Update: An earlier version of this story reported that Attorney General Bob McDonnell called the organizer 15 minutes before the curtain rose to prohibit the sale of all merchandise. Not so, says a spokesman for McDonnell. "He was speaking to a group of kids at St. Christopher's High School. He was teaching kids about the legislative process, meanwhile the organizer of a sex worker art show is telling people she got a call from the attorney general," says David Clementson, a spokesman for the attorney general. "No one at the attorney general's office called anyone at the sex show." Style contacted the Director of News Services at William and Mary, Brian Whitson, who confirmed that the decree to prohibit the sale of merchandise at the Feb. 4 show was attributed to college administration. Though Oakley alluded several times to McDonnell's alleged phone call, Whitson maintains that Oakley did not ask to obtain written permission to sell merchandise, which is standard policy at the college, until only moments before the show.
Organizers of the Sex Workers' Art Show tour expected it to take nothing but a casual stroll through Virginia. But the show abruptly collided with controversy at the Feb. 4 performance at The College of William & Mary. And with a performance scheduled Friday, Feb. 8, at the Gay Community Center of Richmond, the questions remain: How did this string of controversy gradually unravel and what does it mean for Richmond?
At the William & Mary performance last Monday, show founder and director Annie Oakley opened with a brief commentary before a significantly censored performance. Not only did she express a heartfelt declaration of the show's message, advocating the humanization of sex workers and their artistic genius, but she also tossed out blatant jabs in response to the surrounding controversy. She even went as far to say that the amount of effort it took to get the show to the college was by far a more arduous and degrading ordeal than anything she's experienced in the sex industry.
As Oakley emphasized several times, the show does not serve in any way to glorify the sex industry. But while the spectator certainly exits the theater with a scripted knowledge of this vision, many still can't help but second-guess the message. When an ignited anal sparkler follows a poignant poetry reading, the message becomes mixed. Undoubtedly, the show serves to educate, but some may argue that the provocative entertainment actually does more to distract.
This marks the art show's third visit to the campus of William & Mary. Their first appearance flew below media radar, but opposition gradually gained momentum with last year's performance.
"People have begun talking more about the show ever since last year," says Sarah Klotz, a member of the student committee responsible for bringing the show to campus.
So what has changed between now and nearly a year ago? The first group of opposition emerged from the William & Mary faculty, led by one particularly vocal professor and supervisor of "1 in 4," a student organization dedicated to the prevention of sexual assault. Conservative student groups also joined the cause.
But Klotz says that despite heated discussion on campus, the overall reaction of students seemed more affirming than criticizing. "Even students who didn't want to see the show could get behind the free speech issue."
The largest hurdle in bringing the show to campus centered on a contract mandated by the Virginia State Legislature and the attorney general between the college and the Sex Workers' Art Show. Klotz says that the student committee had to waive its protection from obscenity charges under Virginia state law, which typically permits all performances with an educational purpose. After scrambling to hire a lawyer and negotiate painstaking details in a matter of only four days, the committee finally succeeded in convincing Annie Oakley and her crew not to ditch.
After Virginia Commonwealth University faltered in its Feb. 5 commitment to house the show, Oakley approached executive director of the Gay Community Center of Richmond Jay Squires, who agreed to offer a venue. VCU's change of heart appears to have originated from organizational problems unrelated to William & Mary's controversy, though a VCU representative was not available for comment.
Though Squires admits frustration with the recent controversy, he maintains a sincere optimism about the show's first performance at the GCCR. "This is a show that has nothing to do with trying to put on some sort of obscene or lewd performance. Instead, it's a very well-produced and intellectually challenging show."
Whether or not recent controversy with the Sex Workers' Art Show deserves more scrutiny or more slack, one thing is certain -- Virginia laid out the most substantial obstacle that the performers have seen to date. For better or worse, we certainly have stepped up to the plate and batted out enough controversy to make next year's visit one that lies on the fence.
The Sex Workers' Art Show is at the Gay Community Center (1407 Sherwood Ave.) Friday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Call 353-8890 or visit www.gayrichmond.com.