In Pictures: The Art of Queer Sex Work

At Leslie-Lohman Museum, New York, an exhibition of art by queer sex workers takes a stand against violence and criminalization

BY Rachel Rabbit White in Culture Digest | 27 SEP 19

Beth Stephens, Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, 1992, silver gelatin print, 74.9 × 77.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist

On Our Backs has become sex-positive lore. The lesbian porn magazine, edited by Susie Bright from 1985-1990, was part of a movement that made space for sex workers and their allies to address the labour issues that affected them, in the midst of the anti-pornography ‘feminist sex wars’ of the Reagan years.

Patrick Angus, Hanky Panky, 1980, acrylic on canvas, 1 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: the Estate of Patrick Angus

For many artists, sex work is the only way to survive – and art that deals directly with our political organizing against criminalization has long thrived despite any formal recognition. In 2018, numerous exhibitions of art by sex workers popped up in small galleries all over the US in response to a devastating pair of laws, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which further criminalize sex work and thus make it increasingly unsafe. In every major US city, art shows by sex workers raised money for sex worker mutual aid.

James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook and David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (print from 7 Miles a Second), 1996/2019, digital print, 50.8 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy: the artists and Ground Zero Books

The community showed up for their own. Now, the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, in New York, honours this advocacy with ‘On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work’, a show highlighting the effective intersection of sex work organizing and art as an important part of LGBTQ history. It will showcase both historic and contemporary multi-disciplinary practices that have long resided at the margins. No one knows the danger of that margin, or the tactics of survival it requires, more intimately than a sex worker – even now, in 2019.

Juniper Fleming, Bar at Folies Bergère, 2015/2018, archival LE silver gelatin print and oil paint, 86.4 × 106.7 cm. Courtesy: © Juniper Fleming

Tee A Corinne, Untitled (#3), 1982–83, silver gelatin print, 12.7 × 17.8 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Rachel Rabbit White is a poet, prose writer and essayist from Brooklyn. Her debut full-length poetry collection, Porn Carnival, will be published by Wonder in Fall 2019.