(Photo courtesy of House of Yes)

Sex positivity is pretty much a given at House of Yes. But more than once, while watching Dirty Panties: the Musical, I had to ask myself, “Was that actual penetration happening in midair?” This raunchy dance-cum-burlesque-cum-neocircus psychedelic performance is about sex work– an issue that’s much more socially and politically charged than anything the venue has ever done. It’s also made possible by sex workers themselves. Anya Sapozhnikovad, the brains behind the production and one of the venue’s two founding mothers, considers it the first thing she’s made that’s “really, really personal.”

With Dirty Panties, Anya is working extra hard to destigmatize sex work, in part by coming out of the shadows. “I was a sex worker for my early 20s,” she told us. “I was a stripper, I was a dom, and some stuff in between.” When she first came to the U.S. from Russia, Anya didn’t have any papers, which meant her options were limited to “really shitty” under-the-table jobs making minimum wage or sometimes less. Peddling weed wasn’t in the cards, since it was “a lot more scary” than sex work. “I grew up in a very sex-positive community, I have no issues with nudity,” Anya explained. “So, to me, it was a much lower-risk thing.”

(Photo courtesy of House of Yes)

Her closest friends know, but Anya has kept her past under wraps when it comes to how she presents herself in public as the owner of a successful venue. She hasn’t told her parents either. Anya has certainly treaded lightly until now, but her status as an ex-sex-worker has afforded her a unique position to create this surrealist memoir on stage, in more ways than one. “That’s how I came up with money for the first couple of versions of House of Yes,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of really fascinating experiences that could make really great stories, and I’ve also met some really amazing people.”

Nearly all of Act III is devoted to Anya’s experiences in chronological order, from “Wild Side,” her ode to foot fetishism (“How I broke into the market”) to “CBT,” which we can only assume stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy since the act centers around a horrifying “near death experience,” and finally to “Home” which brings us up to the point when Anya had finally mastered the healthy, healing aspects of my sexuality.”

But there’s a fine line between homage and exploitation. Originally, Anya was not going to “out herself,” she said, until she was called out for veering dangerously close to cultural appropriation, and realized that the only way was to be perfectly honest and inclusive the whole way through. “I found out that the best way to do a show about sex workers’ rights was to go directly to my community”– including people Anya has been “very close with” over the years and others from her past who she reconnected with. “A lot of artists and performers in my circle have experience with this kind of work.”

(Photo courtesy of House of Yes)

As a result, the first two acts are made up of composite characters, many of whom are also played by actors with sex-work experience. Instead of smoothing everything over, Anya embraced individual experiences and paradox. “I didn’t want it to be too dark, or like, ‘If you do sex work, you end up in this bad situation,'” she said. “Even though you do, and there was a darkness to it. And you have to recognize the darkness– you have to be very careful and you have to be smart.”

Just like Anya’s view of the vocation itself, Dirty Panties swings from euphoric highs to terrifying cliff-danglers. And by switching up the performers, mediums, even styles, the performance maintains an intense energy throughout. There was the impressive athleticism of the boysome threesome in Act II’s “Tribe”–all glistening skin, sliding up and down the giant pole, a shared item along with matching tiny bikini bottoms that, if sewn together, would barely be enough for a single regular-sized loin cloth. They flipped around and on top of one another like fish twins “accidentally” depositing egg sacs in their brothers’ gills. (My only notes for this bit are “INSANE!!!!”)

(Photo courtesy of House of Yes)

A more playful scene is Anya’s foot fetish memory “Wild Side”– it’s surprisingly simple, but an audience favorite. A weary woman slumps down into a chair and removes her stockings after work, it seems, locked in a very recognizable state of total apathy that takes hold after the world has beaten you up and left you sapped and empty-handed.

Slowly, she starts to perk up, though– more and more matching the mood of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” An enormous, disembodied tongue begins licking her feet. She seems to appreciate it and her gestures are increasingly footloose and liberated after two distinct googley eyes (also played by humans) move in on the scene. The implication was that body parts are just harmless, joyful parts without a heart and mind, which look silly and absurd without the people who own them. The woman’s bliss reinforced the fact that, despite popular myths, sex workers experience pleasure, desire, and sensuality too.

In “Pigs Vs. Wolves,” a battle goes down between knife-wielding oinkers (aka strippers) and a big ass-jerk wolf who blows their strip club down. The scene ends with a surprise twist– the piglets start rattling off a remarkably articulate and concise speech on some basic issues that sex workers face including the challenges that come with a cash-only industry, and housing discrimination, all of it. They speak in cutesy “children’s voices” as Anya described it. “It’s kind of cartoony,” she admitted.

However, a group of women, sex workers themselves, standing in line at the bathroom at show’s end, were clearly upset about the “baby talk.” One argued that it was “the only serious part” and that it was made out to “look like a joke.” Her friend was incredulous, “Yeah, like, have you sucked dick for money?” she asked, apparently of the producer. “Clearly whoever made this has never hooked.”

All of this was valid criticism, even if it was based on misunderstanding, but Anya admitted that the show would never be everything to everyone. “I don’t know everyone’s experiences, but I know my own,” she said. “The majority of the show are these emotional story arcs.” Which means more imagination over fact sharing, which also means more room for some super wacky stuff. “It’s just an expression of how weird it gets. You’ll never really understand it unless you’ve been there and done it,” Anya told me. And as the program plainly states, so everyone’s aware, no matter how surreal it gets: “Everything in this show is true.”

Education was certainly an essential part of the show, but you might have missed it if you weren’t looking. In the bar room adjacent to the theater, Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) had set up a table with actually interesting reading material– article printouts as opposed to pamphlets, the Highlights for Kids of pertinent information about non-profits and advocacy efforts. For the more hands-on type, you could line up to get spanked for $5.

‘CBT’ at House of Yes production Dirty Panties(Photo courtesy of House of Yes)

One of the more hilarious moments in Dirty Panties came with in the final act, when the curtain opens on a giant peen and an even bigger pair of balls dangling. If you weren’t immediately crying from the utter pain inflicted by this absolutely amazing and just too-perfect moment, you would have recognized that inside the ball sack– a slightly sheer and stretchy material– were two performers batting around like little kids. Anya had taken the stage with a big spanking paddle in hand, and started slapping the balls, over and over, but looking powerless to inflict much pain. They were just so big, you guys. The scene is one of the most most obscure and fantastical, but crazy enough it’s also the closest rendition of an actual event.

At 20 years old, Anya was working at a dom dungeon. One night she left on a routine “out call” and was dropped off at the client’s apartment.

“This guy wanted me to beat him in the balls for four hours straight,” she told me. “Like really, really hard. I’ve never hurt somebody physically so bad, for so long.” I gasped when I heard this, and Anya cleared her throat in a weird vocal tic that I’d never heard her do. “It was very disturbing.” But she kept at it, even when “the blood was splattering all over me.” It was hard to picture until she clarified, “he was doing massive amounts of coke.” After four hours passed his cash was gone but he wanted to keep going. Anya knew something was wrong. He’s not saying anything, just taking it. It was like no one was enjoying themselves,” she said. “You know, I’ve injected an old guy in the gums with novocaine my first week of working and it was weird and scary, but he was having a good time. But this was not that.”

He told her to go for his wallet nonetheless, and when she opened it she found out that “he’s a police officer, who’s obviously off duty, and I’m a 20-year-old immigrant on my dad’s visa, who is not allowed to work, who is covered in this cop’s blood.”

Eventually, the guy broke and went totally berserk and started “demolishing everything.” Anya locked herself in the bathroom and waited for the dungeon’s security guy to arrive– he’d be about 10 minutes he told her, he was busy eating McDonald’s.

“It was just a really bad scene. And I was like, this is how it ends for me. This is the most Pulp Fiction thing I’ve ever heard of. And this is how I go.” Obviously, Anya made it out alive– not without some good old-fashioned trauma: “Like the thing I remember about [the cop], I don’t remember what the guy’s face looked like, but I remember his balls.”

Even after all that, Anya maintains that sex work isn’t all bad– it can be rewarding, scary, and exhilarating all at once. “This is a beautiful and funny occupation, it’s not a terrible occupation.”

Best of all, she has some great stories.

Don’t feel too bad if you slept on Dirty Panties before it closed last week– it was pretty much sold out right after opening night. Anya promised it will be back, and probably in a more fleshed-out version with more details, and maybe even in the form of a making-of documentary. “We already know,” she told us, “that this thing has legs.”