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On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work

It is always a minefield to talk about sex, homosexual sex and sex work.

But Alexis Heller, independent curator and social worker, made it in a delicate yet firm way with the brand new exhibition at New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work, on show until January 19th, 2020.

This exhibition explores the history of queer sex work culture, and its intimate ties to art and activism. Coined by bisexual activist, Carol Leigh, aka. The Scarlot Harlot in 1978, ‘sex work’ is broadly defined as exchanging sex or erotic services for gain and connotes personal agency and politicized action. More than a portrait of life at the margins, what emerges in this exhibit is a demonstration of queer and transgender sex workers’ deep community building, creative organizing, self-empowerment, identity/desire affirmation and healing and the use of pornography as a deft tool for queer and trans liberation.

Angelo Madsen Minax, Live Nude Genitals, 2012, Neon, Plexiglas, 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition hopes to revise how sex work has been overlooked by both art history and throughout the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

The show features artists, like Wojnarowicz, who engaged in sex work, alongside others who are closely allied with the sex worker community or use pornography as source material. Heller combines this artwork with archival materials related to sex work activism, the effect of which reflects the critique inherent in its title. More than a direct reference to a 1980s lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs also represents how, as Heller notes, “sex workers have historically — both literally and figuratively — carried social movements forward on their backs.”

As our culture continues to put marginalized populations at risk, On Our Backs celebrates the radical, empowering, and often invisible labor of sex workers.


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