When you’re running a cabaret with sex workers—bush, tits and cocks all a-glitter—you’re probably not realizing your potential if you’ don’t incite a conservative shitstorm. Last year, when the College of William and Mary allowed the Sex Workers’ Art Show Tour to perform on its campus days after removing a publicly displayed cross, the tour’s founder and director, Annie Oakley, found herself nailed to it.
Bill O’Reilly implied that Oakley and her merry band of sex workers were accomplices in the great secularization of American society. When the traveling sex workers returned to Virginia this year, it was amid a palm-waving of reporters’ notebooks, praying hands and legal and legislative paperwork.
The O’Reilly Factor invited them back, of course. “There was a lot of yelling,” summarized Oakley, a former erotic dancer who emceed two New York City shows last weekend, not in sequined splendor, but in a camouflaged sweatshirt, miniskirt and heels. “This is my damaged hooker gear,” she jokingly confided to the audience. She was dead tired—a year later and that cross is still with her.
The adult sex industry nets $12 billion—accruing more than professional baseball, football and hockey combined. Oakley mentioned this figure during her introduction, after asking anyone who patronizes the adult sex industry to clap. Presented with hesitant applause, Oakley allowed it to be understated that most adult Americans (including most people in the audience) have utilized services provided by adult actors, erotic writers, adult models, escorts or professional dominants.
Believe it or not, understatement is one of this show’s great assets. For the most part, the burlesque performers, strippers, porn stars, drag queen, and rent boys camp it up with spread-eagled gusto. It’s a fun show, with humor and shock value galore and also artistic social commentary. Dirty Martini’s performance, for example, hangs a tassel on the hypocrisy of our “moral” majority’s financial lust.
But what Oakley and Co. sneak through the backdoor is personality; the artists are successfully subtle in getting us to see them as people. With girl-next-door-charm, World Famous “Bob” tells the audience a bit about herself before demonstrating how little she’s had to do with her body to please everyone, from a man looking to itch a fetish, to the audience sitting in front of her. And Krylon Superstar holds your head still while making you recognize his political and artistic leanings before giving you the money shot.
The MySpace of former erotic dancer Erin Markey “”describes her work as “religious/screamo/showtunes.” She’s actually not being fanciful or ironic … that’s a pretty literal description of her autobiographical monologue-cum-musical-theater-cum-striptease.
Some of the show is more demonstrative. In New York, pro-domme Keva Lee dominated a female volunteer, someone who would not be considered a sex object according to conventional beauty standards. The piece left audience members a bit awed, not by the demonstration, but by a woman who manifested such believable desire for a stranger and by the way that desire transformed someone she didn’t know.
Sex workers are repositories for our most secret, most frustrated or even most mundane desires. We put so much of ourselves onto sex workers that we often forget to ask who they are. Or rather, who else they are.
Maybe we just expect them to be complicit in our own shame. The penitent whore is a better-known character than the escort who is not a drug addict and can criticize her job without condemning her peers and her work. Chris Kraus’ reading is a good example of this—acknowledging that strip clubs are, behind the scenes, often dystopian and unhealthy … just like so many other American workplaces.
Maybe we are just afraid of what sex workers would say if they started talking. “They line up for me like children lining up for Santa Claus at the mall. They want to tell me what they want,” recounts Lorelei Lee of her experiences with fans at sex industry trade shows. A pretty blonde porn star, Lee reads anecdotes about her sex work as well as those on more commonplace aspects of her life, like watching television with a sick roommate or picking out frozen food. These pedestrian vignettes serve as healthy inoculations—for her and the audience—against pure fantasy.
“People think you’re supposed to be continuously sexually available and excited and really enraptured with whomever you’re having sex or giving a lap dance to, and therefore that you’re this constant nymphomaniac,” says Oakley—who is also selling on tour her anthology of writings by sex workers—the first ever to be edited by a fellow sex worker. “People don’t grasp that it’s a job.”
This is not to say that the show’s performers want to bore us with the details. Nor do they want us to stand up at our next gathering of family, friends and co-workers and profess our solidarity with sex workers around the world. They understand that they are often our secrets.
They want to entertain us, but they also want us to process what they’ve done, continue to do and to witness and respect that process. Male escort Kirk Read opens the show with a letter he wrote to hotelier Rick Hilton during a sleepless overnight with a male client. Though his delivery is entertaining, the implications of his midnight missive are profound.
While the show probably does boast work by one or two geniuses, Oakley’s claims of performers’ genuis are unnecessary. The show is a humanizing, edifying, fun and possibly even moral event for anyone who has cast wanton eyes on a sex worker. If the performers and audience members don’t mind that the process involves face paint, a pole, a baby pool of glitter, tassels and a few tits, then so be the world of consenting adults just trying to get to know each other a little better. No one even has any sex.