Margo St. James

(“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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photo by the African Sex Workers' Alliance

photo by the African Sex Workers’ Alliance

International Sex Workers’ Rights Day was this week, on March third, and it came with a whole slew of links. Maggie’s Toronto, The  Toronto Sex Workers’ Action Project, produced a press release for the occasion in which street workers demand full decriminalization of their lives.  Many sex workers honored the day by creating a hash tag on twitter, #whenantisattack, in which we dished about the worst things anti-prostitution activists have said and done–blogger Jemima, of It’s Just a Hobby, collected some of the best tweets. Commenting on this twitter activity, The Guardian  seems to have just gotten the memo about widespread whorephobia in feminism. International Sex Workers’ Rights day was founded in India in 20001, when the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Calcutta based organization, sponsored a sex workers’ festival which had more than 25,000 attendees. Thus, it was about time for the day to be observed in the Indian state Mizoram for the first time, in its capital, Aizawl. On yet another continent, sex workers and human rights activists marched in Johannesburg on International Sex Workers’ Rights Day to protest the continued police abuse sex workers face and the criminal justice system’s failure to prosecute the perpetrators. Sex workers in the other four major South African cities will take to the streets today, for International Women’s Day, to make the point that the majority of  sex workers are women, and this police abuse should be recognized as a form of gender based violence. Sisonke, the only South African based organization by and for sex workers, also took the occasion to argue for decriminalization of prostitution in South Africa.

The Red Umbrella Project writing workshop’s literary magazine, Pros(e), will be free on Kindle all weekend. Jessie Nicole and I’s upcoming review of the volume is gushingly positive, so, please, snatch it up with our blessing.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is how the Swedish model works: Police in Stockholm were surprised on Monday to find that a man they had arrested for buying sex from a prostitute was the duty prosecutor to whom they were obliged to report the crime.

Bitch Magazine interviewed Margo St James, founder of COYOTE, the first US sex workers’ rights organization. The interviewer, Anne Gray Fischer, is writing a book called Bodies on the March: How Prostitutes Seized the 70s. I kinda wish she was already done writing the book so I could be reading it.

SF Weekly calls for accountability for racism within “alt” communities, citing porn mogul Joanna Angel’s use of yellowfacing in her latest porn movie and the queer community’s support for the blackface caricature of “Shirley P Liquor”. The magazine’s blog also covered local sex worker activist Siouxsie Q’s decision to resolve her conflict with Chicago Public Media and Ira Glass by changing the name of her podcast from “This American Whore” to “The Whorecast”.

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photo by Julian Cash

Sex work activist Annie Sprinkle was the mind behind the original International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. After the conviction of “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgway, Sprinkle and activists from SWOP decided that a holiday was necessary to commemorate people in our community who have been the victims of violence, and to draw the public’s attention to the danger of working without legal protection and under harsh societal stigma.

Eight years later, the holiday is unfortunately as poignant as ever, as the Long Island serial killer has been occupying headlines for the past year. Annie spoke with me about the origins of December 17th, and the most memorable moments in her several decades of activism. [READ MORE]

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