Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Prostitution: What's Going On?

This is the title of a stunning exhibition at The Women's Library that runs till the end of the month. I'll admit to visiting it during a period in which I've been reading drug memoir after drug memoir in preparation for an academic paper I was giving, and, having spent the last few months reading about sex workers and other substance users, I was not expecting to be moved. I was wrong.

As usual, the Library has made the most of its small exhibition space. As well as the expected historically significant portraits, posters and publications on display, there are several interactive exhibits, including a puzzle in which you have to guide a silver ball past all the obstacles to getting out of sex work and a couple of telephone booths where you could listen to sound recordings through the handsets. An area has been set aside for specially-commissioned films expressing the feelings of sex workers, made in conjunction with women from the Poppy Project.

The exhibit that almost moved me to tears, though, was a simple list of female sex workers who had been killed in recent years. In between the exhibition board's being printed and the computer-based exhibit's being shown Ipswich had taken place, upping the number of casualties from 48 to 53. I'd been exposed to the depressing statistics about the murder of sex workers before - you're more likely to die in service as a prostitute in the UK than you are if you're a fire-fighter, but far less likely to hit the headlines. However, seeing a bald list of women in scrolling black text on a white screen in one corner of the exhibition space really took me by surprise ... especially with that increased figure.

The Library has highlighted several discussion points, with space for visitors to leave comments on cards pinned on boards in the exhibition hall. The question that was attracting most responses when I visited was why are there so many names for female sex workers and so few for the men who sell or buy sex from them? This was illustrated by three bright pink mannequins, one female covered in text and the other two male, with only three texts on them (exhibition photos here). The comment cards ranged from the outraged to the amused, and included lots from young people who believe they are restituting words like 'ho' and giving it a post-feminist non-offensive spin.

Young people's views are also on display in the form of creative writing from projects run by Barnardos in conjunction with the exhibition. All the young women and both the young men involved were identified as at risk of sexual exploitation, and their work ranged from decorated T-shirts through poems to diaries. In contrast to the films about trafficked women whose lives had been indelibly marked by their unwilling involvement in the sex trade, these diaries show 'typical' teen concerns ... though peppered with some disturbing incidents. Their hopes have not been crushed.

Of course, not all women involved in the sex industry are involved against their will, and the exhibition reflects this - even showing the award for Sex Worker of the Year with a quote from the 2005 winner, who says that the impact of the work on her life has been positive. It's all too easy to classify all sex workers as victims.

Where do you stand in the sex work debates? Are you worried about your neighbourhood or the trafficking of women across the world? What about the clients? And sexually transmitted diseases? Is life better for women in countries where it's legal? Or does it just lead to two 'classes' of prostitute - the professional with her comfortable rooms and social security number and the street worker having to turn tricks for whatever she can get? Is it time that the stigma was lost ... or transferred to the clients?

Recent Bestselling Memoirs by Sex Workers

Brown, Cupcake (2006) A piece of cake: a memoir. London: Bantam. ISBN 9780553818178.

Coombs, Rhea with Taylor, Diane (2007) My name is Angel. London: Virgin. ISBN 9781852273668.

Holden, Kate (2007) In my skin. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 1841989316.

The Exhibition Prostitution: What's Going On? has been nominated for the prestigious Gulbenkian Prize. This is the first time a library has been in the running. You can find out more and show your support via links from the homepage.