Tricks and the Trade

At first, a night at the Sex Worker's Art Show seems akin to a voyeuristic trip to a strip club: It's fleeting entertainment, a momentary indulgence. They're sex workers. How deep can they be?

Let's see: One is a playwright who founded an experimental writing collective. Another addresses the politics of stripping through cartooning. Several spend their days delivering lectures and hosting festivals; all have spent their nights as prostitutes, strippers, escorts, transvestites or Internet models.

"Sex workers are either mythologized or demonized," says the show's founder, a former prostitute who calls herself Annie Oakley. The show "humanizes them for people," she says. "It removes some of the shroud of mystery and chains surrounding the industry."

Oakley and friends have been lifting their shrouds now for eight years. The show started as an annual event in Olympia, Washington; for the past three years it's toured the nation, in part to entertain, but also to spread awareness about discrimination, health and labor issues in the sex workers' community. The show incorporates visual art, music, spoken word, poetry, burlesque and video, and regularly draws substantial crowds (last year's stop in Houston was a standing-room-only affair).

The event's graphic nature has drawn little protest. Oakley says that when people take issue with the show, it usually isn't about the X-rated content. "Men tend to have a difficulty in taking the issues seriously," Oakley says. "They're really into the fun, sexy side... Women tend to be more scared of sex workers," she says, adding that many women are quick to call her show an act of "anti-feminism."

Oakley's utopia would see the decriminalization of prostitution and the right of sex workers to unionize and have benefits. For now, though, she's content to hope that her patrons are "motivated to examine some of the stereotypes they have and why," she says. And she's hardly one to show disdain for pure voyeurs. "There's just enough naked ladies for people to have a good, entertaining time," she says, "if that's all they want to do."

8 p.m. Wednesday, March 2. The Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443, $10.

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Julia Ramey