Portlanders gathered Monday night at Star Theater to mark International Sex Worker’s Rights Day and raise money for two local charities. The Sex Worker’s Outreach Coalition, SWOC, provides vital services such as health care, advocacy and legal support to individuals working in any aspect of the sex industry. The Portland Women’s Crisis Line, PWCL, was founded in 1973 as a “social change organization.” They not only supports survivors of domestic abuse, but also strive to eliminate violence against women in our society at large. The PWCL defines feminism as: “A movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”
International Sex Worker’s Rights Day originated in 2001 India when 25,000 Indian sex workers gathered together publicly; iron-willed and impervious to governmental and societal pressures to remain in the shadows. Portland’s gathering echoed the spirit of this original gathering by choosing “empowerment” as the evening’s theme. Local MC and Rabble Rouser Adriane Miss Demeanor Ackerman kicked off the festivities with charm and eloquence as she described the evening’s various acts as “vulnerable, open, honest, gritty and warm,” setting the perfect tone for acts that ranged from heartbreaking to side splitting. “I really just wanted to raise as much money as possible” Ackerman quipped. She went on to express the importance of acknowledging how radical it is to be a part of the sex worker community, “There’s pride in advocacy.” Ackerman said that she hoped to “highlight shared struggles and make people feel good about what they are doing here.”
The event organizers Nikita and Sharky are both members of the sex worker community, as were many of the performers. "I intentionally booked people of all shapes, sizes and gender orientations... The queer community is a huge part of the sex worker community," Sharky noted. She further elaborated that, "in support of the cause Frank Faillace graciously donated the price of the venue." The attendees included people of all stripes and exhibited how a human rights benefit can still bring the Portland community out in ample form.
The night began with local burlesque performer Nikki Lev tearing up the stage to ripping rock anthems, followed by Elle Stanger self proclaimed, stripper, muse, activist and prolific columnist reading a poem by Margaret Atwood called: “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” a piece that Stanger felt encompassed the way women are often “praised yet denigrated for their sexuality.” Attorney, John C. Lucy, spoke briefly about Oregon state legalities and the work that he performs in conjunction with the sex worker community. Queen of the Pole, Ozzy Poles, performed impossible acrobatic feats. Layne Fawkes superbly sang and danced burlesque to songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. Musician, Sandi Leeper, played and sang original material solo. Die Ana Dae performed outstandingly ambiguous dirty drag. Other performers included the commanding S&M artist, Indica Torture, and fabulous Drag Clown, Carla Rossi, had the audience in stitches. Headlining performer, Sophia St. James, performed a show stopping, jaw dropping riotous burlesque performance. Autry! rounded out the night with a lighthearted punk rock performance.
During act breaks Ackerman presided over a booty-shaking contest. The winners received lap dances from Sharky and Nikki Lev. There was a screening of a independent comedy short called “Stripper Damage” written by Gina Gold. Guests received an array of raffle prizes throughout the night that ranged from tattoo certificates to kale chips, all fitting trappings of a Portlander.
Ackerman observed that barriers to safety for sex workers stem from lack of cultural education, analysis and exposure to the sex worker community by a majority of citizenry. She also noted “there are a lot of organized conservative individuals that continue to relegate sex workers to a moral underclass. If a class of people are considered to be morally inferior; their rights will not be protected.”
Like the original Sex Worker’s Rights day, this celebration helped remove ignorance and humanize sex workers. There was a palpable sense of community and connection in the air at Star Theater Monday. In that theater, for a few hours, there was no moral underclass; rather a genuine human gathering united in a common altruistic goal. Haven Wheelock of SWOC stifled tears as she expressed thanks for the outpouring of generosity. In the words of the lovely Sofia St. James, “I needed to see that inspiration and that dedication. To see so many in support and solidarity of sex workers... To feel the empowered energy of the night... To hear the stories and spoken words... It was so good.” One can hope that events like this one continue and as a community Portland can more thoroughly and thoughtfully sustain its open-minded and proudly weird reputation.
*There is a small but vociferous minority of feminists who believe that sex workers, survivors of domestic abuse and those who support them cannot call themselves a part feminist rank and file. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should take this opportunity expose my bias and state that I personally consider such distinctions elitism and groups who espouse these beliefs to be anti-feminist. I am in full support sex workers and all workers of any gender; I believe that safety and fair pay are rights not privileges. It is an issue that most modern feminists generally agree needs interpretation and overwhelmingly the divergence comes to how feminists choose to approach the issue. Many feminists support sex workers, but do not support the system of patriarchy that they believe often underlies such work. There are many shades of gray and often the media chooses to parade out the people who are… let us call them the Westboro Baptists of feminism to do our talking for us. Modern feminist terms like “sex positive” have become a part of our lexicon in order to specify inclusivity and support.
*to view official event photos visit photographer Kyle Helstein’s website. Note that some event photos contain ADULT CONTENT and are not suitable for children.