Speaking of sex, work and art

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March 24, 2009

5:33 AM

_Click “here”:http://flathatnews.com/content/70322/sex-workers-art-show to view a slideshow of photos from the Sex Workers’ Art Show’s appearance on campus._

Just days after the Century Project exhibit closed, performers in the Sex Workers’ Art Show returned to the College of William and Mary for the fourth year in a row, exhibiting their bodies, stories and struggles with notably less vocal controversy than last year.

The Discussion

As opposed to the demonstrations seen in previous years, supporters and critics channeled their opinions in a pre-show discussion of the issues. Organized by the President’s Office, the discussion was meant to fulfill College President Taylor Reveley’s call for “a robust opportunity for the free play of ideas” that “[serves] the Jeffersonian ideal.”

Approximately 40 people attended the discussion, many of whom were journalists and College administrators. SWAS performers and individuals from outside the College community were also in attendance.

Panelists Jessee Vasold ’11, co-president of Lambda Alliance, and Alex Powell ’10, representing the Facebook group “Don’t spend our money on the Sex Workers’ Art Show!,” responded to questions from the audience.

Although both said they were not opposed to SWAS, Vasold defended the use of Student Assembly funds to subsidize the event while Powell asserted that, the SA should not fund the event.

Neither of the two shows this year sold out.

The first half of the hour-long discussion revolved around funding until Annie Oakley, the self-described “founder, director, road manager, emcee and den mother of the Sex Workers’ Art Show,” shifted the debate.

“I just think it’s a little bit disingenuous that we have gathered all these school officials and professors to talk about how $2,300 is spent. I don’t think it’s about the funding, I really don’t,” Oakley said. “I think it would better serve all of us if we talked about why we’re really here, why everyone is so nervous about this show.”

One audience member asserted that a Virginia statute is the only reason why the Sex Workers’ Art Show is allowed on campus but not in a local Unitarian Universalist church, as was once proposed.

“This is allegedly a free speech issue—it’s promoting a particular kind of free speech that, if one half mile from here, would be illegal,” an audience member who wished to remain anonymous said. “If it goes out and over here to James City County, these sex workers are down at Peninsula Regional Jail.”

After the show, supporters and critics of the show alike could be seen speaking with each other and exchanging e-mail addresses.

Many were pleased with the conversation, while others were disappointed with both the low turnout and the superficial discussion of some of the issues.

“It was heavily populated by men and was just dancing around the issues,” Oakley said.
Reuben Autery, the director of the William and Mary Chapter of the Chi Alpha Fellowship and one of only two attendees willing to say he objected to the content rather than the funding of the show, said he was disappointed at the lack of participation in the discussion.

“There doesn’t seem to be some good, honest dialogue about thinking about how we think and trying to examine and evaluate the foundations that we hold and see if they really are valid,” Autery said.
Controversy and Protest

After the discussion, some of the participants went on to the first showing at 6 p.m., others went home, and at least one, Autery, went to protest outside the Sadler Center.

Most agree that the controversy this year has been less charged, both because the controversial Century Project has taken attention away from the show, and because SWAS was not announced until relatively late in the year.

The quieter opposition stands in stark contrast to last year, which saw Oakley doubting whether she would return.

“I wasn’t really sure if it was worth it, honestly. The school was so incredibly disrespectful and made it so difficult, and the sort of bile of all the opposition to the show was so personal,” Oakley said during a phone interview during a flight to Richmond from Olymipa, Wash., where the show originated.

Outside of the Sadler Center, approximately 20 protestors, most of whom from Congregation Zion’s Sake, a
Messianic Jewish congregation from Newport News, peacefully protested by distributing anti-porn literature, singing and periodically blowing a Jewish horn called a shofar.

The show itself featured eight individual performances by sex workers who interwove their own histories with poetry, comedy, burlesque, spoken word, musical theatre, piano music and multimedia. Skin was more prevalent in some pieces than others, with one performer revealing her breasts and another, her bare bottom. Several points in the performance included audience participation. One student received a brief lesson in burlesque.

The show was followed by what Oakley called “the Attorney General-mandated official Q&A session”.

One question involved issues of self-respect, regret and glamorizing the sex industry.

“I just said people insulted me on a regular basis. How is that glamorous?” Jo Weldon said. Weldon’s piece discussed insults she had heard while working as a stripper.

Some of the students who went into the show ambivalent came out praising it while others expressed reservations.

“I’m a senior, I had never seen the show,” Ali Tobia ’09 said. “I truly believe protesters obviously haven’t seen the show and if they did, I would hope that if they could listen and watch with an open mind, they may learn something and see there’s really not a need for so much controversy.”

***

*Editor’s Note: The Flat Hat has removed a comment on this article in which John Foubert accused another commenter of sexual harassment and named the alleged victim. Although Foubert stated to have the victim’s consent, The Flat Hat cannot allow such accusation to be made in this public forum. Comments deemed obscene, frivolous or off-topic will be removed. Any comments made in reply were also deleted.*

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