Sex Worker’s Art Show: Putting a Brain to the Body

What does Olympia, Washington have that your town doesn’t? A Sex Workers Art Show, that’s what.

Now, what exactly is a Sex Worker’s Art Show? I’m glad I asked that question.

“This will be an evening of visual and performance art created by people who work in the sex industry to dispel the myth that we are anything short of artists, innovators and geniuses,” claim the folks who run the annual show.

According to one of the event’s organizers, Ms. Helena Handbasket, the primary function of the show is to break down societal misconceptions about sex workers. Helena, an ex-stripper who once worked in Tacoma, WA, states that the Sex Workers Art Show gives sex workers a space to “be taken seriously, both as artists and human beings.”

“There is a lot of people who either don’t know sex workers, and don’t want to know them, or know them as the face in the magazine. This makes it easy for people to sit on their ivory towers and tell sex workers they are wrong for doing something they need to do to feed their kids.”

Posters are hung in sex clubs, women’s health centers and social service agencies calling for submissions.

The art is not juried and comes in many forms, everything from classical paintings to performance art, videos, slide shows, and musical acts. Though the vast majority of the art directly relates to the participant’s experience in the sex industry, some of the art also relates to societal, cultural and political issues.

This year’s show featured artists from all over the West Coast, including British Columbia. Margo St James, who founded COYOTE, a nationally recognized prostitutes rights organization, was there, as well as Annie Sprinkles, a former radical porn star who makes her own movies and is the author of several books on alternative porn. Yes, there are sexy ladies and some performances with sexual themes, but that is not the whole point of the show.

Describing some of the reasons women choose to be in the sex industry, Helena says: “There’s not any other field where an uneducated woman, or a woman of color or a woman who doesn’t speak English can go and get a job that is going to make her that kind of money.” Earning enough money to live decently is “one of the main points” of sex work, she says.

Like most working people, sex workers face issues such as working conditions, wages, and job safety and security. However, there is only one formally unionized group of sex workers in the country, in San Francisco. A documentary recently shown about the union at the Olympia Film Festival was well-attended, partially because of the networking that has come from the Sex Workers Art Show. Meeting after the movie, sex workers from as far away as Alaska discussed the possibility of working together to organize more unions.

Through the three years of doing the art show, many people have met and continue to correspond and work on the issues facing sex workers. One such issue is the recent city ordinance in Portland that requires escorts and lingerie models to obtain expensive identification cards with their real names and addresses that they must show every client. ID cards are not available to sex workers who have been previously arrested for prostitution. The ramification of this type of licensure is that sex workers and their children are directly put in danger from the forced disclosure of personal information. Helena believes that it discriminates against women of color and poor women, because both groups are more likely to have been arrested. Through networking that went on during the last two shows, people outside of Portland were able to learn about it and organize to address the Portland City Council about the rule.

Organizers of the Sex Workers Art Show believe many people come because they see the word “sex” in the flyers and want to see naked ladies. Helena states that it does not matter to organizers and participants why people come, for they are “going to learn something and be forced to see the genius of these women and men . . . going to be forced to think about sexuality and how we assign values and stereotypes to people.”

Previous art shows have featured high-quality work that has blown the audience away. And there has been a lot of interest in taking the show to other venues nationwide.

Talking about the porn industry as a whole, the reinforcement of a “body standard” is a battle cry of many sex industry opponents. Many sex workers agree that this is screwed up, that there is alot of race and size discrimination going on and, like other industries, that directly affects who gets work and who does not. In Helena’s opinion, the sex industry reflects the values inflicted by mainstream media because there is money to be made off women who hate their bodies.

“It’s not the sex industry that pushes those images—the sex industry reflects those images. There does exist porn that is respectful, that is made by women, that includes all different body types and sexuality. It’s just like anything, there’s bad music, bad food, bad movies. But that doesn’t mean the medium itself is bad.”

The event has always been a benefit, and this year the show’s proceeds will be split between Books to Prisoners, an organization that provides free educational reading materials to incarcerated prisoners, and Big Mountain Elders (on the Dineh Reservation in Arizona), who will receive money to continue working to save their reservation from encroaching corporate interests.

Organizers want the money to go to groups who are not necessarily associated with women’s issues and sex work because they see linkages between sex workers and others living under desperate, exploitative or oppressive conditions. Helena states that all the basic issues that are inherent in Native resistance and that face people in prisons parallel those that face sex workers.

“Dignity, safety and autonomy, that’s what all of it comes down to.”

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