“As a rebellious preteen, I sat down and made a list of my life goals,” writesin her photobook 5 Dollars for 3 Minutes. “It was pretty simple: 1. Sex. 2. Drugs. 3. Rock’n’roll.”
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area in the Summer of Love, Toloui was in the right place to hit these targets, and by 1990 was a member of a feminist punk band,, and working at the Lusty Lady strip club. Stripping was part-rebellion and part-necessity because Toloui was studying photojournalism at San Francisco State University and the Lusty Lady paid well, but when she was given an assignment to shoot her own life, it also became a project. Deciding not to photograph herself or her colleagues, because female nudes have been seen so many times before, she trained her camera on the customers.
“I was really excited by the tradition of photojournalists, who step into any situation and bravely take the picture that needs to be taken, rather than the picture that is easier,” she says. “And being the punk kind of woman I was, it seemed like I had to do that. I felt like this needed to be seen, because while we all know about the sex industry, and we all know about pornography, we only know it from the man’s view of the women. Actually, originally, I asked a friend to come along [as a customer] so I could take a photograph of what it looked like, but he didn’t show. So I had to be brave and ask an actual customer [if I could photograph him].”
To her surprise, the customer – the word Toloui prefers to use rather than client – said yes, and even came back for more the following week, so what started as an assignment turned into something she worked on for two and a half years. Toloui’s time at the Lusty Lady was divided between the stage, a mirrored peep show in which she danced with other women, and the Private Pleasures booth, in which she was alone and performed for one viewer or a group; in both cases the viewers were behind glass, but in the booth she and they were connected via microphone. Toloui started to take her camera into the booth regularly and ask customers if she could shoot them in return for a free show, and while many refused, a few agreed, some covering their faces, perhaps more interested in the bargain, but others adopting extravagant poses. Either way, they were willing participants, says Toloui, adding: “It was consensual – it wasn’t me sneaking photos.”
She managed to shoot about 100 usable images, most of which are published in. Some of the photographs capture small groups or heterosexual couples, but most show men on their own, framed by the same pane of glass but of various ages, ethnicities and body types. Some wear suits and some casual clothes, others are half-naked or completely undressed; Toloui wanted to capture them aroused, so many have erections that are visible or even displayed. Others show more esoteric predilections, partly as a result of Toloui’s open-minded approach to sex work. She was happy to take punters that made other Lusty Ladies uncomfortable, she says, taking an anthropological interest in the panoply of male desires that unfolded.
“When I got those guys who had more unusual kinks, I would encourage them to be themselves, and they could feel that I wasn’t judging them, that I welcomed their peculiarities,” she says. “Then they would come back, so I started getting regulars. I became known as that one who didn’t mind.
“I had this feeling I was helping the men who needed to not feel like there was something wrong with them,” she adds. “They needed to feel like ‘OK there’s someone who’s open to my kink. Here’s someone who lets me be who I am,’ because, for whatever reason, they had been made to feel guilt or shame about whatever it was. There was a cop who loved lingerie, for example; he would wear it under his uniform, and when he got a new outfit he’d come in and show me.”
Another regular brought along dated 1970s clothes for her to wear, complete with holes to expose her breasts and groin; Toloui says the outfit transformed her into a hilarious “soccer mom”, but she loved the fact “he could trust me enough to show me what he truly wanted”. But she adds that she couldn’t laugh in front of him, though she wanted to, and that this story is revealing because it shows how she had to conform to her customers’ desires. At the Lusty Lady she worked under an assumed name, hid her bleach-blond dreadlocks under a wig, and wore outfits far from her usual attire; she says she’s a sex-positive feminist, who believes “women should have the right to do whatever it is they want to do with their bodies, including sex work”, but she adds that this work was framed by the patriarchy.
“What it comes down to is the money,” she says. “In the end, you just really need to pay your rent. And the men have the money, so you do what you need to do to get them to part with it. When you get into sex work you have to suppress your true self, in order to make money from someone who has certain expectations of how you should be. What’s normally expected is that you erase yourself, or cover up your true self, to make yourself attractive to a man to masturbate over you.”
Toloui left the club in the early 1990s, bored with stripping and deciding that she’d taken enough photographs. Since then, the last old-school peep show has closed in the US, but strip clubs have become mainstream in the US and beyond, and strip-show aesthetics have emerged in pop culture. Toloui welcomes the greater openness about female sexuality, but questions how far it reaches. “If it’s still within the framework of the typical, patriarchal expectations of beauty and sexual imagery – if it’s still existing within a framework of sex work – it’s still about pleasing men,” she argues.
And she’s irritated it’s taken so long for her photographs to be published in full, because, while her images have been exhibited at institutions such as Tate Modern and San Francisco Museum of Modern, what’s been shown is shots of her, or clothed customers, or the few heterosexual couples in the series (including a pair who were artists, visiting friends working at the Lusty Lady, who squirted breast milk at the screen for a laugh). The images showing men with erections have largely remained unseen. “Curators and editors have chosen the images where there was a woman in the picture because it’s safe,” Toloui says. “We’re used to seeing women in a sexualised context. But it became so frustrating to me that they wouldn’t show the real work, which is men jerking off. That is the majority of the work.”
It’s taken nearly 30 years and an up-and-coming photobook specialist, the Athens-based Void, to finally publish the whole thing; for Toloui, that reflects a greater contemporary openness about sex work and female sexuality, but also the fact there are now more female artists, editors and curators, “so it’s not only men who can make the decision about what can be seen”. Even so, she says there’s more to be done in showing the female gaze and male sexuality, and adds that doing so will also help men. If the patriarchy sets out certain roles for women, it also does the same for men, she points out; for some of her customers, the Lusty Lady was the only place they could let that mask slip. It was the only place, perhaps, they could show their real desires, the lingerie under the uniform.
“These men aren’t pretending,” she says. “That’s who they are and how they’re feeling in the moment, and that made them vulnerable … All those things you see every day, men having to peacock, to bulk up, or walk tall, or talk tough, that’s such a burden for someone who isn’t like that. But men being allowed to be something other than the masculine ideal? That revolution has yet to happen.”