Since the sex wars of the ’80s, when Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon attempted to pass anti-porn laws while Susie Bright and Patrick Califia, among others, articulated a pro-sex feminism in reaction, sex work has been a polarizing topic within feminism. The debates that characterized this beleaguered period are in many corners still raging: Can women have agency within a profession based on the selling of their bodies and run predominantly by and for men? How can sex workers betray the feminist movement by cashing in on the objectification of women’s bodies? How can feminists betray sex workers by writing them off as passive victims of sexploitation? Is sex work by definition exploitative? Where are the sites for empowerment (and why must everything be “empowering,” anyway)? Are the Suicide Girls feminists?
These debates have persisted within feminism and meanwhile have been diluted by the mainstream press, for whom pornography, prostitution, and the vague whiff of perversion continue to be sold to the masses for shockutainment and schadenfreude value (with “video vigilante” Brian Bates’ notoriety and the Eliot Spitzer hypocrisy circus some of the more recent examples). While many of us are still figuring out how to understand sex work, whether from a feminist perspective or not, the conversation has at least become richer and more complex in recent years, with sex workers joining the conversation more often and more vocally. As a result, the oversimplistic “pro-sex” versus “anti-sex” framework for understanding these issues seems to be entering a vestigial phase. With the increase of female-directed porn and women-run sex shops, not to mention the founding in 2005 of a magazine called $pread devoted to issues relating to sex work, along with the organization of the Feminist Porn Awards in 2006 and the inaugural Sex-Positive Journalism (“Sexies”) Awards this year, the discussion has evolved from anti v. pro to not only a more nuanced understanding of just how varied and complex the intersection of sex and capitalism is, but also a recognition of the many spaces women are finding within that location.
Since its inception in 1997, the Sex Workers Art Show has been pushing this conversation forward, generating controversy nearly everywhere it goes. The SWAS is a national cabaret-style tour founded and MC’ed by Annie Oakley, an activist, writer, and former escort. Each tour features a different group of performance artists and writers, all of whom have been or are currently involved in the sex industry. For this year’s stop in Chicago, we were treated to performances that ran the gamut from readings to a song-and-pole-dance to burlesque to BDSM satire.
The show was great; more on that in a bit. The venue, sadly, did its best to sink it. In her introduction, Oakley explained that Chicago was the only city on the tour where the show would be censored, due to last year’s event being raided by cops. (Something about more restrictive laws in this city than in others; something about last year’s venue not having the required license; I forget the details.) Maybe that explains why the Funky Buddha Lounge was chosen: for lack of a better option, since last year’s clearly didn’t work out. The Buddha is a fairly small club, hardly conducive to a show like this one. The wall in between the bar and the lounge area meant a large portion of the audience was unable to see anything; worse, Oakley’s request that people sit down so more people could see was reneged by venue security, so we all had to stand back up, leaving even fewer people with an unobstructed view of the stage. To cap things off, the venue, after taking 30 minutes to check everyone’s IDs and make sure everyone went through the mandatory three-dollar coat check, informed Oakley that the show needed to end at 9 pm, meaning the last two performers had to be cut. Suffice to say, after two consecutive years of various annoying bullshit, Chicago will be lucky if SWAS returns in ’09.
Despite the poor venue format and only a select two-thirds being able to see, audience members were extremely respectful and attentive to the performers. Writers Lorelei Lee and Chris Kraus, who both read their work quietly, without the fanfare of some of the other acts, had very little din to cut through; people were listening up.
But first, the fanfare, which began with the World Famous BOB. Wearing a sparkly black one-shoulder dress with a slit up the leg, BOB told a brief and hilarious story about being a “superbad” dominatrix for a few years before getting into performing; then delivered a short burlesque piece to “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the theme song to 2001: A Space Odyssey), which put her behemoth 42F ta-tas to dazzling use.
After a comedic spoken word piece by Amber Dawn (I think I have her name right) about a stint as a “celebrity-fucking old ho,” we were treated to Dirty Martini’s infamous Patriot Act, in which Martini giddily extracts dollar bills from her costume as she undresses, eats them, and ‘shits’ them out—all to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”: the most incisive critique of capitalism I’ve seen in a while.
The night’s most incisive critique of the clientele came from Mistress Keva, a dominatrix who performed a piece involving an audience volunteer (who acted as her slave for twenty minutes) and that worked to satirize a client’s Asian fetish. While training her “pet” to bark and roll on the ground, among other things, Mistress Keva, dressed in minimal bondage gear with black electric tape over her nipples, told the story of a client who, in the midst of some kind of torture, asked her to speak in her “mother tongue” as she worked him over. In a sultry deadpan, she explained that she was delighted to consent and said softly in his ear phrases like “Happy New Year!” in Vietnamese, and “How much is that yellow purse?” in Mandarin (she speaks Cantonese in addition to her native English, if I’m remembering correctly). It was vicious and comical—especially given the yellow purses dancing on the wall in juxtaposition with the eerie, ominous music, not to mention the poor volunteer whose bark was so convincing.
One of the most exhilarating performances was delivered by Erin Markey, whose roots are obviously in theater. She came out made up like the Corpse Bride in a purple halter dress and sang a riproaring show tune that ended with pole dancing that was more King Kong than stripper. It was the best of nontraditional performance art: original, playful, and educative, while satirically deploying one of the most notorious instruments of the sex industry.
Unfortunately, as I said, the last two performers were cut, but that didn’t mean Krylon Superstar, the legendary NY performance artist set to end the show, couldn’t get a word in. He ran through the crowd with “FUCK BUSH” written out in red electric tape on his chest, a final encore for a show that threw a number of wrenches into the idiot side of American sex culture.
Taken together, these acts suggest not that sex work is bad/soul-crushing or good/empowering, but that it is very, very complicated. Porn performer Lorelei Lee’s reading, in describing her relationship with her manager, seemed to express both resignation and delight in the complex power dynamic, in the ways in which she manages to enact subtle subterfuge while lowering her eyes demurely. Chris Kraus got a laugh when, in a story about working in a NY topless bar, she explained that, “The system worked well because it was so close to heterosexuality.” But that line was one of the only ha-has in a piece that wryly laid out the ways the dancers worked to maintain control over their tricks. Kraus described a situation when she ran out of things to say to a trick—the main strategy to keep the money coming—and ended up having sex out of sheer frustration, something you were never supposed to do because that simply wasn’t what you were paid for.
The economic transaction, of course, reigns supreme. As Oakley mentioned in her introduction, the Sex Workers Art Show attempts to challenge the supremacy of capital, simply by opening the lines of communication—“as opposed to the capitalist tradition of hiding where things come from.” Thanks to her work and to the artistry of her show’s performers, the lines are open; the conversation continues.