Annie Sprinkle

(“Flurry” by Marilyn Minter, 1994)

This year’s London Frieze art festival included an exhibit called Sex Worka retrospective on the first wave of feminist art. “Your Art (Probably) Sux!” cried sex workers, upon realizing that the only one of us formally involved was an anonymous porn actress’ cropped pussy lips in a photo.

But to be fair, we hadn’t even seen much of the show. So how have we gotten to this cynical place, where giving an artist the benefit of the doubt seems like a losing bet? Because when it comes to conversations about sociosexual mores, the deck is stacked against us and the house always wins. Sex workers have long been used as muses, metaphors, and props, sensually strewn throughout the art world’s most famous boudoirs but rarely recognized as cultural producers in their own right. When it comes to the era of radical feminism at the heart of  Sex Work, a period of artistic fascination with (fetishization of?) prostitution, a time integral in the creation of a violent anti-prostitution feminist politic, the stakes seem life or death. Fool me once, you know?

For the record, I don’t think the art in Sex Work sux. Considering the recent death of Hugh Hefner, a misogynist whose myopic hetero vision of men, women, and sex shaped a generation, it is still somehow precious to see bodies represented through the eyes of anyone but straight cis men. Betty Tompkins’ black and white “Fuck Paintings” feel spectral, like catching a glimpse of her hazy vulvas through a steamy window. They were all too real, though, in 1973 when she had to order pornography from “the far east” to a secret mailbox in Canada, and then smuggle it across the American border.  Marilyn Minter’s color-saturated orifices aren’t nearly as shocking as the idea that only a few years before I was born she was told by a gallery that women artists don’t sell and to come back in ten years—or never.

The historical context of these works can’t be overlooked. They herald from a time that is eerily recent, when an exhibit featuring only women artists like this one would be so transgressive a curator might lose a career over it, and where the best an artist could hope for in terms of positive reviews was a patronizing remark about a work’s alterity—its “feminine qualities. “I like this art and yet I still struggle to release the distrust lingering from a many-decades-long betrayal committed by the epoch in question. Because after all, there is a historical context for sex worker outrage, too.

[NSFW image after the cut]

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(via Wikimedia Commons)

Though most don’t consider the word “prostitute” pejorative, it’s more damaging to sex workers than any other slur. There’s no true neutrality to be found in a word whose verb form Merriam-Webster defines as “to devote to corrupt or unworthy purposes.” But precisely because it is used in polite language, because of its patina of legitimacy, its harmful connotations can be used against us with impunity in the media every time a street sex worker is murdered and every time a sex worker in the public eye is outed. Every time this medico-legal term, used to justify our pathologization and criminalization for centuries, is utilized to label us, we are discredited subtly but effectively just that much more.

In a surprisingly insightful take for a non-sex worker, Lizzie Smith, Research Officer at The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society at Le Trobe University, wrote in the academic news commentary site The Conversation last year:

Referring to female sex workers as “prostitutes” in the media is not new, but it is a sobering reminder of how pervasive negative understandings of sex work and sex workers are. These understandings originate from various “expert” fields of knowledge including psychology, medicine, sexology, religious doctrine and various feminist perspectives, through which sex workers are positioned as dirty, diseased, sinful, deviant and victims. The term “prostitute” does not simply mean a person who sells her or his sexual labour (although rarely used to describe men in sex work), but brings with it layers of “knowledge” about her worth, drug status, childhood, integrity, personal hygiene and sexual health. When the media refers to a woman as a prostitute, or when such a story remains on the news cycle for only a day, it is not done in isolation, but in the context of this complex history.

When the Chicago Tribune described Indiana serial killer Darren Vann’s victim, Teira Batey, as a “prostitute,” it made it clear it was using this “complex history” against her as it detailed her past with police encounters and her family’s reports that she was a drug user. When the Irish Examiner called Kate Mcgrew, TV star of the reality show Connected, a “prostitute” after she came out as an escort, you can bet they also mentioned her “tight jeans and towering heels,” her “flamboyant” style of dress, even going so far as to say she looked “cartoon-like.” They may as well have called her a silly slut and been done with it.

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[W]hat I’m talking about today is that conference after conference happens and personality after personality is elevated to having these super large platforms where they can speak, and there is a glaring absence of color when it comes to sex work.

Name me one person of color – and I’m not even talking about just Black people – one person of color woman, man, cis, trans, I don’t care, fat, skinny, ugly, pretty, tall, short, I don’t care. Name me one person of color who is or has been a sex worker who is a go-to personality to speak on sex work.

Nobody.

And that absence is deafening….I have a problem with the fact that we are continually erased and ignored – even though we’re here. Talking out loud! You can go on twitter, and you can follow them – They are intelligent, amazing, they have a presence! They will hook you… because they are wonderful people. And… and nobody really cares what we’re talking about…

But I think this conversation needs to evolve. Because if we keep it where it’s at, it’s stagnant and it’s not going to do any good.  It needs to evolve – and it needs to evolve with diversity. It needs to evolve with color. It needs to evolve with gender, and appearance, and weight, and all the things we ignore every day so we can put the white lady on stage again.

-Tits and Sass contributor Peechington Marie in “Be Careful With Your Hand, You Don’t Want It Bitten Off-Annie Sprinkle, Fantasies That Matter, Sex Work, And Erasure of People of Color” at her tumblr

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(Selfie of Peechington Marie, courtesy of Peechington Marie)

(Selfie of Peechington Marie, courtesy of Peechington Marie)

Related to an earlier Tits and Sass post this week, “Actually, My Hand Feeds Me,”  here’s more on the Annie Sprinkle kerfuffle.  For anyone who’s a little behind, Fornicatrix goes in depth over the context of the whole weekend before getting to Sprinkle and Peechington Marie added her beautiful two cents in “Be Careful With Your Hand, You Don’t Want it Bitten Off—Annie Sprinkle, Fantasies That Matter, Sex Work, and Erasure of People of Color.”

The Rose Alliance has begun a Change.org petition calling for the Swedish and Norwegian governments to care about the health and safety of sex workers, and to admit the dangers to sex workers that they gesture at but attempt to gloss over in the August report on the success of the Swedish model.

Porn performer Christy Mack was beaten horribly by her ex-boyfriend, Jonathon Koppenhaver (AKA: War Machine), last Friday, who then fled the scene, declaring via Twitter, “It wasn’t me.” Mack’s injuries, while not life-threatening, are severe. Unrepentant and high on the entitlement of an abuser, Koppenhaver tweeted, “She’s my property and always will be.”

The UK’s highest-paid sex worker has announced he’s A) paid more than the Prime Minister and B) out to end stigma against sex workers.Flaunting one’s income in an austerity economy sounds like a sure-fire way to do it, yeah.

The Barton Street East Neighborhood has an innovative way of dealing with the sex worker population amongst them: acceptance and support.

“The women are not a blight on the community, they’re an asset,” Braithwaite said, adding that the committee is not working to get rid of the women, but rather to work with them and make them feel safe…

“This community is not about gentrification, not about stopping (the women),” she said, adding that they are all “fibres of our community.

Part of making them feel safe is looking for support services, food, and health outreach spaces that the workers can access, as well as shelters where needed, and continuing with community education, so that residents are aware of issues facing the women.  The police force is also involved, having changed its focus from one of persecution to one of support and safety planning. [READ MORE]

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Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)

Annie Sprinkle: a woman who needs to get back in touch with her movement rather than speaking over it (Photo by Creatrix Tlara, via her flickr and the Creative Commons)

As a general rule, I absolutely love being called “adorable.” It reaffirms a lifetime of well-intentioned cheek pinches and makes me feel like I still look youthful as I approach 30. But being an adorable person is a very different thing than being part of an adorable movement. So when Annie Sprinkle took to Facebook to chastise sex workers who decided to “act up” at a conference called “Fantasies that Matter–Images of Sex Work in Media and Art,” and used condescending terms like “adorable” and “well intentioned” to describe sex workers who seek a voice in discourses about them, well, I got just adorably incensed.

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