Tall Milk throws a tea party on a sunny afternoon in their Bushwick one-bedroom. Tea crackers, Jordan almonds and an assortment of tea bags rest neatly on a floral porcelain dish. The kettle whistles and they pour steaming water into Victorian-style tea cups with small, delicate handles, the kind you pinch between your thumb and index fingers.
It’s a perfect Tuesday tea party for two, a delightful get-together where Tall Milk and I have set aside time in our busy work days to sit and talk about sex, porn and trauma.
Tall Milk, their chosen professional name, is a 6’3″ Brooklyn-based artist, writer and sex worker. With mythical blue eyes, pouty lips and flaxen hair that tumbles well past their abdomen, Tall Milk resembles a life-sized Victorian doll, an appearance that has become an enduring theme in their work — in the hyper-feminine, fetish wonderland of their OnlyFans account, the baroque kitsch of their apartment decor and the romantic styling of their garments: layered ribbons, laces and silks.
It’s in part a constructed costume, a fantastical getup for their kinky clientele, and in part it’s leaning into the genetic cards they were dealt, playing up the statuesque proportions of their body. “I’m just a giantess in my tiny apartment trying to make stuff that I think is beautiful,” they tell me, smiling. They gaze up at the crowded shelves, some piled with antique dolls and others with fleshy, whimsical masturbators.
“I want to look at beautiful things all the time,” they explain. “I’ve collected dolls since I was in foster care and got dolls for good behavior.”
Tall Milk is an Evangelical Christian cult survivor who spent the latter part of their childhood in the foster care system. Much of their work draws from their puritanical background, exploring, interrogating and experiencing the full spectrum of sexuality as a means to heal from trauma-borne shame.
On the floating shelves, stacked beside French boudoir dolls, is their artistic life force: a collection of books and memoirs written by sex workers. While moonlighting at a Manhattan lap dance parlor, Tall Milk worked at one of New York’s venerated institutions, the Strand Bookstore, where they began promoting sex work books in-store and on Instagram. They especially loved the ‘90s-era memoirs and books “when all the discussions about whether or not porn is exploitative were being had — and won — by sex workers.”
Inspired by the radical voices of sex worker authors they were reading and promoting at work, Tall Milk set out to share these stories while nurturing an artistic expression of their own.
Thus was born the collaborative short film trauma p0rn, based on Andrea Werhun’s memoir Modern Whore, a sumptuous dreamworld with a dark underlying message. Using a multimedia collage style, pulling in various art fragments like props, text from the book and an original shoot with Werhen, Tall Milk addresses the critical issue of trauma porn. This is Tall Milk’s second foray into turning sex workers’ books into visual art, the first being a film that used Rachel Rabbit White’s Porn Carnival poetry book.
“Trauma porn is when a client eroticizes trauma,” Tall Milk tells me. An example is “asking [sex workers] while they’re working, ‘What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?’ or ‘What went wrong that you ended up here?’” The response these men are seeking, Tall Milk explains, is for entertainment’s sake, a shocking anecdote to tuck away, and not because they have a vested interest in receiving the weight of the potential answers. They’ve even had incidents where a client has blamed their loss of arousal on a “depressing” exchange.
“These men, who are themselves damaged and unable to navigate their own lives, will pry too hard into our humanity while still thinking of us as objects,” Tall Milk says resolutely. “Then they will act surprised when their dicks get soft realizing you’re a person and sometimes won’t want to pay for the session.”
The role of the sex worker often includes minimizing one’s humanity in order to sustain the illusion of the fantasy, acting as a vessel of care and pleasure only. “People see us as either demons or some kind of embodiment of sex,” Tall Milk shares. “Art from sex workers shows our personality, resilience, humanity and takes our narrative back from how others [construct us] in corny books and movies.” In their artistic collaboration, Tall Milk and Werhun both condemn the exploitative realities of trauma porn and celebrate the vibrancy and nuance of sex work from their own perspectives.
And while these books, films and other artworks are vital for the community in documentation and tribute, they’re equally important for society at large. “We know the secrets of the world.” Tall Milk says. “Societal issues are magnified in sex work and therefore we are often faced with the violence that comes from a racist, sexist society.”
Tall Milk was raised in their father’s cult with eight other siblings and their mother. With strong ties to the Evangelical church, they were taught that their female-born body was one to be shamed, covered and controlled by forces outside of themselves. “As an ex-hardcore Christian and ex-virgin-till-married good girl, I tend to fixate on restrictive sexuality and sexual freedom in my art,” Tall Milk says.
Their childhood was shrouded in guilt and physical isolation. “We were locked in the house or in our bedrooms, so we used our imaginations to become superheroes and spies,” Tall Milk says. “My Precious Moments doll was my first glimpse of beauty that rescues. Every day, I’m clawing out of that sad room and reaching for something beautiful, something that makes me feel my pulse. I’m playing dress-up.”
For many, careers in the nebulous sexual arena — burlesque performers, exotic dancers, dominatrixes — fulfill an array of artistic channels and pursuits. Through personas, costumes, music and props, the erotic conductor is tasked with creating the perfect conditions in which fantasy can occur.
Tall Milk’s ad hoc career as a dominatrix allows for a full spectrum of creative expression. “I get to play a mother, an actor, a doctor, a witch!” Tall Milk exclaims. “I get to inject my personality into my work and connect with all the ‘me’s of the world: crossdressers, weirdos, crybabies, losers and freaks. By accepting others, I accept myself.”
For their next project, Tall Milk is interested in producing a short film series called Dollhouse Diaries where they and other sex workers would play with dolls and talk about inner child healing. “Instead of using fellow sex workers for trauma porn,” Tall Milk explains. “I’d like to ask them things like, ‘What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you as a sex worker; what dolls did you play with as a kid; what’s your love language?’”
Check out Tall Milk and author Andrea Werhun’s short film trauma p0rn below.
Photos courtesy of Tall Milk