The Sexism Project documents lives of sex workers with new online portrait series



Her back to the camera, a woman wearing a bodysuit opens a refrigerator, the light outlining her forearm. In another photo, a woman bicycling down a New Orleans neighborhood street turns and grins at the photographer. Other women sit on their couches or beds, a dog or a cat close at hand.

These are the portraits from the most recent installment of The Sexism Project, a photography and interview series in which project curators discuss sexism with women in different industries. The women in the photos are sex workers — many are dancers in New Orleans strip clubs — and with this series, photographer Katie Sikora hopes to help tell their "human stories."

"As someone who's coming to the table with already a very liberal viewpoint on sex work, my mind is still being blown by what these women have to say," she says. "They're fighting against a long history of people kind of walking all over strippers, and treating them like second-class citizens."

The first installment of The Sexism Project, which was exhibited at a show at Preservation Hall last fall, focused on the experiences of women who work in the New Orleans music industry. In January — when raids of several French Quarter strip clubs abruptly put club workers out of a job, and city officials were considering a cap on the number of clubs that could operate in the Quarter — Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers organizer Lyn Archer approached The Sexism Project about working together to highlight sex workers, and the project team (which also includes Alexis Marceaux, Katie Budge and Morgan Thielen) quickly agreed. New images and interviews are now appearing every few days on the project website and via its social media.

Sikora points to New Orleans' long history as a home for sex workers as one reason why this segment of the project has particular relevance. For her personally, these photos and interviews have brought to light the importance local workers place on their continued employment in strip clubs, and why they fight so hard when it seems the existence of the clubs is being threatened.

"The majority of the women I've spoken with feel the most empowered and the most safe when they're at a strip club, when they're at work. That is where they feel they can be their strongest selves; it is a place designed with their safety in mind," Sikora says. "When you step into a strip club, you are following their rules."

The women, who are mostly photographed in their homes, also give wide-ranging interviews that accompany their portraits. In extended conversations, they discuss the sexism they experienced working in other industries (as compared to sex work), share what their understanding of being a woman was like growing up, talk about what it's like to work as a dancer as a gay woman, discuss stigma, and explain how they talk about their work with other people in their lives. They also talk about this year's raids and the uncertain climate for sex workers moving forward — while the New Orleans City Council recently voted against a cap on downtown strip clubs, several clubs remain under settlement agreements that could bring them back into the focus of law enforcement.

Because of the contemporary nature of the issues surrounding club workers in New Orleans, the team decided not to wait for an exhibition to release these portraits, though Sikora says a formal show might come together after New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. In the future, The Sexism Project project team has talked about doing a series on women involved with the hospitality, theater, film, law, advertising, journalism, military and tech industries.

Until then, Sikora hopes this installment will help people get a better idea of the real-life, unsensationalized experiences of sex workers.

"[There are] people in our city who feel that what these women do is wrong, or immoral and dirty, and it's just not. ... Every single one of the women I've spoken to so far loves their work and loves their lifestyle," she says. "I think it's high time for us — and when I say us, I mean the universal us — to really start looking at sex work as work."

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