You would think Duke University might be a little cautious about paying strippers to perform on campus. After all, there was that little incident that happened about two years ago — something to do with a couple of strippers and some lacrosse players.
But inviting strippers to perform does not appear to be a problem as long as the intent is not to titillate men, but to shock a mixed audience with vulgarity and disparage mainstream American values. In the latter case, the university is quite willing to pay, despite a regulation reintroduced into the Bulletin of Information and Regulations after the lacrosse case that explicitly states “strippers may not be invited or paid to perform at events sponsored by individual students, residential living groups, or cohesive units.”
At least, it was willing on Sunday night, when a variety of university organizations paid for a performance of the Sex Workers Art Show at the campus’ Reynolds Theater. The show was sponsored by the following official university departments, centers and student organizations: the Duke Women’s Center, the Duke Student Health Center, the Healthy Devils, the Program for the Study of Sexualities, the Campus Council, the Women’s Studies Department, the University and Cultural Fund, Students for Choice, Students for Choice and the Sexual Assault Support Services. The Art Show received a total of $3,500 and high-level official sanctioning from the university, according to Kenneth Larrey, president of the Duke Students for an Ethical Duke,
The performers did not just take their clothes off – and the actual nudity part of the show was rather tame. But mere nudity could hardly compare with a show that began with the Art Show’s founder and announcer, Annie Oakley, imploring the audience to stand up and shout “I take it up the butt!” Some other highlights, or lowlights if you prefer, included:
A transvestite, naked except for some strategically placed tape, with the words “F___ Bush” painted on his chest, kneeled on all fours and lit a sparkler protruding out of his rectum with “America the Beautiful” playing. A bare-breasted stripper sang a lewd song about Saint Bridget of Ireland, with lyrics mocking the act of ascension as she climbed to the top of a stripper’s pole. A stripper, in the guise of a U.S. flag-draped Lady Justice, emptied coins out of her scales, pulled dollar bills out of her clothes as she removed them, and yanked a string of dollar bills out of her posterior as the sound system played Dolly Parton’s version of “God Bless the U.S.A.” She ended her act by saluting and holding up her middle finger to the crowd. The announcer referred to it as her “Infamous Patriot Act.” Her most private area was kept covered by a small American flag. A porn actress read a series of prose-poems. In one, entitled “Spit,” she described how another actress spit into her eye and then licked it out. Another, called “Staph,” was about an infection on her genitals. A dominatrix donned a large, “strap-on” male sex organ, and pretended to masturbate while the crowd was urged to shout “faster, faster,” in Chinese.
The crowd of approximately 300 people, mostly students, roared with raucous laughter throughout the evening.
According to Larrey, Duke president Richard Brodhead “appeared to act as if he didn’t want to know” when Larrey tried to bring up the apparent contradiction between the school’s action’s and the regulations against the hiring of strippers. Larrey said provost Peter Lange spoke to him several days before the show and said that the organizers went through the correct processes for the Sex Workers to appear on campus, and that it would be “censorious” to rescind the school’s permission at that point. He also said that there was a big difference between the Sex Workers Art Show and the hiring of strippers by the Duke lacrosse team in 2006. Larrey did not say whether the provost specified what that difference was.
Larrey also contacted the campus police on the day of the event to check on whether the policy would be enforced. He was informed that the show was sanctioned by the college.
Duke’s failure to apply the “no strippers” rule when the Art Show was clearly in violation was not the only hypocrisy on display. Oakley attempted to portray sex workers as victims, forced into the sex trades for economic reasons. “You probably have other options, whereas people in the sex trade don’t. Women earn 79 cents on the dollar [compared to men],” she said after the show. “In the U.S. women still have less access to jobs that are open to uneducated people. Women do not make what men make in this country, even people of color, and until that changes, until there are adequate health care programs, until there are serious anti-poverty programs, for someone to say the sex industry is not a viable option, it is a viable option for someone whose only other option is working a minimum wage job or worse.”
Many labor economists say that the disparity between men’s and women’s wages are largely due to choices made by women, such as leaving the workforce for long periods of time to raise their families. But even if one were to accept Oakley’s economic scenario as accurate, the stories told by the participants in the Art Show still belie her claim that a choice between desperate poverty and selling their bodies is generally responsible for American women entering the sex industry. One woman in the show said she had a regular job and an apartment in Los Angeles when she made her entry into the sex trades. “I started partying regularly and it became expensive living in the city with my new extravagant partying lifestyle, so I needed a better-paying job,” she admitted.
Another woman performer said she began stripping after graduating from college, so she could continue “writing my plays and my performance pieces,” instead of seeking a more time-consuming position.A male prostitute acknowledged that his livelihood was not the result of desperation, but because of bad choices. He said he had the choice of attending some of the most elite universities in the country when he left high school: Yale, Duke, NYU and the University of Virginia. He chose UVA because “it was only an hour away from my 43-year-old lover.”
It would also appear that the Duke administration made a bad choice, using university funds to pay for a monstrously offensive event against its own regulations, particularly in light of the school’s divisive recent past. It certainly raises the question “what were they thinking?” Or rather, “are they thinking?”