We Are All Prostitutes, from the Market Street Cinema series by Leon Mostovoy

Leon Mostovoy

We Are All Prostitutes, from the 'Market Street Cinema' series, 1988, B&W Archival fiber print, 50.8 x 60.96 cm, © Leon Mostovoy; Photo courtesy of ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

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Taking Destiny Into One’s Own Hands

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This joyful image of lesbian sex workers back stage at a San Francisco strip club is taken from Leon Mostovoy’s series Market Street Cinema. Mostovoy, a trans man, was a key contributor to the lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs. The magazine played an important role in the feminist ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, where deep disagreements about the value of sex work and pornography in queer and feminist liberation divided the movement (Guy 2016). For many queer people at this time, San Francisco represented a utopian space of possibility and freedom. The unfolding AIDS crisis highlighted the contrast between the relative freedom of San Francisco and the fearful hostility of mainstream society, as Americans responded to the frightening spread of an unknown new disease by blaming and stigmatizing queer people. Mostovoy said that in this series he hoped to depict ‘a strong group of femmes … using the sex industry as a way of accessing power, control and money’ (ONE 2015).

Tamar did not take up sex work freely or without danger: she narrowly escaped a fiery death at the hands of her hypocritically puritanical father-in-law. But only when she left the safety of her respectable family home to engage in risky sexual behaviour did she gain the freedom to act and to determine her destiny for herself. In the biblical account, once Tamar has returned to respectability—giving birth to twin sons and thus ridding herself of the stigma of sexual immorality—she disappears into the background of the text, no longer referred to by name.

But her story of cunning remains, reminding us of the thin line between respectability and social ostracism, suggesting that it is not unconventional sexual behaviour but the violent policing of sexual purity which puts vulnerable people most at risk, and hinting at the possibilities and freedoms which can be found at the margins of society.



Guy, Laura. 2016. ‘Sex Wars, Revisited’, Aperture 225: 54–59

ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. 2015. Leon Mostovoy: Market Street Cinema, available at: https://one.usc.edu/exhibition/leon-mostovoy-market-street-cinema

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