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The H-Word: Paper Crane: Antonia Crane Writes About Recession Sex Workers

a white woman sitting against a wall with closed eyes. Black and white photo"It all started with Stephen Elliot. I read his book My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up while in grad school and I started following him. I discovered the Rumpus and submitted an essay. I got rejected until I wrote something they liked."

"They" are the Rumpus staff: Editor-in-Chief Stephen Elliott, Managing Editor Isaac Fitzgerald, and Senior Literary Editor Julie Grecius, to name a few. The Rumpus.net is an online literary magazine that, according to Elliot, is "a response to what's missing on the Internet."

What they liked: Recession Sex Workers, Crane's idea for a column focused on individuals' experiences selling sex in a downturned economy. It was a subject Crane knew well.

Crane started working in her early 20s in the lap dancing clubs of San Francisco—first at Crazy Horse and later, The Century—to support a meth habit. When she quit drugs, she quit stripping. She worked retail but struggled financially, and so she marched back into the infamous Lusty Lady clean and sober in 1995, where she danced nude behind the glass. At the LL, she was part of the group that started a labor dispute and eventually unionized, becoming the SEIU Local 790: The Exotic Dancers Alliance. Later, she worked at Market Street Cinema as a lap dancer—a career move that took her to Vegas, Hawaii, and New Orleans. Besides peep shows and lap dancing, Crane has worked as a professional dominatrix and provided sensual massage. While working in the sex industry, Crane has always maintained other jobs ("you name it here," said Crane. "[I've done] everything from counseling to cleaning houses, bartending, catering, organizing, personal assisting. I've been a movie extra, porn extra, personal trainer, pole-dancing instructor, even a Sexy Santa for Quicksilver's Xmas party.")

At 37 years old and in grad school, Crane returned to sex work full-time. She said, "The economy crashed hard and my mom died so I said 'fuck it' and auditioned at strip clubs around LA." 

Pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University, Crane describes herself as a fledgling writer. She has completed a draft of a memoir that explores both her experiences in the sex industry as well as her mother's battle with cancer. "My book is called SPENT," said Crane, "It ties together grief and sex." I asked Crane what becoming a writer has meant to her personally. "When you've become so seasoned at shutting down your feelings because your survival depends on it, you need a crowbar to excavate them. Writing is the crucible."

photograph of a white woman bending over from the waist down

Another purpose in writing about her own experiences, Crane says, is to change people's perceptions of sex work. This, also, was the purpose of Recession Sex Workers column. "I wanted to find other sex workers who would be transparent about the industry and their lives as well as the complex factors that led them to this work in the first place."

The interviews, which are complimented by the photography of Romy Suskin, confirmed what Crane already knew (although, she says, there were some surprises).

I've learned that the work is complex, the women, men and transgendered people [in this industry] are complex and interesting. There's always a thread of sadness in there—I can't help it, I bond with people in their suffering first. I always want to know what the people I interview are sad about and how they really feel about being objectified, knowing also that there is agency and power in their sexual performance.

The sadness in Crane's story is easy to locate. I asked Crane, "Speaking for yourself, would you say that sex work has helped or hurt?" Said Crane:

I would say both. It has supported my lifestyle and paid my rent for 20 years. It's an alternate reality: where strangers shower you with sexual attention, appreciation and money. When I've been heartbroken, clients have shown me compassion and affection. When I was lonesome, they provide me with fleeting companionship. It can hurt because in the "real world" no one cares if you're hot. I've learned to mask my feelings as a defense. In many ways, it's like an acting job, where the fictive dream can expand too far. I've been trained to provide pleasure to other people for so long, it will be fun to explore my own feelings and pleasure more.

Crane calls sex work "golden handcuffs." She admitted, "it's difficult to transition from this job to another."

According to Fitzgerald, Recession Sex Workers is one of the most popular columns that the Rumpus publishes.

"Antonia's writing, like the woman herself, is filled with incredible strength," he said."She sets her subjects at ease, so they can be open about the lives they lead, and her writing helps illuminate the world of sex work for readers who may not be familiar with that (very large) industry." Fitzgerald noted that not just Antonia but many of the individuals who help run or write for the Rumpus are current or former sex workers, including its founder Stephen Elliott. "We really believe what Antonia is doing is important. Her column is instrumental in helping us accomplish one of our main editorial missions, which is to help people better understand the very complex world of sex work."

white woman lying on her back looking at the camera. There is a cracked egg near her on the floor

Read more from Antonia Crane at The Rumpus.net. Images #1 and #3 by Romy Suskin.

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