by Michelle Tea

Sex Workers' Art Show

Date TK

Olympia[venue info TK?]

Six years ago, Olympia's Annie Oakley, tiring of her double life (lefty organizer by day, stripper by night), insisted that the activist outfit she worked for make one of their regular infotainment events a forum for people who worked in the sex trade. Fueled by the bleeding hearts' tedious reactions to her nightly income supplement--part condescending pity-trip, part feminist "you're taking us back to the time of wire coat-hanger abortion" tedium--Annie Oakley thought the best way to knock sense into their well-intentioned skulls was to present a parade of once and future hookers, professional spankers, lap grinders, and clothes-shedders offering firsthand testimonies on what it's really like to work in the industry. The first Olympia sex workers' show was enlightening for the do-gooder lefties, and provided the workers with not only a stage and time to tell their stories, but also the opportunity to hobnob with others in their business--a smash all around.

From this burst of activism, Olympia's annual Sex Workers' Art Show was born--a gritty, glitzy extravaganza of performance relating to the country's most titillating and least protected work force.

Lately sex workers' art shows have been popping up across the country, with younger women in the industry picking up where the more rare outspoken elders left off. These festivals aim to provide a real representation of the sex work experience--absurd, depressing, sometimes empowering, oftentimes disheartening. Ruled more by an open-mic-style, hyper-inclusive community spirit than by a sharp eye for talent, they tend to let in everyone who wants a shot at the stage--a generous decision that can make for uneven shows.

At last year's Sex Workers Film Festival in Tucson, Arizona, you got the fantastic documentary Angel's Girls (about a wing-nut Christian couple operating a brothel out of a trailer) on one night, and a surprisingly boring fag-porn audition tape from Eastern Europe the next. In San Francisco, I cracked up as performer Gina Gold impersonated black girls from the 'hood pretending to be "California blondes" at a shabby phone-sex outfit. She was followed by a terrifying middle-aged naked saxophone player who strolled the aisle of the women's performance space playing crappy sax while wiggling his little wiener at all the horrified lesbians who'd come to the show. Sometimes it's so bad it's good. Other times--like when I was forced to watch a former porn star play videos of her fucking herself with a shoe while singing country songs about being a shoe-fucking porn star--it's just plain bad. But it is always an honest depiction of who is out there working in the industry.

The last time I hit the Olympia festival, I caught one of the best acts ever: performance artist Bridget Irish dashing into the audience butt-naked and retrieving a hidden outfit, piece by piece, from envelopes duct-taped beneath our seats. Manic spy music chased her up and down the aisles, and she was not shy about clambering over those who happened to be between her and her next shred of clothing. Famously cranky NYC artist Penny Arcade was there as well. She had them kill the lights in the Capitol Theater so that she could walk in swift loops around us in the consuming dark, rattling with neurotic intelligence about so many things--the bubble of culture that is Olympia, how being a bad girl is about more than donning a torn pair of fishnets, and how when street whores in her East Village neighborhood started turning up dead, the crimes were labeled by the cops as "No Humans Involved."

This year's show features Annie Sprinkle, whose porn appearances blast from nasty rough-up-the-ladies stuff to gentle lesbionic underwater-mermaid smut, and who will perhaps let you peek at her cervix or plop her boob on your head. Mr. Cross of the kitschy-queer Steak Productions film company will show a flick, and Gina Gold will make fun of peepshow clients with stunning anal fixations. And for sure, there will be the rough-edged and vulnerable, the less-polished--because, unlike poetry slams where performers get rated, berated, and knocked from the stage, this DIY-style get-together is about making room for a whole buttload of voices.