performance art

Vee Chattie. (Photo by Mandy Flame, courtesy of Vee Chattie)

One of the best people I have met through sex worker groups is undoubtedly Vee Chattie. We met in person a couple of years ago in the back seat of a car on the way to a hearing at the Capitol.

Vee develops hard-hitting performance art and organizes activist events, but the bulk of their work is stand-up comedy. They took a brief hiatus from stand-up when moving to Seattle a few years ago, but came back to it with force, hitting multiple open mics per night and making a name for themselves as not only a hilarious stand-up, but a tough person who is cool to hang out with. What follows is an edited and condensed version of an interview I did with them via text messaging:

What was the impetus behind The Comedy Whore?

Basically, every time I went to an open mic, comedians (mostly the young male ones, go figure) would ask me questions about work. At first, I just told them I’d answer the question if they bought me a drink, and that request was completely ignored. So, I thought I could just invite them for a sit down and they could ask the questions in a more formal way. And also I could record it and use it for the entertainment value rather than just going home annoyed.

Also, you’ve got them on record being ridiculous. So they can’t ever deny being shitty (if they were being shitty rather than ignorant).

Honestly, it doesn’t take that much to get a comedian on record being shitty.

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(Photo by Ed Barnes, courtesy of Akynos)

(Photo by Ed Barnes, courtesy of Akynos)

Akynos is a multi-platform sex worker artist. Her many talents include photography, burlesque, and performance. She’ll be appearing this week in the San Francisco Bay Area Sex Worker Film and Art Festival from May 15th-24th, where she’ll perform in the Sex Worker Soliloquies series and teach classes in the Institute of Sexworkology, an all day workshop. More photos of Akynos in action after the jump.

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 Scarlot Harlot at the Portland Sex by Sex Worker fest (courtesy of BAYSWAN)

Scarlot Harlot at the Portland Sex by Sex Worker fest (courtesy of BAYSWAN)

Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, was the first sex workers’ rights movement celebrity I ever met. I’d been escorting for only a few months when she came to speak in my area, and I identified deeply with her writing in my dogeared copy of the 1980s edition of Sex WorkI was struck immediately by her spaced out, comforting voice, her self-deprecating yet confrontational humor, and her political conviction. My coworkers and I enjoyed how frank and matter-of-fact she was with us, dishing about clients like we were already old friends. Carol is the kind of person one needs in every movement: able to connect with anyone and everyone, able to bring people together easily. No wonder she’s been so effective in her pioneering role as one of the first artist activists of sex workers’ rights movement.

I caught up with Carol while she was working on two events, the upcoming Desiree Alliance Conference in Las Vegas and the 8th Biennial San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, and yet she still put aside time to do this interview with me.

One of the things you’re most renowned for is coining the term “sex work” in the late 1970s. How well do you think the term has held up as a way to describe our work and unite us politically?

When I think of the term and concept of “sex work,” I think of how it has empowered our activism through international use. This global proliferation of the term was largely due to the work of my mentor, Priscilla Alexander, who worked at WHO (World Health Organization) in the 80s. “Sex work” is particularly powerful as it was the first term that referred to this act without euphemism. The term “sex work” implies a rights advocacy.

At the same time some issues have come up with the use of this term.

I have heard from some quarters that sex work implies consensuality. At first I strongly resisted that notion, from the perspective that if sex work is basically work, then, in general, all work can be forced. Someone doing factory work, domestic work, etc. can be forced. (I use the term “forced” in a very general way as forced labor is part of a continuum of labor abuses.) It has been very basic in sex work advocacy to emphasize that prostitution is work, as opposed to an expression of one’s personal deviance, or a form of rape.

I often hear sex workers explain that they are not trafficked victims, but rather workers. I want to remind people, as we hold the reins of our options, that when force and choice are seen as a dualism, it obscures class and other divisions. Economic factors greatly impact one’s choices. In response to accusations about prostitution defined as rape per se, sex workers are moved to defend our work as “choice,” when we mean relative choice or choice among certain options. It’s just another typical case in which our message can’t come forth with the clarity we need and want, because we are in such a tight corner, due to laws and stigma. The term “sex work” can fall prey to dualistic thinking when one claims that by definition “sex work” implies consent. This is a long discussion and I haven’t seen much written about this. I look forward to the ongoing work of developing political philosophy based on our experiences of sex work. There is a lot we can learn from each other about discrimination, sex, minority rights, race, class, and survival.

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