‘Sex Workers’ Pop-Up’ Debuts in NYC, Courts Controversy

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Mar 11, 2020

A new exhibition promoted by the Open Society Foundations (OSF), the “Sex Workers’ Pop-Up,” is on view March 10-16 in New York City, spotlighting the stigma and policies that negatively affect sex workers around the world. According to a release, the exhibition will showcase the art and performances of 21 global artists, including drawings, photography and archival materials to explore “issues such as sex workers’ rights, migration, police violence and poverty,” most made by sex workers.

“Sex work is often misunderstood, misrepresented and stigmatized in the United States and across the world,” said Sebastian Köhn, OSF’s project director for sexual health and rights. “Criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to challenge exploitation and abuse—perpetuating stigma, violence and impunity. Through this exhibit, we are asking visitors to listen to the voices of sex workers, and question the perceptions and policies that hurt them.”

As with the work itself, the exhibition has stirred controversy, especially for being promoted in the New York City subway system. On March 2, 13 women’s rights and anti-trafficking organizations, including the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls Educational and Mentoring Services’ (GEMS), signed a letter to Outfront Media to request the immediate removal of all publicity from trains and bus stops.

“The term ‘sex work’ is a euphemism for prostitution, coined in the 1980s by people with financial interests in the sex trade, whose goal was to mainstream and normalize the systems of prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation,” the advocates wrote in the letter. What’s more, the group noted that the tagline “Sex Work Is Work,” seen predominately on the Sex Workers Pop-up site, is legally problematic.

“The problem before us is that at least one of these ads breaches New York state law,” the letter continued. “For example, one of the OSF ads asserts that ‘Sex Work is Work.’ This is in clear violation of the New York Penal Law, since New York criminalizes both the buying and selling of sexual acts, as well as promoting prostitution and brothel owning. Prostitution is not recognized as labor under the law.”

And then there’s the issue of the ad company, the Soze Agency, which curated the exhibit. In a press release from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women published on March 6, the organization noted that Soze was co-founded by Michael Skolnik, Russell Simmons’ former political director. Simmons is the subject of the new HBO Max documentary “On the Record,” which delves into sexual assault and rape allegations against him from several women, as previously reported by Colorlines

But for the artists, the pop-up is an opportunity for dialogue. In a release, Said Midori, a multidisciplinary and social practice artist whose work is displayed in the exhibition, said, “This exhibition gives space to return to our human-centered conversation on the complexity of work and ethics.” 

The pop-up is free and on display from until March 16, 2020. To learn about the exhibition, visit Sex Workers’ Pop-up.