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In a pitch perfect moment of slapstick, Scarlet, the protagonist of Carol Leigh’s 1980 play “The Adventures of Scarlet Harlot,” gathers the courage to inform her mother of her occupation — to come out, as it were. “The truth is, I’m a sex worker, ma,” she says. Her mother replies: “What? Are you working in a dildo factory?”
This seemingly trivial exchange was in fact a milestone in proposing a new way to talk about — and thus think about — prostitution. A review of the play marked the first time that “sex work,” a phrase coined by Leigh, appeared in mainstream media. In lieu of being used, sex workers had a vocation. Maybe they even liked their jobs.
Four decades on, a global push for decriminalization has made “sex work” a buzzword and political talking point, particularly in light of FOSTA/SESTA, a controversial anti-trafficking bill signed by Trump just last year. FOSTA/SESTA makes it illegal to advertise paid sex online, posing a major problem to sex workers relying on the Internet for their livelihood.
Emerging against this heated backdrop, On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum presents art made by or about queer sex workers. (Fittingly, Leigh served as an advisor to the show.) Declaring a pro-sex, pro-porn stance off the bat, the exhibition takes its title from a lesbian porn magazine launched during the Reagan-era culture wars. Mention of sex trafficking, which might make the topic too unwieldy or just kill the mood, is noticeably absent. (While bills like FOSTA/SESTA often overemphasize trafficking, sex worker advocacy can be guilty of underplaying it.)
The show opens with “InVocation” (2019), a kinky monument to sex work by artist and bondage master Midori, whose large, woven and bristling curtain of rope invited queer sex workers to contribute personal “tools of the trade.” A phone hangs amid dildos and stilettos suspended in a net. The allusion to phone sex underscores a framework central to the show: that “sex work” is not only cut-and-dry fucking. The elastic term encompasses phone sex, camming, sexting, and porn.
Porn and sex are forms of experimental theater; costumes, props, and — perhaps most significantly — a cast are often essential to their world-making. Of the props spread across the show, some are designed not only for, but also by, members of the sex work community: a leather sling spread on the wall like an animal hide; a meticulously composed chainmail cock ring; a black harness in which a bottle of imitation Tapatío hot sauce takes the place of a dildo (Xandra Ibarra’s “Strap-On Harness” from 2015).
Mirroring porn, On Our Backs incorporates sets as arenas for the curator, and viewers, to play. Tucked into a corner, an installation riffs on the peep shows that occupied a seedy Times Square in the 1970s and ‘80s. In a narrow red hallway, a sign reading “LIVE NUDE GENITALS” casts an uneasy glow on four cramped stalls, each containing a porn-cum-video-artwork. Entering these enclosed spaces feels deliciously transgressive; exhibition-goers issue sheepish, disproportionately profuse apologies when they inevitably walk in on one another.
In another set, a bed with a cheetah-print headboard revives the “Sprinkle Salon” (1980–1994), an apartment that performance artist and sex work activist Annie Sprinkle used as a gathering place for porn production, sex work advocacy, and piercing parties. The bed is buttressed by a deluge of archival material testifying to the breadth of Sprinkle’s efforts to foster a sex work community. A photograph of smiling topless women memorializes a porn star support group that Sprinkle cofounded in 1983. The women depicted are, not insignificantly, all white; third-wave feminism with its emphasis on inclusivity and intersectionality would not emerge until the early 1990s.
While not explicitly addressed, this shift is alluded to with photographs documenting CrashPadSeries (2008–ongoing), a web-based porn series produced by Shine Louise Houston, a queer woman of color known for crowdfunding her productions and casting actors of diverse gender expressions, racial backgrounds, and abilities. The series imagines a secret apartment for lesbian sex, a premise in fact inspired by the “Sprinkle Salon.”
The exhibition included an instance of nakedness so strikingly vulnerable that it stayed with me long after I exited the show. Directed by feminist pornographer Ms. Naughty, “Dear Jiz” (2013) is a stripped-down 10-minute video featuring Jiz Lee, a beloved Asian-American genderqueer porn star. The film’s shots are quiet and intentional. Water drips from a faucet; Jiz’s toe brushes against the paw of a clawfoot tub; they enter the bath and proceed to masturbate.
The sounds in the film are thrillingly unexpected: a cacophony of voices that tenderly recite fan letters expressing gratitude for Jiz — for their genre- and gender-bending work, and the extent to which it has allowed viewers to explore, reexamine, and expand their own ideas about porn and sex. “Thank you for being so open,” one voiceover says. Like a refrain, the show’s constellation of works presents diverse notions of intimacy, in sex work and the communal art and advocacy that spring from it.
On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work continues at the Leslie-Lohman Museum (26 Wooster Street, Soho, New York) through January 19, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Alexis Heller.
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