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A stage show illuminates the humanity of sex workers

by Karen Huang

Numbers on sex work are difficult to come by; one outdated estimate from the National Task Force on Prostitution asserts that over one million people in the United States have worked as prostitutes.  While this means that one out of every 100 women have had sex for money, sex work—an approximately 57 billion-dollar industry involving everyone from dominatrices to strippers, streetwalkers to phone sex operators—is much further reaching. 

It was this lack of information as well as the perpetual growth of the sex industry that prompted former sex worker and current activist, Annie Oakley, to found the Sex Workers’ Art Show—a creative forum for people in the sex industry—eight years ago. “The goal of the show is to promote the rights, safety, and dignity of sex workers through presenting them as multifaceted humans,” Oakley told F Newsmagazine, via email.  “When you don’t have to confront the essential humanity of the person who you’re watching have sex on screen, or who’s giving you a blow job (or who picks your vegetables or cooks your fries, for that matter), then it is easier to ignore their working conditions and social conditions.” 

Oakley takes her stage-name from the nineteenth-century American sharpshooter upon whom the musical Annie Get Your Gun is based.  Although she doesn’t state her reasoning behind this choice of pseudonym outright, it’s interesting to consider in light of speculation that much of the original Oakley’s act had to do with sex appeal. “She was...appealing to the best instincts in the men in her audience,” historian Paul Fees stated on a recent program which aired on PBS, entitled Annie Oakley. “Men...were attracted to her sexuality while still not having to feel guilty about being attracted, because at the same time she was ladylike and she was demure.”  In considering the historical Oakley in this light, sex worker Oakley’s appropriation of the name seems fitting.

In the Sex Workers’ Art Show, Oakley combines visual and performance art in order to educate and entertain the public. She was further inspired by the reactions of colleagues and friends upon her own entry into the field of sex work. “Ignorance is what allows the people who control the sex industry (club owners, pimps, the police) to do so with little outside regulation or interference,” Oakley writes. Her goal is to include a range of points of view on the sex industry and an exploration of just what being a sex worker is like, with an emphasis on socio-cultural factors such as race, gender and class. The show’s cabaret-style model allows for balance between light-hearted, sexy acts with heavier, more serious pieces.

“I’m not one of those people who feel that sex work is one big party,” says Annie Oakley. “I think it has its difficulties and dangers, just like any job. I am more about supporting everyone’s right to dignity, safety, and autonomy in whatever kind of work they choose.”  Statistics show that sex workers—more than workers in perhaps any other profession—are in need of external support.  According to a study conducted by the Urban Justice Center, almost half of sex workers surveyed had been forced into acts with which they were uncomfortable; of these, only 16 percent sought help from law enforcement following such abuse.

Because of such dangers, as well as the objectification unavoidable in sex work, the profession has historically been frowned upon by feminist writers and theorists.  In the past decade, however, many third-wave feminists have identified the sex industry as a liberating means for women to explore their own sexuality. In the Women’s Studies section of your local bookstore, you’ll find titles such as Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, detailing the rise of a college-educated woman through the ranks of the adult entertainment industry, as well as Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire, a volume edited by a former stripper with a doctorate in English.  You might even know someone left-leaning who does their cardio with Carmen Electra’s Aerobic Striptease Collection, a set of videos whose website claims to make users “look good, feel great and spice up [their] personal life in the comfort of [their] own home!” 

However, it isn’t all g-strings and crisp 100 dollar bills, other contemporary feminist writers assert; in particular, Washington Post contributor Ariel Levy’s 2005 effort, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, brought awareness to what she termed “lipstick feminism.”  This branch of current discourse, Levy claims, appropriates ultimately misogynist practice and theory, claiming it is empowering. Glorifying sex work is just one example. “[I]f you are the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven’t made any progress,” Levy asserts of such women in her text, who she says objectify themselves implicitly by rejecting feminism in favor of assimilating to men’s rules. She has an entire generation of women to back her up, as well—from Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem to former porn star Linda Lovelace.  Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny to expose the sexual harassment she asserted these women dealt with as a part of their work. Lovelace, known for her work in the 1971 pornography classic Deep Throat, cried as she testified during government hearings on pornography, saying every scene she filmed in the movie was “rape.” 

Oakley’s art show is especially relevant considering this current debate within the feminist community; her multifaceted presentation of sex work aims to educate viewers rather than glorify the industry, encouraging individuals to decide for themselves which school of thought, if any, they follow. The variety of performances in the Sex Workers’ Art Show—from monologues to the burlesque of Miss Dirty Martini, from comic anecdotes to singing the blues—are meant to create an objective presentation. This year’s tour line-up includes acclaimed Whitney Biennial artist Julie Atlas Muz; the award-winning author of How I Learned to Snap, Kirk Read; stripper historian and activist Jo Weldon; and Happy Baby author, Stephen Elliott. Although the art show ultimately aims toward acceptance, Oakley makes no attempt to conceal the profession’s spectrum of difficulties, from HIV to emotional trauma.

As one of the few cultural producers to explore the identity of workers in the impossible to calculate, multi-billion-dollar, worldwide sex industry, the show has a large void to fill.  Oakley hopes, however, that awareness is an excellent gesture toward acceptance. The development of her entertaining and enlightening art show seems a particularly effective step in this direction.

The Sex Worker’s Art Show concludes their month-long tour at Chicago’s The Abbey, March 1st.
The Abbey Pub
Sex Workers' Art Show Website

additional reporting by Britany Salsbury
images courtesy of Sex Workers Art Show



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