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Sex Workers' Art Show comes to Boston to educate, entertain

Last Saturday afternoon a band of traveling sex workers aimlessly roamed a random Wal-Mart near No Man's Land, Savannah. It wasn't a planned pitstop. But as dumb luck happens just when you need it least, their tour was suddenly stymied after their van ran over a nail and got a flat. Let's just say, all were not in good moods.

"It sucks spending an hour hanging around," said Annie Oakley, founder of the Sex Workers' Art Show, when reached by phone. "It's really lame because it's a rental van and now I have to put a new tire on a rental."

No one said spreading the word about sex work would be easy. But that's hardly news to Oakley. Having worked in a brothel, as an escort, and as a peepshow girl, she became a sex workers' activist after her peers in the art world and elsewhere dismissed her as morally corrupt and missing a few marbles based on her line of work. Out of that anger, she founded an annual event in Olympia, Washington six years ago called the Sex Workers' Art Show. Designed as part cabaret theater and part vehicle for social change, the show challenges stereotypes about sex workers by demystifying its labor with honest dialogue.

For the first time last year Oakley took her locally popular show on the road and toured with folks like Dr. Carol Queen (editor of PoMoSexuals and Dagger), porn star/blues singer Candye Kane and Lammy winning author Michelle Tea. Though its first tour, the show performed to sold-out audiences throughout the country. Which is exactly what happened when the Sex workers' show came to the Oni Gallery last November.

Riding that success, Oakley decided to hit the road again and bring the Sex Workers' Art Show to Hollywood in Chinatown on Sunday Feb. 8. But just like last time, don't expect a strip show. Once this band of escorts, call girls, phone sex operators, and porn stars fix that flat tire, they're heading to Boston with the twin goals of entertaining and educating.

"A lot of people come to the show for the titillation factor," said Oakley. "People think sex workers and they think naked ladies. But once they get here, there are really so many other inescapable messages."

To deliver those messages, the Sex Workers' Art Show presents a graphic two-and-a-half hours of spoken word, video, and exotic musical numbers. Audiences witness a mix of artists who either worked in the sex industry and left or those who still pay their bills with sex work. Despite differences, each performer offers candid, first-person accounts about their participation in an industry which public opinion largely scorns.

As such, last year's Oni performance was not light entertainment. While some performances managed to eek out humor from the retelling of very absurd situations, other artists revealed emotionally difficult scenarios about the physical and emotional damage endured from being a prostitute or call boy. "While there is an entertainment factor," explained Oakley, "there's also a lot of harsh stuff and political stuff."

Expect much of the same emotional potency when a new roster of sex workers hit Hollywood. While some have returned, like Scarlot Harlot (Unrepentant Whore) and Michelle Tea (The Chelsea Whistle), this year's lineup includes performances by peep show girl turned sex educator Ducky Doolittle, former stud for hire David Henry Sterry (Chicken: Self-Portrait Of A Young Man For Rent), and Tokyo's own Erochica Bamboo. Recently Bamboo was crowned Miss Exotic World 2003. On tour, she's been captivating audiences with an amazing classical burlesque routine.

Despite its visual and physical artistry, an evening designed to empower sex workers has its critics. But one of the more provoking arguments that Oakley and crew communicated last year is how sex work is not meant to be understood as black and white. Instead the show created a dialogue about sex work by venturing beyond binary arguments of whether sex work is absolutely degrading or super empowering. Rather, while these sex workers certainly possess their scars, their main argument is, as Oakley described, "to get people to confront the stereotypes that they hold about people who work in the industry."

So far, audiences have been receptive. According to Oakley, only one woman verbally criticized the show for demoralizing women after seeing a performance last year. But it was no skin off Oakley's back. After all, she welcomes critics and hopes they'll check out the show.

"If a critic would actually sit through the show, it would become clear that these people are intelligent, creative and artistic people," said Oakley. "You'd have to make a moralizing argument that they are degrading themselves. But I would say see the show. It speaks for itself."

Presented by Truth Serum Productions, The Sex Workers' Art Show performs at Hollywood, 41 Essex St., Chinatown on Sunday, Feb. 8. Doors at 7:30 p.m. 21+. $10.

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