'Because sex workers shouldn't have to be dead to be on film'

Ania Ostrowska reviews the first ever London Sex Worker Film Festival and argues that sex workers' rights are a feminist issue

Ania Ostrowska, 14 July 2011

festival stage.jpg

Last month London hosted, alongside the Queen's official birthday celebration and the London Annual Naked Bike Ride (which rather surprisingly came together here), two events which were or were not feminist, depending on who passed judgement.

First of these was SlutWalk, about which enough has been said in both the mainstream media and on numerous feminist blogs (including on The F-Word here and here), and which divided feminists in the UK and around the world. The usual suspects, mainly white middle-class feminists, debated how much (if any) of a slut is a good thing. However, you can read a very good critique of SlutWalk from a woman of colour's perspective here.

Rather than swooping to the rescue of sex workers, this festival sought to amplify their own voices

The other event, the first ever London Sex Worker Film Festival, held at the Rio Cinema in Dalston on Sunday 12 June, hasn't taken up much space in UK feminist debates.. Just as for some feminists the word 'slut' is impossible to salvage from the claws of patriarchal discourse (though, ironically, some seem comfortable speaking of 'promiscuity' and 'loose sexual behaviour'), for some feminists a 'sex worker' brings to mind someone who is always a woman but also always must be seen as a victim (of her false consciousness; of men exploiting her; of a dramatic economic situation). Rather than swooping to the rescue of sex workers, this festival sought to amplify their own voices.

I dare to say that a path-breaking event like this festival, organised by the people behind the London Sex Worker Open University, should be compulsory feminist viewing. The diversity of perspectives on sex work and its legal regulation presented was stunning; but even more so was the fact that finally sex workers and their allies (filmmakers, conference organisers, friends and families) were given a chance to counter prevailing approaches to their work that castigate them as victims, criminals or sinners.

As well as screenings of 11 films, we were treated to a panel discussion featuring Luca Darkholme and Dr Heidi Hoefinger (representing the festival's organisers); Jennifer Richardsen, a striptease artist and teacher; and the directors of some of the featured films (Clare Havell, Ellie Gurney, Winstan Whitter and Dr Nick Mai).

The festival included both international and UK films, touching on everything from sex workers' opinions about their everyday lives to issues of organising and legal regulation. To the vigorous applause of the audience gathered in the cinema, Australian and Canadian sex workers gave advice to their dates, partners and lovers in Every ho I know says so (2010) by Beef Jerky and Lusty Day. "No matter how many times I say yes to an appointment, yes to my clients... I still have the right to say no to you," said one rather poignantly.

In Isabel Hosti's 69 things I love about sex work (2006), we read a list of the pleasures the heroine gets from her work, appearing on screen to the tunes of 'My favourite things' and Ella Fitzgerald's 'Nice work if you can get it'. Ni coupables, ni victims (2006) by sexyshock presented opinions of participants of the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration held in Brussels in 2005. They were sex workers, academics, social workers; male, female; cis and trans; queer and straight. None of the sex workers interviewed for the film expressed feeling more victimised or exploited more than any person in paid employment does.

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Three remaining films charted some UK contexts of sex work. Hands Off (2011) by Winstan Whitter documented the fight between the strip club industry and the council in the London borough of Hackney and included, surprisingly for most, interviews with two female owners of strip clubs and an interview with the local parish reverend supporting the clubs' plea to have their licences renewed (see the still on the left). Clare Havell's and Atieh Attaarzadeh's The Street in Red (2011), shot mainly in Bristol, addressed the hypocrisy of anti-sex work laws in connection to violence against street workers.

The common perception that most sex workers in the UK are illegal migrants trafficked to the country to perform degrading sex acts is not confirmed by the results of the research on the industry

Finally, Ellie Gurney's Sex Worker Open University (2009) documented the successful event that took place in April 2009, bringing together around 200 of sex workers, sex workers' rights activists, academics and allies. Showcasing diverse skills workshops, panel discussions and rallies in public space (for example, next to the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus), the film presented an alternative and empowered image of the sex worker.

The second part of the festival explored the lives of sex workers who for the most part did not match the description of being always female and heterosexual: Nick Mai's Sex Worker Trilogy focussed on young Moroccan and Romanian men selling sex to gay punters in Seville (Comidas Rapidas, 2009); a young Tunisian man selling sex to Western female tourists in order to start a new life in western Europe (Mother Europe, 2010); four migrants involved in sex work in Albania, Italy and the UK (Normal; trailer, film due in 2011).

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The trilogy was followed by my personal favourite, Johannes Sjöberg's Transfiction (2007). Adopting an experimental ethnographic documentary style developed by French visual anthropologist Jean Rouch (one of the founders of cinéma vérité), Sjöberg directs two transgender heroines acting out situations from their lives and the lives of those around them by improvisation. This approach results in multifaceted but at the same time very tender portraits of Fabia Mirassos and Savana Meirelles (above), who project their experiences of struggle against intolerance through the roles of Meg and Zilda respectively.

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The festival ended with Damien Luxe's Working Girl Blues (USA, 2009), a short considering the pros and cons of different jobs, including sex work (see the still on the left). Each job is given a 'soul' rating, indicating how good or bad it is for well-being, arguing that sex work is work: at times tough and tiring, at times fun and rewarding.

The panel discussion emphasised the advantages of decriminalisation of sex work that makes it better regulated and hence safer for those working in the industry. The issues around unionisation were discussed, because just as most agree on the necessity for trade unions to protect sex workers' rights, there's debate on whether managers (of strip joints for example) should be union members or not.

The most crucial point recurring in the discussion was the need to distinguish between sex work and sex trafficking: the panellists said the common perception that most sex workers in the UK are illegal migrants trafficked to the country to perform degrading sex acts is not confirmed by the results of the research on the industry and is harmful to the industry's reputation and, consequently, to the standards for legal sex work. We also heard about projects addressing the needs of legal migrants working in the UK sex industry, such as the x:talk project, offering among other things free English classes for migrant sex workers.

As someone who considers herself a feminist, and accompanied by two female friends who accept the F-label too and both have masters degrees in gender studies to boot, I paid special attention to any mention of 'feminism' or 'feminists' in the films and couldn't help noticing that the relationship between some sex workers and some feminists active in the debate around sex work is contentious and at times stormy.

A young sex worker asserted powerfully: "You need to understand that at work I am empowered and not a victim of patriarchy or perpetuating patriarchal ideas"

A Danish escort, May (one of the protagonists of Ni coupables, ni victims) complained about Danish middle-class feminists who want to follow the example of the Swedish government and criminalise punters. She argued that such a move is hypocritical because it ends up criminalising prostitutes too: one cannot legally (and safely) deliver services if receiving them is illegal.

A young (uncredited) sex worker from Every ho I know says so asserted powerfully, addressing her (potential?) partner: "You need to understand that at work I am empowered and not a victim of patriarchy or perpetuating patriarchal ideas." This proud statement, defending her dignity as a sex worker, argues against apparently benevolent attempts advocated by some feminists to save women "brainwashed by patriarchy" to perform sexual acts for money can be damaging and hurtful for these very women.

The end of the open floor round of questions interestingly brought together Sunday's festival with Saturday's SlutWalk. A man, praising the films and discussions as "refreshing" and "a breath of fresh air", contrasted them with the Trafalgar Square rally at which, on his account, "these feminists" shouted from stage that all sexual services should be made illegal".

Two of the organisers of London SlutWalk Caitlin Hayward-Tapp and Elizabeth Head, were in the audience to respond. Caitlin said that the speaker who indeed had voiced such an opinion had done it without consultation with the organisers who welcomed sex workers as the walk's participants and respected their choice of career. At first somehow reluctantly, her words were after all greeted with applause.

The first London Sex Worker Film Festival was, in my opinion, an enormous step forward in changing the perceptions (and portrayal) of sex workers within feminist debates and beyond. It allowed sex workers to speak for themselves in documentaries as well as presented their lives and work in artistic manner. We were reminded - or made aware? - of the fact that most of them have not been trafficked and/or forced to do their job and that many of them feel empowered and not victimised.

Photos by flickr users Luca Darkholme (2,3 and 4) and Vera Rodriguez (1)

Comments From You

Old Music // Posted 16 July 2011 at 22:15

There are a lot of things I want to say about this article. I will start by registering my disappointment that the author is falling into tired and untrue old clichés about radical feminists (radical feminists are those who see 'sex work' and the sex industry as violence against women). She says:

"Just as for some feminists the word 'slut' is impossible to salvage from the claws of patriarchal discourse (though, ironically, some seem comfortable speaking of 'promiscuity' and 'loose sexual behaviour')"

Really, who? The pseudo-feminists who write in the Daily Mail perhaps, but not radical feminists; 'promiscuity' and 'loose sexual behaviour', like 'slut' are patriarchal terms, used to control, shame, silence and manipulate woman (and so is 'prude', which is the underlying accusation in the author's statement), I don't use any of those terms to describe women.

"The diversity of perspectives on sex work and its legal regulation presented was stunning."

Really? Was any woman (or man or trans person) who describes themselves as a sex industry survivor invited to speak, and would it have been a safe space for them to do so? From what I've personally witnessed of the behaviour of the ECP, the IUSW et al at events like Million Women Rise and Reclaim the Night, I seriously doubt it.

The sex industry is a pyramid with a very broad base, how many of the attendees were genuine prostitutes and how many were part of the 'queer politics' scene that thinks it's cool and subversive to rub up against this stuff for the night (then go back to their comparatively safe lives again afterwards)? How many of the attendees were teenaged runaways, or drug-dependent street-workers?

The descriptions of the films screened sounds completely one-sided and biased towards the sex industry. How genuinely open was the debate about whether 'management' should be allowed to join 'sex worker' unions, when the whole event is organised by IUSW members, and the IUSW allows 'management' to join, and otherwise pretty much operates as a lobby group for pimps?

"finally sex workers and their allies ... were given a chance to counter prevailing approaches to their work that castigate them as victims, criminals or sinners."

Finally? Are you unaware of Belle du Jour? There are plenty of glamorised positive accounts of prostitution in the main stream, look at any on-line comments thread in a main stream newspaper that reports on prostitution and you'll see plenty of people (mostly men) claiming that trafficking is a myth, that prostitution is 'just work', or a great job where women make a load of money etc etc. It simply isn't true that pro-sex industry advocates are 'silenced', they get to speak at academic events and have their opinions published in main stream newspapers all the time, they are not 'silenced' in any way.

I've watched Ellie Gurney's documentary on the 2009 'Sex Worker Open University' one of the workshops taught striptease as a 'transferable skill', because if you were an escort, your 'client' might want you to dance for him! So nothing about exiting the sex industry then, or the skills you might need for non-sex industry employment?

The whole thing seems geared towards already-privileged individuals who get to entre the sex industry at the top of the pyramid, those who want to play tourist, and the vested interests of 'management'; and in order to be a 'real' feminist, apparently, I have to swallow it whole.

Trafficking is real, coercion and abuse is real, and the mainstreaming and normalisation of the sex industry is harmful to all women.

Thierry Schaffauser // Posted 17 July 2011 at 23:18

Dear Old Music,
I was part of the organisers of the Sex Workers Film Festival and I would like to add some information in answer to your post.
I have been a sex worker for 9 years. I started working on the streets. I left my family relatively young and I have also been using drugs since I am a teenager. I refuse the label of 'victim' but I don't think I am privileged either. I have had access to education because like many students I found sex work an economic resource. Maybe I don't fit in your definition of 'genuine prostitute' but I am a real prostitute.

Other organisers of the film festival have had different experiences. Some were teenagers runaway when they started working, some suffered sexual violence in their past, some have or had drug issues, some are single mothers, some are migrants, some are students, etc. We all are different and maybe we don't exactly correspond to the concept of the 'victim', but we all have had experiences of both vulnerability and agency.

The films screened also showed this diversity. And if some of the films showed how to improve our skills to work in the industry or even the pleasure some workers have, there were also other films that showed our problems, such as the discriminations, the stigma, the exploitation, violence, poverty, etc. We tried to be as representative as we could and show more than just the usual 'worst' and 'best' extremes of the industry, and we share your concern with the glamorised representations of Belle de Jour for example. Nobody denied the issue of trafficking or said it was a myth.

The IUSW was not part of the organising of the event and was not invited to participate. The issue around allowing managers' membership within the union was addressed during the questions. This question makes debate within the sex workers' movement itself and many of the organisers of the film festival would agree with you on that issue, if not all.

I appreciate that we have different opinions but this event was not as bad as you think. Maybe you could come to the next event and we will be happy to confront our ideas. Two years ago, during the Sex Worker Open University, activists from Object! came at a workshop which was "taking seriously the abolitionist argument" and I think it went well because we listened to each other and we found common ground on things we agree on and because we all share feminism.

ashleec // Posted 18 July 2011 at 13:06

To Old Music,

Actually I am sad to share that at the London Feminist Network conference last year I attended a panel discussion in which radical feminists did in fact state that healthy sex was sex with love within a relationship (contrasted with promiscuity and loose sexual behaviour). Sad but true. I’m not sure where the author accuses anyone of being a ‘prude’ but hey if the shoe fits.

Re ‘genuine prostitutes’ – I feel that this dichotomy you’re creating (between authentic and inauthentic prostitutes) is ambiguous, divisive and unhelpful.

Just as radical feminist film festivals don’t screen non-feminist films in order to be ‘unbiased’ I find it hard to see why your expectations of this film festival would be any different.

Having been at the festival, I would say that your implied accusations about the demographics of the attendees were not the case.

I think that as the author demonstrates with her descriptions of the films, the festival cannot unfortunately be reduced to being akin to Belle du Jour. For instance both street and non-street prostitution were explored.

In terms of silencing, I find it hard to see where in the mainstream the stories of sex workers (vs academics) themselves are given any voice (excepting Belle du Jour who I think we all agree is not representative). They’re certainly not allowed one within many radical feminist spaces (unless they’re self-identified ‘survivors’ with abolitionist politics).

jon // Posted 19 July 2011 at 10:33

"We were reminded[...] of the fact that most of them have not been trafficked and/or forced to do their job and that many of them feel empowered and not victimised."

How can a selection of films and presentations chosen to support the e.g. English Collective of Prostitutes be accepted as proof that "most" have not been trafficked or victimised? Surely, the organizers would not have chosen to show documentaries which describe the worst problems of abuse associated with so-callled "sex-work". I don't see how any conclusions can be drawn from this about the situation of prostitutes in general.

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 19 July 2011 at 11:49

The conclusions about general situation of sex workers in the UK cannot be drawn from the films presented at the festival.
There has been an ESRC-sponsored research done by Dr Nick Mai at the London Metropolitan University
http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/research-units/iset/projects/esrc-migrant-workers.cfm
and his conclusions are based on in-depth interviews with 100 migrant sex workers and they are that majority of interviewed sex workers were not victims of trafficking and/or coercion.

Samantha // Posted 20 July 2011 at 15:07

From Ania's link:

"Only a minority, amounting approximately to 6 per cent of female interviewees, felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex in circumstances within which they had no share of control or consent."

In a world where most rape victims blame themselves in whole or in part for having been raped, assertions like this are part of the rape apologism continuum.

jon // Posted 20 July 2011 at 22:09

There are many different kinds of reports, for example the report cited by the home office says that out of 30000 (both english and migrants): "2600 are believed to have been trafficked to the country specifically to work as prostitutes" and "9600 are considered vulnerable".

So whilst according to the report only 8.6% were trafficked (which ties in with what Dr Mai cited), it also means that there are 41% who are either vulnerable or have been sex-trafficked, and who are working as prostitutes. Which mean that according to this report there are tens of thousands of vulnerable people working as prostitutes. Prostitution is rife with sexual abuse and vulnerable people are not so good at defending themselves. I think it's a shitty situation and nothing to celebrate.

@Ania - I only said that I didn't see how any conclusions about the condition of prostitutes in general could be drawn from these films ("documentaries" are always very convincing while you're watching them), whilst the author seemed to conclude that most prostitutes "feel empowered" and that "most of them have not been trafficked" (and if they haven't been trafficked does that also mean they haven't been abused either)? According to the home office, it's also true that only a minority have been trafficked for sex, but the part about most prostitutes feeling empowered - I think is wishful thinking.

Jake Lara // Posted 21 July 2011 at 22:30

Women should be respected as sexual beings. Sex professionals should be respected and deserve kudos for their bravery and generosity. In fact everyones sexuality should be respected, whatever sex or gender we all own our sexuality.

Mary Cooper Devine // Posted 21 July 2011 at 23:09

Hello
I am a prostitute. Proud to be so. I am real (as far as I can tell). I am also a feminist. I am not currently drug dependant although I have been. Amongst my friends and family I can count several women who have worked the streets, and have been through rehab for serious drud addictions. Now will you listen to me "old music"? or will you find some other way to dismiss everything I have to say? as you try to do to all those involved in the film festival, or indeed all sex workers who disagree with you, I suspect.
I went to the film festival. I was very impressed with the films, the discussion, the whole event. I now look forward to taking part in the Open University event.
You know what? The hardest thing about my job is having other feminists dismiss, belittle, and stigmatise me because of what I do and what I say about it.
I get more respect from my clients than I do from many of my fellow feminists. Depressing but true. My clients have never put me down verbally, attacked me physically, or in any way treated me with anything but respect. One way that might happen, of course I am not so naive, but so far no. I used to be a nurse, I could not say that about my clients/patients then. And I cannot say that about my feminist sisters/comrades now.
Feminists who campaign for the criminalisation of my job, my clients, me, now they put my life in serious danger with what they do. They also insult my intelligence and my ability to make decisions for myself.
Other feminists listen, share experiences mutual respect, and work with me and my fellow prostitutes best interests as a priority. I wish more would do the same.
Feel free to check my website/google me if you think I am not real, by the way. I am as real as you. I am at least commited to the feminist cause as you, I am sure. As part of that I am also committed to fighting for rights of sex workers. I can see the difference between sex work and rape/sexual slavery - can you? I can see the positive radical fabulousness of women enjoying a sex life and a work-life exactly as they choose. Can you?

Luca Darkholme // Posted 24 July 2011 at 22:26

Hello

In Australia recently happened a Sex workers' digital video screening. Here is how the event was advertised, followed by a well written apology and reply by Christian Vega from Scarlet Alliance.

"Aren't you over miserable whore stories?
Sex workers certainly are. Overwhelmingly, dramatic performances, research articles and media portrayals make the most of the misery and desperation experienced by some people who do sex work. It’s unsurprisingly rare that these stories are told by actual sex workers. Instead, audiences are fed faceless images, caricatures that perpetuate stereotypes and stigma against sex workers and stymie the progress of our human rights.
But we would like to change that...
If you would like to see real stories told by real sex workers we’d like to invite you to this special event:
Sex Workers’ Digital Story Telling etc. etc."

REPLY:

Hello Everyone,

As the writer of the promotional material for the recent event “Sex Worker’s Digital Story Telling” I’d like to sincerely apologise for any offence caused by the wording of the material.
To explain how this wording came about I guess I have to explain a bit about myself and the work that I do.
I am a sex worker. I also have been lucky enough to take on a number of leadership roles in the organised sex worker community as well work in health responses for sex workers.
In these positions I often am engaged in discussions that are to determine sex work policy, how sex work is represented in research and its depiction in the media. Despite much of my efforts, it is still common for these discourses to misappropriate the experience of sex workers, whether they be positive or negative. The wording on the promotional material (“miserable whore stories”) refers to this misappropriation. For me, it was out of sheer frustration that I would use such a term in an effort to challenge the cliché it represents. If this has caused you offence, I am truly sorry. I can only hope that explaining the context within which this sentiment was expressed goes some way to making up for it.
My background as a sex worker has been diverse in its expression as it has been in my empowerment as an individual. While I am a private sex worker now who is able to choose how he works, as well as being publicly known for doing so, I recognise through my history, it hasn’t always been so. As a once underage, injecting drug addicted, homeless, street based sex worker I am all too aware of how mainstream media can focus on one particular part of my story in order to achieve some ends while ignoring the diversity of the reality of our lives.
The intention of the event and flyer were never to silence the traumatic experiences of sex workers. These stories are valid and deserve to be listened to. The purpose of the event was to reclaim the right tell our stories, regardless of being positive or negative, on our own terms and with our own voice. We recognise that it takes a significant amount of privilege to be able to engage with this process.
I’d truly like to express my gratitude that this discussion is taking place. Both the conversation had on the night and the comments posted on our Facebook page has been a clear reminder of the responsibilities of we, privileged to have a voice, have to be aware of those not as lucky.
Should you want to discuss this further, I’m happy to have a chat with you.
Sincerely,
Christian Vega

Link to the event on facebook and debate about it :
http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=188327341185742


RickStar // Posted 12 August 2011 at 01:05

I thought sex workers were protected .. its called wear a condom..duaah.. if people want sex without condoms there's plenty of couples selling ameuter videos..

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About the author

Ania Ostrowska

Ania Ostrowska is a post-communist Polish feminist. She got an MA in gender studies from SOAS and is currently on a leave from academia. She lives in the London borough of Hackney and divides her time between working part-time at the Wellcome Library and reaching a conclusive position on the UK feminist movement

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