Credit: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

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Twenty-six-year-old Lorelei Lee, a perky, platinum-haired coed with a kinky white scar etched into her upper thigh, calls herself an artist. Lee deals in “bodily performance,” and you can catch her work in such video art pieces as Belladonna’s Fucking Girls 4 and Tristan Taormino’s Expert Guide to Anal Sex. “Tristan’s is educational,” Lee explains. “Fucking Girls 4 was just fucking.”

When Lee isn’t fucking, she focuses on her other art: short fiction and poetry, which she studies at a San Francisco university, the name of which she doesn’t want published. For the past three weeks, she has read her work across the country as part of the Sex Workers’ Art Show, a traveling pastiche of cabaret, spoken word, and performance art put on by prostitutes, porn stars, burlesque dancers, and drag queens.

“I don’t want to say that all porn is art,” says Lee, who lifts her stage name from the Marilyn Monroe character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “But porn can most certainly be artistic.”

According to the literature, the Sex Workers’ Art Show intends to “dispel the myth that [sex workers] are anything short of artists, innovators, and geniuses!” But having sex for money isn’t always so inspired. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m on a factory line,” Lee admits before the Feb. 7 show at the Rock and Roll Hotel. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just making hamburgers.”

When tour organizer, MC, and self-described “den mother” Annie Oakley storms the stage, her fire-engine shock of hair matching her red patent-leather stilettos, she lists some other aims of the show: Reveal sex workers as human; gain respect; demand rights; free one another from exploitation.

In practice, the show’s intentions get a little murkier. Let’s take, as an example, one of the show’s artists, innovators, and geniuses: Dirty Martini, a burlesque dancer whose contribution is a full-body tribute to Lady Justice. In the striptease, the curvy, crenulated Martini strips down to star-shaped, tasseled pasties and a miniature American flag vaginal covering, stuffs about 15 dollar bills—the price of the show—into her mouth, and then pulls a long chain of cash from her sizable derriere, all to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “God Bless the USA.” When Martini struts offstage, the crowd erupts in applause at the stirring political commentary. But let’s be honest: The real excitement lies in her fat, naked ass.

At the Sex Workers’ Art Show, exploitation is the real fun, and I’ve snagged the best spot in the house. The sold-out crowd has pushed me flush against the stage, setting my sightline precisely at crotch level. Over the course of the night, I come face to face with Dirty Martini’s patriotic vagina; burlesque comedienne The World Famous Bob’s pink-tasseled and rhinestone-decalled vagina; ex-stripper Erin Markey’s American Apparel gold lamé-pantied vagina; and Krylon Superstar’s self-described “duct-taped, dick-back, transsexual queen” package.

But throughout the show, the performers insist that we are not exploiting them. They, of course, are exploiting us.

The first performer, Kirk Read, who dresses in a stretch sequined belt, a hot pink cheetah-print tank, and a drawn-on glitter face mask, performs an observational stand-up routine on the topic of hotel room sex that can be simplified as: “What’s the deal with clients of male prostitution?” Read’s monologue covers topics ranging from the Hilton’s harsh, neon lighting (flip on the lights, and it’s like you’re in Safeway all of a sudden!) to scat (nobody knows how to use an enema anymore!), but he comes down with a clear message: At least I’m getting paid for this. During dominatrix Keva I. Lee’s performance, one sorry audience volunteer, a baby-faced prep by the name of Colin, is paraded onstage wearing a leather collar, spanked, hogtied, beaten, and forced to fellate a large pink dildo, his expression drooping from bemusement to pained resignation as the show progresses. When I ask him later how it feels, he offers a limp thumbs-up. The audience, on the other hand, loves it.

Throughout the show, it doesn’t seem to matter who is exploiting whom, as long as there’s a tit dropped or a dick sucked, and those who don’t dominate, mock-fellate, or bare all are met largely with indifference. When Chris Kraus, a shaky woman with tortoiseshell glasses pushed down the bridge of her nose, reads a rambling, ’70s feminist scene report that name-drops both David Byrne and Jacques Lacan, a swell of chatter migrates through the crowd, climaxing at the venue’s back bar. Maybe it’s because our view of Kraus’ crotch is shielded by black leather pants and a flowing cotton tunic that nobody seems to care.

When Lorelei Lee takes the stage, she does not remove her single piece of clothing, a very little black dress. Instead, she reads a delicate story about a young woman grappling with her queer self-identity under the gaze of male porn auteurs. Lee’s copy is edited carefully, passages neatly crossed out and rewritten in pen, as if fresh from a professor’s desk. By the end of the story, the crowd’s chins begin to slack; eyes glaze over. Belladonna’s Fucking Girls 4 this is not.

At show’s end, the crowd rallies to watch purple-wigged Krylon Superstar strip down to his duct-taped package, stick a sparkler up his asshole, and present it to a roadie to light it on fire. But after the fireworks display, when Oakley announces that representatives from the HIPS organization—a sex workers advocacy group—will take the stage for a discussion, half the crowd has already spilled out the door.

When I return home, I do it immediately: boot up my laptop, turn the “SafeSearch” off, and Google Lorelei Lee. Within seconds, I’ve found ample information on Lee’s “bodily performances.” She accepts anal and vaginal penetration by toys. Her genitals can be penetrated by clean fingers. She is a pain slut. She will have a safe word. Her current status is “unowned.”

Then, there are the pictures: Lee, her face stretched in agony, a mass of clothespins hanging on her nipples; Lee “machine fucking herself to massive orgasm”; countless shots of Lee interacting with various erect penises. It’s not exactly artistic, innovative genius, but somehow, it’s still more evocative than any of the “art” on display that night. I’m betting I’m not the only one who left the show to take a little look into her other work.

Audio slideshow from the Sex Workers’ Art Show (Not Safe For Work)

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