In the aftermath of #MeToo, the voices of sex workers continue to be a subject of conflict for many feminists and non-feminists alike. Add in the stereotypes of “good” and “bad” mothers and it’s a free-for-all of condemnation on all sides. Wanting to learn more, I reached out to Liv Osthus and Juniper Fitzgerald about their work as sex workers and artists because of my own deep interest in taboo and motherhood.
Recently, Juniper Fitzgerald gave a TEDx Talk about her groundbreaking book, How Mamas Love Their Babies, focusing on marginalized labor and sex work. A former self-described hooker and stripper and current professor and phone sex worker in Nebraska, Fitzgerald’s How Mamas Love Their Babies is a book for young children with a focus on valuing the labor performed by all sorts of different mothers including sex workers, stay-at-home mothers, and other marginalized workers.
Liv Osthus is the author of several books including Magic Gardens: The Memoirs of Viva Las Vegas and The Gospel According to Viva Las Vegas. In addition to being a musician, Liv is the subject of the award-winning documentary, Thank You for Supporting the Arts, and an opera, Viva’s Holiday. Both works focus on her career as a stripper in Portland, Oregon and her long-held view that stripping is an underrated form of art, a viewpoint she developed during her time studying art history as a student at Williams College.
I spoke with Juniper and Liv recently about what it means to be a sex worker, an artist, and a mother; how these different identities intersect; and how they’ve navigated the stigma around sex work as parents.
Jessie Glenn: What sex worker or writer skills do you find useful in parenting? I’ve recently been interested in an Inuit parenting technique where it’s seen as culturally inappropriate to be angry (particularly at children) and in order to encourage safe behavior they use frightening stories instead. I would nail that. I tell my kids they’ll die if they stick their finger in the socket again all the time. I’ll start there… [Laughter]
Liv Osthus: My work as a sex worker has fostered in me a level of patience I didn’t have otherwise. I probably would have been a shitty parent before but I now have the ability to deal with anything that comes my way, magnanimously. While my child can be more trying than a man at a strip club, I think it’s a skill that helps.
Glenn: Does being paid to be patient make it easier than just having to be patient?
Osthus: Other service work doesn’t make me more patient; sex work engenders more patience for me.
Juniper Fitzgerald: I lose my temper with men more often than with my child. I may be extreme in terms of my man-hating, however.
Osthus: And I hate children! [Laughter]
Fitzgerald: I worked in a club in Vegas, kind of an underground, happy-ending sort of club where most of the clientele came in at 6 a.m. shit-faced, and I cannot tell you how many men pissed or shat their pants at the club.
Glenn and Osthus: WOW.
Fitzgerald: But, ya know, that really prepared me for motherhood. [Laughter]
Glenn: Baby shit is so much less gross, too. Must have been a warm welcome for you post-birth: Oh! This isn’t as bad! It’s a baby…
Fitzgerald: There is something beautiful about being desensitized to all the bodily things people do. That’s a good skill in my mind. But also, me and my kiddo are big on consent. The sex industry has a lot of problems; I wouldn’t say I feel liberated in the sex industry, but definitely conversations about consent are happening because of this work.
Glenn: Issues of consent for me and my children have been elevated by recent children’s books, including yours, Juniper.
Osthus: Most representations of sex work are so dark. I really appreciate your book, normalizing this as work and the idea that every person works and is deserving of respect. When talking to the press I tend to have a more Pollyannaish version of my work than I actually do, but stripping is a job and I have genuinely loved my experience.
Glenn: Do you think your feelings that every human deserves respect are impacted by your views on stripping, and because many people question whether strippers deserve respect for their work?
Osthus: Not sure it’s being a stripper but more that I am privy to the experience of knowing that stripper moms deserve respect because they are good moms. I believe my deeply held view that all humans deserve respect comes from my Lutheran minister father—and that is why I went into stripping.
Glenn: Is there anything about stripping and sex work which has helped your writing?
Osthus: I felt I had to illustrate another viewpoint of stripping because in the 90s it was a story often told in a way that was completely different than my own experience. I thought it needed to be shown as I saw it.
Fitzgerald: It’s hard to parse out my writing and my sex work. I’ve always been a writer. I found a journal from when I was nine years old—I grew up in Omaha, living a small town life. I found an entry where I’d written, “I really hope I don’t grow up to be a prostitute.”
Glenn: How did it make you feel to read that entry? Why were you worried about that at nine?
Fitzgerald: Even as young kids, we start thinking about the virgin/whore complex as a concept and children have a sense of what it means to be the “bad girl.”
Osthus: For me, it was the worst thing you could be and I don’t think I got this from my family but from popular culture. As parents of children who will soon be that age, it’s pretty crazy how pervasive this belief is.
Glenn: Did you find creative inspiration in sex work?
Fitzgerald: When I started working in the sex industry, I was an older teen and that’s when I started publishing. I’m not sure that my sex work inspires my writing, but we grew together.
Osthus: The stories are so colorful in a club, they kind of write themselves. I made money at rock writing, too, but readers tended to have more interest in sex work stories.
Glenn: How do you decide how and when to reveal to your labor as a sex worker to your children?
Fitzgerald: I keep coming back to the idea that’s it’s so hard to live in a world where there’s so much stigma against sex workers. I just started doing phone sex so I’ve just gotten back into the industry a bit, and now, I’m having to partition my identities once again. There’s the academic identity, a former sex worker, an active identity of engaging with clients…
Glenn: Are you liking it?
Fitzgerald: I am! I do enjoy it. I do it for financial reasons but I’ve created a character I really like playing, a dominatrix, and it’s fascinating to enter the industry again as an older person after several years out of it. In our small town there’s one shop that sells stripper clothes and the other parents push their kids past but my kid is like, “Oh my gawd, look at all that pretty stuff,” and I will say to my kiddo, who is five and non-binary, “Mama used to wear shoes like that.” So I do reveal certain things like, “I used to dance.”
Glenn: And that’s the type of information you share in your book—at your child’s age now, is this the extent of the level of the conversation you’re prepared to have?
Fitzgerald: When they’re older, I’m sure I’ll reveal more. If we’re still living in this town it will be impossible not to have those conversations. Everyone in this town knows that I used to be a hooker. So, that will be interesting. I hope to raise a kid who will have the ability to weather the stigma they will surely encounter.
Osthus: That makes me shudder. My kid is three and a half and she didn’t ask for me to have this career or to be so visible in this career. I’m proud of it and my community is proud but that doesn’t mean the shame isn’t foisted onto her. I want to protect her from it. We’re in a church now—her idea! And it’s a place where I don’t want them to know. I don’t want to have the conversation. I want her to do her thing and not be overwhelmed with my fear about my story overriding hers.
Glenn: She knows that you dance, yes?
Osthus: Yes! She waves when we pass Mary’s Club and thinks any topless woman in pictures is me.
Glenn: So you two are sort of on the same page that you share with your kids about dancing as a job. There might be clothes or no clothes but the sexual element isn’t part of the conversation.
Osthus: Well, my kid doesn’t really understand sex to begin with but she is a part of the narrative particularly because of the documentary. I don’t remember inviting the film crew in the day she was born but I guess I’m grateful, now, to have the footage because as a single parent I wouldn’t have had it otherwise.
Fitzgerald: We’re all a part of our parents’ narrative; it’s only sex work that gives us pause, that makes us wonder, Did I do something to mess it up for my kiddo?
Osthus: Yes! So true!
Fitzgerald: In terms of labor, sex workers’ kids are…
Osthus: You can’t bring them to “Take your daughters to work day.”
Osthus: I feel like if my parents came to my work they would be less upset about it.
Glenn: If you had to choose, would you rather your child be a writer or a sex worker?
Fitzgerald: A writer.
Osthus: Being a writer encompasses the world and beyond. Sex work is more of a sliver of the world. I always say stripping is art but writing, writing is unquestionably art.
Glenn: And, you don’t have to spend time arguing about writing being art. You’ve had to spend a lot of time arguing for stripping being art!
Fitzgerald: We draw these distinctions between what is and what isn’t art and all labor can be art but… I honestly don’t see my sex work as art.
Osthus: I’ve taken so many art history classes. I aim to be a thorn in the side of those who want art to fit into particular parameters. It’s on a stage. It’s elevated and it resonates. It uses traditional tropes. And the dismissal of stripping as an art is inherently class based.
Fitzgerald: I think Marx’s comment about “man, the maker”—this is why I’d rather my child be a writer. We are what we make and that’s why it’s important that our labor be ours. The other related issue is that if my child were doing sex work, would I want them to be safe? Of course I would. So, how do we make it safe?
Glenn: What are the pros of being a sex worker parent?
Osthus: Flexible scheduling is my favorite part. You can be a student, you can travel—you take your vagina, vulva, whatever… everywhere you go and you’re the person in change. I can’t imagine a job where you have to be there at 8 a.m. and you have scheduled breaks. Sounds horrible.
Fitzgerald: I enjoy the flexible schedule of phone sex, and the money, which was also my reason for sex work. Since I began working in academia, it’s incredible how little money I make.
Osthus: In terms of money per hour, we make a lot more than some. You can say, “Well, you could be a doctor,” but that’s a false equivalency.
Glenn: Do you have other coworkers in the industry who have helped your writing career or your parenting?
Osthus: I have learned so much about parenting from my co-workers. The negative narratives about stripper moms run deep in our culture but because I’ve worked side by side with stripper moms for so long and have seen them parent, my co-workers have influenced my parenting more than anyone else. I’m so grateful.
Fitzgerald: Absolutely. Pretty much all my close friends are sex workers. My sex-worker family has supported me during really hard times both financially and emotionally. This helps me continue writing and continue to be there for my child.
Glenn: What kind of illusions about sex working and parenting would you like to dispel?
Osthus: Stripping is a wonderful job for a parent because of scheduling and reasonable payment. My definition of good parenting, for myself, is providing for my child while getting to spend as much time as possible with her.
Fitzgerald: People should bear in mind that a person’s labor is not indicative of their parenting.
Rumpus: Thank you!
Photograph of Liv Osthus by Scott Patrick Green. Photograph of Juniper Fitzgerald by Juniper Fitzgerald. Documentary still and trailer provided courtesy of Alex Jones/Blacktop Films.