EXPANDING THE MODERN WHORE UNIVERSE
Author Andrea Werhun and photographer Nicole Bazuin go deeper with titillating stories from the strip club
BY RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI
It’s okay to be turned on by Modern Whore ( 320 pages, Strange Light), the sex work memoir from Andrea Werhun now available in a new “engorged” edition. There are traumatic stories in Werhun’s memoir involving assault and exploitation. But there are also stories that arouse, like her vivid and visceral account of working at a Toronto strip club and giving a client a steamy lap dance in the champagne room where she took as much pleasure as she gave. “That one’s a hot one,” says Werhun, about the real- life story added to Modern Whore’s part two, which is dubbed Postmodern Whore. “That was meant to be an erotica story.” “We’re welcoming people to enjoy the sensual experience of this book,” says photographer Nicole Bazuin, pointing out that it comes with a nude centrefold. The book is a compilation of experience, packaged with political purpose and Bazuin’s artfully directed photos that are can be both tasteful and titillating. Werhun and Bazuin self- published the OG Modern Whore, which covered the former’s experience as an escort, in 2017. The new book, now backed by Penguin Random House, contains the original stories, re- ordered and improved, with a sequel of sorts. Self- publishing an intriguing, insightful and appropriately salacious sex work memoir didn’t turn out to be the cash cow Werhun hoped for. So she started working at a Toronto strip club again, which gave her even more stories to share. Part two also covers Werhun’s outreach work at Maggie’s Sex Workers Action Project and her experiences during the pandemic. As usual for Werhun, who has spoken on sex work issues several times in NOW, the book handles serious and politically loaded subject matter, but with stunning, striking, erotic and comical photos in between. It’s multifaceted in a way that all sex work narratives should be, not just dwelling on trauma or eroticism, but finding the appropriate balance between them and every other nuance that comes with the territory. “We’ve always seen Modern Whore as a Trojan horse for deeper issues,” says Werhun, speaking to NOW alongside Bazuin over Zoom. “The erotic element and the playful sexiness of the book contains a message: we’re looking to see the decriminalization of sex work and [ to] fully humanize sex workers in our society. We have that wrapped in beautiful, sexy, silly and playful erotic imagery.” In the following conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Werhun and Bazuin discuss how the new and improved Modern Whore takes the storytelling further, deeper and to more vulnerable places. NOW — Comparing Modern Whore and Modern Whore part two, even though they’re packaged together, they remind me of The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two. Are you seeing what I’m saying here? ANDREA WERHUN — From a writing perspective, I feel like the postmodern whore stories are more developed and come with the experience of age, becoming wiser and having more lived experiences and taking my craft more seriously. NICOLE BAZUIN — At the end of the Modern Whore section of the book, she’s just publishing Modern Whore and just coming out publicly. When we go into Postmodern Whore, she’s in a more public stage. So we go from escorting in part one, which is a largely behind closed doors, private underground endeavour. When we open on her in part two, she’s in a bikini on the beach, holding a copy of Modern Whore. It’s a post- Modern Whore work where the book is published, her story’s out there and she’s also entering this new form of work, which is stripping. She’s on stage, which is a perfect metaphor. She’s performing in a more public way. She’s vulnerable in a way that she hadn’t really been before. I think that’s the interesting movement into part two of the book. NOW — The Godfather Part Two pushed the story forward but also looked back. In Modern Whore part two, the Andrea story continues, but there’s also a deepening of the backstory and understanding of everything that passed. AW — I do think that the second part is more vulnerable. And there is backstory. There’s the story of my mom growing up in Toronto, and my grandfather living in the same building that would become the strip club that I worked at. Getting that whole history, and a Toronto history, I think it’s super cool to be able to have that in the book. We never get to hear Toronto stories. NOW — Part of [ the movement, the deepening in part two,] in terms of photography, I would say, is seeing frumpy Andrea; seeing Andrea without makeup. Seeing Andrea versus Marianne ( her stage name in part one). I felt privileged because the first time I ever met you in person there was no makeup, and it was like, “Oh, that’s Andrea.” In this book, you have these side- by- sides. This is Andrea by day, and this is Sophia ( her stripper stage name) at night. Is that part of the deepening and giving more vulnerability? AW — I love frumpy Andrea. I want to deliver frumpy Andrea in her rawest form to the world. I’m always pushing for frumpy Andrea. And Nicole’s like “Glam! Want more Glam!” Frumpy Andrea gets her day in Postmodern Whore. NB — It is Andrea, writer by day, and then Sophia stripper by night. And we compare all the different characteristics of the two. So in part two, there’s this emergence of another character, which is writer Andrea. She will just slap on anything. She’s just not there to put a full face of makeup on. She’s there to plug away at her work. That is part of the emergence, I guess, in part two, thinking about that persona as well. NOW — In part two, you start working in a strip club. A lot of the meat is the narratives that come out of the strip club. When I read these stories, I felt on an elemental level what was lacking in a movie like Hustlers. Your stories feel more close to the skin. Talk to me about telling these kinds of stories and how they are typically represented in pop culture versus how you’re representing them? AW — When you say “close to the skin,” I immediately think of a story like Piss Guy: the experience of being a dancer who hasn’t made money at all in a night and is desperate but is also Pmsing, doesn’t want to talk to anybody, doesn’t want to be there and certainly doesn’t want to be touched. But here’s some guy who comes right up to me and offers to give me money and go upstairs. But he smells like pee. I need the money, so I go. And then, he tries to rip me off. He’s peed his pants and now he’s going to try and rip me off. That’s a real- life story that other dancers, other sex workers, are going to be able to relate to on an elemental level like you’re talking about. I think the constant challenge with telling sex workers stories is that false dichotomy between glamorizing sex work and villainizing sex; or only telling the traumatic stories. It’s entirely valid to tell a story about sex work that is rooted in trauma because there’s lots of people who have shitty experiences doing sex work. There’s lots of exploitation. There’s lots of fucked up stuff that can happen. But there’s also lots of fun that can happen; lots of money to be made and incredible friendships that you can develop with your fellow sex workers that make the work worth doing and have us coming back time and time again, even if we want to quit. It still remains an ideal option for a lot of us. As we’ve always striven to do with this book, we want to be able to show the nuance of the work. [ There are] sex worker depictions in popular culture that can’t get to that nuance or are afraid of that nuance. We just need more sex workers telling stories because people who have never done it can’t do it the way that we can do it. All they have is a fantasy. A fantasy is never going to be nuanced enough to capture the whole human experience of engaging in sex work, whether it’s the work itself or the way that we have to interact with society, friends, families, institutions and our children. NOW — Andrea, you mentioned the trauma porn stuff and how people want to hear those stories. And I’m looking at a visual echo [ in the book]. In part one, there’s a photo of Andrea [ on her knees, surrounded by men holding bananas to her mouth] and in [ part two’s] Trauma Porn chapter, there’s the photo of Andrea being gagged, surrounded by men and women holding microphones to her mouth. Was that purposeful? NB — I love that you mentioned that one. That’s not intentional, but I’m obsessed with it. That was coincidence. But there are other moments where I did think about a relationship between a moment in part one, visually with part two. For instance, in part one, we have Andrea’s story, Tyrant, about a cat caller on the street. And we have these images of Andrea where she had just gotten all dolled up and strutted down to YongeDundas Square. And I was just following her with the camera trying to capture men like rubbernecking trying to look at her. And then in part two, we’ve got this section called Street Meat. Her story is about the hustle of being a writer and having yourself on display in that way, your ideas are on display. So we photographed her again in YongeDundas Square, returning to the same spot. She’s sort of vulnerable and on display again. But instead of being all dolled up in her red dress, she’s got the book and she’s got a sign on her chest that says “Unrepentant whore writes book.” AW — The trauma porn- banana connection is really interesting to think about. For context, that photo of me at a banana gang bang accompanies a story of a childhood trauma that I experienced. It’s been brought up: Why would we make a funny or erotic image out of something that was traumatic? Telling people how they should process their trauma is very fucked up. If we want to make tongueincheek erotic imagery based on my trauma, if that’s something that I want to do, then I think that I should absolutely be able to do it. We should be able to talk about trauma in whatever way makes us feel comfortable and safe. And making jokes and doing erotic imagery is what makes me feel like I can actually talk about my trauma. NOW — This book also talks about your work in peer outreach with [ Maggie’s Toronto Sex Worker Action Project], the shift into the pandemic and how that all changed things. AW — My horizons were absolutely expanded [ by the job at Maggie’s]. I learned so much from my peers, many of whom had street- based experience, who had drug use experience. We used a harm reduction model in all the outreach that we did. So we’re never chastising people for using drugs or for engaging in whatever practices. We meet people where they are and give them whatever we can. Whatever they need, we try and provide it. On Saturday nights, for instance, I would work at the club. I would stuff my money into a money belt by my ankle, and then I would ride my bike from the club over to the stroll around Allan Gardens. I would meet up with my peer partner and then we would start doing outreach at, like, 2 am for a couple of hours. That was every Saturday night in 2019. It was great. I loved talking to the people on the stroll, [ who were] just so kind and resilient and doing the same thing that I was doing down the street. We were all just working. It was such an incredible experience. I do write about it in the book and write about one peer in particular, who just meant so much to the community: Miss M. She passed away. I just absolutely loved her. NOW — In the time between these two publications, the public conversation around sex work has changed a lot. We’ve had [ the movies] Hustlers and Zola come out. We’ve had the whole Onlyfans situation. We discussed in a previous roundtable how people flocked to online sex work during the pandemic. There’s been this seismic shift around this conversation. How does this expansion in public consciousness then help you? There’s this shift from self- publishing Modern Whore to now, where you’re with a publisher. There’s the ability to now make short films for the CBC. NB — I also think that there’s more women in power. That’s another thing that’s been shifting. We’ve had some very supportive men. But I think that having more and more women in power, we’ve seen a lot of support for telling these stories, for the book and for the movies. In a way, we’re surprisingly wholesome. Going back to Andrea’s Trojan horse idea, I think maybe some folks may have had difficulty picturing a feel- good sex work film. But the shorts that we’ve done are that. We’re trying to make it accessible and make it something that the CBC can feel fine to put their stamp on. And that’s something I think we’re really proud of. Because it does allow us to then do this work in a way that can have more reach. We hustled as much as we could with that self- published version. But man, having the stamp of approval of Strange Light from Penguin Random House is like a huge deal for us. NOW — What’s next? You got these short films and you got this book in all the bookstores published by this boutique of Penguin Random House. I know the ultimate goal is decriminalization. But before we can get to that, what is next for these narratives? NB — It is a little premature for us to announce some of what’s next. We can safely say that some very exciting stuff is next. NOW — Give me more foreplay. AW — If you enjoyed the shorts, you’ll enjoy what’s next. Stay tuned. We are continuing to expand the Modern Whore universe.