INTERVIEW: Sex, Work and Videotape: Julia Query's "Live Nude Girls, Unite!"

by Aaron Krach

(indieWIRE/ 10.9.00) -- Documentaries about labor usually need a gimmick -- a la Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" -- in order to make a splash in our apathetic times. "Live Nude Girls, Unite!" has just such an attention-getting device: naked women. They are not gimmicks, though. They are the real thing: Working women fighting management for better conditions, increased pay and the right to form a union. That they do their work wearing very little is secondary. As Query says, "Sex work is not sex. It's work."

Co-producer, director, camera-person and editor, Julia Query knows the difference between sex and work because she is also one of the naked women of "Live Nude Girls, Unite!" Originally a stripper-turned-unionizer at San Francisco's Lusty Lady strip club, she put her job on the line to get a fair shake for her and her co-workers. With one hand on a picket sign and the other behind the camera, Query succeeded in getting the Lusty's ladies unionized, and managed to finish a witty and informative documentary about the often-grueling process. Query sat down with indieWIRE to talk about the making of her sex-work-doc, and how even with live nude girls, making a documentary about labor is very hard work.

indieWIRE: How easy was it to find funding for "Live Nude Girls" when you had, well, nude girls to attract an audience?

"What I find is that sex work, like sexuality in general, is seen as essentializing and that's part of the stigma. Women who work in the industry can sometimes feel different from women who don't."

Julia Query: It was terribly hard. I worked without funds for the first two years. Gini Reticker came in and turned out to be a really great executive producer. I got a Pacific Pioneer Fund grant for $7,000 and that was the beginning. It's amazing I got that, because the people who made that decision brought in two filmmakers to help decide. The two filmmakers they brought in just happen to be the two filmmakers, (Dan Gellar and Ellen Bruno) which I had been going to with my little trailer that I paid for with my own $3,000. I'd gone to them and said, "Advise me. I think I can make this into a really big movie." They knew me and they knew I would finish. They knew I was a serious contender even though I had nothing to recommend me. Film had never been of that much interest for me -- too much money and too much work.

iW: So how is life at the Lusty Lady now?

Query: Pretty good. We're having a bit of a skirmish with management but generally things are good.

iW: Throughout the film I kept wanting to meet management or at least see who they were.

Query: Yeah, I wish I had gotten them. We're lucky to have that face of Colleen, one of the owners, when she comes to the door. That was a public shot and we were allowed to use it. But no, the lawyers for management didn't want to be shown. The only owner we ever met was Colleen. We never met the guys who own the Lusty Lady. We don't really know who they are other than Colleen's husband and her sister's husband and someone else.

iW: Parallel to the plot line about trying to form a union is the relationship between you and your mom, (Dr. Joyce Wallace, a doctor famous for her work among prostitutes). In the middle of the film you admit that your mom doesn't know you're a stripper and is about to find out, so you decide to tell her yourself. During this scene of intense familial conflict the camera keeps running. Why didn't your mom turn and ask the camera to butt out?

Query: Did she forget the camera? I don't know. Remember, at one point I acknowledge the camera and ask (the cameraman) to come closer. She never asked to turn the camera off. I edited the film and showed it to her and let her have some things removed if she wanted. So she had a lot of control, but she left it in. I never asked her to sign a consent form. But you know, my mom likes attention too.

iW: Did you use consent forms for everyone else in the film? Who are the people that had to have their faces blurred?

"Sex to me is about energy and connection. It's so clear to me when I'm having sex and when I'm not. Sex work is not sex. It's work."

Query: I got consent forms from everybody as I was going through. Sometimes we'd go back and say, "Hey we got you on a shot." Sometimes I would walk into a room and say, 'Okay, raise your hand if you're willing to be on tape,' and I would pan across the room (to record the raised hands). Then I'd say, "Who's not willing to have their faces shown." There's that one woman that I only show her hands, well, that's because she didn't want her face shown. Now she's changed her mind, so I wonder, should I have shot her face. But then I have some people who said I could shoot their face but then now say, no I can't. So I cut most of them out and left only what I had to in.

iW: How did you get into the sex industry? That part of your story is missing from the film.

Query: We never put that in the movie for a very clear reason. Every time we tried to it became an apology. It's like when we come out about being queer, we don't explain why. We just say, "We're queer." Some people are straight and some people are bi and some people like to date older people with better vocabularies: People just come in different forms. I'm a pretty strict social constructionist. What I find is that sex work, like sexuality in general, is seen as essentializing and that's part of the stigma. Women who work in the industry can sometimes feel different from women who don't. You get the feeling that the reason I do this is because I'm "this kind of woman" and "I'm different from other woman" as opposed to feeling like I do this as a job choice that was made for various reasons.

iW: The words "sex work" are new to many people. How do you explain it to the uninitiated?

Query: That phrase was invented by Carol Lee, otherwise known as Scarlet Harlot, who is in the movie. At some point I want to drop the word sex because it isn't sex. Sex to me is about energy and connection. It's so clear to me when I'm having sex and when I'm not. Sex work is not sex. It's work. My girlfriend and I had a very interesting conversation today. I want to get pregnant and we were talking about ways I could get pregnant. I said, "If I sleep with a guy just to get pregnant it is not sex." And she said, "I don't like that idea." But for me, it's very clear. I know what sex is and I know what work is. And I know what getting pregnant is. Also important is that for the customer it is sex. His experience is different than the service provider.

[Aaron Krach is a regular contributor to indieWIRE.]