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.


Laura said...

I've been doing quite a lot of work for Amnesty International in my capacity as a writer in the creative department of a fundraising agency. Amnesty is focussing on trafficking for many of their fundaraising campaigns. Like Anne, I can often feel as if I'm suffering from compassion fatigue. But the facts are truly shocking and this is an extremely important topic that is often overlooked. Go see the exhibtion while you can, and if you can. And donate to Amnesty's Stop Violence Against Women campaign too - http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10314

Anonymous said...

I think we need to ask two questions:
1) How do we stop the slave trade?

2) Does legalizing sex work lessen violence and improve conditions? Including, possibly, helping stop the slave trade?

Valerie said...

3 years ago I visited Kalgoorlie, the first gold mining town in Australia when travelling by train from Perth to Adelaide. It was a midnight coach tour to see the working mine and included a stop outside what we were told were the only 2 legal brothels remaining in Australia. There is still a pragmatic attitude in this town where the main employment is male and miles from anywhere!

Should there be legalised brothels? I think so, but we have the conundrum that it should be the women who decide and since in legal terms they do not have rights they presumably cannot be canvassed?

Did I not here of a Sexworkers Union however? Does anyone know their view?

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a very interesting piece on the age old question of whether women go into prostition by choice or by fate. Would love to be able to attend the exhibition but it will have to wait until my next visit to London, but will definately try to get to the Womens Library.

Hannah Davey said...

I’m not sure where I stand on this.

When I was younger, I remember, I used to think there was ‘nothing wrong with it’ and it was ‘the oldest profession in the world’. I was not (and am still not) at all informed on the topic, but was rather fond of being controversial. Also, I had a very naïve underdeveloped sense of morality.

Now, I have quite a strong sense of morality with regards to my own actions, but I do try not to judge others on theirs because it’s not my place. I tend not to comment on issues where I know I’m ignorant. I justify it by intending to swot up, and this doesn’t always happen. So in this instance, I won’t comment as such, and will try to swot up. But I will tell of a few experiences I have had living in London, perhaps they in themselves are something to add to the debate?

I would ask the reader to bear in mind that, as uniformed-on-the-topic as I am, I’m not up on what is the correct language to use, so I’m just going to say what comes out and no offence is intended:

• In 1996 I first came to London, to go to university. I was 19 and from a small Sussex seaside town. Not very ‘street’. My flatmate at the time was also 19, from a slightly bigger north of London town, and also not very ‘street’. We lived a 10 minute walk up Edgware Road (a big main road coming off Marble Arch) just after the flyover. And, she one night, walked home. On the way, she was stopped by the police and asked what she was doing. Confused, she replied that she was walking home. They explained that it was a well-known red-light area. She was wearing jeans and a jacket, she totally didn’t look at all like a prostitute. She was also pretty offended and a bit upset that they stopped her, affronted that they thought she might be a prostitute. We didn’t walk home again at night that way, which we probably oughtn’t have been doing anyway, what with it being LONDON at NIGHT, but, like I said, we weren’t very ‘street’.
• In 1999ish, I went on a backpacking holiday to Egypt with my boyfriend at the time and another friend. I was respectful of the culture there, and despite it being unbearably hot, I covered up to the wrist and ankle and did not wear anything low cut. But still, I got hissed at all the time. And sometimes spat at. And in some hotels, they wouldn’t let my boyfriend and I share a room as we weren’t married. We ended up lying and saying that we were, because otherwise it gave a green light to men to hassle me. I had heard that there, they see western women as prostitutes, but it wasn’t till experiencing these attitudes personally (and I hadn’t really experienced sexism at all on any level before then) that I really thought about how our society views prostitutes here. I was in their eyes, exactly the same. I felt affronted.
• In 2007, a month ago, I left London to live in an intentional community in rural Wales, and volunteer at the CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology). About two years ago, I finally wised up and got ‘street’. Having been mugged for the third time, I realised that being streetwise, means keeping myself safe. So, just before I left London, I was walking along Bethnal Green Road, going home, at night, but sticking to my rules: before 11pm, and only on the busiest routes. I saw a woman, probably early twenties (I’m 29 now) in a red minidress, hanging around, and then she went down an alley with a man in an business suit, loosened tie, untucked shirt, etc, and they spoke for a bit and then he came out again. I know this because he was behind me. I walked a bit quicker.

I have several other equally clichéd stories, that happened throughout the decade I lived in London. I lived in the east end, for the best part of it, which is where the Women’s Library is. It’s easy to become desensitized when you see something on a daily basis. I doubt I would have commented even, if I still lived there.

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