In May, the Pleasance Theatre played host to the second successful run of the ‘Sex Workers’ Opera’. It's a unique, crowd-funded production that mashes together everything from hip hop to poetry and – by ignoring the familar tropes dramatists usually rely on when they portray the industry – hurtles the dialogue around sex workers into the present day.
What gives the work real clout is that it gives an open, honest platform for those in the sex industry to tell their stories. One afternoon, before a performance, we sat down with four cast members to find out more about the sex industry in London.
‘To be safe, we have to break the law’‘There is a strong sex worker community in London. Criminalised people have to stick together and take care of each other. For me it’s important to sometimes be in sex-worker-only spaces, so that I can speak freely about the topics which affect me. I really like the community here in London because it’s super-diverse. It’s special. I don’t see so much diversity in communities outside London – I love it!
I have experience of working in a few countries and you can tell the difference when sex work is illegal or not, whether the stigma is high or low. You feel it in the way clients respond to you. It's great in New Zealand and Australia, where it's decriminalised. I came from Melbourne straight to the UK and could immediately feel the difference. There are more problems in the UK because the regulations are really high and so many of the things that help you work safley are illegal here. To be safe, we have to break the law – not cool at all.
Criminalisation affects stigma as well as security. If you're outed as a sex worker, you can't find a job and it’s hard to get a flat. So because of that stigma, it’s so important to show people that we are just normal people doing normal jobs. Being afraid of outing ourselves to our parents, our kids, our partners can build so much pressure. The stigma silences me for sure: I cannot out myself so I cannot speak and am silenced.
I want people who come to the opera to see us as people, just like everyone else. We’re doing a job and that’s it – my job is running around in fetish clothes looking fancy. I also want people to see that there is a huge diversity in the industry and it’s all cool. There are even good aspects to working on the street: there’s no admin and you’re not going to get in trouble if you’re late!
There is no typical day for me, really. I wake up between 10am and 12pm and sit in the park on my laptop, answering boring emails, thinking of new ideas for the workshops and outreach projects I run. Often I get a last-minute job, sometimes when I am out with a friend. I try to make the hours regular but it doesn’t work out – this is my reality. I also spend part of the day creating new work personas, essentially reconstructing myself. When I am playing a dominatrix I become another person. There is a hierarchy between me and the client – it’s empowering. It’s just acting, which is also why it was so easy to make a show like this: we are all actors.’
‘This is my story. I’m not speaking as a representative of the industry.’
‘When I was younger and growing up in Portugal, I was slut-shamed because my sexuality has always been a big part of me. But in London I feel liberated. When I got here, I worked crazy hours in restaurants and pubs. I wanted to go out with my friends, so I decided to do webcam work.
I thought that I was alone. People don’t talk about sex work – it’s just not a conversation you have. I started escorting because it was something that I was extremely curious about, but it was also because I needed more human interaction. The first time I did it, I was very scared and confused. People tell you that being a prostitute is a bad thing and I grew up in a very Catholic family, so my morals were conflicted. But I still really wanted to do it! Afterwards I was even more confused because I didn’t really feel bad about it.
I promote myself as a girl next door. I wear very light make-up and flat shoes or Converse. I sometimes get requests for “something slutty”, but I don't have a problem with that – it can be fun to get out of my skin. When I meet someone for the first time, I don't know what they like so I just morph in the moment. It’s quite intuitive: I try to work out whether they want someone strong with political views, or someone more girlish. It can be a lot of fun to work with people’s desires, things that they think are too perverse to tell a partner. When clients ask to go bareback, I’m scared: there are certain positions where they could just take the condom off. If I feel like they're a risk, I won’t see them again – unless I need the money, which does happen.
I don’t understand the motivation behind the criminalisation of sex work. It feels childish, like a “yuk” thing. It’s a religious hangover: women have to be good and perfect and mothers and saints, so we can’t be dirty or sexual beings.
Decriminalisation is really important for us but it’s also really important for people who have been coerced or trafficked. Only then can you have a situation where people can ask for help without the fear of being prosecuted. People-trafficking and sex work should be seen as two separate issues: one is a crime and the other is just two adults consenting to have sex.
The sex-worker community in London is amazing, everyone is very supportive of each other. There are a lot of people who don’t want to identify as a sex worker because of the stigma. I have times when I feel really strong and can go out with my fist raised, but there are times when I can’t even go outside.’
‘I have always been proud to be a Soho girl’
‘I’m a former sex worker. I used to do striptease and I worked in Soho on and off for 12 years. When I first saw the area and the people, the bookshops and the fetish aesthetic, I just fell in love with it.
When I first arrived from Spain I lived in a squat – I needed a job and met a girl from Barcelona who was working in a peep show. There were two windows in front of me and all we had to do was dance naked with a really shitty pole. There was just a curtain between me and the other girl, and so if I wasn’t in the mood I could dance with my back to them and chat with her. Visitors paid £2 to look at us for one minute. There was another peep show and that was even funnier: they didn’t have a licence for full nudity so we were given heart-shaped stickers to cover our nipples! That one was even cheaper, they only had to pay £1 to see you for a minute. You worked lying on a bed: all we had to do was roll around. I really found it difficult to not fall asleep. That job was so surreal, and I love surrealism – the system imposes so many things on us that surrealism is a really good way to feel free.
I was combining working in the peep show with my photographic studies at Westminster University and was living a double life; I would be at university hiding my high-heel shoes. After eight years, I really felt that job gave me a lot of things. I gained confidence, it made me more aware of my sexuality, it kept me fit and I met so many amazing, inspirational women working in the industry. We had our own ways of protecting each other. We were like a little family and throughout my career I have always been proud to be a Soho girl.
Slowly these venues disappeared because they couldn’t afford the licences any more. It’s funny and sad at the same time that now there is a Mexican restaurant that has completely absorbed the aesthetics of the peep show, but the peep shows themselves are gone. What’s happened to Soho is more or less what’s happening to London: it’s losing its authenticity because of corporations.
The Soho raids [of 2013] were nasty. Using the excuse of vulnerable women being trafficked, more than 100 policemen descended and they brought the press with them. Workers were put out on the street and didn’t even have their coats on – they were just out in the cold in their underwear! It can be difficult to see but there is a lot of institutional abuse from the state.
The media either portray us as victims or as happy hookers. The reality is something in between. We all face the stigma, but there is good and bad. I think people should stop seeing us in 2D – just as sex workers – and see us as humans.’
‘Sex work has opened my eyes to the beauty in everyone’
‘“The Sex Workers’ Opera” has given people an opportunity to learn about the industry and listen to more than one voice. It’s been a fantastic and enlightening way to be able to deliver different real-life stories. We got to be a voice for other organisations around the world and share their stories, too. At the end of the day, everyone is a story.
The response has been phenomenal. But this isn’t about changing people’s opinions, it’s about raising awareness. The fact is that people may still not agree with sex work but at least they’ll see us as human and that’s one of the biggest challenges we face. Once society sees us as humans we’ll be treated with a bit more respect. Rather than generalising about us, actually listen to us.
I remember the first time we put on the production I was in tears for two days after because of the sense of community: the connections that we made on stage with each other were amazing. It’s just so nice to be able to come here and talk about what you’ve been up to and have those conversations about your job in a safe space, with people you can trust. If you need support you know that they can relate to you, they’ve also been there and done that. We need more communities within sex work, so we can decide what we ought to be doing together. If the English Collective of Prostitutes was a centralised human resources hub for sex workers, that would be amazing.
I do a lot of sexual training work and I have a very large disabled client base. I also work with individuals and couples to help them have better sex. When I told my family, my dad said: “Will it stop the tomatoes from growing in the garden? No? Then don't worry about it!” and my mum said, “I knew you didn’t fix computers!” When I explained to my daughter about my work with disabled clients, she gave me a big kiss and a hug, and said that she was really proud of me.
I’m passionate about what I do: I love sex and I love meeting people. I used to be unbelievably shallow when I was younger – I was a horrible person, and one of the great things about sex work is that it’s opened my eyes to the beauty in everyone. It’s joyous for me. Probably the reason I get called a happy hooker is because I am one!’