'Sex Workers' Art': A Baring of Souls

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

Annie Oakley, the founder of the "Sex Workers' Art Show," is onstage at the Rock & Roll Hotel, introducing the show as a celebration of "safety, dignity and basic rights -- "

The packed house cheers.

" -- and naked ladies!"

And that is when the crowd -- earnest young artists, professionals, staffers from health organizations, all of whom paid $15 to support the night's beneficiary, Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive -- really goes wild.

That's the dichotomy of the show, a sort of politically driven striptease that began in Olympia, Wash., 11 years ago. Its mission was to give prostitutes, phone-sex operators and porn actors a chance to speak for themselves and express latent talents, including writing. At the same time, it is very much about, well . . . that word.

"People come because they see 'sex' in the title," says Oakley, a crimson-haired former escort who is now an activist and writer (she has also edited a recent book, "Working Sex," in which sex workers speak out about the industry). She likes it when they do; she says she often hears from audience members who tell her later that they left enlightened.

That is not to say the show doesn't deliver sexuality. Because it does, even as it extols self-acceptance and encourages audiences to, say, view porn stars as people too.

But ask and Oakley will tell you -- wearily -- that it's that word, "sex," that will also get you into trouble.

At the Rock & Roll Hotel on Thursday night, eight performers, both men and women, sometimes staidly read musings about their lives in The Business, and at other times pull off their tops and proudly show the world their pasties (and in one case, more than that).

And the art is not always the most tasteful. One performer, dancing to "God Bless the U.S.A.," pulls a chain of dollar bills from a place money should never be saved. An Asian American dominatrix drags an awfully fresh-faced audience member up to the stage so he might help her tell the story of being fetishized by an Orientalist client. The audience hoots and hollers as the volunteer pays (and pays) for her client's transgressions.

Those sorts of elements got the "Sex Workers' Art Show" into trouble in Williamsburg, where the College of William & Mary found itself embroiled in a controversy over performances that were funded in part by student fees. The shows ultimately went on as planned this week, but not before months of negotiation and media attention.

Lorelei Lee, a 26-year-old writer and porn performer, is part of the six-week tour for the first time. With looks that remind you of Alice in Wonderland in silver four-inch heels, she gets the audience's attention by merely stepping onstage. She reads a story about the surreal nature of making porn for a living. Her clothes stay on.

Before the show, she talks about how the tour has changed her. It has been "everything," she says. "It's amazing, and exhausting." But it was seeing the few protesters at the William & Mary show that "brought it home for me," she says.

The crowd, despite the hooting and whooping, also seems to get what Oakley and Co. have in mind.

Cy Gibson, 23, was seeing the show for the third time. "I was really impressed with the politics they present. I expected to see art, I expected to see performance, but what I didn't expect was to see politics."

David Lincoln, 25, a performance artist, also came because he had seen the show once before, in Chicago. "It takes sex workers out of the sex worker industry," he says, "and shows what they can do."

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