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The Sex Workers Telling Their Own Stories Through Art

Feb 7 2017 5:00 PM

"We're Still Working" is a group exhibition created by 19 Bay Area sex workers and people aligned with the sex industry, presenting a more complicated, nuanced view of sex work—one that encompasses everything from tampons at the strip club to the nature of reality. (Some images NSFW.)

'The Evaluation of Worth' by Arabelle Raphael. Photos courtesy of Chani Bockwinkel

Maxine Holloway was first introduced to sex work through her art practice. For a long time, she had been doing self-portraiture in which she used her body as a medium to explore human sexuality. She had many friends who worked as porn performers in San Francisco at the time, and she decided to try it herself. "I kind of considered it an extension [of my practice], like this is the next evolution of my artwork," said Holloway. "I was going to act out sex in a creative way."

After doing it a few times, she realized that sex work could also be an alternative to her grueling routine of bartending, waitressing, working at an art gallery, and doing freelance art gigs in order to stay afloat in an increasingly unaffordable San Francisco.

Read more: The Women Who Redefined What It Means to Be a Sex Worker

We're Still Working: The Art of Sex Work, a group exhibition of artwork created by mostly Bay Area-based sex workers and curated by Holloway and Javier Luis Hurtado, highlights this under-explored elision between artwork and sex work. The curatorial statement, which is emblazoned on a wall at the center of the exhibit, uses a tone that anticipates skepticism: "We strongly believe that placing sex workers at the center of our own narrative is one of the best ways to fight for sex worker justice," it reads. "We're Still Working provides a platform for the brush, the camera, the mic, the sequins and the sweat to insist that sex work is not only work, but can also be art."

You can't blame Holloway and Hurtado for framing their message as an assertion. Even in the Bay Area, where the exhibit is housed at San Francisco's SOMArts Cultural Center, sex workers remain consistently stigmatized, erased from history, and left out of political conversations—even the ones that directly affect their community. So, the idea that sex workers are not only intelligent, multifaceted individuals, but are often also artists—and that sex work itself could even be considered an art form—may seem radical to some.

"How people come to sex work is very unique and often very complex so I'm not saying this is universal, but I think that a lot of sex workers are creative artists, and they do sex work to fund their creative process or just their life in the Bay Area," said Holloway. "A lot of the reasons we [artists] moved here was for the creative community and the glitter and the dirt and all that stuff and as that gets washed away and sanitized it feels really important to a lot of us to keep making art, and sex work for me—and for a lot of people—is a way to make that keep happening."

'The Industry: Selected Works' by Rae Threat

We're Still Working gracefully dismantles outsider assumptions about sex work, presenting nuanced perspectives on the industry that only insiders could offer. The work exhibited highlights the rich intersection of art and sex trades—and how, for some, the two are intimately intertwined. The 19-person group show is made up entirely of artists who are sex workers or have intimate ties to the industry. In some cases, sex workers without art practices were paired with artist allies interested in telling their stories.

Featured works range from Rae Threat's stunning portraits of stars in the industry, to Laurenn McCubbin's candid video interviews with sex workers housed inside an installation recreating a strip club, to Logout's elaborate immersive piece portraying the mental interior of a black sex worker dealing with the fetishizing white gaze—in part, a dark room strewn with clothes and a bed covered in roses. Every piece presents a distinct perspective on sex work and the complicated ways in which art can be informed by sex work culture, experiences, and resources.

"A lot of the films that I make and the live sex shows that I curate and perform in definitely draw upon my artistic interest and background," said Holloway. "There's a lot of overlap with sex work and artists and musicians, writers, all that kind of stuff."

'Colleagues You Can Trust' by Jacq the Stripper

River Black, Holloway's assistant curator, also sees an overlap between sex work and her artistic practice. As a California College of the Arts graduate student in social practice—a discipline in which artwork often takes intangible forms such as facilitating conversations or staging absurd situations—Black started a project in which she became a sugar baby and published reflections on a blog. Now, she considers sex work both a way to pay bills and an ongoing element of her art practice.

"Whenever I go out there, I'm a self-made woman performing my gender, performing my sexuality, in a Judith Butler kind of sense," said Black. "For me, there's a part of it that I really like the performance of—getting dressed up in a way that I don't usually, and having the freedom to play with my identity... I have a lot of fun in that space."

Black claims that, at least in the academic Bay Area art world, her artwork is typically embraced by her peers. But according to Holloway and other artists in the show, most galleries aren't interested in associating themselves with sex work, or assume that artwork about the sex industry will be too explicit.

'Backstage' by Laurenn McCubbin

In the case of We're Still Working, Holloway said she was lucky to find a venue committed to uplifting marginalized voices. But even with that level of institutional support, funding the rest of the show was a challenge. Holloway and her curatorial team sent out twelve grant applications to foundations that have funded SOMArts shows in the past, she said, and were denied every one. According to Holloway, one prominent Bay Area foundation (which she prefers not to name) even explicitly cited that the exhibition went against its mission and values.

So the curators decided to crowdfund the show themselves. The show's curators and artists—many of whom are performers with robust followings—leveraged their online platforms to solicit donations, offering creative rewards such as prints of Holloway's ass and even a private lunch date. But even so, Holloway said that over 50 percent of donations so far have come from other sex workers.

"Once again, we are the ones funding our own shit and making the magic happen," said Holloway, noting that even when it comes to health care services, sex workers can typically only rely on each other. "We're having such a hard time constantly trying to access support that other groups are able to access fairly easily. That says a lot to me."

'The Industry: Selected Works' by Rae Threat

According to Holloway, one of the goals of the show is to present a more nuanced look at sex work, one that she feels is rarely discussed outside of sex worker circles. "You have to 'happy hooker' it for some people," she said, noting that it's exhausting to have to educate acquaintances about why sex work is a valid profession. But such simplifying claims can make it dangerously uncomfortable for sex workers to talk about any potential negative aspects of their work, she explained. So, although the show wasn't solely an educational endeavor, Holloway hopes it can be a platform for conversation that spans the spectrum from empowerment to trauma.

Artist and porn performer Arabelle Raphael's staged photographs, for example, visualize hate mail she's received online. One image features her sitting in an open hospital gown with dashes outlining her breasts and a cloth covering her head. The caption reads, "I hope you get cancer and they have to cut your tits off. You ugly bitch."

Meanwhile, artist Grace Mendenhall said that her video collaboration with porn performer Juliette Stray attempts to blur the line between "real" and "fake" by creating "scenarios in which objectification feels really good and is really exciting and pleasurable and part of healthy ways that people have sex." Stray specializes in transsexual porn and champions both plastic positivity (a movement that fights stigma around cosmetic enhancements) and Barbie "bimboification," in which individuals attempt to look like dolls. The looped five-channel film they collaborated on shows iterations of Mendenhall wearing a see-through leotard and having sex with a blow-up doll and silicone mold of her own hand.

'Auto Erotic Ethnography' by Laurenn McCubbin

And the more straightforward documentary-like interviews conducted by Laurenn McCubbin are strictly about whatever the filmmaker's subjects felt like discussing—a way to let them define their own story. "Some of it is about their own activism, some of it is about interactions with clients... some of it is about what intimacy is like in their private lives when they sell the idea of intimacy," said McCubbin. "It's all about this larger idea of emotional labor—that these people do emotional labor but because their genitals are attached, we freak out about it."

The intention isn't to paint an idealized picture of the sex-positive woman, but rather to encourage the radical act of actually listening to sex workers. "There's survival sex work, and there's this glorious 'This is what I was born and made to do,' and there's a hundred shades in between there," said Holloway. "But what I hope this show relays is that sex workers, no matter our background or how we got there, are complex, nuanced human beings that have a lot of wonderful and rich things to say."

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