Note: 'The Hustle' is a KQED Arts series exploring how artists make ends meet in the Bay Area. After an exodus of artists priced out of the region, every Thursday in March we talk with a different artist about how they're able to stay in the Bay Area through cost-cutting measures, side gigs, and sacrifices.
The comment came in, like so many others before it: "Can’t believe people find this attractive. She looks like a liquor store a fat Arab chain-smokes in.”
Arabelle Raphael filed it away in a special folder on her computer, the one reserved for the heinous comments men send to her on the internet. Later, she'd turn those comments into an art project underlining both the violence and dark humor in men's various descriptions of her appearance. She's used to them by now.
In her over eight years as an artist, writer and sex worker, Raphael has "done almost every form." Before it closed in 2013, she performed at the Lusty Lady, the first unionized and worker-owned strip club in the country. She made her first adult film at Kink.com, which closed up shop at San Francisco’s Armory just last month. For her, the shrinking of the sex industry parallels the mass exodus of artists from the Bay Area's changing social and economic landscape.
“From the venues, to the parties, to the Lusty Lady, so many different iconic San Francisco things have disappeared,” she says.
Those changes may mean a loss of community for Raphael, but not a loss of income. Rarely working for others, she's been in charge of the production and distribution of her own image for years. This approach allows her to be more ethical in her work, without ceding control to directors or production companies. It also gives her financial autonomy; she makes roughly $150,000 a year.
Meanwhile, art continues to be an integral part of her life, one which has garnered increased recognition. Last year she contributed a photographic series to SOMArts’ exhibition We’re Still Working: The Art of Sex Work and directed an experimental short film, La Nuisance, about queer femme relationships. She also writes poetry, personal essays and opinion pieces — a recent article in The Outline addresses the Stormy Daniels scandal, arguing that both the left and right sides of the political spectrum still fail to respect women who do sex work.
Such creative output is impressive, especially balanced against what can be an all-consuming job.
“I’ve just seen so many different artists leave,” she says. “I’d like to keep some of that alive while I’m still here.”
'I've built everything myself'
The business that keeps Raphael, her husband, and her two cats happily ensconced in their East Bay apartment is “Arabelle.” Through a combination of self-produced videos, session work, phone sex and social media subscriptions (along with the odd art sale or article commission), Raphael supports her entire household. Her husband helps run the online stores by uploading and editing videos, as well as sometimes performing with her.
“I can’t complain,” she says. “I make very good money, especially for someone my age and background within this business.” Raphael emigrated to the Bay Area from France with her parents when she was five. Her mother is French and Tunisian, her father is an Iranian Jew. She’s worked in the sex industry since 2010.
“I call myself a ‘cult’ porn performer. I’m not mainstream, but I’ve had a following for a really long time that’s pretty dedicated — which is awesome,” she says. “And so as a weirdo, I’ve built everything myself.”
This means carving out her own niche and cultivating her own audience — on paid sites like OnlyFans, Clips4Sale and ManyVids, and free sites like Pornhub. (After fighting constantly to get her videos taken down from Pornhub, she reluctantly partnered with them to get paid for views.) But each of those sites also takes a percentage of her earnings, some as much as 40 percent.
Other expenses add up. $1,700 goes to rent. $900 a month goes to health insurance, not including out-of-pocket medical expenses like regular testing. Around $1,000 a month goes to her assistant. Each month, $400 goes to advertising. She spends approximately $200 a month on Uber rides — when you’re traveling with lots of money, wearing high-end clothes and designer shoes, you don’t want to ride public transportation, Raphael says. She needs internet service for uploading videos and a smartphone with multiple phone lines. And nails; she spends $100 every other week on her nails.
“Class presentation is a huge thing,” she says. “If you want to make a certain amount and charge a certain amount, you need to look a certain way.” She updates her makeup and wardrobe regularly. “You can’t wear the same thing over and over,” she says.
“I make a lot of money, but doing my job is expensive,” she says, which is why she gets frustrated when she finds her videos on the internet for free. “No one wants to pay for porn anymore. It’s a problem,” she says. “Pay for your porn! That’s how we’re trying to eat." When you're watching it for free, she says, you're taking money from small producers and performers — "you're not stealing money from Weinstein.”
'You start to grow a thicker skin'
That lack of recognition — of the humanity and vulnerability of sex workers — is something Raphael is very familiar with. In her ongoing project The evaluation of worth, shown in We’re Still Working, she photographs herself reenacting hateful comments collected over her years of being a female sex worker online.
Some of the images are disturbingly violent. Others skewer racist and misogynistic comments with Raphael’s own brand of gleeful absurdity. Each image is paired with the text she received, along with the commenter’s online handle, the platform, and the frequency of contact.
For Raphael, the project is partly about holding a mirror up to the internet. “It's really easy to say horrible things to people anonymously online. I think it gets worse when you’re a woman and even worse when you’re a sex worker,” she says. “This is what it’s like to be me in public.”
But the series — which she plans to expand into a book — is also about finally letting these hateful messages go after years of collecting them. “I started doing this at 21, and getting those comments that were always super racist and super violent was really upsetting. I remember it would just ruin my entire day,” she says. “I think I hit a point where that part of me died. You start to grow a thicker skin.”
Now, Raphael adheres to a strict “don’t feed the trolls” policy. She finds the nasty comments these days tend to come mostly from people who object to her political viewpoints. Especially if she posts about Trump.
“It’s interesting that such right-wingers follow me. You're following an immigrant Iranian Jewish woman sex worker who performs with people of all genders and all backgrounds. I’m everything you hate,” she says. “It’s kind of amazing.”
Saving for the future
Looking ahead, Raphael says she has modest goals: to own land or a house, and to be financially secure. “I grew up with very financially insecure parents, so that’s always been a big thing for me,” she says. “I just want to be able to make my art and have someone care about it, because I do.”
In the short term, meeting those goals means maintaining her vast online presence and contributing to an IRA. When she started out in the sex industry, she says, she definitely made plenty of financial mistakes. “I made a lot of money really young and that is not always a good thing. I wasted a lot of money,” she says.
But about two years into her career, she realized she needed to get serious. “When you make the decision to get naked on internet, you give up a lot of opportunities. It hit me: I've sacrificed a lot, I need to milk this as much as humanly possible. And that’s when I really attacked my job,” she says. “It went from this thing I was doing, where it was nice to make money, to a business. I started affiliate accounts, set up entire sites, started making my own content, doing my own everything. And that was a huge shift.”
Importantly, producing her own videos has given Raphael the ability to control the conditions on set — and to make sure that when she hires additional talent, everyone involved is as comfortable as possible. “It's not hard. That’s the part that’s upsetting,” she says of avoiding abuse and assault scandals within the sex industry. “It’s not hard to not suck.” On Raphael’s set, rates are figured out ahead of time, boundaries are discussed ahead of time, tests are taken and disclosed ahead of time. “I check in as much as possible with people,” she says.
And for those who think her work is exciting or action-packed, Raphael is quick to point out its mundane reality, not far removed from a typical cubicle job.
“Sex work requires a ridiculous amount of computer work," she says. "It’s really boring."