AN EAST COAST, art-school grad moves to Seattle, lands a job dancing in a sex shop, and writes stories and takes pictures of the women working there. In this sort of schema, you might expect the final result to read as some variant of a feminist treatise or, at the very least, a forum for some good ol' fashioned male bashing. Yet such assumptions would be only partially correct. When photographer Erika Langley initially entered the Lusty Lady, she wanted to document the lifestyle there, hoping to strengthen a portfolio that several newspaper editors had deemed "competent but average." The management of the Lusty Lady, however, told Langley that in order to pursue her project, she must herself become a dancer; and from the book's introduction, Langley says, "I'll never be sorry I took the Lusty's dare."
When first faced with this book full of women au naturel, the photos understandably distract from the narrative. Like a child discovering Playboy, you can't help but stare at the dancers wrapped around go-go poles. You take note of the dominatrix wear, compare breast sizes, marvel at a Barbie-doll head nestled in pubic hair knowing that the rest of its body is stuck in a woman's vagina like a tampon. And that seems to be Langley's point: Indulge, explore your sensuality, take time out to masturbate if you must. Eventually, once the nudie novelty wears off, you come back to the stories--the first half of which are Langley's own, the other being those of her co-workers. Langley wisely lets the photos and text speak indirectly to each other in suspenseful ways--no photo captions here--making the reader hypothesize on name and faces: "Which woman is Garbo," or "Is that the Diaper Man?"
For a woman from a nice, Catholic family, educated to hate the trappings of the patriarchy, this might seem an improbable place to be. Langley doesn't deny this, and it's her clear, honest voice that explores the complex nature of the sex business. Mirrors, a recurring motif throughout, represent the barrier between the dancers and their phallus-fondling patrons, as well as the newfound vanity and erotica in the women. Never one to let the photojournalistic dream die, Langley tries to retain an objective distance, rarely passing judgement. She offers insights but ultimately allows the photos and stories to create an open dialogue where the reader fills in her own answers.