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Two solo shows in the Cannonball Festival considered the cultural work of sex work through the lens of lived experiences. In Sex Werque: Notes from the Field, Ella-Gabriel Mason (they/them) drew from theater, dance, and interviews to explore the economic, social, and emotional aspects of sex work. Mason, who worked as a stripper, also addressed broader questions about art and gender. Meanwhile, Kaytlin Bailey (she/her) combined history, comedy, and storytelling in Whore’s Eye View, recounting history from a sex worker’s perspective.
A profound perspective on strip clubs
Sex Werque began with Mason, wearing a silver bikini top with pink fishnet stockings over a pink thong, greeting individual viewers using a variety of aliases, including Vera, Rebecca, Electra, and Eden, before taking a vote on the audience’s favorite name, establishing sex work as highly performative and customer-focused. Doing this work personally impacted Mason, who no longer identified as a woman by the end of their stripping career. Sex Werque wove personal experiences and powerful observations with movement, humor, and “notes from the field” that include statements from and recorded interviews with sex workers.
Altogether, the show offered unique and profound perspectives on strip clubs—a legal form of sex work—as well as the reasons people buy and sell this labor. Medical and student debt propelled Mason into stripping. Meanwhile, another sex worker said their income goes to medical treatment not covered by health insurance. According to Mason, customers love to believe their business helps individual strippers, especially college students. And bachelor parties become safe places for straight men to express their love for one another in the presence of a topless woman. In these ways, Sex Werque delineated the cultural significance of strip clubs. Performers move through more than 100 physically demanding positions (ballet has only four) as they simultaneously orchestrate a kind of immersive theater in which they mirror each client’s desire.
A history that’s not in the textbooks
Whore’s Eye View also incorporated personal experience into its examination of sex work, though it took a different path to another destination. Bailey, a former escort, lent her degree in history, background in standup comedy, and appealing stage presence to an entertaining lecture recounting human history through the lens of sex work. Relating historical events to her own life illuminated the origins and true purposes of laws and beliefs that supposedly protect women but more often shame and limit them. For instance, police could detain women suspected of promiscuity (whatever that means) into the 1970s, while marital rape wasn’t a crime until 1993, and mothers continue warning daughters against being too loud, too fat, or too slutty.
I enjoyed Bailey’s version of the history that usually doesn’t get into textbooks or classrooms, from the powerful goddesses of the pre-Christian era to Hammurabi’s Code to witchcraft to bicycles. Much of it was review, though, since I came to Whore’s Eye View with a graduate degree in feminist theory. Yet Bailey’s terrific writing and comic delivery made this review engaging, and her reflections upon connections between history and her own identity—including awareness of her privileges—elevate Whore’s Eye View. The show connected history to personal experience in relevant and meaningful ways, including Bailey’s relationship with her late father, a Vietnam veteran and career military officer. Exploring the stories of her first sexual experiences clarifies persistent sexual double standards. At 14, her father had sex for the first time with a woman more than a decade older who went on to model for Playboy. He thought it was the best thing that ever happened to him. In contrast, Bailey regards her own experience at 15 as a letdown. She suggests that we care too much about the innocence of girls and not enough about the innocence of boys.
Sex work affects all of us
Both Sex Werque and Whore’s Eye View demystified the oldest profession in thought-provoking ways. Ultimately, Bailey called for decriminalizing sex work as well as reclaiming goddesses and the sacred whore. Redefining and revaluing femininity can challenge patriarchy and misogyny. Sex Werque was more of a think piece than a call to action, and it has stayed on my mind the most this festival season despite having less polish than other Fringe and Cannonball shows. Together, these performances made clear that most of us have much to learn about sex work and how it shapes our culture, regardless of whether we participate in the life.
At top: Kaytlin Bailey. (Photo by Mindy Tucker.)
What, When, Where
Sex Werque: Notes from the Field. By Ella-Gabriel Mason. $25. September 7-18, 2023, at Fidget Space, 1714 N Mascher St, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
Whore’s Eye View. By Kaytlin Bailey, directed by Vanessa Morosco. $25. September 24-26, 2023, at MAAS Building Studio,1320 N 5th St, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
Fidget Space, on the fourth floor, can be accessed only by stairs.
Masks were required for Sex Werque and Whore’s Eye View.
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