Year of Graduation


Level of Access

Open Access Thesis

Embargo Period


Department or Program

Art History

First Advisor

Pamela Fletcher


Sex Sells: The Iconography of Sex Work in Contemporary Art Since 1973, explores contemporary renderings of the sex worker as a response to the heavily constructed formalist ideology of the “pure gaze” which privileged the heterosexual male voyeur. The analysis covers a broad range of media, sectioned off into three chapters—painting and photography, body art, and systemic critiques—to explore the affordances of each in critiquing the position of the voyeur as well as the larger capitalistic system. The first chapter investigates the ways in which realistic pictorial renderings depicted the sex worker to impose the voyeuristic viewing position of pornography onto the art-viewer. The second focuses on the relationship between the viewer and the commodified female body, as performers replaced the art commodity with their sexualized bodies. The third chapter discusses larger institutional critiques which illuminate the processes of class structuring in capitalism by recreating the capitalist exploitation or institutional shortcomings of our current sociopolitical system. Taken together, these works respond to the modernist commodification of the art object and female sexuality, which formalist viewing dynamics both reflected and promoted. The artists emphasize the real ramifications of class construction and relational or performative identity to understand how larger social processes play out on certain marginalized bodies, thus highlighting the inherent problems embedded in these social, cultural, and economic systems.