Maybe you know Natalia Leite and her creative partner, Alexandra Roxo from Be Here Nowish, the web show they co-created about the New Age scene. Or Life as A Truck Stop Stripper, the documentary they made for Vice about their week working at a truck stop strip joint in New Mexico called Moriarty.
After proving their mettle at showing the idiosyncrasies of this crazy, freewheeling world without ever making anyone look stupid, Leite is now releasing her debut feature film, Bare.
Raised in Sao Paolo, she wrote the script for Bare in her late teens and early twenties during her first years in New York, and shot it on location at Moriarty, casting most of her actors from the dancers who worked there. It’s a movie about a lot of things, and one of them is what happens when a normal everyday girl is persuaded to sell her body for a little cash. In today’s world of sugar daddy dating apps and Seeking Arrangement, it seems like there’s no better time to talk about such topics. No judgement!
Both of your movies—Life As A Truck Stop Stripper and Bare—are about female sexual empowerment, and how you can use it to get what you want. When did you start thinking about that?
When I was growing up, I felt very limited by my body. I thought I’d always be seen as a sexual object, or ‘a small woman,’ because I’m petite. But then there was a period of being sexually liberated. Certain relationships brought out things in me that I didn’t even know I had, and I realised that I could use what I was born with to my advantage. Part of that is in the story.
What conclusions did you come to from spending so much time in a strip clubs?
I guess that there isn’t a single point of view. Like, sure, I did see some girls who were catty to each other and who were purely there to make a dime off their own bodies. But I also met a wise woman whose motivation wasn’t dancing, it was connection: she was listening to these guys, who have no one to talk to, because she knew that otherwise they would be so alone. She would leave at the end of the day emotionally drained by that, but she knew she had brought them comfort. So I learned that using your sexuality can be sexy and empowering, dangerous and confusing, and also therapeutic.
Where do sites like Seeking Arrangements and Sugar Daddy fit into that picture? I know girls on there, and I recently heard about people posting pictures of “sponsored” holidays on Instagram and putting their contact numbers in their bios to attract sugar daddies, It’s becoming normal to think that it’s no big deal to consider our sexualities as another commodity to rent out.
Yes I have friends who are doing it and they start off saying, “It’s OK, I’m just going in and making some money. I’m a free spirit and I’m in control.” Or, “I can choose to have sex or not have sex with this person. I’m making money off this thing that can also be pleasurable for me. I’m enjoying my sexuality.”
Which is kind of cool …
It is, until something bad happens, you know? We have such a history of degrading women for being sexual; I think that with these sites, we’re diving into something we don’t understand yet. For a start, they’re populated by the wrong kinds of guys, married guys, who aren’t going to treat us the way we should be treated. People say, well it’s no worse than Tinder. But these sites are anonymous. And the longer you stay in it, the more it starts to mess with your brain about what sex means to you. You can try to train yourself to be de-sensitized, but especially for women, our anatomy is built so that someone is going inside us.
One of the subjects you explore in the movie is how we can tell ourselves that something is making us feel one way, when the reality might be more ambiguous.
I guess that’s reflected in the feedback I’ve had from former strippers and sex workers who’ve said that the way I represented their work, the way that it can be good and bad, is exactly how it was for them when they started out. The only criticism I’ve had has come from girls who are currently stripping. They said, ‘but we’re empowered by it’ and ‘we’re feminists’, and ‘we’re actually just having a party, and you’re saying that we’re not.’ They don’t want to admit that it can be both.
And you can understand why. Does it ever seem to you like the world still can’t decide how it feels about women and sex? Sometimes we’re encouraged to be radically free. But then when we are, we’re made to feel so bad about it.
We’re going through a period of change for sure. There’s the resurgence of feminism, Free the Nipple. There are women saying, “I can walk around topless and be sexy and call myself a slut and reclaim these words.” It’s a movement, and it’s my journey too. But there’s still so far to go. It would be great if we could see a stripper on a stage as a human being and a talented performer, instead of a sex object, but I don’t know if the world is ready for that.
Do you ever wish there were a few more guidelines about how to inhabit this new sexual landscape? There are some nominal rules like, “text your friend where you’re going.” But when it comes to how to act or protect ourselves emotionally or physically sometimes it feels like we’re making it up as we go along.
I’m an advocate for living as freely as possible. Do whatever feels right to you, find your pleasure, I’m a big proponent of that. But for a lot of people, there are issues that aren’t addressed. Like, why someone even opens that door to exchange sex for money? Some people are playing out their daddy issues, which is fine. But if you’re going to do it, at least use some of that money to pay for a therapist, so you can also work through some of those issues.
Tell me your sexual utopian dream …
That there is way less shame and way more openness. It’s important to say, “Yeah, this is what I’m doing” and be honest with ourselves about the choices we’re making. Right now, it’s like everyone knows it’s happening but we’re not talking about it, so we can’t create support groups or find better ways to help each other out in these situations. And I wish that the wise woman I met could find a way to do the work she does safely and with the respect it deserves.
My favourite moment in Bare is probably (without giving away the ending) she finds out that she doesn’t need anyone else to liberate her. She can liberate herself.
Exactly! She might not know where she wants to be next but she knows what she doesn’t want. She can just be happy and content with herself and that was the only awakening she needed.
BARE is scheduled for release on EST and VOD April 25th in the UK. (Paramount Pictures International is releasing the film.)