Working It Zine Showcases Multiple Narratives About Sex Work
Working It (Fall 2019)
Review by Lindsay Costello
At the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, an exhibition and corresponding series of events has centered the multiplicity of voices surrounding sex work. No Human Involved: the 5th Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show features a range of artworks made exclusively by sex workers. The show was co-curated by Roya Amirsoleymani of PICA and Kat Salas and Matilda Bickers of STROLL, a Portland-based harm reduction, outreach, and education group run by and for sex workers. In tandem with the exhibition, Art, Activism, & Publishing in Sex Work was a three-day symposium that included a lecture by activist Emi Koyama(co-presented and sponsored by PNCA’s MA in Critical Studies) and the release of Working It, a zine of writing by and for sex workers. The zine was designed by Rose Nordin in partnership with the Independent Publishing Resource Center, and edited and published by STROLL. In many ways, Working It is the pièce de résistance of the symposium, providing concrete written evidence of the depth and breadth of the discourse surrounding sex work.
Working It is printed on multicolor pastel paper, and on No Human Involved’s opening night, copies of the publication came wrapped in iridescent cellophane. The presentation is playfully disruptive, with a strong vertical orientation that, while curious, still feels comfortable in the hand. The zine is comprised of three main sections: Q & A sessions with sex workers, “Sarah’s Poems”, and a collection of personal essays by sex workers. Topics of discussion in the sex worker Q & A sessions include white privilege in strip clubs, FOSTA/SESTA, care labor, and sex work as a romanticized hot topic in mainstream media. Most affecting, each interview ends with a call to action for white sex workers—speaking out and using privilege to create change comes up more than once.
“Sarah’s Poems” are bitterly vulnerable in their simplicity. Each of the three short poems references an “I”, assumedly Sarah, who writes in an honest, confessional style that evokes Anne Sexton’s Wallflower. Sarah weaves together frank depictions (“I am grateful for the dresser you left at/the curb./Its honey-stained drawers stick a bit”) and sensuous responses (“He wants to pierce my soft belly,/but I bare my sharp teeth.”) Although only one page, this section serves as an eloquent intermediary space between the interviews and personal essays. Sarah’s work is both factual and tender.
The seven essays featured in the latter half of Working It are dense and varied, both informative and personal. Janis Luna finds parallels between their therapist work and sex work by bringing a “beginner’s mind” to each role; an attitude of humility and curiosity. Phoenix Calida derides “enthusiastic consent culture” and its neoliberal exclusion of the sex worker community. Daphne Marx connects self-healing for sex workers with the overall healing of society, stating that “[their] life is a metaphor for society and the world.”
By honoring a wide range of experiences within sex work—the joyful, the infuriating, the stigmatized, the rewarding—Working It broadens the narrative surrounding sex work, challenging the reader to learn and listen.