Elevate Difference

The Sex Workers' Art Show (3/1/2007)

Chicago, Illinois

The Sex Workers' Art Show performed its last show of the season to a full crowd at Chicago's Abbey Pub on March 1, 2007. The performances I experienced were gorgeous, funny, embarrassing, heart-breaking, hopeful, offensive and affirming. And all in a good way. The burlesque teacher who performed at least 12,000 table dances to work her way through college and grad school taught a woman from the audience to perform a striptease and twirl her tassles. Amber Dawn, the retired prostitute, read another of her short stories based on her experiences. There was a song that explored black masculinities. Annie Oakley, the show's founder, promoter, organizer and den mother, is a gracious host. The Abbey was packed, but she made it feel like a chill house party. Even when she asked the audience to please put their video cameras away already and f**k off, she still came across as laid-back.

In addition to being beautiful and trendy in a sex-radical way, this was a taboo-busting show. One piece in particular stands out for me in its power and horror. A woman wears a scarf on her head with a red cross. She rolls a condom onto a dildo attached to a gun handle and performs fellatio while the Ave Maria plays in the background. Afterwards she strips – doesn't tease – and, when the floor and balcony are silent (the only point in the entire show in which this would happen), she speaks into the microphone: "I will suck your cock all you want if that will end the war." I feel ashamed. I don't know why. In her introduction to the show, Annie Oakley noted that we are a porn consuming – porn glutted – culture, but we prefer that the objects/subjects of our consumption remain silent. This show breaks that taboo, generally. In the performance I just described, it is horrifically apparent that there can be negative aspects to sex work even in a sex-radical appreciation and that enjoying sex does not diminish the danger and pain that accompanies sex and sex work for so many women (and men).

As dangerous and alienating as sex work can be, the performance described above is infused with agency and critique. Annie Oakley pointed out the deep criticism of war, capitalist production, cultural and sexual imperialism at work in this piece. When C. Snatch Z. (the performer of this piece) offers her body for sexual service, Annie Oakely reads this as both a signal of the futility of responses to the war machine as well as a well-aimed jab at the “male ego and need that drive war.” Though not advertised as a necessarily feminist show, these performances provide a level of critique and support that volumes of academic feminist theory cannot so easily and immediately convey.

In our email interview, Annie Oakley asserts that she has been a feminist since she knew the meaning of the term, and this feminism infuses all of her work; she has always been a feminist sex worker, and she defies anyone to challenge that. Further, her relationship to sex work incorporates a capitalist critique that is often overlooked or undertheorized even from within feminism. She reminds me that “In a capitalist system, ALL work is economic coercion.” From there, she explored ways of making sex work less oppressively exploitative for sex workers, and then critiqued the proliferation of pro-pleasure language that too often enters feminist debates about sex work. Sex work is just that, “work” and sex workers do not work for their pleasure, they work for the pay. When the feminist debate surrounding sex work is characterized as a polarity between censorship and pleasure, it cannot accurately account for sex workers’ experiences of the sex industry. There is more "work" in sex work than many feminists recognize, and a capitalist analysis might be more beneficial than one of pleasure.

Both the show and Annie Oakley’s detailed analyses (shared with me by personal communication) were deeply challenging for both feminists and non-feminists and the Sex Workers’ Art Show offers an intellectually engaging, non-‘academic’ perspective vital to discussions of sex, work and sex work itself.

Written by: kristina grob, April 10th 2007