Valentine’s Day came early to Durham when the Sex Workers’ Art Show arrived with an invitation of libidinous promise.

Competing with Super Bowl Sunday for viewers, the Web site teased with blurbs advertising the winner of the “Bishop Award for Best Tit-Tortured Model 2005,” and a “blonde bombshell” who can “mix martinis with her cleavage.” As it turned out, anyone expecting an actual sex show, or for that matter a first-rate art performance, would come away disappointed; but there was sex and art enough in equal measure to keep a large, randy crowd thoroughly beguiled.

The touring show, now in its sixth year, has provoked questions about the proper limits of sexual content in college-sponsored entertainment. At Duke, it received funding from a variety of sources, such as Healthy Devils, the Women’s Studies Department and Students for Choice. This would seem to imply some sort of educational mission, but the acts were never didactic and didn’t advocate an agenda. The main goal, it seemed, was to entertain.

Eight performers shared the bill, most with some combination of memoir and striptease. First up was Kirk Read, who set the tone with a monologue about his life as a gay hustler. It wasn’t a hard-luck story of desperation and debasement, but rather a comical tale of motel-room encounters with rugged mountain men, and of men’s universal predilectiongay or straightfor white cotton panties. Read spoke while stripping down to the aforementioned undergarments (Duke requested a PG-13 show, so all the artists kept their drawers on), but his naked honesty won over the audience.

Plus-size dancer Dirty Martini followed with a raunchy burlesque. Dressed as Lady Justice, she stripped, pulled dollar bills from her posterior and gave the cheering crowd the finger, all to the tune of “God Bless the USA.” She calls it her “Patriot Act.”

It was refreshing to see a woman who doesn’t fit prevailing social standards of beauty strut her stuff with the goodwill of a supportive crowd. And though the act was clearly calculated for shock value, it offended no one in an audience that clearly skewed liberal (other than an envoy from the Pope Center, a conservative Raleigh think tank, who dutifully came to register offense. He wrote a scathing review for the Pope Center Web site. An N&O columnist chimed in, and ABC and Fox News joined the mooing media herd. It seems any story to which the descriptor “Duke sex scandal” can be attached still has legs).

Keva Lee, a professional dominatrix, demonstrated her skills with an obedient male student from the previous night’s show at Guilford College. She used incidental slides and a few words of Cantonese and Mandarin to try to raise issues of exoticism and Asian fetishes, but that message was lost amid the sex play. Porn actress Lorelei Lee took the greatest risks artistically by reading unremarkable, seemingly autobiographical fiction. Disappointingly for heterosexual men (that is, those few who weren’t watching the Super Bowl), she kept her clothes on.

Most effective were the recollections, by Chris Kraus, Erin Markey and The World Famous *BOB*, of coming of age in strip joints and taxi dance halls. Amid the titillation and occasional artistic merit, their accounts revealed the show’s message, best articulated by founder Annie Oakley: “The stereotype is that sex workers are all drug addicts, nymphomaniacs, amoral or too stupid to do anything else for a living. We’re trying to show that sex workers are human beings who get into the industry for a variety of reasons, some positive and some negative, but who are deserving of safety and dignity.”