WHAT DOES THE MODERN FEMINIST LOOK LIKE? Fourth-wave feminism has long surpassed the righteousness of exposed ankles or fighting against the ‘50s distilled housewife archetype; there have been great strides to overcome the challenges of ascertaining equal rights for women with regard to gender pay inequalities, abortion rights or protecting women from targeted violence though, that’s still an uphill battle. But bras aren’t being burned, and period blood is no longer being smeared in protest, so what does feminist riot and reclamation look like for fourth-wave feminists? It feels fitting to unravel this conversation with one feminist who will, undoubtedly, become an icon in punk activist history if they haven’t already been lauded as such yet. Nadya Tolokonnikova, the bandleader of activist-musical group Pussy Riot, may humbly understate their impact on third-wave punk feminism, but a mere glimpse at their years paid to the cause begs to differ. 

For those not familiar, Pussy Riot are a protest and performance art group originating in Moscow, Russia. Their careers were built on the unabashed criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the oppressive regime implemented by this government, but also the celebration of feminism and LGBTQ+ rights woven into their gritty punk tracks, seen as a direct threat to what has often been described as totalitarian laws in Russia. This would lead to them being jailed, and eventually convicted in 2012 of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for their protests and serving two years' imprisonment, as reported by The Guardian. Tolokonnikova’s years of sacrifice for the feminist movement can’t be overlooked, and their latest endeavors for female empowerment and equality have found them immersed in the world of NFTs and crypto, where they’re rallying for more women and gender non-conforming folk to occupy these spaces. They even went as far as to raise $7.1 million in cryptocurrency for relief in Ukraine. More recently, they have reclaimed their own body by creating pornographic content in the eyes of the female gaze. In short: sex work.

attachment-468A8104-copy
loading...

[Nadya Tolokonnikova and Eva Elfie / Photo: Nina Hawkins / Lighting: Adrian Pruett]

As we gloss through the cover images for this story, Tolokonnikova (who's nonbinary and uses she/they pronouns) explains how the shots are representative of “Pussy Riot,” with the dominatrix outfits showing their “riot” side. Despite their comfort discussing the topic, truthfully, she admits there was an initial aversion to engaging in these spaces. “I was surrounded by a group of feminists who were generally against sex work because they thought it's inherently degrading and objectifying by default,” Tolokonnikova admits over Zoom from an undisclosed location. They sought to have conversations with those who are very involved with sex work, learn from them, and through doing so came to the realization that sex work can become an act of reclamation.

I realized that it did help women and nonbinary people actually feel like they own their own body,” Tolokonnikova says. “Any sex workers have their own boundaries. I'd heard from them that setting up these boundaries has been one of the most powerful things they’ve experienced with their bodies and can promote consent culture.” But it was her interview with adult performer Stoya that seemed to revolutionize their thought process, they explain. “I read her book, [and] it was really an eye-opening experience. She talked with me about feminist porn, and how to produce porn movies from the point of women or queer person. I was wildly interested in that. I finally decided to open my own page.” 

attachment-468A7907-copy
loading...

[Nadya Tolokonnikova and Eva Elfie / Photo: Nina Hawkins / Lighting: Adrian Pruett / Extras: Floretta and Kolten Horner]

Despite sex work being one of the oldest professions going, the vilification and violence rallied toward it is far from being just a page in a history book. Continued efforts to diminish sex workers from government bodies are stripping away their right to work in safe, regulated conditions and leaving them in the lurch of targeted attacks from murderers and serial rapists. New Zealand sets a great example of the benefits that decriminalizing sex work offers, and what further measures need to be adhered to by the media and society to grant greater acceptance and understanding toward sex work.

Arguably, the rise of OnlyFans-esque content-sharing websites used by online sex workers to share pornographic content behind a paywall of their own pricing control has helped revolutionize accessible sex work for all, giving direct control to the people making it, cutting out any dodgy photographers or controlling directors. “It did empower me. I was pleasantly surprised by people who subscribed to my page,” Tolokonnikova smiles. “It turned into this really interesting exercise for me as a feminist to eventually explore my own boundaries and the boundaries of other people. I exist on an OnlyFans page in the role of the dominatrix because, first of all, it’s fun. It serves historical purposes because women have been oppressed for far too long, and I think a figure of dominatrix lets a lot of people who engage with me imagine women in a different role than they were historically taught.” 

attachment-NADYA-DC-COVER-1
loading...

[Nadya Tolokonnikova / Photo: Nina Hawkins / Lighting: Adrian Pruett]

Talking to Tolokonnikova without video and through their screen avatar to protect their location is something that seems to loom over the call, a reminder of the trauma and adversity they’ve endured at such a young age, and what subsequently ousted her out of a place she called home. “It is difficult. A lot of us [members of Pussy Riot] have traumas we suffer with,” they explain. For her, PTSD is something they and many others grapple with, ”It’s like your country is being stolen from you. It is a reason to grieve. Sometimes, I interact with people, and I feel like I'm separated from them by a glass wall, which is a typical sign of depression. But also, it's quite literally how I feel in the world. Even after two years in jail, people would ask me, ‘Why didn't you leave?’ I'd always answer that I find strength and courage in my community, and I don't want to lose it because then once you lose it, you lose a big part of yourself.” Thankfully, virtual connections keep them connected to their network.

attachment-468A8125-copy
loading...

[Nadya Tolokonnikova and Eva Elfie / Photo: Nina Hawkins / Lighting: Adrian Pruett]

Even with the community of consent they’ve built on OnlyFans in such a short time, music has not, in fact, fallen to the back burner for Tolokonnikova. “I just produced my first track by myself,” she gushes. “It’s about this magic ritual, a prayer. We became known to the world because of a punk prayer, and I still feel like prayer is one of the earliest forms of music. I want to take it back as a feminist, as a person who stands against the Kremlin. So this is a prayer in which we summon Putin and turn him into ashes. And it's done in conjunction with a performance [from] a few months ago in the desert. We burned a giant Putin portrait, and it turned into a video that is going to be released sometime early next year.” 

Plunging into the rabbit hole of their Twitter feeds and Instagram posts, what might not be apparent to some is the calculated steps Tolokonnikova has taken to ensure that their existence in this space is one that’s purposeful. “My interactions with people on my OnlyFans page are educational,” they explain. “Only hardcore Pussy Riot fans stay there because I take time to explain. To give people tasks. To think about history. To think about gender roles.” Typically, sex workers may leave their Amazon wishlists in their social media bios, prompting men who get pleasure from financially supporting these women to spend. Interestingly, Tolokonnikova’s wishlist in their OnlyFans bio boasts a list of feminist and left-wing literature.

attachment-468A8291-copy
loading...

[Nadya Tolokonnikova and Eva Elfie / Photo: Nina Hawkins / Lighting: Adrian Pruett]

“I help them [their followers] to remove themselves from their comfort zone. I would ask a person who works in law enforcement to do certain actions, to be nicer to people they’re hooking up with, to do certain actions with his body, to get out in the city and cross-dress. And he's consenting to it, but it's challenging for him because he's scared that someone from his work is going to see him.” Through submission, Tolokonnikova shifts patriarchal roles that become both pleasurable and educational for the parties involved. “These interactions that are interesting to me, they're always challenging. Not everyone will sign up for it, but I feel like my role is always to try to gently get people out of their comfort zone and try to imagine a different world,” she says. “For example, for a person who used to be in power all the time, it's important to have an experience of being submissive. It's interesting because I get to explore my own kinks and how my activism informs my kinks.”

On the surface, sex work is often shunted as something of vulgarity, or disgust, but if anything, Tolokonnikova and many other online sex workers are reclaiming the notion that these spaces are inherently feminist ones. In 2022, the fourth-wave feminist is dominating men in power by spreading them on all fours, ball gag and whip in hand.