Antonia Crane has worked many jobs in the sex industry. She’s done escort, BDSM, porn, and stripping. She’s also been very engaged with sex worker activism. She edits the Recession Sex Worker series here at The Rumpus and this month we decided to interview her. There are pictures in the following interview that are NSFW.
The Rumpus: How old were you when you started doing sex work and what was your first job?
Antonia Crane: I was living with my speed dealer girlfriend in San Francisco when I first auditioned at The Century Theatre in 1992. I was twenty-two years old and strung out on meth. The club was nude and full contact, but in the audience, lap dances were ten bucks with our bikinis/underwear on. During my audition, I tore my vintage wedding veil and wig off to “Stretched on Your Grave” by Sinead O’Conner and got yelled at by the manager, a Persian dude named “Manny,” but he hired me anyway. The Century was an old movie theatre with a huge stage with two poles and a catwalk.
The Rumpus: What was your progression as a sex worker?
Crane: In the early 90’s, stripping was considered performance art and a perfectly liable way to make the rent. Danielle Willis (“Breakfast in the Flesh District”) and this beautiful junkie named Madeline were my mentors at The Century. When I first started, I was awkward and horrible at hustling dances. I was creeped out by hands on my ass and thighs and being systematically rejected by men pissed me off and hurt my feelings. I would sometimes cry. I watched the other girls brush it off and laugh and give these energetic, alluring performances on stage. The club was a dark cave. Many girls were on heroin. I was on speed. We were all non-monogamous and bisexual or gay back then. Many of us had piercings, scarification and tattoos. I got clean in a psyche ward in 1995 after I tried to kill myself in a speed psychosis. A year later, I worked at Lusty Lady Theatre in North beach, where we danced naked behind glass. I worked with remarkably smart, feisty girls at The Lusty. Guys would come in with video cameras and film us in the booths with one-way mirrors. The Internet was a new and looming threat back then. We were afraid customers were going to tape us and expose us on the Internet to our families and lovers, so after a long battle, we organized, fought and eventually unionized and became SEIU Local 790: The Exotic Dancers Alliance. The union effort made things tense at the Lusty in 1997, but I needed to keep working. My friend was banking at The Market Street Cinema. I was grandfathered in by her and went back to the nude full-contact lap-dancing scene that was heavy hustle and high stage fees. But I was sober so I had an edge over a lot of the other girls. Market Street was a cesspool of hardcore junkies and pregnant runaways with pimps. There were a lot of black girls at the Cinema and they taught me how to move and pole dance.
The club got greedy and charged higher and higher illegal stage fees to work there. At one point, we paid $180 for four hours. We all started doing hand jobs in the back rooms. This was during the Dot Com boom and all of San Francisco was hemorrhaging money. We were walking with $500-$1000 a night for the four hour shift. I went back to The Century Theatre where the stage fee was always $120. After 9-11, the clubs were empty. The money was frozen. I started seeing a couple regular clients outside at hotels or in their homes. I got a job as a harm reduction counselor in the tenderloin for triple-diagnosed youth as an effort to get out of the sex industry, but I ended up getting deeper into it instead. Which brings me to LA. I saw a couple for about a year where the husband wanted me to make his wife squirt. I do some erotic massage here and some Domme work in Los Angeles. I dance in New Orleans where there is touching in the clubs and lots of tourism.
The Rumpus: You’ve told me you prefer dancing to escort. Why?
Crane: Some levels of loneliness are unbearable and fucking for money just makes me sad. I don’t hock my stuff for the same reason. It’s not that I think having sex for money is morally repugnant or degrading to women. I think sex acts between consenting adults should be legal. I have had sex for money. When I’m extremely sad or heartbroken, it’s easier for me to give my body to men for money but I don’t feel good about it afterwards. Escort work is isolating and more risky. I feel like I’m in a movie when I’m doing outcall, but the movie could turn very scary at any moment, like the time in SF when I saw a regular client for a paid date at The Clift hotel. I didn’t tell anyone where I was or what I was doing. The trick drugged me with GHB at Asia de Cuba in a glass of water that was waiting for me at our table. He was someone I liked and trusted. I was so embarrassed and ashamed, because I was sober for several years and I blamed myself for the incident, so I didn’t tell anyone about it for several days.
Dancing is a rush. I love being on stage and pole dancing is an art form. I like connecting to people in the context of a strip club. Lonely men can share their secrets with a stripper easier than the people who know them well. I enjoy being objectified and desired and being in control of that exchange. It’s been said that men are simple, but it’s not true. I’ve met dynamic, fascinating men with exciting fetishes and obscure, complicated desires and it’s a pleasure to participate in that desire. It’s also stimulating and fun to be around naked hot women. I love to watch other dancers and crack the codes of their hustle and know about their lives and watch them perform to their music.
The Rumpus: Right now you’re in New Orleans, but your home is in Los Angeles. Why did you go to New Orleans to strip and how did you end up in LA? (New Orleans suits you by the way.)
Crane: I had a boyfriend in SF who wanted to move to Los Angeles so I broke up with him. Then I proceeded to follow him and move in with him. I thought it would be a good way to stop stripping and transition into a different career, but it didn’t work. That was 2003. We split up and he moved out of LA. After several jobs, like cleaning houses and catering, I was in grad school and broke in 2009. The money’s hard to make in the clubs in LA (Cheetahs, Papa Joe’s, Pleasures) because the rules about being topless and touching are strictly enforced and the economy sucks. So I was struggling and it was last few months of my graduate program. I needed some dough. A friend of mine was at “Visions” in New Orleans and said the money was pretty good so I showed up at the club with my luggage last May and was going to stay for a week but it turned into almost 3 weeks. I fell madly in love with New Orleans from the spicy food to the sweet talking locals, to the French Creole architecture. There’s a collective joy, mystery and hysteria about New Orleans and I might die if I don’t live there at least part time.
The Rumpus: You’ve been heavily involved in sex worker activism for a long time, what’s that about? What would you like to accomplish?
Crane: It’s about using my seventeen years experience in the sex industry and turning it into community service. I was a harm reduction counselor in SF for at-risk youth and loved counseling homeless youth and HIV positive youth. I wanted to do more of that work here in LA, but I couldn’t get a job without an “in” or an MFT or MFCC and I didn’t want get that degree. I wanted to write. So, I found Aim Healthcare here in LA, which focuses on the personal safety and sexual health of sex workers. My hope is to cater to the needs of sex workers, because in the US, they’re largely ignored and vilified. I’d like to help other sex workers practice safe sex, get tested regularly for HIV, STI’s and Hep C and transition into or out of the sex industry. My column started as a look at how sex workers are affected by the economy, but it’s taking on a life of it’s own now and more about the visibility of sex workers in general.
The Rumpus: Is it true that you were the dangerously beautiful paramour in Michelle Tea’s Valencia?
Crane: No. The dangerous love interest in Valencia was based on my ex-girlfriend Marya and I was referred to because of my connection to Marya as glamorous and someone that everyone had a crush on, which was super flattering. Michelle’s a good friend and a huge inspiration to me. We’ve had some fun times including a Thanksgiving where we were play piercing and my girlfriend, Marya, screamed at me from the street, but I wouldn’t leave, I was having too much fun bleeding with Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson and others.
The Rumpus: I’ve noticed you work hard at your writing, at being a decent person, at maintaining your relationships. I would say you’re an intensely moral person. Where does that come from, or does it exist a priori?
Crane: That’s a huge compliment coming from you, because of how principled you are with respect to supporting other writers and offering so much guidance to fledgling writers on The Rumpus. I try to have integrity in all my affairs including sex work. But, I wasn’t always that way. I used to rob people in the clubs or steal other people’s lovers, husbands or girlfriends. I used to cheat, especially if I was extremely in love with someone. I still am learning how to have boundaries and maintain relationships. When someone is totally selfish and self-promoting, it comes across to everyone in the room and I don’t want to be that person. I want to champion people I admire and respect and if I am ever in a position to help want to do that. You model this behavior as well as many other friends of mine who inspire and help me. So I would say I’m just following the lead of my friends.
The Rumpus: How has the recession affected your work?
Crane: It didn’t use to be this hard. I used to just sell $20 dances all night and count piles of cash and stash it away to pay my basic expenses, but the recession changed all that. It’s made dancing emotionally complicated. Guys don’t want to part with their hard earned cash so I’ll say anything for $200. Instead of just selling the dance, I sell intrigue. Make the guys get smitten. I’ve given my phone number to them, told them I’d meet them for dinner, sushi, BBQ, play tennis with them, go to Vegas, Palm Springs, Mexico, go on motorcycle rides. I told someone I would marry him because he said he would kill me if I didn’t. But, I don’t dance much in LA anymore. I do it in New Orleans where it’s more target friendly and there’s lots of groping, drinking and spending in the clubs and it’s less complicated and more lucrative. So, my solution is to leave California. I’ve met dancers in New Orleans from all over the country who have the same idea.
The Rumpus: There’s this idea that sex workers always had fucked up childhoods, but the same could be said of many writers. I was a sex worker and I had a fucked up childhood and I know many sex workers, have dated many sex workers, and it really seems undeniable to me. Nonetheless, while troubled childhoods may lead to sex work, that doesn’t mean that sex work is wrong. In fact, for many it’s empowering and it’s a way better option than many other jobs that society doesn’t even question. This is your chance to rant.
Crane: Most people I know have had a fucked up childhoods and mine wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t beaten or molested-that I remember. There was violence in my house though and I ran away when I was sixteen.
I was a prime candidate for the pole, not an unlikely stripper at all. I was an inevitable stripper. According to my late mom, I used to drink out of my parent’s rocks glasses and dance on the tables when I was three years old. My parents both worked so I was left alone a lot. My Dad left when I was ten and I never felt I had his attention or love after that. Just because I felt that way, doesn’t make it true; but I’ve always needed a lot of sexual attention and there’s something about how I value myself that’s tied up in sex work and making money. That knot is an ongoing conversation between my ego and my heart. It’s mostly empowering to choreograph the exchange between desire and money and to participate and explore desire with clients. It’s less empowering when I do things I don’t want to do for the money, because I’m hungry and don’t know what else to do. Don’t people do things they don’t feel like doing in square jobs all day long? The fact is, no one questions other types of work. Sex work is the best blue-collar gig out there. It’s a high impact, direct service job and there’s a need for it. Also, I have a burning desire to perform and dance so it’s fun and exhausting. Dancers are like athletes. The Internet can’t replace human contact and people are insanely lonely in their lives. They long for human contact and I provide that service. The problem is, I aged out of this job about ten years ago and I’d like to get out of it, and write and teach instead, but not because I dislike sex work. I want to move on because of the irreversible process of aging that makes it harder on my body. I touch on this in my forthcoming memoir.
Photos by Romy Suskin.
The Rumpus Sex Blog.
More from Antonia Crane’s Recessions Sex Workers series.