After a lifetime of work in the sex trade, Kristen DiAngelo has decided to bring the profession out of the shadows with her documentary “American Courtesans.” In it, she talks candidly with women ranging from streetwalkers to big-money call girls, hoping to erase the stigma attached to an industry whose workers are frequently victimized but don’t enjoy equal protection under the law. Starting July 12, the film is available on DVD and VOD through Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and iTunes.
Recently, DiAngelo sat down to talk to ARTINFO about the challenges facing sex workers, and to dispel misconceptions about the world’s oldest profession.
You’ve never made a movie before. What was the impetus behind “American Courtesans”?
My friend Michael, he runs an S&M club called Paddles in New York, he took me down under the streets of New York to the most amazing set of underground dungeons I have seen anywhere in the world. There were rooms, like this Chinese torture chamber with these beautiful brocade walls of burgundy and gold and mirrors and brass gongs. Then we go into a medieval room with racks. Then we go into a wrestling room that’s padded from ceiling to floor, a doctor room with full medical equipment and tables for doctor-nurse play, a 1920s replica of a schoolhouse so you can do that little dunce thing in the corner. Somebody’s been writing on the chalkboard, ‘I will not look at girls, I will not look at girls,’ for that type of play. The last room we go into is the Madame Butterfly room because you walk in and it has these gorgeous geishas painted all over the walls. It was a cross-dressing room with rows of wigs and big shoes and clothing for men, but larger sizes. He [Michael] and I begin just talking about the life and what it’s like. All the crew starts talking, ‘I never knew this! I had no idea!’ So that’s where it started. I’m like, ‘We can do a really educational piece, just document a group of women who are real in this industry.’
In the movie, you talk candidly about being molested as a girl, as do many of the other women. Is that common among women in the profession?
Molestation is not a cause. If you can understand that sex is a physical thing and love is an emotional thing, and it’s great if they’re together but if they’re not, it doesn’t make it evil. If you take 100 molestation victims, you’re lucky to get one or two sex workers out of them. It does give you, sometimes, a tool, a survival mechanism. It does make you a warrior. And it does make you very determined – this is not going to happen to me.
You mention you’ve been beaten and raped more than once. Is that common in the profession?
I had no fear as a kid. I would put myself in bad situations and because of that, bad things happened. I know that predators can sense victims, and if that’s the way you begin to present yourself. It doesn’t happen to everybody. I take a lot of responsibility for that. I hadn’t dealt with any issues in my life from when I was younger. The industry’s very hard for women. When you hear about the rapes or the beatings or the trafficking that happens, I really believe that so much of that happens because you don’t have the same protection under the law as other people do.
Surprisingly, many of the women fondly recall their first time in the business.
Most of us believe it’s a right to have control over our bodies. If you need to go to work for money, you’re like, ‘Okay, I just need to pay the bills.’ How empowering is it to go in and say, ‘I need this much money and it’s worth this much,’ and have somebody go, ‘Right on. You’re right.’ You go, ‘Yeah, I’m empowered! I rock!’
Was that your experience the first time?
Absolutely. I remember to this day, it was quite a while ago, we got paid six dollars for a 20-minute massage. I got three dollars of that. That’s back when that was big money. I remember back then my rent was like $130 per month. Actually, this guy offers me another forty dollars. That forty dollars paid a third of my rent in twenty minutes.
Is it ever for pleasure, or is it only the money?
Every woman’s different. I don’t do anything I don’t like or don’t enjoy. And because of that, I can really say I love this industry. Some women don’t like it. Some women might not like working as a clerical assistant. Not everyone likes their job.
What about coming out to family and friends?
Not everybody in my life knows. That’s the case for all of these women. You never want somebody to feel heartache over a profession that you’ve chosen. The people in my family that I have chosen to tell, the two that are closest to me, the bond has become almost ten times stronger.
Were they men or women that you told, and do they react differently?
Both. I really think that if people love you, this won’t matter. It is a huge fear. We’ve had so many attacks from people in the industry and the religious right people. It’s not a hatred thing, it’s fear. And then from the religious right, I get serious hate mail – am I ready to die and pay for my sins? Stuff like that. Our biggest fear is that somebody we care about, it will cause them pain.