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.