Ahead of the opening of Sex Workers' Opera tonight, these arts activists are fighting the battle for hearts and minds.
“If art is constantly about sex work, which it is: people are obsessed with it, there's only so much you can stand before people start taking it back and reclaiming it,” says Siobhan Knox.
Siobhan, along with Alex Etchart, is the co-director and co-producer of the the London-based Sex Workers' Opera (SWO), which begins its first full two-week run at the Pleasance Theatre tomorrow night on 17 May.
Siobhan and Alex describe SWO as a “platform for sex workers' voices”. At least 50% of the people involved in SWO are sex workers, and everything about the show is sex-worker led. Along with their creative team, they've collected sex worker stories from around the world, including Argentina, Chile and Taiwan, and melded them with the experiences of cast and crew members in a mish-mash of “dance, physical theatre, theatre reportage, spoken word poetry, hip hop arias and jazz”.
The perhaps unexpected combination has consistently packed out audiences over the past two years. Punters may initially come for the titillation of a show with 'sex' in the title, but they stay. And hopefully, they learn.
Sex workers face an unusual dilemma: painted by others as either too oppressed to have a voice, or too privileged for their voices to be worth listening to.
Sex workers face an unusual dilemma: painted by others as either too oppressed to have a voice, or too privileged for their voices to be worth listening to. Activist workers who say that sex work is more complicated than either 'bad' or 'empowering' are dismissed as unrepresentative whatever their actual circumstances, while workers without such involvement are largely ignored. Either way the complex, diverse experiences of sex workers go unheard.
The double-bind enables those with more power and other agendas to gain airtime on what the industry is 'really' like, when the truth is that as in any industry, there is no one simple truth. As with attitudes towards other forms of service work, some sex workers hate their jobs, some like them, and many are somewhere in the middle.
What makes sex work harder is the criminalisation and stigma that exposes workers to violence. Sex working realities can only 'really' be told meaningfully by people who have lived them.
But a set of sex worker-led art projects alongside SWO hope to break out of this tired quandary. One of the most poignant is Amy and Rosanna Cade's show Sister, which deals with how Amy's work as a stripper and porn actor was received by their family: with fear and negativity, but then increasing acceptance. Radio AvA, a community radio station for sex workers and allies, has just launched, the massively popular London Sex Worker Film Festival is going into its fourth year, and there are sex worker-run life drawing classes at Goldsmiths University, where sex workers are the models.
Why is sex worker-led art important? In short, workers are both the people who are most directly hurt by widespread misinformation around the industry, and the people with the knowledge needed to put forward a counter-narrative. As Alex explains: “The reason we're making an opera, a decisively artistic medium, for pushing for social change, is because just as some of the immediate danger to sex workers that causes...greater risk of violence is the legal framework, it's [also] about personal and social exclusion from families, friendships, work opportunities, and the stigma.”
For SWO, therefore, “culture is the battlefield” on which to win hearts and minds. They make art as sex workers to take the power of representation into their own hands. They make art to humanise; its a form of activism that challenges a public who may not know that their friend or family member is involved in sex work.
In August Objects of Desire opens at the Red Gallery in Shoreditch. It's an “archive of objects” clients have given to sex workers, displayed with their associated stories in photo, video and sound scape form. The exhibition, curated by sex worker and anthropologist Julia and artists Eva Cookney and Jeeva_d, so far includes a collection of jams and chutneys, acrylic nails for 'cock scratching', cutlery, 'little piggy' salt and pepper shakers, shiny leggings for a client to rip and...'ass pimple' cream.
“We are also going to be showing a huge 'Blue Balls Fucking Machine' that was bought for someone and we’ll have it running at certain intervals. But not all the time, because nobody needs that,” says Eva.
Self-representation is also important for Julia and Eva. Eva says: “Sex workers have their autonomy stripped from them at every opportunity by society. Art has always been a ‘voice for the voiceless’.” At the same time, there's a privilege in being able to face the violence that attends outing yourself as a sex worker.
As one of the most stigmatised identities, being open is often more possible for those who have supportive families and friends, or for those who are white and otherwise insulated from discrimination.
That's what this kind of sex-worker led arts activism hopes to change. By challenging a status quo in which people without experience of sex work get to dictate the narratives around it, these artists are doing what Alex describes as "shifting the lense".
They are creating their own platforms for a more nuanced, more in depth, and ultimately more truthful discussion about sex work. This art is by sex workers, and for them, but everyone else is invited too.