Oft-Maligned Sex Workers Defy Judgment in ‘We’re Still Working’

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Laurenn McCubbin, Detail of 'A Monument to the Risen,' 2013-2016. (Courtesy Chani Bockwinkel and SOMArts)

Sex work in San Francisco is as old at the city itself.

From the Gold Rush-era brothels that made the Barbary Coast infamous to the protests that forced LGBTQ rights and HIV/AIDS awareness to the front of our civic consciousness in the darkest days of the epidemic, a through-line is clear: Sex workers have fought for our right to bodily autonomy. The people who advance that rich legacy are celebrated in We're Still Working: The Art of Sex Work, a stellar exhibition at SOMArts Cultural Center, on view through Feb. 25.

We're Still Working is the first show of the year, and the second built out of the 2016-17 cohort that participated in the organization's innovative Curatorial Residency, which blossomed under the tenure of former Executive Director Lex Leifheit and curators Justin Charles Hoover and Melorra Green.

Lake Anderson, 'What We've Lost / What We've Gained,' 2016.
Lake Anderson, 'What We've Lost / What We've Gained,' 2016. (Courtesy Chani Bockwinkel and SOMArts)

Now entering is seventh year, residency-assisted curators at SOMArts representing wide experiential ranges and segments of Bay Area communities have produced 20 exhibitions addressing topics including reconstruction in El Salvador's postwar era and the relationship of glamour to camp, kitsch and abjection -- in other words, as recently appointed Executive Director Maria Jenson proudly asserted when we spoke, "projects that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day."

Comprising pieces created by artists who, in one fashion or another, identify as sex workers, We're Still Working presents an array of experiences in an industry condemned by the majority of Americans as immoral and threatening to public health and safety. To counter assumptions and harmful stereotypes about who sex workers are personally and professionally, co-curators Maxine Holloway and Javier Luis Hurtado selected the work of artists who deploy a heady mix of humor, anger and sarcasm in their respective practices, all in defiance of society's judgement.

Jacq the Stripper, 'Not Like Other Guys.'
Jacq the Stripper, 'Not Like Other Guys.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Jacq the Stripper, a Brooklyn-based sex worker and illustrator, produces minimalist comic strips, including Not Like Other Guys, that call out patron's sexist and condescending remarks. Her hilariously blunt portrayal of these interactions underscores the frequency with which, in her line of work, invasive questions are asked and swatted away.


Addressing similar client-patron interactions, but through the lens of a sex worker's mandate to enact emotional and sexual connection on demand, Laurenn McCubbin’s installation A Monument to the Risen contrasts interviews and glossy club advertisements with hand-written notes that dictate a sex worker's behind-the-scenes behavior. Through these pieces, McCubbin exposes the ins and outs of working as a stripper, and how asserting one's humanity requires constant vigilance.

Joseph Liatela, 'Untitled X' from the PROXIMITY series, 2016.
Joseph Liatela, 'Untitled X' from the PROXIMITY series, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Sex work often offers a refuge, or a best last opportunity for paid employment, to people -- trans women and men, and women of color, for example -- whose bodies are already criminalized. Sustaining one's identity against a foil molded by puritanical moral and psycho-sexual codes regarding intimate relationships, and which bodies are "right" or "wrong," is a daunting task at best.

For the series PROXIMITY, Joseph Liatela repurposes the costumes that, in patron's eyes, marked him as a female sex worker prior to transitioning female to male. Out of these nearly abstract compositions emerge details like bra cups and lingerie straps, the performative trappings through which the artist exorcises his past in service of a better, yet still uncertain future.

Lake Anderson, Detail of 'What We've Gained / What We've Lost,' 2016.
Lake Anderson,
Detail of 'What We've Gained / What We've Lost,' 2016. (Courtesy Chani Bockiwinkel and SOMArts)

Lake Anderson's What We've Gained / What We've Lost, an installation in altar form, honors those lives claimed by violent acts against sex workers, and the solidarity these women and men find in community. Visitors are asked to name what is gained through speaking against demonizing sex work and those who practice it, and invited to memorialize those whose lives were cut short by violence that rarely sees wide media coverage.

When asked for whom We're Still Working was conceived and presented, curators Holloway and Hurtado enthusiastically reply that the exhibition is for anyone who is curious and open-minded and, alternately, those who know nothing about sex work yet seek to undermine or eliminate it through social and legislative means. Ultimately, the exhibition is presented to and for those in the wider sex worker community, those who carve out a livelihood at the edge of our moral comfort zone, as a celebration of who they are. With the support of one of San Francisco's most dynamic arts institution backing them up, this is a moment for sex workers to be proud.


'We're Still Working: The Art of Sex Work' is on view at SOMArts Cultural Center through February 25th. More information and details here. (Note: .