Sex show puts butts in the seats

by Dave Roberts

It’s 7:30 and the planetarium in Guilford College’s Frank Family Science Center is packed. Every seat is filled, and with two students on each step in both aisles and even more on the floor directly in front of the stage, the room is about 50 people over capacity. Of them, maybe two or three, counting myself, are old enough to drink alcohol; fortunately that’s not on the menu tonight.

What is (and everyone here is presumably of legal age for it) is the Sex Workers’ Art Show, a touring performance exploring the light and dark sides of the sex trade, presented by Guilford Pride, the college’s “organization for queer and allied students.” The audience is excited, almost giddy for the impending spectacle. As none of the patrons are old enough to attend a strip club, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a number of them are here to get their first glimpse of public nudity. It’s nothing they haven’t presumably seen several dozen times at least in movies and the internet by this point; but live, up close and personal… that’s different, and the anticipation is palpable.

“How many here are customers of the sex industry?” says Annie Oakley, tonight’s emcee, her hair an onslaught of bright scarlet. “That’s it?” she says after a few sheepish hands come up. “There are some liars in this room!” She goes on to state her case: a $12 billion dollar a year industry, sex work in all its facets – escorts, burlesque and exotic dancers and adult-film stars are all represented here – is bigger business than professional baseball, football and basketball combined. The packed house in a tiny space makes an apt metaphor for Annie’s central argument: immensely popular yet shuttered away in secret places, sex work’s public stigma combined with America’s voracious appetite for it has created a labor force whose services are highly in demand yet are marginalized far more easily than so-called honest professions.

The acts tonight are multifarious in subject matter, style and tone. The first, male escort Kirk Read, bedecked in hot pink eye makeup overlaid with gold glitter flames, recounts an encounter with a countrified client in which he removes a series of undergarments as a visual aid, enlisting the audience to moan as his narrative builds toward its climax. He is followed by burlesque veteran Dirty Martini, performing a piece in which, bedecked as Justice in an American flag dress with a blindfold and giant scales, she removes each item one by one, cash falling out of her garments, which she then begins stuffing into her mouth. Finally, naked except a pair of tassels on her breasts and a miniature flag preventing an X rating, she removes a six foot string of dollar bills from her posterior and twirls it around her zaftig spinning form like a ribbon dancer at the Olympics. Set to Dolly Parton’s rendition of “Proud to Be an American,” the piece is entitled “Patriot Act.”

Not all the acts are as visually arresting, but no less compelling for it: Dominatrix Keva I. Lee demonstrates her skills by making Guilford Pride representative Joe Pelcher her pet. Burlesque comedienne/performance artist the World Famous “Bob”, as it says on her driver’s license, regales us with her story of leaving home at 16 to become a dime-a-dance girl in Los Angeles. Erin Markey, exotic dancer and bachelor of arts, performs a song from her solo musical Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail which crescendos as she’s clinging four feet up a pole. Adult film star Lorelei Lee and writer Chris Krause, oddly enough, have the audience the most entranced when they read somberly from their written works about the darker side of porn and exotic dancing, respectively. The night culminates much as it began, with a performance by drag queen Krylon Superstar, who enters bedecked in a black teddy, white lace bloomers and a magenta wig. He proceeds to remove the first two to the strains of “America, the Beautiful,” revealing the words “Fuck Bush” written on her chest in electrical tape (which prompts a roar of applause from the crowd). Krylon then enters a kiddie pool filled with glitter, inserting a brace of sparklers into her rectum and lighting them. A standing ovation follows.

After the show, the most striking thing is how approachable these dynamic personalities make themselves. Keva the domme frankly explains how unsatisfying her previous life as a legal counselor was and how much more fulfilling her new profession is. Dirty Martini, whose act is silent, is startlingly articulate in conversation than one might expect of someone who less than two hours previous had been pulling a string of cash from her nether-regions.

“This country is always three steps forward, two steps back,” she says. “There are very progressive eras followed by more conservative ones; it just goes back and forth a lot. But I’m really hoping that what we can learn is to keep people accepting of other people and their needs.”

E-mail Dave Roberts @ dave@yesweekly.