Male sex worker art: first night not so exciting


By Juliette Tang

One thing I never thought I'd see in my life: an 85-year-old man in an orange paisley pashmina and a red beret screaming "Gum my cock" in front of a crowd of reverent observers. But on Wednesday night at Army of Lovers, held at the Center for Sex and Culture (1519 Mission St) in conjunction with this week's Sex Workers Fest, that was exactly what I saw. Unfortunately, I don't have a transcription of the full text, but trust that it included highly homoerotic descriptions of a bathroom orgy at the Embarcadero, a heavy bondage S&M scene between a sex master and his sex slave, and the aforementioned cock-gumming scene between the author and a toothless young man in suede pants.

George Birishma at Army of Lovers

George Birishma, 1955. Yowza!

Hearing octogenarian playwright George Birishma read from his 1977 novel, S&M Gym, was well worth suffering through some of the night's other performances. Army of Lovers, a two-night spectacle featuring art, video, and performance by men who have worked in the sex industry, opened on Wednesday with performances by Birishma and 9 other former (and some current) sex workers that touched on themes of sexuality, eroticism, isolation, fear, community, and home. Curated by Kirk Read, a former sex worker and current writer, both Wednesday and Thursday showings were completely sold out.

When reviewing productions like Army of Lovers, critics often edit themselves due to the touchy nature of the subject. Sex work is something that has just recently shed some of its cloak of taboo, and as such, writers - especially sex writers - find themselves in a predicament about whether to be unerringly sex-positive - riding along with the movement - or to preserve some element of critical judgment at the expense of possibly offending people. As a supporter of sex worker's rights and the sex positive movement, I see value in any action taken by the sex worker community to come together and support one another, not just in work, but in outside endeavors like art. However, Army of Lovers, though obviously retaining the splashy description of being a 'male sex worker's art show' is still, nonetheless, advertising itself as an art show. Just as plumbers can have an art show, or middle-school teachers, or even bloggers like yours truly, when sex workers throw an art show they are still emphasizing the 'art' element and, as such, the art must speak for itself. I did not attend the Thursday showing, which included a reading by Stephen Elliot, so I can only speak for what I saw on Wednesday. On Wednesday, while the sex workers were at the Center for Sex and Culture in full force, much of the art was missing. The night was not without its brutal, honest, and transcendent moments, but those moments were rare and short-lived.

Carol Queen, founder of the Center for Sex and Culture, addressing the audience

The most interesting performance of the night was by curator Kirk Read, who showed the captive audience a series of photographs he snapped of a former John, a chubby pale man described by Read as "being in the Bible business, and that's all I'm going to say about that". The man in the photos, who made a fortune in the Bible business, hired Read help him live out his fantasies of extreme bondage and submission. And not just any sort of bondage either, but the kind of bondage where every part of the body, from head to toe, is completely constrained and constricted. Imprisoned. In some of the photos, Read had used saran wrap rather than rope to tie up his subject. Mummified and supine against the hotel room's carpeted floor, the man looked more like a saran wrapped lump you'd find in the fridge than a flesh and blood human being, and the photos were uncanny, disturbing, and strangely seductive. In the most incendiary photos, 'John' lies on the bed covered - literary covered - with thousands of pages ripped out of the Bible, looking like a bed of dry leaves ready to be set on fire. Read's photos provide a rare glimpse into the psychology of a contradictory stranger escaping into and being freed by his world of fantasy, and despite the subject matter, I think that message is something all of us, in some way or another, can relate to.

Unfortunately, the rest of the night was lackluster and, at many times, actually dull - hard to imagine, when filled with a room of performing male sex workers. Frankly - and forgive the unintended pun - the whole thing seemed rather masturbatorial. Two musical acts, M. Lamar and Matt Walker, slacked and droned. M. Lamar performed two songs, both in yowling falsetto, about racism - songs whose emotional impact were muddled not only by alienating lyrics about Caucasian males having small penises, but also by Lamar's poor piano playing and his decision to sing at least a full octave out of natural range. Peggy L'eggs performed a strange skit wherein she married herself, which was lost on myself and much of the audience - a skit which actually became uncomfortable to watch, at moments, when she heckled an audience member. Fortunately, the wine was ample and each performance only lasted about ten minutes.

Uncomfortable lyric from an M. Lamar song

Last night, the second installment of Army of Lovers premiered. Performer bios and more information on Thursday's showing here.




I am JLB, and certainly not the author of the review. Nor the author of the anonymous post.

Hopefully this comment will post, as my last didn't and I am too tired to rewrite all that I had in my last attempt. Regardless, I would like to say that I still think it is inappropriate for people to try and attack a reviewer on a somewhat personal level, when she/he was just doing the job they set out to do. It is ridiculous that someone(the artist or their friends) take such offense to criticism that they lash out in a personal way. If you put your art in public view, expect a public response.


Posted by JLB on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

Dill -

I am unsure who posted under anonymous, but I am not that person, nor am I the author of the review.

I have written as a reader, but will qualify that with the fact that I am a queer and trans person who has lived with a few male sex workers(one my sole housemate for more than 2 years), dated 2 female sex workers and claim friendship with more than 2 handfuls (yeah that's more than 10) of other sex workers.

I read the review knowing that whatever was written would be heavily judged, regardless of the author's background, but I sincerely wanted to know how others perceived the event.

I still don't think that personally attacking the reviewer does anyone any good. It is a shame that folks that claim to be artists (or what I am hoping is the case, their friends) cannot seem to take criticism. This piece was funny and informative. It gave me a sense of being there, which is the point. Had she gotten more from the experience, I am sure she would have written it.

Posted by JLB on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

this girl juliette was texting through half the show.
i had to ask her to stop because the light was so distracting.

Posted by viv on Jun. 06, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

I was a performer at the second night of 'Formerly Known As', and I attended the first night. I have to say that I am bothered by the dismissive tone of this review.

I share the reviewer's regard for art over activism, but the careless dismissal of the art content of this show is curious, and it doesn't sit well with me.

To start, Peggy L'eggs performance was quite accessible and hardly obtuse. The point and the anger of the piece was quite apparent to me, and I certainly did not percieve that it was lost on other audience members.

Also, I have been following M. Lamar's work for over a decade. I haven't loved every phase of his process, but I find his current incarnation to be layered, provocative, disquieting and often just beautiful. As a fellow musician and his peer, it is shocking to me that a reviewer can just bust out with an whole-ly un-engaged critique such as "M. Lamar performed two songs, both in yowling falsetto, about racism - songs whose emotional impact were his decision to sing at least a full octave out of natural range." What a crock of shit! Has the reviewer never heard of a counter-tenor? If not, what the hell are you doing writing performance criticism? It's one thing not to like an art-work, it's quite another to disengage and publish reductive dismissals.

And what of Stephen Bower's awesome sculptures of clients and engaging story? The 'art' was literally over the reviewer's head and she missed it.

And what a shame, really.

Posted by Christraper on Jun. 06, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

It's not George Birishma. It's George Birimisa. Have some respect and at least spell someone's name right, even if you can't bother to learn who they are!

Posted by Steve on Jun. 06, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

If you're using words like "strange" and "uncomfortable" to describe a show with sex and sex workers, those are clues that you're not as sex positive as you claim to be. Juliette Tang sounds like she's writing for a college newspaper, which may actually be too complimentary. Her snarky, dismissive tone is disappointing.

I was there that night. She just didn't get the spirit of the night.

A look at her cutesy, naive blog at (she's obsessed with blowdryers! omg!) makes you realize that she falls into that category of people without vision or talent who prefer to snipe at other people who are actually working to make art. She should be writing for livejournal, not a real media outlet.

Posted by Linda on Jun. 06, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

There are some important points that this reviewer has missed.

It is not only possible, but essential to be critical while being sex-positive. If one doesn't like a piece of art, or it alienates you, or it escapes you, that doesn't mean it's bad art.

People were turned away from the venue, it was small, crowded and airless. At intermission there were still six performers to go. If the evening was as bad as this reviewer suggests, one would expect most of the audience to have bolted out of there when they could...but they didn't.

Posted by greenman on Jun. 06, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

There is a difference between a good review and a favorable review. For a good review check out the June 11 issue of the SF Bay Times:

Posted by greenman on Jun. 15, 2009 @ 8:10 am

i think this review is a success in the sense the show made her uncomfortable. i think any valley girl should be somewhat uncomfortable when meeting the queer sexworker community. however, it is a failure in the sense that we (i performed that night) were unable to reach out to her and connect with her and make her feel like her reality isn't the only reality and that it is okay to try and see into the lives of others and see that just because it is different doesn't mean it needs to be smashed into the binaries that the queers performing were definitely trying to escape.

thanks to the above commenter that loved my piece!


Posted by stephen on Jun. 10, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

The young lady who wrote this review ends by saying "Fortunately, the wine was ample and each performance only lasted about ten minutes." Since when did it become ethical for an arts critic to get drunk on the job and summarily denounce the efforts of 8 artists? Her editor (assuming the Guardian still has an editor somewhere) ought to be ashamed.

Posted by James Kilgore on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 2:15 am

This is funny.
Watch this to see reviewer Juliette Tang talk about shoes, which she is more enthusiastic about than art. How the FUCK did this valley girl get assigned to write a stage review?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 2:58 am

I think that anyone who replies to a perceived shortsightedness in a review with ad hominem attacks on the writer should notice the obvious hypocrisy.

Yes, perhaps you do not agree with someone's review, but it is equally narrowminded to defend it based on discriminatory remarks about her perceived regional heritage, or previous writing occupations. There's more understanding and insight to be had than just suggesting the writer was incapable of making sense of the night's performance.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 8:21 am

While I can appreciate being protective of members of one's own community, I do not understand what is served by attacking a person for their experience of a specific event. Ms Tang's review was just a reflection of her experience and should be read as such. It was her job to show up and try to experience this event in whatever way was accessible to her, not to appease all those involved.

I should hope most of the Guardian's readers are able to grasp the idea that one person's trash is another person's treasure!

Posted by JLB on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 8:37 am

sounds like someone is posting her own comments defending herself!
these last two sound pretty similar!
i'm trans and I was psyched that transguys got included.
she didn't mention that.
i didn't like every single piece in the show but that reviewer just had a crap attitude.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 10:31 am

i bet this critic lady is posting her own defenses,
the last two are the same person.
i'm trans and i was psyched to see transguys
in this festival.
i didn't like every single thing (i saw thursday) but to say it was all crap is really idiotic.
was she really drunk?

Posted by dill on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 10:36 am

sorry to repeat myself, the library computer fucked up and i wasn't sure the first one went through

Posted by dill on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 10:49 am

This is Marke B. -- the editor of this blog and of Juliette's post. I'm pretty amazed at the childish level of personal attacks -- many of them anonymous, or without email addresses to reply to. I'm also dismayed at the undertone of gynophobia.

Juliette is very active in the local sex community. I think her review of her experiences was very even-handed and well-written -- not snarky at all, and certainly not insulting. It's the highest form of critical respect to offer an honest opinion of someone's work, which is not to say that it can't be disagreed with. As someone who has been part of the SF sex community for years, I personally found her take on several of the performers a refreshing change from the usual lacuna of commentary on these performers.

Are these comments attacking her (and thank you, commenters who actually chose to disagree rather than lash out at "that girl") really an example of how thin-skinned and insular the sex-worker community has become? I certainly hope not -- there's a world of room for others opinions, and that's why we welcome your respectful comments, minus the personal attacks, on this blog.

Posted by Marke B. on Jun. 07, 2009 @ 12:26 pm