Sex worker strips down stereotypes

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February 5, 2008

1:37 AM

Annie Oakley of sex worker fame — or infamy — doesn’t much resemble her namesake, a folktale-worthy sharpshooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

p. The former is a colorful woman who began her work in the sex industry as a stripper. She’s also worked in peep shows, brothels and independent escorting. The latter was a woman who made her fortune stupefying spectators with her dead-on aim and novelty gun show.

p. In truth, the current Oakley said she regrets the decision that she made when she began stripping.

p. “To be honest, I don’t really like that name and I wish I didn’t have it. I was backstage waiting to go on, and this guy says, ‘What’s your name?’ I didn’t know, and he suggested Annie Oakley, and I went along with it.”

p. It’s not that Oakley doesn’t respect the legendary performer.

p. “She was somebody in her time who was a total anomaly,” she said. “She did what women didn’t do, so in that respect, I like the name. But it also implies this Wild West aesthetic that I don’t really like — although I am an excellent marksman.”

p. The name Annie Oakley has been revitalized recently, at least on college campuses across the country. She is the brains behind the much-discussed Sex Workers’ Art Show, which made its third annual appearance in the University Center last night.

p. Oakley describes herself as the founder, director, road manager, emcee and den mother of the troupe of sex workers that performs a variety show of spoken word, burlesque and even some musical theater. The idea for the show was born 11 years ago in Olympia, Wash. as a result of a disconnect she found between the stripping community and the social justice activism community, for which she also worked.

p. “I told the people I worked with in social activism that I was working as a stripper and people were telling me it was anti-feminist and against what they were working for,” Oakley said. “It made me angry because it reeked of not only sexism, but classism.”

p. Oakley decided to create the art show to dispel the misconceptions that she was witnessing among her social activist peers.

p. “I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing; I didn’t know many people in the sex industry outside of those I worked with and the internet was not as prevalent. But the response was overwhelming.”

p. Since then, the show has grown from a yearly event to a touring ensemble that represents many arenas of the sex industry. Oakley said she wants the tour to show a side of the people who work in the sex industry that most people don’t even consider.

p. “Our show aims to present a picture of the way sex workers experience work and life,” she said. “We want to humanize them for people, because it’s only once we are considered as humans — not as stereotypes like nymphomaniacs or people who can’t control themselves — it’s only from that point that people can take us seriously.”

p. Of course, Oakley is used to the criticism, even the vitriolic hatred, that follows her. She’s used to people arguing against her cause despite never having seen the show. What’s more, she doesn’t care.

p. “I’m not responsible for the intellectual growth of the country,” she said. “If people want to critique without seeing our show, that’s just not a good intellectual approach and, honestly, I have no respect for people like that.”

p. More important, according to Oakley, are the people who come to the show whose understanding of the industry changes.

p. “People aren’t necessarily open-minded when they come, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached after shows by people whose views have been completely readjusted,” she said. “I know the show has that impact for people.”

p. The show holds approximately two-thirds of its performances on college campuses. Although Oakley said she sees protest almost everywhere she goes, one night last year stood out in her mind.

p. The scene was Virginia Commonwealth University. That night, the film “Monster” was shown on campus. Across campus that same night, Oakley and her Sex Workers’ Art Show performed to a sold out crowd.

p. There is a scene in “Monster” in which the main character, a prostitute, is brutally raped with a pole while tied up in the back seat of a car. It is, without a doubt, a graphic depiction of sexual violence.

p. Yet, in the days following, the school received many complaints protesting only the art show.

p. “People’s complaints aren’t really about the content,” Oakley said. “They object to the concept. I wish more people would just come out and say, ‘Sex workers don’t deserve a voice.’”

p. To Oakley, the VCU incident illustrates perfectly the fight she and her sex worker colleagues are up against.

p. “What that night said, basically, was that a prostitute being raped is fine, but a prostitute speaking her mind is morally wrong. And that disgusts me.”

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