Plenty of ink has been spilled trying to discredit women who use their sex appeal for their own purposes: Words like tease, harlot, femme fatale, witch and coquette, to name a few, have been slung around for centuries. Even the notion of “feminine wiles” implies some sort of malicious sorcery that women conjure at will to get what they want. Society has never much liked that idea, probably because – well, sex appeal is a powerful tool. And so, women have been shamed, ridiculed, abused and even killed in attempts to dissuade them from capitalizing on it.

But a new generation of women is tearing that stigma down and changing the game. Harnessing sensuality, creativity and business acumen, these ladies are channeling their sexual experiences into art and building profitable businesses in the process.

This group of female sex artisans, four of whom are profiled here, all represent this compelling intersection of female agency, erotic work and art. Starting off as sex workers, the women here are building dark, dreamy, sensual, sometimes hilarious worlds in which the cunt is something to be worshipped and femininity is power. They are proudly embodying the words that have historically been used against them, and they emerge holding what might be the very definition of pussy power.

Meet 2017’s foremost sex artisans.


LUX ATL
To speak to Lux ATL is to come to know a singular voice – one that sounds like a female, whiskey-tinged preacher plucked straight from the Kentucky Derby, (or in her case, a small city in southern Virginia). It’s a flair that the 35-year-old embraces: “I come from a long line of Southern Baptists,” she explains, “and that’s the oratory style that I enjoy.”

It’s just that Lux’s message is a soupçon different than what you might hear at Sunday service. A stripper, writer, Ph.D.-holder and creator of the explosively popular workshop-cum-philosophy Stripcraft, Lux tours the world teaching women to channel their inner bad bitch through movement. But her workshop is no whitewashed, Upper West Side pole dance class; it’s raw, gritty and real.

“I teach real stripper dancing,” she says. “Actual skills that I learned on a stage in front of 100 dudes. I want to take everything good from the strip club, and none of the bad.”

Lux started dancing at age 18, and continued to strip on and off through graduate school in Louisiana. By the time she earned her Ph.D. in American culture and literature from Georgia State (she also has a master’s in creative writing), though, she thought she had left that world behind. But after becoming a professor, she found herself immeasurably bored with teaching undergrads.

“I probably watched Dead Poets Society one too many times,” she says. “I had the idea that students were hungry for [knowledge]. It was not like that.”

Lux signed up for a pole dance class at the urging of a friend, and it reignited her passion for dancing. She became deeply involved in pole dancing communities both on and offline, and within months, began posting dancing videos under the persona Lux ATL. She often posted feminist commentary with her videos, and soon developed a devoted fan base. Finally, she realized she had a decision to make.

“There were people making careers out of [pole dancing], and I’m sitting behind a desk grading papers for people who really don’t give a fuck,” she says. “I decided I was leaving [the school] at all costs.”

Lux returning to stripping in her adopted hometown of Atlanta and hurtled to local fame almost immediately, winning the title of “Best Stripper Other Than Blondie” by the Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing two years in a row. Meanwhile, she was honing her program; the teaching package that would ultimately became Stripcraft. It took nearly two years, but once she landed on her message, she was ready to unroll it. Plus, she already had the funds.

“I wanted to create this fun, sexy world of expression and sisterhood, absent of the male gaze,” says Lux, “so while I was stacking this cash at the club, I considered myself like a cultural Robin Hood; robbin’ from the old dudes to fund my feminist empire.”

Now, she leads two-day lap dance and booty-shaking workshops everywhere from Scottish castles to Smokey Mountain log cabins, tours the country as a guest instructor at pole dance studios, offers an online version of Stripcraft for those who would prefer to learn at home, hosts a weekly podcast called Stripcast: True Stories from a Stripper with a Ph.D., and is working on a book based on her experiences. The movement Lux leads is unapologetic, preaching passion, fearlessness and individuality.

“As women, we go through so much of our lives thinking there are parts of us we need to kill in order to be loved or respected,” she says. “But there are no parts of you that you need to kill. People love this stripper-with-a-PhD thing because it’s an oxymoron, right? But it’s not. I am a scholar, but I am also a sex worker. I am both of those things, and that is beautiful. And I’m not fucking sorry.”


For @allanamato’s #seraphbook

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STOYA
The high-cheekboned brunette with a ballerina’s body appeared on the porn scene in the mid-2000’s. The antithesis to the industry’s then-reigning buxom blondes, she represented an alternative for the discerning porn consumer. But Stoya wasn’t content to stick around the mainstream adult industry and let the money roll in (although she no doubt could have); the now 31-year-old soon began shooting her own content, penning articles for subversive and mainstream publications alike, and overseeing her burgeoning empire.

Now, as a writer, director, philosopher and actress, Stoya has brought her talents to bear on the worlds of art, publishing and gonzo filmmaking.

“I’m weird,” she says of what led to her original career path. “Everything you see is just me trying to live my life.”

Stoya grew up in North Carolina, where she homeschooled by her mother in a house that was “basically a library,” she says. “There were books on every wall you could squeeze a bookshelf into.” Her mother’s teaching style, then, was largely: “’Find the book that will help you figure it out.’”

Between pulling books from shelves and dance lessons, which she began at the age of three, Stoya also paid visits to her Serbian grandmother, who lived nearby. An artist herself, Stoya’s grandmother – who is still alive and well – taught her precocious granddaughter to see the geometry behind drawing, to create using only the materials you already have, and to notice beauty in the everyday.

“She would turn me loose with calligraphy pens and brightly colored inks, and I would just play and experiment,” says Stoya. “The last time we spoke on the phone, she told me, ‘Well you know, art’s really just humanity.’”

After launching her film career, Stoya quickly caught the attention of the mainstream media as well. She started writing a regular column for VICE in 2013, in which she covered everything from art as protest to “the metaphysics of cocksucking,” and penned an Op-Ed for The New York Times the following year. In 2015, she teamed up with porn actress Kayden Kross to launch TrenchcoatX, a site they’ve described as “curated smut” (Stoya has since turned over control of TrenchcoatX to Kross). Featuring erotic videos that look like indie films shot in Silver Lake, TrenchcoatX includes films created and directed by Stoya under the banner “Graphic Depictions,” as well as her gonzo series, Around the World in 80 Ways.

Now, Stoya moves between projects with the dexterity of a DJ. In addition to filmmaking, she recently published a book of behind-the-scenes Polaroids with Team Rockstar; continues to publish essays on her website; and is planning a live tour called zerospaces, in which she and co-creator - the comedian Mitcz Marzoni - discuss all things sexual education.

“Our government is letting us the fuck down,” she says of the current state of sex-ed. “Somebody needs to pick up the sex-ed ball, and somebody needs to pick up the introduction-to-pornography-for-people-who-are-starting-to-become-curious-about-it ball.”

But that’s not all she’s doing. Inspired by her travels, her work, and her family history, Stoya hopes to soon move, at least part-time, to the Balkans.

“There is something about the Balkans where they produce a lot of really deep artistic work,” she says. “I know so many talented, wonderful artists and people in New York, but there’s nowhere that’s as utterly tangled and rich with different patterns of rhythm as the Balkans.”


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AELLA GIRL
Raised by a professional evangelical father and a stay-at-home mom in Idaho, Aella, who goes by the online moniker “Aella Girl,” grew up homeschooled and extremely religious. Her identity was largely tied to her church and its rules, but after leaving home for a brief stint in college, the now 24-year-old suffered a crisis of faith. She eventually lost her religion completely, a traumatic experience she says completely changed the course of her life.

“If you believe in the lord and savior Jesus Christ, there is so much mental resistance to admitting to yourself that that [belief] is not true,” says Aella. “But I realized how much mental work I was doing to hold together the beliefs. After that, letting go was inevitable.”

It was shortly thereafter this life change that Aella began dating a man she would later find out worked in the porn industry. At his suggestion, the two performed on an adult webcam site together. The relationship didn’t work out, but after they parted ways, Aella – a tall brunette whose body is the human female equivalent of a thoroughbred racehorse – she discovered he had left her with a valuable skill. She needed money, and here, online, was a whole community of consumers whence she could extract it as a cam girl.

“I was more successful at it than I thought I would be,” she says.

Aella’s upbringing had left her relatively uninformed about sex and romantic relationships and unconvinced that she was even sexually attractive. “It was like I couldn’t believe that I was sexy.”

At first, she used costumes and characters to hide her insecurity, and her earliest shows take camming’s inherent performance art aspect to stratospheric heights. She dons a clown face, miniskirt and beret and executes a mime act; she plays the accordion; she moonwalks.

All of these skills, she says, she learned to do in front of the camera.

“Most of my practice happened live,” she remembers. “It was a perfect storm of feeling uncomfortable about being sexual, and wanting to make the nudity absurd.”

And as with her crisis of faith, once her mind was open to new possibilities, Aella, who now lives in Boston, couldn’t, and didn’t want to, close it back up. She began performing with other women, experimenting with different looks and personas and became deeply involved in the cam girl community. Many of her videos feature scenes between Aella and Awesome Kate, a Seattle-based cam girl with whom Aella lived for a short period of time.

In addition to amassing fans and followers on MyFreeCams.com, she also launched her own website, Aellagirl.com. The site includes her artwork – she paints, draws and does photography – and a blog in which she explores gender politics, philosophy and sex work. Her posts examine everything from the power of a woman saying no to sex, to why women might be attracted to hot men who fuck them and then leave.

Aella is now comfortable enough on camera that she no longer feels the need to hide behind costumes, and she’s drawing on some of those creative reserves for a new business venture called KnkHub, which she describes as “a remote control device that you can control things with,” e.g. a vibrator or bondage.

She’s also come to terms with her childhood and where she is now.

“Believing in a religion makes you feel like you know what’s going on, and not knowing what’s going on as an adult is very scary,” she says of her initial loss of faith. “But by this point, I have reached a good place. I feel very at peace.”


JACQ THE STRIPPER
Anyone who has been on the private side of a strip club’s dressing room curtain knows that working the shake joint can be fucking funny. Customers say dumb shit, dancers say dumb shit, and the interactions between men trying to get off and women trying to get paid leads to all manner of bizarre shenanigans. Brooklyn-based writer, illustrator and comedian Jacqueline Frances, better known by the online persona Jacq the Stripper, has been dancing for seven years, and has leveraged those strange incidents into art.

“Stripping is performance art,” she says. “Every element of it inspires me.”

Canadian-born Frances first started dancing while living in Sydney, Australia, and she detailed the experience of learning the ropes in her first book, The Beaver Show (2015). While writing it, Frances began experimenting with drawing through Instagram’s 100 Day Project. Her sketches – which she dubbed #100DaysofPleasantries – depict the hypocrisies, absurdities and kinks that strippers deal with on a daily basis. In one, a woman wearing stripper heels peers into an office cubicle and whispers to the woman sitting in it: “You’re so much better than this.”

“#100DaysofPleasantries inspired me to start doodling,” she says. “I didn’t do much [illustration] before them. One little drawing every day for 100 days changed the course of my entire career.” 

Indeed, Frances’ internet fame soared, and she began turning her personal philosophy into a business. She created low-key stripper-inspired gear, like coasters reading “Fuck You Pay Me”; t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Off-Duty Stripper”; and sew-on patches with images of stilettos. She soon compiled her doodles into her 2017 book, Striptastic: A Celebration of Dope-Ass Cunts Who Like Money, which features 175 pages of comics inspired by #100DaysofPleasantries.

Striptastic was released in April of this year, and Frances recently wrapped up a national tour with writer Kristen Sollee. The “Sex Witch Tour” included stops in Seattle, Portland, Oakland, Las Vegas and L.A. The show includes dancers, comedians, burlesque performers and more.

“We’re curating slutty funny and feminist shit shows,” says Frances of the line-up. “Like vulvas, no two shows are the same.”