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The Scarlet & Black

“Sex on Wheels” rolls into campus

Worley’s film showcases a bike tour which focuses on the history of sex work in San Francisco. Contributed photo
Worley’s film showcases a bike tour which focuses on the history of sex work in San Francisco. Contributed photo
Worley’s film showcases a bike tour which focuses on the history of sex work in San Francisco. Contributed photo

Although she sits in a cool, book-laden college office now, Jennifer Worley is not your typical academic. After she started dancing at the San Francisco club “Lusty Lady” while in graduate school, Worley organized the dancers and eventually took over the theater to create the first, and only, worker-owned peep show in America. Worley is now writing a book entitled “Lusty,” which both tells the story of the unionization of the “Lusty Lady” and the history of labor activism in the sex industry. Worley will come to Grinnell next Monday, April 13 to read excerpts from her book and screen her new documentary, “Sex on Wheels,” about a historical bike tour detailing the history of the sex trade in San Francisco.

Professor Theresa Geller, English, was influential in bringing Worley to campus. The two were friends in graduate school, and when Worley told Geller of her new book Geller knew that she had to bring her old friend to campus.

“We just don’t have a lot of conversations here on campus about sex work at all,” Geller said. “And often sex work is treated as this horrible, victimizing thing, but in fact there have been lots of really amazing feminist activists within the sex work movement, and I don’t know anyone who knows it as well as Jenny Worley does.”

Worley’s reading and screening will end a series of talks and events on campus for Pride Week. While Worley’s work focuses on the history of sex work in general, many of the characters in her book and documentary are queer.

“Pride is often about the history of identity politics. But what’s great about the sex work movement, is that it is so much more than identity politics, it is about the way sexuality is just everywhere in our history,” Geller said. “We’ve gotten so into this other way of talking about LGBT stuff, but what’s great about pride is that it’s also about sex.”

Worley has a long history as an expert and activist in the sex work movement, although it seems to have started almost by accident. Worley began dancing while trying to earn her master’s degree, fed up with trying to work a full-time job and complete her readings and papers. Trouble began though when Worley noticed a red dot in one of the one-way mirrors when she was dancing.

“I saw a tiny red light behind one of the mirrors and realized that this man was videotaping me, for I don’t know how long. I brought up the issue with management, and the dancers wanted to remove the one-way glass,” Worley said. “We started organizing around the issue … and also about other issues, like race and scheduling.”

From these humble demands emerged a worker’s union. The union regularly challenged the owners on issues relating to pay and working conditions, and often won their battles. In 2003, the owners decided to close the club, but Worley and others, rather than see the theater close, decided to buy it and turn the establishment into a worker-owned collective.

“It operated from 2003 until 2013 as a worker-owned co-op,” Worley said. “There was a sister ‘Lusty Lady’ in Seattle that the owners kept … and they closed in 2008, so we outlived them by several years functioning as a co-op. And we actually stayed unionized during the whole cooperative process, because we felt there was a symbol there.”

While the “Lusty Lady” is now closed, Worley hasn’t stopped her activism. In addition to writing her book, Worley also organizes an annual bike tour of the city of San Francisco that focuses on the history of sex work in the city. One year, she decided to have dressed-up characters teach history through monologues, and this event became the focus of her documentary “Sex on Wheels.”

Geller believes that Worley’s visit and her work is especially important for the campus given the current discussion of sexual assault on campus.

“It doesn’t have to be a purely punitive conversation … it doesn’t mean we have to become a sex-negative culture,” Geller said. “How can we think about sex in a positive, consensual, right way? And Jenny is that force.”

Both the book reading and documentary screening will take place this Monday, April 13 at 4:15 p.m. in Mears 115 and 7:00 p.m. in JRC 101, respectively.

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