“When you move to New York, obviously, you need money. And fashion is not the best industry for that,” Erika Flynn noted pragmatically by way of explaining her start in sex work, all while sipping a margarita on the rocks under Cafe Select’s twinkling ceiling of string lights. “I had a friend who had been in sex work before and she had always tried to get me into it. Finally I was like, ‘I’ll give this a try’ — then I was just like, ‘Why haven’t I been doing this my whole life?!’”
With the same cheerful matter-of-factness, Flynn rapidly shared the life story of her 23 years so far: a Los Angeles transplant by way of New Jersey and Arizona, she dabbled in fashion, cutting her teeth at cult store Opening Ceremony and also pursued photography and writing, snapping up bylines in Galore and the LA Times. After moving to New York, however, tight finances led her to experimenting with the sex industry, first as a sugar baby, then as a dancer, which led to her current gig: stripper by night and the creator of Sugar, the forthcoming, feminism-driven show that will change the way you think about sex workers.
“Whenever there’s a show or a movie about a stripper, there’s usually no emotional depth,” Flynn said. “We wanted to write a show about these girls who are friends, who also just happen to be strippers. The focus is on their relationships, their personal lives, their family drama, and how they make it work by being a sex worker.”
Flynn explained that while she had wanted to write a show for a long time, it wasn’t until she started doing sex work and then watched the first season of Starz’ The Girlfriend Experience that she knew that she needed to write a show about her experiences in the sex industry. While she enjoyed The Girlfriend Experience, she found it and the cold loneliness of the main character to be far from the truth that she and her friends knew as sex workers. In fact, it was through Flynn’s first job as a sex worker that she found the close female friendships that she had been craving her entire life, bonds that empowered Flynn to be open and proud about her work.
“I had this group of girlfriends that I’d never had before, like no matter what, you could tell them anything and they were understanding or empathetic and there was no judgment. These relationships are one of the first times that I’ve felt and given real, unconditional love,” she said, citing bell hooks’ All About Love as a major influence in her deep value of platonic female relationships. “That’s when I was like, this is such a cool and loving thing that I’m a part of and I want to share that with people. It was always hard with family, but eventually I was like, I really want to tell this story and I don’t really care how it affects my image or my relationships at this point because I feel like people that love me will have to understand it or eventually be supportive of something that they might be able to see as positive.”
These friendships also provided the inspiration and heart of Sugar, which refreshingly hinges on the agency and nuances of sex workers, as opposed to the stigma often associated with sex work. Flynn recruited the close friends she had made while working at the club (Palmar Kelly, Amanda Geiling, and Sydney Benjamin) to help her bring the show to life; Kelly, who went to school for acting, is a co-writer with Flynn for the show, while all four of the women co-star in the series. While none of them had initially considered acting in the show before, it lends a spot-on authenticity since much of the scripted narrative is based on their real-life experiences in the industry. Much of the process to create Sugar so far has been hands-on, allowing for plenty of learning opportunities for Flynn and her friends along the way.
“I hadn’t planned to act in it, but then we realized we were nobodies and we needed the roles to be authentic,” she shared with a laugh. “I’d never acted before but now I’m taking acting classes. We’re shooting our own pilot and we want to sell it the best way we can. Creating a website, writing the blog, creating content for Sugar, trying to figure out how a production company works.”
Their plan for Sugar includes making a pilot so they can pitch it to a network, but beyond that, Flynn and her collaborators are also thinking of ways that they can broaden the range of experiences of the world of Sugar. While their initial plans for the show center on their characters, Flynn is quick to acknowledge that the world of sex work is wildly diverse, something that they want to incorporate into their show as it develops. One of the ways that they hope to do it is by using their current online presence for Sugar as a platform to start making the connections for future collaborations with other sex workers.
“A goal with the website and why we started the blog is so that other sex workers from all walks of life could reach out to us and have a platform where they could tell their stories or write essays or share things that had happened to them, or even give advice to others,” Flynn said. “When the show progresses, we’d love to have them write for the show, but we want it be when we can pay them for their art. That’s why we wanted to have a really interactive platform. We’re four white girls; we know that we don’t have the same experiences as a trans sex worker or black women or Asian women or Latina women. We’re looking for this to be a collaborative thing.”
While Flynn and her friends know that sex work has ultimately empowered them to live life on their terms, they’re all too aware that many people have opposing views. To critics and haters who might call into question Flynn’s feminist politics in creating Sugar or championing in sex work, she’s perfected an apt response.
“Women are sexualized no matter what the fuck they’re doing, so we might as well make monetary gains from it,” she said with a grin before tossing back the final dregs of her margarita. “I didn’t think stripping was feminist until I did it and then I was like, I feel the most powerful when I am on stage in a room full of men and they have to throw money at me for me to even look in their direction.”