Some Bondage, Little Restraint

the sex workers' art show comes to Providence

by by Alex Eichler

illustration by by Jake Schorr

More than a week after the sex workers came to town, I'm still not sure how I feel about them. This might or might not be their fault. The Sex Workers' Art Show--actually a cabaret review featuring readings, stand-up comedy and performance pieces, brought to you by an endearing assortment of strippers, burlesque dancers, porn stars and other professional titillaters--has been making its annual circuit for 10 years now. Presumably they've figured out what they want to accomplish and the best way to go about it, and ambivalence might indeed be the desired result. More on that in a minute.

The performances on February 17 at the RISD auditorium, at any rate, showcased people who know their act well--maybe too well. More than a few components felt a bit rote; it was hard, listening to the wry stage patter, to believe that any part of it was spontaneous, or would be performed any differently the next night in another city. Some comics can give the same routine five nights a week and manage each time to make it sound like something that's occurring to them right then as they speak. I didn't know what to expect, exactly, from the Sex Workers' Art Show, but I suppose I thought the porn stars would be a little better at faking it.

Did I say something true?
The show, based in Olympia, has been playing more and more campus shows over the last couple of years, dragging a predictable and wearisome degree of controversy behind it. There's nothing to be said, really, about the recent debates and protests at schools like Duke and William and Mary, which were over before they even began. Portions of the Sex Workers' Art Show will offend you if you're of certain sensibilities or political sympathies--there's some mild nudity, some cheerful profanity, and one instance of somebody writing "FUCK BUSH" across his torso in neon orange tape--but the show isn't dangerous in any meaningful sense. No one in the audience is encouraged to go to work in the sex industry, or made to feel bad for pursuing a liberal arts degree. The show's overt commentary on American society is obvious and daft, and the points that carry real weight are only cursorily addressed.

Most of the heavy lifting is done by Annie Oakley, the show's founder and director (her handle dates back to her early days as a stripper). Oakley contends in the show's introduction that we've allowed our collective eyes to glaze over when it comes to the products we consume, from fast food to fabrics to flesh; we spend money on these things, but we don't know or want to know where they come from. It's a good point, and one more squirm-worthy than any topless writhing or frank discussion of herpes simplex might be. Later, Oakley read an essay suggesting that what's morally objectionable about the sex industry isn't the work itself so much as the pitiless economic circumstances that railroad people--primarily women--into the business in the first place. The point has been made elsewhere, but I was glad to see it addressed here; it's the kind of thing that will take a lot of repetition before an electorate is moved to do something about it.

That's about as thoughtful as the Art Show gets, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; two hours of unalloyed sermonizing would have lost its charm quickly. It's possible that a more nuanced treatment of the politics behind sex work can be found in Working Sex, the Oakley-edited volume of essays by the likes of Stephen Elliott and Michelle Tea; this is the book from which Oakley's provocative reading was taken, and while the show wasn't created to promote the book Trojan Horse-style--Working Sex was just published this year--the whole thing might have made more sense had it been set up that way.

Naughty bits
But about the show itself: it was all right. Some acts were better than others. Erin Markey, a brassy young woman from Michigan, offered a delightfully unhinged monologue about graduating from college and finding work as a topless dancer named Saint Bridget. She capped off her segment with a neat, jazzy original number that she sang while giving the evening's most nimble pole dance. Amber Dawn, a Vancouver-based sex-education worker and author (and film star and performance artist; nearly everyone on the Art Show's bill carries this kind of hyphenated biography) read an engaging account of her own and friends' experiences with clients. Dawn's bearing was stiff and her cadence just a little off, and her slangy diction would have fallen flat on the page but for a narrative full of well-chosen details--I'll refer you to her description of a colleague's afternoon spent with men who "drum her face with their Viagra erections while reciting The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

Not everything worked so well, least of all the acts that felt like something a high school student would have come up with if given the instruction "Be shocking." As the burlesque dancer Dirty Martini stripped away her outfit, more and more probably-not-actual dollar bills fluttered out; she crawled around onstage stuffing these into her mouth before reaching behind her and pulling a string of neatly folded origami knots from her thong. The whole thing was scored to "God Bless the USA." Presumably, the point of this piece was that Americans have too much money, or like money too much, or something. I was similarly unclear what we were meant to take from the big finale, featuring the breathy, bewigged East Village artist Krylon Superstar, who stripped, jumped into a wading pool full of glitter and stuck a lit sparkler in his butt. (Superstar was the one with "FUCK BUSH" spelled out in electrician's tape on his chest.) You might not need to be told that the music for this was "The Star Spangled Banner." The act might have been high irony from start to finish, I suppose--a winking parody of the kind of political histrionics that were an easy punchline 10 years ago--but congratulating oneself for getting the joke can offer only a temporary sense of fulfillment. And anyway, I'm not convinced that a joke was being made at all.

The evening might have been best summed up in the stage time allotted to Lorelei Lee, a porn star and college student who read some original fiction. Lee's loosely connected vignettes occasionally approached the transcendent, like when she described filming an orgy in the back of a limousine, the driver charting west for hours to keep the maximum amount of light in the shot. Just as often, they displayed what could be either an embarrassment of self-regard or a stunning lack of it, as when Lee's narrator is en route to a shoot, Sean Paul comes on the radio, and she tells us, "I want to hear a sad song." It's the kind of artless line, meant to convey world-weariness and depth, that you'd expect to find on a Deadjournal page somewhere. Lee, like most of the other performers in the Sex Workers' Art Show, is not without talent, but she'll need to spend more time sharpening her craft before she can be thought of as an author first and foremost.

It's not about sex, it's not about love
The publicity materials for the Sex Workers' Art Show state a few different goals for the show, some of which can't really be reconciled with each other. The most obviously tongue-in-cheek--"created by people who work in the sex industry to dispel the myth that they are anything short of artists, innovators, and geniuses!"--could stand to be done away with, as it's the kind of cheap, preemptive irony that educates precisely no one. I didn't see any innovators or geniuses at the Sex Workers' Art Show, although I did see a few people with a flair for storytelling and song, people who could probably make a living in some less heavily legislated industry if they really wanted to. If the point of the show really was to convince us that these specific performers are among the indelible talents of the twenty-first century, then it was not successful.

But if the point was to illustrate that sex workers are as human as the rest of us and experience their lives in the same complex, confused way that everybody else does--an honorable goal, and one worth pursuing, given the dopily reactionary climate that obtains in much of America--then the show did what it came to do. It was clear that the performers were by no means monsters, any more than they were geniuses. Rather, they were regular people with good intentions, doing what regular people do when they put on a show--make jokes, try to endear themselves, cram too many ideas into an hour, experiment with lots of different things and hit the mark about half the time. The central point here, that sex workers are people, isn't one that you'd think anybody would need to be told, but that isn't the country we live in. We're given easy stereotypes about wanton sin merchants or hookers with hearts of gold, but the reality is at once more nuanced and more boring. Profound ordinariness isn't the first thing you look for in an entertainer: we usually like outsized personalities to command the stage, people who come from a slightly different place from us schlubs in the audience. The Sex Workers' Art Show, then, is only intermittently successful as art. As politics, though, it might be the best thing we've got coming.

ALEX EICHLER B'08 is a rough trade.