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Boogie Nights

Sex workers unite for a serious film festival.

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Our culture seems obsessed with sex. It's used to sell everything from soap to cars, and recent polls have shown that sex sites on the Internet are among the most frequently accessed. People from your average Joe to priests and presidents have risked it all if only for a few minutes of indulging their desires.

Yet, as accepting of sex as we might seem, we reject any form of sexual expression that confuses our conventional sensibilities. The sexual history of our culture is largely rooted in the Puritan constraint that the purpose of sex is primarily procreation. The residual effects of that mindset, coupled with the feminist, sexual and gay liberation movements, has made for an interesting and challenging debate--specifically as it relates to the adult entertainment and film industry. Is it pornography or art? Freedom or exploitation? Regardless of one's view, in our lack of resolve about sex, we remain both terrified and fascinated by it.

A former teen sex worker and UA adjunct faculty, now mother, documentary filmmaker and educator, Tucsonan Juliana Piccillo is firm in her commitment to challenge the status quo view of sex work. She has managed to bring the International Sex Worker Film Festival to Tucson November 8-11, through a grant from the Tucson/Pima Arts Council and support from Pan Left, a local non-profit film company; prostitutes'-rights organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics); the International Sex Workers Foundation for Art, Culture and Education; Danzine magazine, by and for sex workers; and a local volunteer base of students, academics, scientists and community activists.

Initially premiering in San Francisco, most of the films in the festival are documentaries made by and about sex workers. "If they don't have the right to tell their own stories, who does?" said Picillo, who is debuting her own film, I Was a Teenage Prostitute, November 9 at 8 p.m. at the festival's main venue, the Screening Room. The story is about Picillo's own coming of age while working in the sex trade.

"At the time, I was a high school student, I was there for the money," she said. "I could work 25 hours a week, make $600 dollars and still have time to do my homework. Some argue that the industry is exploitive. What's more exploitive, working for McDonald's for $5 an hour? The reason I left the industry was for the same reason I left other jobs--I moved on, went to college and got a degree in political science. My feeling is that people just get super uncomfortable when women have this kind of power and use it."

She added that another factor that has contributed to our obscured view of sex workers is that many who do it, do not own up to it. Most sex workers are not the stereotypical abused drug addicts and alcoholics portrayed on TV. "I've had friends for five years and didn't know they were sex workers," she said. "When I was making the documentary, it was surprising how many people came out of the woodwork and said that they were."

This is not unlike the message conveyed through many of the other films and stories scheduled to run. Ex-porn star, artist and educator Annie Sprinkle's 69-minute film and smash hit Herstory of Porn will run on opening night. It sold out during its three-day showing in Boston. Doug Lindeman's Angel's Ladies showcases the only Christian brothel in the U.S. There's an award-winning art piece by Gina Velour and Jacob Pander called The Operation, as well as a political documentary by William E. Jones about the effect of capitalism on the Eastern Bloc countries, titled The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Porn. There's even a few how-to films, like PORN 101 by the AIM Health Collective. For the more adventurous, there's Sex Flesh in Blood by Christopher Lee and J. Zapta, which highlights trans-porno, erotic, "gender outlaw" sex.

Whatever the content, Picillio emphasized that the primary differences between entertainment you can pick up at the local adult outlets and what will be available at the festival is that the festival intends to be thought-provoking and fun, even though it may lend itself to arousal. More importantly, however, is that these films take place within a specific context.

That context, according to Daniela Ontiveros, a former Miller Beer Girl and currently a UA film student and MC for the festival's opening-night party at the Vaudeville Cabaret, is to stimulate a healthy and balanced view of sexuality and sensuality. "You know, when I grew up it wasn't with a healthy view of sex," she said; "there was never a sense of trust. The message was that if you were a girl and went out at night, you'd come home pregnant."

Others involved in bringing the festival to Tucson, like local archaeologist and filmmaker Mary Charlotte Thurtle, were adamant that the festival wasn't about touting sex anytime, anywhere. Included in the four-day run is a panel discussion at the UA titled Are Sex Workers Feminists? There's a workshop on labor organizing for those in the sex trade, and a representative from Planned Parenthood will be present along with the actresses/producers of some of the films.

"There's a lot of misinformation about people in the sex industry, and sexuality doesn't have to be closeted," says Thurtle. "We can have positive, public expressions of it. Miss Erochica, a burlesque dancer from Japan, will perform, and there will be door prizes and refreshments. Personally, the festival gives me a place to support both Pan Left and those disenfranchised from mainstream media. Besides, it's going to be a blast!"

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