It's likely very few people--except perhaps porn purveyors and consumers--see sex as an art form. Well, few people in Tulsa, that is. Here, sex is a tool meant only for procreation and only within the bounds of marriage. As for strippers, prostitutes and phone sex operators? Going straight to hell.
Sweeping the nation, though, is a group determined to dispel the "myth that they (people who work in the sex industry) are anything short of artists, innovators and geniuses."
Annie Oakley, a sex worker in Olympia, Wash., founded the "Sex Workers' Art Show" in 1998 as a grassroots event to showcase the lives and work of those who are employed by the sex industry.
In an interview with The Stranger, an alt-weekly in Seattle, Oakley explained, "There are a lot of stereotypes that describe all sex workers as stupid, drug-addicted or abuse survivors. The myth that we unwittingly exploit ourselves is popular among progressives, and it serves to isolate sex workers from the rest of the world."
The Sex Workers' Art Show is a cabaret-style act, with spoken word, music, drag, burlesque and multi-media performance and visual art performed and on display by workers in the sex industry, including dancers, prostitutes, porn stars, drag queens and dominatrixes.
Performers include Dirty Martini, a leading figure in the burlesque revival movement and described as "one of the best in burlesque" by New York Times; Lorelei Lee, a writer, undergrad student and porn performer; Chris Kraus, feminist author and topless dancer; Kirk Read, a male sex worker and author of numerous volumes about being openly gay; The World Famous *BOB*, blonde bombshell and burlesque dancer extraordinaire; Erin Markey, performance artist and stripper; Keva I. Lee, who, after years of working in counseling and advocacy for sex workers became one herself; Krylon Superstar, performance artist; Trina, an avant garde hiphop musician and Oakley.
The performances attempt to dissolve stereotypes and move past notions of "positive" and "negative" into a "fuller articulation of the complicated ways sex workers experience their jobs and their lives," according to the show's mission statement. The show attempts to amaze, arouse and entice while also offering insightful commentary on sex, gender, race, labor and sexuality. And no, the darker side of the industry will not be ignored.
Reviews for the show have been favorable, with Theatre Journal saying, "The Sex Workers' Art Show is not simply a display of those in the sex industry... but an active force in articulating, shaping and contesting the meaning of the identity 'sex worker' in the public sphere."
It wasn't long before the Sex Workers' Art Show, an event performed annually in Olympia, garnered something of a cult-like following and soon became a nationally touring act. Jeff Whitlatch, co-owner of the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. 4th Street, periodically peruses the internet looking for nationally touring acts that might be a good fit for the theater. He found the Sex Workers' Art Show a year ago, but, at the time, it wasn't touring anywhere near Tulsa (surprise?).
About three weeks ago, Whitlatch got the call that the show would be in the area, and he and the other theater owners moved quickly to make sure there was room in the schedule to book the act. But, will an art show celebrating the culture of the sex industry be well received in a city like Tulsa?
Amber Whitlatch, Jeff's wife and the Nightingale's other owner, hopes so.
"I see a lot of right-wing Baptists getting up in arms and coming out with torches," Amber said, laughing. "But I also see it as a catalyst for change if people are supportive. This could be the beginning of a great relationship between Tulsa venues and the really cutting edge art that's going on and missing us."
She hopes that with more touring, avant garde art projects coming to Tulsa, the city's creative class will be inspired to stay and any sort of migration to larger, more accepting cities will be discouraged.
And with the way Tulsa has accepted and embraced a group like Eye Candy Burlesque, the hope that Tulsa will be receptive to this type of art isn't totally unimaginable. Personally, I wasn't sure how Tulsa would react to a group of young women so determined to explore and celebrate their sexuality. But I don't think I've ever seen those ladies perform to anything but a packed house. And, that house was in the beginning and continues to be the Nightingale Theater.
There the group was conceived; it rehearsed, performed its first show and continues to be a house favorite even though other venues have embraced it as well. And while, no, it's not the Southern Baptists or the Catholics who are lining up to see the act, its rather large fan base shows that there might be some hope locally for the Sex Workers' Art Show.
The Sex Workers' Art Show is in town at the Nightingale for one night only, Sunday, Jan. 27 at 9pm. Tickets are $15, and, in the past, portions of the proceeds have gone to benefit organizations like Books to Prisoners and the Transgender Medical Fund.
Accompanying the show is a volume edited by Oakley, called Working Sex: Sex Workers Write About a Changing Industry, which includes works by several of the show's performers and other sex workers as well.
For more information about the show, visit its website at sexworkersartshow.com.
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