monthly column from author/activist
Carol Queen

The Royal Treatment

The Sex Workers' Art Show

I've been out gallivanting again. Late in the fall a woman from Olympia, Washington called and asked me to come perform at something called the Sex Worker's Art Show, which they hold annually. Now, how could I pass that up? First of all, it meant I got to exhibit some art, which I rarely do. I'm so focused on writing and performing, usually, that I rarely get to delve into my other creative love, which is art-on-the-wall. In Olympia I could have it all -- spoken word on stage, sexy collage in the gallery.

Olympia has been doing this show for five years. Who knew? It's the capitol city of Washington, right on I-5, but it's also a little out of the way. It has a large and lively alternative community, partially centered around the Evergreen State College -- but the town also appears to be crawling with old-style Pacific Northwest radical types. You know, your leftover hippies, but also your old Wobblies, forever muttering "Bad luck t' the boss." The show itself was a benefit for a local Books to Prisoners Project.

Olympia also has, by all appearances, a vibrant sex worker community. There were too many acts to count -- some from Seattle, Portland, and even further afield, but plenty from right there in Olympia. There were strippers and spoken word artists and even a sex worker marching band. And it's all put together by one fierce and determined sex worker/impresaria, Annie Oakley, the woman who'd invited me there in the first place. When we pulled up to the wonderful old theatre that hosts the event -- a beautiful old monstrosity of the size and grandiosity of the Castro crossed with a spunky collective spirit like the Roxie -- there was a line around the block, and in fact the place was packed to the rafters, a standing room only crowd. In the Bay Area it's rather easy to forget that in most of the rest of the world, you can't go out to a sex-related performance or two every week. When you give the people the thoughtful sex entertainment they've been craving, they go nuts. So it was in small Olympia, where the thousand-person-plus audience roared with such love and appreciation that I almost didn't want to go home.

And upstairs, in a mezzanine gallery too crowded to walk through, folks admired whore art, from beautiful photoshopped images meant to evoke Tantric sex to sassy (and excellently-rendered) grown-up cartoons by San Francisco's own Isis Rodriguez. There was my collage work, heavy on vulvas and the Virgin Mary, gritty B/W portraits of strippers, flea market pictures dolled up with insane sex acts committed by dogs and pigs. Yep, the gallery pretty much had a little bit of everything -- and so did the stage.

You got your rent boy poets. You got your belly dancers. You got your elegantly fetishistic dominatrix-and-sub-girl erotic dance number. You got your excerpts from your autobiographical novels. You got your pig-tailed Riot Child rant from a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. You got your short films (most, don't you love it, probably first screened in Evergreen College classes). You got your fat intersex dyke of color ex-street-whore spoken word. (Lots of mentions of intersex issues, for some reason: my guess is, Olympia is ahead of the curve.) You got your mixed-race femme dykes from down at the college, cross-dressed and lip-synching to hip-hop: "How We Love Dese Hos."

I kid you not. This show had pretty much everything. And yes, I did say "sex worker marching band."

And then you got me, your ex-Lusty Lady peep show girl, doing an excerpt from my longer work "Peep Show" -- telling about my single most unusual customer ever, a guy with serious Fundy Christian poisoning who wanted me to repeat his magic sexy words: "I do not believe in the improbable God of the Eighth Commandment!" Hey, come see me do the show sometime -- I don't have space here to explain this guy, except to say that if he can get sexual gratification, so can just about anybody.

But that's not all! You also got Candye Kane -- big, beautiful, bodaciously bisexual Candye Kane, the phone sex girl-turned-big bazooms model-turned-blues diva. Her tits are bigger than her head, and her voice is bigger yet. I adore her -- interviewed her for Exhibitionism for the Shy, go out to her shows whenever she's in town, have all her CDs. You should have 'em too -- go to for more information. I tell you, she's a goddess.

But I had never seen her perform solo with one of her old porno movies looming on the screen overhead. That was worth the trip to Olympia right there.

Art and Sex Work
Now, I hope I didn't hear anyone in the class today snicker when I said "sex worker's art show." Okay, so the graffiti on the flea market pictures might never make it into the Met, but sex workers and artists (and sex workers as artists) go way back. In fact, according to one scholar's best guess, our word "pornography" can be traced back to the activities of a class of artists in Greece who painted prostitutes. Prostitutes (and their antics, usually as imagined by someone who isn't a prostitute, usually a male sort of person) have been one of the most popular themes in Western erotic art and, especially, literature. For a while there that's all written pornography was about, mainly because prostitutes were such an obvious source of overt sexual behavior. Hey, none of the nice girls were supposed to act like this, which made them poor porno heroines (except in the hands of the Marquis de Sade, because he made very bad things happen to very good girls).

But sex workers haven't only been muses, models, and fantasy objects. Plenty of us got into sex work in the first place because we needed time to write the Great American Novel, or do other kinds of art. Only today is that link beginning to be acknowledged. (Li'l Kim -- need I say more?) Even Madonna was a nude artists' model before she was such a superstar that she got to model nude again for her own art book, Sex. Then there have been plenty of sex workers who just had to tell the amazing stories of their secret trades, and became writers or spoken word artists as a result -- think Xaviera Hollander, Annie Sprinkle, Dolores French, Lily Burana... it's a long list, but not as long as the list of artists who will never acknowledge the role of the sex industry in their careers.

The sex biz has two elements that are pretty irresistible to creative types. You can set your own hours, mostly, and usually make more money with less time on the job than can your average wage slave. This leaves you with time on your hands (unless you're stuck on the street having to really work it to feed a habit, your kids, or the deep pockets of a pimp, or are a workaholic so you can retire at thirty having put a generous down payment on a Greek island). Plenty of 'hos use that extra time to go shopping, but plenty more of us go to grad school, take up sculpting, or outfit our home with a recording studio. I used my spare time to write -- I can never be sure whether I would have launched a writing career without having spent time in the sex biz.

The other irresistible element: Sex is a fraught, juicy, creative, controversial business. It's one of our universal languages. I don't find it at all surprising that creative types are drawn to it, for it provides another way to take on and shape energy, just as art does. The results may be fleeting, but the creativity is there. And the results aren't fleeting if you use sex itself, or sex work, as your muse, documenting reality or riffing on it. I will never run out of stories to tell, because every single client I ever saw was different from the next, had something else going on that I could glimpse and can spin, thanks to poetic license, into a surprising or enlightening character, even when he embodied the human condition in its most beaten-down state. Even though our culture pretends sex is separate from real life, all of real life is microcosmed in sex, and some of us find it an irresistibly prismatic lens.

That's what we were doing onstage (and on the walls) in Olympia, with Annie Oakley pointing out that the show was proof sex workers were nothing short of geniuses.

Awwww, hey, it's just that we have such a lot of great material to work with.