You Can't Erase Us
Rachel Rabbit White reports from Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art's "On Our Backs, The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work"
Leon Mostovoy, Market Street Cinema series, 1987-88, Silver gelatin print Courtesy of the artist and ONE Archives at the USC Libraries
On Our Backs, The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work, which runs through January 19th, is a show at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art about the sex work community, about the care within and the erasure of the community: the ways that sex workers are rendered invisible.
So it feels poignant that, while visiting the gallery, my Instagram was deleted, without warning, for posting archival images from “On Our Backs,” the historic lesbian erotica magazine for which the show was named.
The images Instagram caught were vintage erotica of women hanging out in the nude, black and white, grainy shots of their backsides, sure there was some nudity but not a #freethenipple need in sight. Yet because of Instagram’s confusing and ever-shifting “community guidelines” this was enough for my account to go missing for a week.
As Melissa Gira Grant pointed out on Twitter about the incident: “this is what we mean when we say our whole lives are considered a term of service violation.” It’s all a direct result of SESTA/FOSTA, a devastating set of laws which further criminalize sex work and thus make it increasingly unsafe for workers
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. This show was born from curator’s and social worker Alexis Heller’s experience of working with queer and trans youth, who often, living at the margins, engage in sex work to support themselves and survive. Heller tells me during a gallery tour, that she wanted to recuperate the art that sex workers, as with any community, have always composed, and put at the forefront those that would represent a positive and empowering picture of the community.
She explains: “Whenever I saw sex work represented in art or culture, it was either as titillation, or as a representation of victimhood or degeneracy. There was not really an empowered narrative, and working with sex workers, I knew there were so many positives for people doing the work.”
What Heller shows us is a tight knit community who use art not only as a vehicle for self-expression but as a way to record and codify the knowledge and the practices that the community has accumulated. The artifice in art offers an alibi for communities whose practices border on illegality and are shunned as undesirable by the world at large—and hence are at risk of erasure.
Because of how this art is made inside of a community, often thought of for the consumption of the community, the exhibition follows the principle of embodiment of the spectator, dividing its space in segments that represent where the sex workers lived, worked and enjoyed themselves.
There is a “bedroom section,” largely dedicated to the work of Annie Sprinkle where you can sit on a leopard print bed, the locus of physical work in sex work, and leaf through archival zines made by and for the sex work community.
There is a “street” section, where the ability of art to preserve both history and lived experience is immediately evident. On the wall a life-size print of Efrain John Gonzalez “Little West 12th Street” shows us a notorious stroll for trans workers in the 80’s. There are no figures in the photograph, just the fog of New York night and silent semi trucks. The visitor is immediately inhabiting that dimension, thrown into the experience of spending long nights in the shadows in what was once the deserted meatpacking alley, a place that today is full of high end stores and sanitized bars.
Ben Cuevas, a young LA Based artist, is particularly aware of this sense of erasure and of the ironies it creates. In his “Reinserted: the show center,” the artist photoshops sex workers, from photographs taken in the 80s, into the locations where they were shot, as they look today. We see woman in a leotard and high-heels walking through the Soho Sephora, a destination still heavily visited by sex workers of course but in a different way. The sex workers and queers have not left these locations, they are still present, but have become invisible.
The experience of that sex worker stroll erased in the normalization of Manhattan, in the same way the heart of Times Square (the strip clubs) has been erased, the same way entertainment district try to forget their origin in bohemian communities, convincing us their fame comes from the presence of celebrities and socialites.
But art doesn’t only preserve through immortalizing images, but also through the community that it focalizes, and which codifies its behaviors. In a corner of the street section, there is an altar created by poet, sex worker activist, and artist Pluma Sumaq. On the altar are 38 names, a wall of elders, that represent the community. It is not a comprehensive list, says Heller, not everyone can be “out” and for this reason there is a plate where visitors can drop pieces of paper, to inscribe the names of their mentors, their inspirations, a list that will be burned in a ceremony at the end of the exhibition, sealing the secret.
An altar, especially that of a persecuted community, depends on a hidden tradition, a tradition of whispers and shared habits necessary to survival—practices SESTA/FOSTA has made illegal to share online. The altar perfectly works as a repository of knowledge that is indecipherable from the outside. But as such it also depends on the cohesiveness and continuation on the community in order to have meaning.
And a black leather sling owned by Richard Berkowitz hanging on the wall will be confusing and incomprehensible to anyone without a previous knowledge of BDSM practices. Richard Berkowitz was an activist and hustler who owned a dungeon. He is known particularly for writing with Micheal Callen under the direction of Joseph Sonnabend the seminal manual “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” relating for the first time which behaviors were at risk for the transmission of the HIV virus and how to stay self, especially while doing sex work.
One of the threads through nearly every work, whether in current or archival pieces, is the aesthetic of 1980s lower Manhattan. The AIDS epidemic is a traumatic center of this art and in the life of sex workers, one that ended countless lives, stories, and artworks, from which the community still struggles to move on from, going back each time to this history in an attempt to come to a closure with it. But the closure always feels just out of reach.
Similarly, the fall out of SESTA/FOSTA is the wound that isn’t healing, to which the community keeps going back to care for, counting the numbers of its victims, keeping alive their memory, denouncing the complicity and the cruelty of both the legislators and general population. The advocacy work around SESTA/FOSTA is mentioned as one walks into the gallery but not overtly represented in the show, remaining a heavy backdrop.
The show is a laudable effort to highlight the struggles and the art of the sex work community, and yet despite this visibility the community is receiving still here we are, sex workers being pushed off the Internet, back into the streets, without the ability to appeal misfortune and denounce the injustices. What becomes evident is the huge effort that everyone puts in keeping each other alive and safe. All that time that goes not only into working, finding clients and keeping them happy, and also in the care for each other, and organizing, educating, supporting. And yet despite it all, we still make art along the way.