If there’s one thing no one can accuse Las Vegas of lacking, it’s sex. From strip clubs and risqué billboards to adult entertainment conventions and a museum dedicated to erotica, there’s no doubt that Sin is still firmly a part of the City.
However, Laurenn McCubbin feels there’s a more divisive aspect of sexuality here that’s often as synonymous with the city as it is dismissed: sex work. Opening Feb. 5, the artist’s new show, Speaking to Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas, is a multimedia production that extends far beyond the constraints of its walls inside the Grant Hall Gallery at UNLV (art.unlv.edu/community/galleries). Through original art, found pieces, live performance, video and interactivity, McCubbin is investigating the connections between the Las Vegas economy and sex work, both legal and illegal, and inviting the public to do the same.
For McCubbin, this new exhibit—her master of fine art midway thesis project—is just the latest in a series of endeavors exploring the invisible economy of sex work. A former stripper, McCubbin first became interested in the subject after reading a February 2009 Las Vegas Review-Journal story about the 50 most prolific prostitutes in Vegas. She calls
it “appalling.” “The women’s mug shots were posted on the front of the paper,” McCubbin says. “They weren’t even arrested for prostitution. They were arrested for trespassing. It’s not that they were prostitutes in casinos. It’s that they were the wrong prostitutes in these casinos.”
It’s this dichotomy that piqued McCubbin’s interest in the arena of sex work from almost the moment she moved from notoriously liberal San Francisco to Las Vegas about two years ago.
“I had a really big reaction to the change in landscape, and part of the landscape was those [hooker] cards,” McCubbin says. “You find them everywhere. Once I started to look at them, I had to figure out how they worked. I wanted to investigate the entire system of sex work in Vegas.”
Among the various facets of Speaking to Las Vegas is “Lady Biz,” a fictional escort service for which McCubbin created a working website and phone number, both featuring audio and video interviews with actual sex workers. Also, she staged a “performance” on the Strip in which friends distributed McCubbin’s custom-designed Lady Biz “hooker cards” in front of the Venetian during the Adult Entertainment Expo. That experience—captured in photography and video for the show—was eye-opening for McCubbin.
“The overt racism that people exhibited was shocking to me,” she says. “More than a couple of people came up to the card distributors and said, ‘Yeah, white guys doing this! You take those jobs back from the Mexicans. You’re real Americans!’” For McCubbin, there’s a lot more going on beyond the surface of cards featuring star-covered private parts than most people would ever consider.
“Everybody claims to hate the cards being passed out on the Strip, but [the escort agencies] wouldn’t be doing them if they didn’t work,” she says. “The whole point of my piece is that money goes into the Vegas economy. The agencies hire [the card distributors], those dudes pay rent, the women who work for the agencies pay rent—there are entire stores on Sahara [Avenue] dedicated just to making sure strippers and hookers have clothing.”
McCubbin’s not even close to finished with this subject. In July she’ll take the show to the Femina Potens art gallery in San Francisco, where she’ll attempt to restage the card-flipping performance. In the meantime, she’ll continue doing interviews to further explore Vegas’ sex-work economy.
“I didn’t get a chance yet to talk to any streetwalkers or transgendered workers,” McCubbin says. “I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to an agency girl. I didn’t get to talk to any dudes. I still feel like there are a lot of people I can talk to.”