Touring art show challenges sex-worker stereotypes

Monica LaBelle

When she was 11 or 12 years old, “Spider” got involved in sex work to raise money so she could run away from home.

“It seemed like the right thing to do to make money,” she said. Since then, Spider – who would not reveal her real name – has also been a middle school teacher, a freelance writer and a performance artist.

Now Spider wants to dispel stereotypes about sex workers through the Sex Workers’ Art Show Tour, which visited the East Bank’s architecture building Friday night.

“There’s usually one or two stereotypes about what a sex worker really is: people of lower class, not educated, not artistic,” Spider said.

The sex industry includes work such as prostitution, stripping, phone and Internet sex, and as professional dominatrixes. It also includes pornography industry workers.

The Sex Workers’ Art Show – an annual exhibitition of sex workers’ visual and performance art – originated in Olympia, Wash., five years ago. The show is the brainchild of a 27-year-old sex worker who goes by the stage name “Annie Oakley.”

Oakley began stripping when she was 20 and has since been involved in sex-worker activism.

“I started (the show) because I was angry about the way I was being treated as a sex worker,” she said. “People who I had known and had worked with for years were questioning my ability to make decisions about my life, and there was a typical liberal take on sex work: ‘It’s anti-feminist, you’re degrading yourself, you don’t understand what you’re doing.’

“I was mad, and I wanted to do something to make them deal with the issues.”

This is the first year the Sex Workers’ Art Show has toured the United States. The approximately 12-artist group stopped in 25 cities, selling out shows in 23. Friday’s show was packed with some students sitting in the lecture hall’s aisles.

“The reason it’s so important to me to get people to think about sex work and confront the stereotypes that people hold about sex workers – Ö they’re unintelligent Ö they’re amoral Ö they’re incapable of doing other things – the fear and stereotypes people have about the sex industry keep them away from sex workers,” Oakley said.

Oakley said the isolation sex workers experience enable labor abuses – issues of compensation and fair treatment – to remain unchallenged.

“(Sex work) doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of safety standards. You have no protection from the boss assaulting you or anything like that,” she said. “If that happens, you go to the police, and they just laugh.”

Oakley said she also wants to send the message that working in the sex industry is not anti-feminist.

“To me, what’s anti-feminist is questioning a woman’s ability to make choices about what she does with her body, whether it’s choosing to do sex work or choosing to have an abortion,” Oakley said. “Sex work is pretty much the only field where a woman who doesn’t have skills, maybe doesn’t speak English, maybe wants to choose her own schedule because she has children – it’s really one of the only fields that she can go into that’s highly paid.

“A woman sizing up her choices and options that she has in the world and picking the best one, and maybe that’s sex work, that’s not anti-feminist.”

Spider, who said her work in the sex industry includes “some porn and some whoring,” said “work in the sex industry is a job just like any other job.

“It just blows my mind that women think that they’re not pawns in their own little sex industry in their head, and most women are. If they think about how many times they had sex with someone they didn’t want to because they wanted to be validated. Or how many orgasms they faked, or how many people they dated or married. People trade sex all the time,” she said.

Katie Holbrook, an English and women’s studies junior who helped bring the show to campus through the Women’s Student Activist Collective, said she liked that the show presented alternatives to stereotypes of sex workers.

“We thought (the show) was really interesting because it’s not a topic that people really like to talk about,” Holbrook said. “But there’s probably sex workers on campus.”

Monica LaBelle welcomes comments at [email protected]