Painting by Stella Rosen
  • Painting by Stella Rosen

In honor of International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, the Sex Worker Outreach Project of Chicago (SWOP Chicago) is hosting an art show this Friday, March 6.

The exhibit focuses on portraits of sex workers in a variety of mediums: paintings, photographs, performance pieces, film, sculpture, and musical compositions. All of the art was created by current and former sex workers, as well as people working in the adult industries. Sex work, as SWOP Chicago’s website defines it, is “any type of labor where the explicit goal is to produce a sexual or erotic response in the client.”

SWOP Chicago started in 2006 as an informal support group, a satellite of the larger Sex Workers’ Outreach Project USA. Three sex workers—Betty Devoe, Kitten Infinite, and Serpent Libertine—thought that local sex workers needed a space to share stories, fight stigmas, and feel safe.

Since that time, SWOP Chicago has expanded rapidly. Its street outreach program on the west side of Chicago has distributed over 18,000 condoms. And the group has also produced a resource guide for people in the industry, and established monthly meetings, trainings, and a network of 200 members. The group is volunteer run and funded through projects like the art show.

Organizing sex workers has become a global effort. According to the Sex Workers’ Project report on sex worker stigma, “While the exchange of sex for money is a common practice around the world, sex workers are often treated as less than human, both in cultural attitudes and public policy . . . and the human rights of sex workers are routinely abused in countries around the globe.” International Sex Workers’ Rights Day was started in 2001 after 25,000 sex workers gathered in India in spite of political pressure, and is celebrated by sex workers around the world as a testament to the power of organizing.

SWOP Chicago’s first-ever art show, inspired by a 2009 national tour of sex worker art, is just as much about the art as it is about challenging stigma. “I was surprised by the variety of submissions we received—everything from paintings to video installations,” says Stella Rosen, who organized the show and who also has a piece in it. “It’s gonna look incredible all together.”

Betty Devoe, one of the cofounders of SWOP Chicago who submitted stills to the show from a film she directed (photos by Kathryn Rosenfeld), says that much of her work is related to her experiences as a pornographer and dominatrix. “My pieces are often about what actual sex workers are like when you take away the guise of the clientele,” she explains. “That’s what much of our goals for the art show were about: that those who see our art see us as we see ourselves, as actual human beings from a variety of backgrounds.”

And for SWOP Chicago’s organizers, the exhibit is also about safety.

“I want this exhibit to be a safe place for the artists to be out [as sex workers],” Rosen says. “In a world where everyone is trying to attack sex workers, this is one room on planet Earth where sex workers don’t have to worry about any of that.”

UPDATE: The individual who runs the gallery hosting the exhibit decided they did not want the location publicized.