Grace Bellavue: "Social media has given sex workers a real opportunity to be heard”

Laura Parker interviews Grace Bellavue, the closest thing Australia has to a celebrity sex worker.

In Woody Allen’s short story "The Whore of Mensa", a call girl service dispatches pretty blondes to clients’ hotel rooms. Except there’s no sex: the girls are all literature majors, getting paid to sell intellectual stimulation to men who fancy a hurried tête-à-tête on anything from Proust to Chomsky.

Outlandish as Allen’s fantasy is, it’s apparent that while sex sells, the package deal of sex and brains sells even better.

Grace Bellavue is the closest thing Australia has to a celebrity sex worker. The 25-year-old Adelaide escort is a sapiosexual’s wet dream: a brainy ex-digital marketer who’s as likely to tweet saucy details of life as a sex worker as she is her opinion on marriage equality.

"Nefarious escort, writer, miscreant and vagabond with a penchant for scotch and hip hop," her Twitter bio reads. Her profile picture is her face – another don't of sex work – layered over a larger image of her lingerie-clad ass. Last week, she tweeted: “Off to a hotel suite for some anal, blow jobs, wine, spa baths and hot sex. Time to go to work.”

In person, Grace – real name Pippa – is even more fascinating. I meet her at the Grace Hotel in Sydney’s central business district, where she stays each time she’s in town to amuse herself. Wearing a mid-length pale pink Peplum dress and tailored black suit jacket, she sits down to a plateful of sushi from the breakfast buffet and apologises for being late. “Housekeeping came early, so I had to run around hiding all the condom wrappers from last night and get out of there as fast as I could.”

She’s in town for five nights as part of an Australian tour she undertakes at least four times a year to keep her growing list of interstate clients happy. Many of them already know her intimately: with more than 9,000 Twitter followers, almost 70 per cent of her bookings now come through social media. She tweets about politics, gives advice on blowjobs and encourages other sex workers to get online. Her willingness to discuss the more sobering aspects of her job and her ongoing campaign to improve the rights of Australian sex workers – she’s a regular contributor to Australian women’s blog Mamamia, and last year presented a talk at TEDxAdelaide about the future of sex work – has turned her into the unofficial spokesperson the sex work industry never had.

In a way, it’s all the product of very good marketing. Grace’s personality is her brand. She left the job security of call girl agencies two years ago to start her own freelance escort business, and, using her background in digital marketing, launched a slick-looking website and a Twitter account that quickly found a market.  It’s a rare strategy in a line of work long associated with shame and secrecy."

“The idea of allowing your private psyche into a public domain for comment alongside your body is a daunting thing,” she says over breakfast. “We still have a lot of stigma, judgment and backbiting due to the nature of our profession. But social media has given sex workers a real opportunity to be heard.”

It’s an opportunity she’s wanted for a long time. She became a sex worker at 18, lured to a brothel in her tome town by curiosity and the promise of passion, a schoolgirl fantasy instilled in her by the Mills and Boon novels she read growing up. Sex fascinated her. Not the fumbling encounters of her teenage peers, but the idea that sex could be art, a thing she could practice and perfect. Her first encounter didn’t live up to expectations: her first client, a 37-year-old first timer, had even less an idea of what to do than she did. But she was eager to see how the experience could change her. She wanted to know whether she would look different in the mirror at home, whether she’d feel more adult. She saw twelve more clients that night, walking out of her first shift with something like $1,000 in her pocket.


At home, she couldn’t explain the sudden influx of cash to her parents, telling them instead that she was dealing drugs. It took her months to get up the courage to confess to her mother, who reacted by kicking her out. That she had no one to confide in or ask for advice is part of the reason she’s so open about sharing what she does with the public these days. “This is very much a job that needs debriefing,” she says, not intending the joke.

For the next few years she experimented with desk jobs before deciding on a career in digital project management. She pursued this but, bored of the nine-to-five, took up sex work again, working for escort agencies around Adelaide and Brisbane. She did this three times – from sex work back to the office – to appease the men she dated, all of whom observed similarly rigid views on monogamy. But the itch still wasn’t scratched.

“I was too frustrated in the office, I couldn’t rid myself of the desire to run my own business. So I went back for good.”

The Twitter thing started as an experiment, but has since become her best weapon in advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work in Australia. Alongside national sex workers association Scarlet Alliance, local health organisation SIN and state based sex industry collectives SWAGGERR and House of ASPaSIA, all focused on improving the rights of sex workers, Grace has, in the last two years, become actively involved in lobbying the Australian government to remove all references to prostitution in legal definitions of criminal acts.

(Prostitution in Australia, like in the United States, is governed by each state and territory, and varies across the country: Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory have adopted models in which prostitution is legalised, while New South Wales (NSW) remains the only state in which sex work is almost completely decriminalised. Because of this NSW is often regarded as the leading model of sex work legislation globally alongside New Zealand, which has also adopted a decriminalisation model. The rest of Australia has seen no change in existing laws that uphold brothels and street workers as illegal, mirroring similar legislation in the UK and the United States, where Nevada is the only state to allow legal prostitution through brothels.)

The current battle is being fought on Grace’s home turf in Adelaide, where the South Australian government is debating the introduction of a new parliamentary bill – introduced by Labor MP Stephanie Key – that would see the state adopting an almost pure decriminalisation model, something sex work advocacy groups have been attempting to introduce in the state since the 1970’s. If successful, the bill will allow brothel owners to run their business in accordance with pre-existing consumer laws, reduce penalties for street based sex work and clear sex workers in the state of any previous prostitution-related offences.

Think of sex work like the hospitality industry – a transitional job where not everyone has the same skill set. But those who want to stick around and legitimise their skills can do so with the aid of a professional framework. In the same vein, decriminalisation gives sex workers the freedom to develop their own professional networks and code of ethics aimed at increasing sexual health and education in the industry.

“Decriminalisation works,” Grace says. “It allows sex work to be socially contextualised and regarded as a valid profession to be afforded the same human rights as workers in any other job.”

It also helps destigmatise the purchase of sex, making us that much less likely to be shocked or outraged every time a politician is caught in flagrante delicto with a sex worker.

“Clients get demonised more than we do. If you want a decent blowjob or want to try something new in a safe space, it should be okay to feel unashamed about going to a sex worker.”

Part of the problem is the lack of a united voice in the industry. Sex work can be an alienating job: where brothels are banned, it is illegal for sex workers to work together. The majority of sex workers spend most of their time alone, or in hotel rooms with clients, with little opportunity for peer bonding or large-scale coordinated efforts. This is why Grace has been so adamant to get other sex workers to follow her lead on social media: as she sees it, platforms like Twitter can provide a global support network for the sex work industry, aiding the spread of information and, when the need calls for it, act as a warning bell.

In May last year, Grace used Twitter to reveal the identity of a paroled rapist who attacked her in an Adelaide apartment. A former client, the man had threatened her a number of times before she had finally insisted he no longer call her. Using a false name, he lured her to the apartment where he pinned her against the wall by her throat and threatened to rape her. A well-timed scream saved her. 


She reported the incident to police, but unconvinced she would be taken seriously, tweeted a photo of her attacker as a warning to sex workers in the area.

“It’s 2012. No human should have to face assault and attempted rape at work,” she told her followers.

The decision to report the man to the police was “not made lightly”, Grace says. In Australia, any sex worker who files a police report faces declaring his or her status as a sex worker. This information can be officially recorded, and can thus be potentially accessed by anyone who has the right to demand and obtain a criminal background check. As a sex worker with her own business and a huge following, she is lucky: there’s no real need for her to try and hide who she is in fear that someone she knows will discover what she does for a living. But most sex workers have a lot to gain from keeping their identity secret: many of the men and women Grace knows have family, friends and relationships that would undoubtedly suffer; a lot of sex workers also have children.

This is why Grace hesitated to report the violence against her, and why most sex workers choose not to report similar attacks to the police: a permanent police record affects everything from parental custody to access to housing, employment and community services. What landlord would lease his property to a registered sex worker? What company would hire someone who used to – or might still – be a sex worker?

“No one thinks about this stuff. Imagine being in a situation where someone is trying to do you harm, and you can’t report it or tell anyone about it. It’s shameful.”

Grace’s arguments about the ills of a non-decriminalised legal system are compelling, but they’re not convincing everyone. In particular the “white educated females” who Grace says harbour a deep dislike of the sex work industry and who – as the target demographic for Mamamia, where Grace has written about her parents’ reaction to her confession of wanting to be a sex worker and posted a chilling account of her encounter with the paroled rapist – regularly attack Grace by bringing up sex trafficking and the sticky morality of sex work by way of rebuttal to her posts. (She says sex trafficking, whilst a valid problem, is often mistaken for “sex migration”: sex workers moving to countries with better rates of pay and working conditions.)

“I wonder how many of the prostitutes care about how their profession affects the lives of the wives and children?,” wrote one commenter on one of Grace’s posts. “Oh I know: they could care less, as long as they get paid…”

Her resolve remains steadfast.

“At the end of the day, it’s true that we are fucking their husbands,” she says, suppressing a smile. “But it’s all part of changing the way we look at sex: when to do it, how to do it, and with whom.”

“If I just manage to convince just one or two people to see things from my perspective, then it’s all been worth it.”

It’s working. Since joining Twitter, Grace’s clientele has not just grown, but also significantly diversified. Her female and couple bookings have “gone through the roof”, and the number of bookings from first-time clients doubled.

“I feel a little like a My First Escort doll. I’m getting so many people who have never seen a sex worker before and who are curious to try it out. They always start out by following me Twitter, talking to me and finally building up the courage to make a booking.”

“It’s great to see more girls: I think for them it’s not so much being comfortable with me but getting some intellectual stimulation. Girls need personality and genuine conversation to be turned on.”

The fact her clients know her so well has also significantly changed her own experience of the job. For one, more and more clients are asking her to tweet about them. There are daily declarations of love, marriage proposals and invitations to elope. And almost every client turns up with a bottle of Scotch.


“They know I love Scotch because I’m always talking about it on Twitter. So they bring a bottle and they want to sit and drink and talk and ask me about my day.“

“So I ask them about their day and they tell me and we share this moment. I’m kind of like the therapist and they’re the patient.”

More and more, the term 'sex work' seems an inadequate description of the kind of service that Grace provides.


“It shits me, sometimes, but the fact of the matter is I seem to be having less and less sex. Who would have thought, right?”

Laura Parker is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Economist and Time Out. She tweets @lauralovescake.

Grace Bellavue, in an Instagram self-portrait (Instagram/gracebellavue)
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.