Fighting stigma can be one of the most gruelling and dangerous parts of existing as a sex worker. With mainstream media projecting harmful and often false assumptions as to who sex workers are while simultaneously coopting our aesthetics, the battle to tell our own stories is ongoing. Today we speak to editor and creative director Penelope Dario about her new industry focused magazine Petit Mort and the importance of documenting and showcasing the creativity of the sex industry.
What is your connection to the industry and what inspired you to start Petit Mort?
I have always loved print media and art books. My background is in photography and illustration, I started dancing at strip clubs when the starving artist lifestyle got old and unsustainable for me. I loved dancing and learned so much at the clubs but started looking into escorting when I sought after a less nocturnal lifestyle. While doing my initial market research I was taken aback by the production quality and branding aesthetics of the providers I was finding online. It not only inspired me but it was really liberating to see a future for myself where I could use my creativity to create my brand with the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I was pretty close minded in regards to sex work before getting involved myself, and still held a lot of internalized whorephobia while I was learning the ropes. Part of what helped me open up was seeing this as an industry where women and marginalized folx could be working artists living by their own rules, and that this was probably the reality for many artists and dreamers throughout history. This magazine is an extension of this experience for me and is a way that I feel I can help to start shifting the public's opinion on us by sharing this journey. You can’t reduce us to a single story once you see how vast and diverse this industry is.
As we’ve seen with previous sex work publications such as $pread, media centered around sex work that is created by sex workers can have an incredibly positive impact on the way we are viewed by broader society.
What is your mission at Petit Mort, why do you think it's important particularly now and what do you hope to achieve?
This is precisely my goal for the magazine. I think so many of the issues we face in terms of stigma and discrimination are because we are relegated to the shadows. The patriarchy has whorephobia baked into the systems they created. I honestly understand where a lot of swerfs are coming from in a way because everything they have ever been exposed to carries the message that if you are a whore you are devoid of morality and virtue, that only the women who wait patiently for their value to be assigned to them are worthy of honor. The idea that a woman has the right to decide her inherent value for herself and charge for access to her body and magic goes against everything we have been taught—not just at home, the idea that we should be “good girls”, always smiling, accommodating, and satisfied with second place, permeates every aspect of our society. This being said, I can only speak on the experience of a cis-gendered woman.
I think things are starting to change though and that the world is becoming more open to conversations about sex work. However, if we don’t make a real effort to be in control of our own narrative and reach across the aisle, our work and ideas will only be seen by people actively seeking us out. If we want to start making real shifts we need to start seeking collaborations outside of our immediate circles. With Petit Mort, I want to start creating a dialogue between the world of contemporary art and fashion with the erotic labor industry. Mainstream media loves using motifs and themes from sex work culture to spice up their productions but it is rare to see someone like FKA Twiggs actually say the words “sex workers” and publicly state their support for us.
Petit Mort is a place to showcase the brilliance of our industry so the world can see how much we are doing and what we are capable of. So many of us were raised with the idea that you can either be smart or pretty, and the world needs to see how these bombshells outsmarted the system. People are afraid of this kind of power and it’s a big reason for our demonization. Throughout history it has been all too easy for men in power to take credit for our ideas, inventions, and contributions to society. I felt compelled to create this publication so that we can keep a physical record of our lives and oral histories that aren’t subject to overnight deletion. It is important to me to create a space for sex workers where we aren’t selling sex, but rather artists sharing our stories and NOT our scandals. Which is a format that I believe will humanize us to the public and help to address some of the cognitive dissonance that surrounds us.
Could you tell us a little about the current issue and how you’ve found the development process?
I love the saying “the longest distance in the world is the space between the idea that you started with and how it ended up”. We were originally going to print a 5x8 newsprint zine inspired by mid century smutty pulp zines. Laura Corinn, our VP and photo director, and I have been creating art together since we met 3 years ago and wanted to do something offline for once. When I brought Sophia Grey in (our astrologer and so much more) I initially wanted her to write horoscopes and help with the themes we would cover in each issue—she expressed that she always dreamed of creating or working for a magazine and had so many amazing ideas that added another dimension to the project. One of which being - that she wanted a big full color magazine. She argued that if we want this project to really capture what we’re made of that it should look and feel like a professional magazine. She stressed that it would be all too easy for people to overlook the zine as a little art project when we could be creating something that really does our industry justice and commands a little more respect.
With sex workers being such a diverse group of people, how do you ensure that Petit Mort is best representing those in the sex industry?
This is something that we are hyper aware of and constantly checking in to make sure that we are providing an accurate representation of the industry. It’s a lot of cold emails and research. In some ways we are united as an industry but there are also so many subdivisions and sometimes it can be a journey to get in touch with people who have no idea who you are. I also have to be aware of the fact that since this is a new project led by a white-passing privileged escort, that some may be wary of working with us or concerned about how we will represent them. My goal is to bring more people into the conversation with each issue in the hopes that folx can feel safe in letting us help tell their stories. Most of my connections are in the high end market in NYC and as I have some incredibly talented colleagues here, it would be easy for me to publish a magazine just pulling from my immediate circle, but it would be an extremely biased view of the erotic labor industry as a whole. In meetings we are always holding the line for voices that are under-represented and will continue to prioritize their stories.
Mainstream publications have a history of appropriating aesthetics from sex workers and, in turn, the Black and trans communities. What would you say to editors of these magazines and what do you think they should be doing differently?
I spoke about this a little in my editor’s note for the first issue. I think it’s long been a practice that should only continue as long as they bring us into the conversation. It’s exhausting to see cultural symbols exploited without any consideration for the people they belong to. As a multi-racial person, I’ve always been fascinated by cultural exchanges in all their forms. I think that it is a huge part of how humanity has advanced and it's very exciting when done appropriately. The issue lies in excluding the people whose culture is being used, often for profit. The issue is multiplied when the group that is using said cultural references is systemically more privileged than the group who created the references. The sex work industry’s situation as a whole is not quite comparable to issues faced by the trans or black communities, but in terms of cultural appropriation vs exchange it is important to uphold similar values when approaching it. Cultural exchange moves culture forward and can help break down biases, appropriation is an exercise of oppression.
What have been some of the biggest challenges whilst launching Petit Mort?
Going into this, I felt confident about maybe 90% of what I thought was needed to pull this thing off. Once you get into the weeds of a project though you realize there’s a whole laundry list of things that you didn’t even consider were necessary. There are a million magazines out there for reference but in order to create something unique you have to pick your battles and sometimes do things unconventionally. I think my biggest challenge is keeping pace and not getting ahead of myself. My team is pretty good about keeping me grounded and putting out fires but sometimes there are difficult days when you know you’re gonna have to make compromises or do a 180 on something that you’ve already put a ton of work into.
The other thing is, you’ll be hard pressed to find another industry in which people value their independence as much as we do. Most of us work alone and call all of the shots when it comes to running our businesses. I truly relished in that freedom for a long time until I realized I wanted to work with a team again. It is so rewarding, collaborative effort has even been proven to release dopamine. However, getting comfortable in releasing total control and learning to trust your colleagues isn’t always easy. I think that once the first issue was completed we definitely reached a new level of understanding as a group.
Can sex workers write for Petit Mort and if so, what kind of submissions are you looking for? How can people submit?
We would love to receive submissions from anyone currently working or retired from SW. I want the magazine to have a timeless quality about it—we will keep back issues in our shop as long as we are in print and want people to be able to read them 10 years later and still find relevant information. My focus as an editor is to publish our art and theory to build more respect around what we do. I want to stay away from war stories or pieces that won't stand the test of time.
You can email us at email@example.com with any pitches or submissions. We are currently working on integrating a submission page to our site where people can upload their work directly.
What are some topics you'd like to explore through Petit Mort?
I think the topics are truly endless, and for that reason I hope this magazine has longevity. “Sex work” is a demimonde of its own, and its history is ancient giving us a well spring of inspiration and stories to tell.
Currently, my focus is on sex workers in English speaking countries, mainly North America. However, I would love to expand our horizons to include stories from every continent (except Antarctica - unless there is some polar legend I’ve yet to hear about!) For example, I am from Latin America and I know that the sex work industry looks a lot different there. When we start to branch out I will most likely start with Spanish speaking countries as it is what I have the closest access to.
How can folks support this fantastic venture?
Buy our print issue! We have several tiers on our website for people looking to support the project. In exchange for the patronage we have some amazing behind the scenes footage, merch, and are working on a hard bound special collectors edition for the higher tiers.
We are also always looking for new stories and collaborators and our inbox is always open for pitches!