Do you know if prostitution is legal in your country? Are you aware of the conditions one could expect when working as a strip tease artist? Do you know your local politician’s standpoint on sex work in general? Do you even know what constitutes sex work? I was surprised that none of these questions had ever seriously entered my mind before this event: sex work and the rights of sex workers are hidden issues for most, working the dark streets of the mind; not ignored, but certainly not acknowledged.
For those engaged in considering and defending what appears a self-evident claim: “Sex workers’ right are human rights”, there are broadly two options: decriminalise/legalise sex work and its associated behaviour, making regulation and protection easier and more effective; or make illegal any practice associated with sex work (particularly making the client a criminal), as all sex work, like torture, is a dire infringement of basic human rights.
In the UK, an organisation called the Sex Workers Open University first met in April 2009, bringing together over 200 sex workers, academics, artists and what are known as ‘allies’ (people sympathetic to the rights of sex workers, but not themselves part of the sex industry). Exchanging ideas ranging from successful methods of activism, through tax and law, to self-defence, the SWOU gave an extremely marginalised group a small opportunity to empower themselves. This year (2011) saw them collect some of the films they’ve come across, films made by sex workers and allies to promote awareness of sex workers’ rights, into an afternoon at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, London, on Sunday 12th June.
The SWOU are pro-decriminalisation, but Sunday’s ‘film festival’ appeared to be broadcasting another message: being a sex worker is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact it is often wonderful. The stigma that surrounds the industry and conflates sex work with human trafficking, violence, abuse and exploitation is misleading and harmful. In their own words:
"We want to challenge media sensationalism, which, hand in hand with the UK government, often represent [sic] us as victims or criminals."
"We want to see living, fighting, whole sex workers; representations abandoning flat one dimensional characters and stereotypes."
Among these celebrations of sex and sex work were more serious messages about the difficulties faced by sex workers, including legal, administrative and financial problems, as well as issues of love, awareness, social stigma and, in particular, breaking through the wall of prejudice and connecting with the human being on the other side.
There were eleven films, ranging from five minutes to an hour long, split over two 90 minute halves.
As the lights dimmed (half an hour late, due to a full house), the curtains drew to reveal a grainy film, apparently taken with a camera-phone or something similar, of explicit and genuine sex. A startling opener. As the film continued a numbered list appeared, sometimes one at a time, sometimes several, telling us “69 Things I Love About Sex Work”. The six minute film was directed by Isabel Hosti, a “queer Canadian”, and listed a combination of some banal, some unexpected and some moving items, experiences and activities. As I reflected on my reaction to the contrast of a light-hearted celebration of sex work with the jarringly graphic images presented to me, I wondered how different the experience would be for sex workers in the room: for whom these images and feelings are their day job.
We moved though the applause straight to the next film. “Hands Off”, a 20 minute documentary directed by Winstan Whitter, draws attention to the introduction of a ‘nil policy’ on sex establishments in the London borough of Hackney in early 2011, essentially banning the opening of any new establishments and, at the time the film was made, making the legitimate establishments fear for their continued existence. This is after over 30 years of legal and profitable practice. Featured in the film were venue owners, politicians and the local parish reverend who famously spoke out in defence of the strip tease clubs and sex shops in the area. A few of the dancers from one club were also interviewed, including Jennifer Richardsen, an Oxford graduate who has been a strip tease artist for over a decade and who speaks out eloquently for the rights of sex workers.
The bulk of the first half, however, was taken up with a well-crafted compilation of frank interviews from protesters at the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration, Brussels (2005), “Ni Coupables, Ni Victimes (Not Guilty, Not Victims)”, directed by ICRSE and sexyshock. Several languages, all subtitled in to English, were spoken and several and various attitudes were presented: speaking about how their work relates to the rest of their lives, how repressive policies affect both of those aspects and what plans there are to improve these conditions.
The last two films, both ten minutes long, continued the eclectic dancing around what is, as was becoming more apparent to me, a broad and complex issue. “Every Ho I Know Says So”, directed by Beef Jerky and Lusty Day, was a call for more resources for dates, lovers and partners of sex workers to advise them on how to be supportive and become “sex worker-positive”. The challenge, they say, is to overcome the deep-rooted social stigma against sex work that most of us bear without knowing. The final film was an exhibition of the SWOU, directed by Ellie Gurney, and was followed by a half-hour panel discussion. The panel included directors and stars of the films, along with academics and activists. A complete list can be found here.
After a short interval, the second half opened with a trilogy of five-minute films directed by Dr Nick Mai, Reader in Migration Studies at London Metropolitan University, whose research includes “the negotiation of gender, sexuality and subjectivity through the migration process, with particular reference to international (female and male) sex work as a contested and ambivalent space of control and autonomy”. “Fast Bites (Comidas Rapidas)” looks at the lives of young Moroccan and Romanian men selling cheap and fast ‘bites’ of sex near a café called Comidas Rapidas, in Seville. “Mother Europe” is about a young Tunisian man, speaking honestly about how and why he sells himself to Western female tourists. The final part shown was a trailer for the third film of the trilogy “Normal”, focussing on four migrants, who were or are involved in the sex industry in Europe, and their contradictory aspirations to lead a normal life.
The penultimate film “Transfiction”, from director Johannes Sjoberg, was an hour-long docufiction (or ethnofiction) about transsexual and transgender issues in São Paolo. While the idea of getting people who have lived the experiences being presented on film to improvise around them for the camera is theoretically valuable, the film suffers from the fact that none of the cast were actors. It was a valuable film and made some interesting points, but it dragged on to the point where the performance distracted from those points and their importance was lost.
The final film of the day was a brief and entertaining look at some of the jobs that director Damien Luxe has had over the last ten years, giving them scores. Sex work, unsurprisingly, scored highest. This celebration nicely bookended what was an eye-opening and encouraging day of films.
The overall feel of the event, particularly as the organisers seemed so happy to have sold out, was one of celebration and awareness-raising. The bigger issues were skimmed over, but still touched on. In discussion at the after-party, I found everyone in good spirits and keen to discuss collaboration and idea-exchange. Although, that may have been the alcohol and pole dancers having an effect on the crowd.