Sex workers speaking for themselves?

Published in Red Mist Reviews, 19th June 2011

“Because sex workers shouldn’t be dead to be on film”, argued the promo blurb for London’s first Sex Worker Film Festival. And who, aside from Henry from Portrait of a Serial Killer, could disagree? Organised by the Sex Worker Open University, a “grassroots collective” of sex workers, academics and activists, the declared goal was to challenge the stereotypical representations of strippers and hookers as  vulnerable “fallen angels” or “shallow, manipulative and without ethics”. Sandwiched between donation appeals and Q&A sessions with activists, the sold-out event presented 11 shorts and drew in a diverse, polysexual crowd to East London’s Rio Cinema.

Following a live performance that offered somewhat dusty drag queen humour (condom jokes and the like) we were treated to the opening flick, Isabel Hosti’s 69 Things I Love About Sex Work (2006). One of the few contributions that was not a straightforward talking head documentary, this was a collage of straight sex scenes backed by My favourite things from The Sound Of Music. The twosome and threesome activities on display were real and resembled hardcore porn of the 1970s, minus the prison tattoos: attractive, yet hardly flawless bodies, playful smiles, and the odd awkwardly small cock. The ’69 things’ that the filmmaker, a bisexual Canadian escort, loves about her job appeared in numerical order, ranging from ‘the money’ and ‘the drugs’ to ‘the dancing’ and ‘bi-curious wives’. Promoting prostitution as a fun and rewarding lifestyle, the account seemed blissfully unaware that it depicted only one facet of middle class, entrepreneurial prostitution – as opposed to, say, the legions of streetwalkers that regularly appear in the ruins of collapsed economies.

The documentary short Hands Off (UK 2011) by Winstan Whitter catapulted us back to East London’s Hackney borough, which is administered by a Labour government. From Diane Abbott’s puritanical campaigns against lads’ mags at local newsagents to councilors plotting to ban “sleazy sex establishments” – here, the paternalistic spirit of New Labour is hanging over us well into the Tory era of take-no-prisoners class war. No statistic is too flimsy to imply a direct causal relationship between strip joints and rape, no feminist website too rightwing to be cited in support of such arguments. Symptoms of an unequal society are treated as causes of inequality, and despite all the crocodile tears about the dancers’ ‘degradation’ and ‘objectification’, the women themselves are never consulted.[i]


Hands Off provided a platform for those who make a living at Browns, a Shoreditch strip joint under fire from the council cleansing brigade. According to director Winstan Whitter, speaking at the Q&A, the councillors “would have never agreed to be interviewed if we had approached them”. What we got to see instead, then, was a miniature popular front of dancers, bouncers, the venue owner, and a supportive local vicar who could tell the difference between ‘moralistic’ and ‘moral’. Slight problem: imagine someone shooting a documentary of your workplace under the premise that your boss gets to view the final product – how much honesty will they be able to capture? Well, exactly.

Accordingly, the owner, Denise Chandler, is idealised as a saintly matriarch. Chandler highlights the cosy, “independent” and “family run” nature of her business, which gives women the opportunity to strip in a “well managed” environment instead of being “exploited” by “criminals”, whose venues aren’t even “properly licensed”. In her view, Hackney council is “sexist” – but not because it views strippers with contempt. No – according to Chandler, it is the case because councillors think that “a woman shouldn’t run a strip club”.

That is not to deny that Brown’s is “exemplary” by strip club standards, as Jennifer – a resident dancer for over ten years – claimed in the Q&A session after the screening.  The safety measures and working conditions may well be outstanding in comparison to other venues, and you might even believe that some dancers consider the experience of stripping for Chandler “liberating” and an act of “artistic self-expression”, as Jennifer enthuses. But who knows for sure if sex workers don’t organise independently of their employers? And why leave questions around wages and conditions up to the parasitical owner and manager strata? Sometimes, the sex industry patriotism that informed Hands Off resembled ‘behind the scenes’ documentaries from Hollywood’s x-rated backyard, where porn barons present themselves as health-and-safety obsessed father figures.

ana lopes

Alas, class collaboration is a streak that runs through the sex worker activist milieu like a tape worm that feeds off its marginalisation from the labour movement. An audience member asked the panel:  Are the owners of ‘adult entertainment’ venues not piggybacking on sex workers unions by positioning themselves as equal? It is true that “some club owners exploit dancers”, went the rather evasive answer courtesy of sex worker and human rights activist Luca, but unionisation would help to combat that and regulate the industry. In the meantime, the top priority was to destigmatise and decriminalise. “A lot of managers are ex-sex workers, and a lot of them are women”, he assured the sceptical audience member – along the same lines as we are often reminded that one boss or another comes “from a working class background”.

There is an important truth in Luca’s words, however. As long as the sex industry exists in a legal grey zone and is isolated from more ‘respectable’ forms of wage slavery, the interests of sex workers are to a degree congruent with those of their employers: decriminalisation and social acceptance. Under these circumstances, an organisation such as the GMB affiliated International Union of Sex Workers is barely more than a campaign group – a yellow union at best – as long as it encourages “agents” and “managers” to fill out its membership application form[ii].  If sex workers are to fight consistently for their interests, they will need to break with this corporatism. Many of us, in turn, will need to accept that We Are All Prostitutes, as the Pop Group had it, and help integrate sex workers into in the broader labour movement.

Hackney Strip VenuesNi Coupables, Ni Victimes (EU 2006), a documentary about the European Conference on Sex Work in Brussels, dealt with the question of violence against hookers. There were hints as to how different roles result in different nuances of consciousness underneath the collective ‘sex worker’ facade. A transsexual escort, LGBT bookshop owner, and Green Party candidate spouted liberal platitudes about a “globalisation of human rights”. This stood in contrast to comrade Ana Lopes of the International Union of Sex Workers throwing us a lovely clenched fist salute, declaring that we would have to end capitalism if we really want to control our bodies, our work, and our lives. But is that also in the interest of the Austrian escort agency owner, who just wants to “get the girls away from the pimps” and “work in a family atmosphere”  – because, after all, “we are all women”?

Nick Mai’s ‘sex worker trilogy’ – Comidas Rapidas (UK 2009), Mother Europe (UK 2010) and a trailer for Normal (UK 2011) – clearly wanted to appear more challenging than some of the more rah-rah fare shown. Exploring the tension between the moral understanding and material aspirations of migrants involved in sex work and trafficking, the documentaries mirrored the postmodern left’s preoccupation with gender and ethnicity. Because class traditionally appears as a sociological rather than economic category somewhere on the bottom of this academic milieu’s priority list, Mai’s collages of interviews and monologues were no more concerned with the often diffuse and unstable class nature of sex work than the less formally ambitious contributions. The director aimed to deconstruct the victim/villain and innocence/corruption dichotomies projected onto different roles in the international flesh trade. That was all good and well, but if any useful insight can be drawn from these musings at all, it is really just the basic realisation that individualised allocations of blame are counterproductive to understanding, let alone changing the world.

Mai’s Comidas Rapidas investigated a young Tunisian hustler’s deliberate detachment from any feelings of love and affection. Johannes Sjoberg’s Transfiction (UK/Sweden/Brazil 2007), in contrast, depicted the search for tenderness in a dog-eat-dog world. Sjoberg shot the hour-long feature according to the rules of ethnofiction, a mode of anthropological documentary filmmaking in which the participants act out their real life experiences through improvisation. The aim is to reveal hidden truths about their culture that would be difficult to find through conventional anthropological research, re-enacting situations that might otherwise escape a traditional documentary film team.

Meg (Fabia Mirassos) is a transsexual hairdresser in Sao Paulo, Her friend, the transgendered Zilda (Savana Meirelles), makes ends meet as a hooker while dreaming of a normal life. They everyday encounters are not surprising: Zilda faces rejection when applying for apartments and the most basic office admin jobs, and they both run the gauntlet every time they hit the outdoors; boyfriends have trouble coming to terms with the stigma of openly dating a transsexual, and the struggle with persisting and reappearing palimpsest of their biological sex is a perpetually traumatic undercurrent.

transfiction meg and zildaThe strengths of Transfiction, however, lay not in uncovering facts about Brazil’s transsexual and travesti culture that might not have been exposed in a standard documentary, but in bringing to the fore the dreams and desires of its protagonists, as well as those aspects of their lives that keep them going. Europe – and Paris in particular – is the promised land they hope to enter one day. Until then, there is friendship: the sequence in which Zilda shoots up Meg’s boobs with silicone glows with a warm intimacy that counteracts the graphic nature of the footage. Elsewhere, the ethnofiction approach fully brings out Meg’s and Zilda’s street-tough charisma. When improvising anecdotal dialogue about johns, for instance, hey make for a terrific comedy double act. Performance being an aspect of daily life that the transgendered tend to be more aware of than the rest of us, and ‘Meg’ and ‘Zilda’ come to it like fish to the water.

In contrast to – and perhaps at odds with – the overall agenda of the Sex Worker Film Festival, prostitution in Transfiction is not a career choice, a ‘job like any other, but better paid’, but a result of being pushed to the margins of society; perhaps that is why Working Girl Blues, an unremarkable short film which, once again, extolled the benefits of sex work in comparison to ‘regular’ jobs, was tagged on to provide a conciliatory closure. And for all of Transfiction’s ethnographic interest in travesti as a marginalised group, for all its emphasis on identity, it was the universal human qualities in Meg and Zilda which shone the brightest, anticipating a better world for us all: you can’t argue with love and solidarity.

[i] Earlier this year, Hackney’s strippers took to the streets to protest against the councillor’s latest proposals, which are to be pushed through despite having been rejected by 67% of respondents to the consultation.

[ii] Arguably, this is symptomatic of the diffuse class lines in the industry. A pole dancer depends on a venue owner to provide a service. A hooker, meanwhile, might be a self-employed entrepreneur and soon employ others. Porn stars work towards setting up their own production companies after a few well-paid years, and so on.

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