybe because I don’t have anything to hide behind. As far as in-person interactions go, I’m actually a big fan of inappropriate questions, that’s probably a guaranteed way to get me talking. In general I think my shyness is a function of me very much being an observer—I like to watch how people interact and listen to what they’re talking about. I also generally have little use for small talk, so often I stay quiet until people get into heavier conversations.

There’s been a lot of debate, both in the blogosphere and popular culture, about what exactly “sex positive feminism” is and whether that’s an oxymoron. Can you elaborate on what the term means to you?
Feminism, at base, is about creating a world where women have choices and can be self-determined. Being a sex positive feminist is just one way to do that—it’s not an oxymoron, just as it’s not an oxymoron to be sexually conservative feminist.

You’re the executive editor of $pread magazine, created by and about sex workers. Can you tell me more about the women behind $pread and what you’re trying to do with the magazine? How broadly do you define “sex work?”
The women behind $pread are all incredible people, and we are a powerful team mainly through happenstance. We went on a weekend long retreat in early January to talk about our future plans for the magazine, and I think that’s when it settled in with us all that we’re in this for the long haul, and we’re in it together. One of the other editors recently commented in a meeting that this magazine has really changed her life—and we all agreed on that. Whereas we were initially a pretty business oriented group, we’ve all become genuine friends—probably in no small part because we spend so much damn time together, to the exclusion of other things in our lives.

What have you learned from working on $pread, and how has it evolved in its first year of existence? What big stories are in the latest issue?
Well, we’ve learned how to run a magazine—trial by fire. I think we are all still surprised when people perceive $pread as a “real” magazine, because we still see ourselves as just a bunch of kids who thought this was an awesome idea. Winning the Utne Reader Independent Press Award for Best New Title of 2005 was really validating for us—it made us feel like we’re really being heard and shaking things up.

You’re curating the art exhibition Sex Worker Visions, which will feature art made by sex workers and/or about sex workers. What can we expect to see there, and what’s the curating process been like? Is there a fundamental difference between work by sex workers and non-sex workers?
Curating Sex Worker Visions has been pretty excellent fun, because I love seeing the way artists and sex workers represent the sex industry and express themselves visually. In the exhibition, you’ll see an enema painting made by Joe Gallant and one of his starlets (yes, it is what you think it is), a self portrait by former SuicideGirl and illustrator Molly Crabapple, intimate portraits of porn stars Seymour Butts and Mari Possa by Paul Sarkis, and collages by activist and former escort Shane Luitjens. You’ll also see a music video called “Whore Power” by Scarlot Harlot as well as a rather intense video by former streetwalker Anne Hanavan called “Paranoid.”

It seems that non-sex workers who are sympathetic to the cause of sex workers struggling for their rights and against stigmatization are really keen on showing sex workers as whole, beautiful, interesting and complex people. In their art, sex workers are more expressive about the pain and conflicts that sex work has created for them. I think the sympathetic non-sex worker artists sometimes shy away from this kind of content because they don’t want to contribute to the negative cultural attitudes about sex workers.

The event is the prelude to the conference Sex Work Matters: Beyond Divides, being held at The New School and CUNY, which seeks to bridge the gap between the anti-trafficking movement and “sex work as work” movement, in a nutshell. What are some of the highlights of the conference, and does one have to be a student to attend?
Sex Work Matters features panels on activism, socioeconomic issues, public policy and violence against sex workers. San Francisco artist and erotic professional Melissa Gira and I are moderating a roundtable called “Managing Roles: Sex Workers, Activists and Academics.” The roundtable came about when the two of us started stressing about what hats we were going to wear at the conference, and then realized that that very difficulty, that feeling that we must choose allegiances, would be more than worth talking about. Our session is at 10:45 am on Thursday, March 30th at the New School, and it’s also being webcast, so you’ll be able to watch it within a few days of the conference on the New School website at http://www.online.newschool.edu/.

Although you do have to register for the event, it is totally free and open to the public. You don’t “have to” be anything to attend, just interested in the topic.

As a sex worker and student, do you feel the debates over sex worker safety and rights have become too academic? Are the messages and efforts reaching actual sex workers or are these debates largely confined to the academic world?
I feel like the interests of sex workers and the interests of academics don’t always match up too well. Although I am both an academic and a sex worker, my allegiances rest with sex workers, and even (or especially) being inside the academe I find myself being on guard against academic discussions of sex work. I often feel like there is this assumption in academia that sex workers are not talking about all the hot topics around sex work, or are not smart enough to deal with these issues, which is really not true and anyway—sex workers walk among academics. I don’t know why this is so surprising, because school is expensive and sex work is flexible and often well paid.

What have you found, in your travels, work with $pread, and personal experience, are the most pressing need for sex workers? Is it organizing/unionization, legalization of prostitution, public awareness, or some combination of these?
When people talk about the sex worker rights movement, I kind of shake my head a little—in San Francisco there is definitely a movement (uh, hello, unionized labor at the Lusty Lady), but I really don’t feel like there is a movement here in New York. The precursor to building a movement is creating both public and self awareness. There is so much stigma attached to sex work— a lot of it is internalized for sex workers who are ashamed of their work, keep it a secret, and have no one to share their experiences with. $pread is really trying to provide a forum for a lot of this to take place, and I love hearing about other spaces—private and public—where this is happening.

I think awareness of health issues and harm reduction techniques as well as access to good, cheap, non-judgmental health care is an extremely important and immediate issue for sex workers. Organizing and decriminalization are also extremely important, but especially here in New York, I feel like they are somewhat distant issues. In other parts of the country and world, these issues get a lot more play and are taken a lot more seriously.

Can you tell me more about the Perverts Saloon you're putting on at Galapagos?
In the beginning of February, Viviane of http://viviane212.blogspot.com and http://tgp.com organized a meet up for all the sex bloggers in NYC. It was a really cool thing, and during the evening we all kind of realized that it we didn’t want it to be a one shoot deal—we started to brainstorm ways to build community and have fun, and the idea of the reading was hatched. $pread had done an event (Sex Workers Fashion Show) as part of the Galapagos SMUT series, and I met Desiree Burch at the WYSIWYG Worst. Sex. Ever. reading on Valentine’s Day, and then it just kind of fell into place. The reading, which takes place on Monday, April 3rd from 7.30 to 10 pm, features ten sex bloggers reading their dirty stories, as well as the DJ stylings of biporno electropunk performance artist Houston Bernard and sexy moving images by NakedGuyNYC.

When you’re doing things that don’t involve sex in any way, where can you be found?
I am a serious workaholic, especially lately, so if I’ve not thinking or writing about sex, I’m usually sleeping. And while I used to be one of those people on the subway with my nose buried in a book, recently I’ve been so busy that when I ride the subway I’ve become one of those people who just sits and stares into space. It’s kinda awesome.

-- Photos by Logan Grendel/Niesha Studio

Find out more about Audacia Ray at her site Waking Vixen and get the latest on $pread magazine at www.spreadmagazine.org. Sex Worker Visions opens Wednesday, March 29th from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center, 208 West 13th Street, and will be on display through May 20th. Sex Work Matters takes place Thursday, March 30th at The New School
(Lang Student Center, 55 West 13th Street) and CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue). The event is free, but seating is limited; email sexworkmatters [at] yahoo.com to register. NYC Perverts' Saloon takes place April 3rd at 7:30 p.m. and is part of SMUT at Galapagos Art Space, 70 N. 6th Street, Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn.