‘Workers!’: Destigmatising the sex industry through the arts

Zoe Whitfield

Zoe Whitfield on the new film that gives sex workers in Scotland a voice

27 November 2018 13:07

In Workers! we are privy to a domesticated scene that could be any church hall meeting (it’s actually the Scottish Trades Union Congress): fruit is washed, cups are selected, biscuits are arranged. Aesthetically more sterile than perhaps your typical village group setting, the film’s visual language speaks to community and camaraderie, while the voiceover’s talk about issues at work: a quiet period over summer, the upheaval of moving house, taking time out.

The film is the first product of Nothing about us without us, a long-term collaborative project that engages with film and questions how people act politically when stigma prevents them from being public, orchestrated by Edinburgh-based non-profit Collective, between Swedish artist and filmmaker Petra Bauer and Scottish charity SCOT-PEP. Despite the familiar setting, however, throughout the documentary there are signifiers that allude to the real conversations from which the film arrived and to which SCOT-PEP gives its time, promoting the rights, safety and health of sex workers, aligning them with workers in other professional sectors, and demanding the full decriminalisation of sex work.

‘SCOT-PEP gets quite a lot of requests,’ explains Molly Smith, a sex worker, activist and, most recently, co-author of Revolting Prostitutes (2018), a fantastic and necessary book on the fight for sex workers’ rights. ‘You know, prostitution’s very… people want to make a lot of art about it and a lot of that is quite bad art – or sounds like it would be bad art – and we don’t have the capacity to reply to everyone, let alone meet them or actually do something with them.’

Unfamiliar both with Petra’s work – which focuses on contemporary and historical movements and forms of female resistance, using film as a political tool – and Collective, Smith and another sex worker found the ideas they put forward interesting still and their attention to gaining the organisation’s trust commendable, and so entered into this unique alliance three years ago.

The arts make room for complexity in a way that some other things don’t. That’s really valuable.

Petra’s prior knowledge of sex work was similarly lacking. Invited to Edinburgh by Collective for research and meetings, it was only after early conversations with SCOT-PEP that the possibility of making a film developed. ‘From the beginning, we said that we need to make it together, otherwise it’s impossible,’ she says of her commitment to a full collaboration; an earlier film with the Southhall Black Sisters, Sisters!, followed a similar type and the latter’s title can be viewed as in conversation with the previous work. ‘I’m not interested in making a film about SCOT-PEP, really we address the politics of SCOT-PEP, and when you work together like that, it goes back and forth. That has been crucial.’

‘It’s been quite organic,’ agrees Sally, another sex worker and the concluding party to our conversation. Informal workshops initiated the process, with members of SCOT-PEP and other sex workers discussing ideas and offering their concerns. ‘A lot of the time, people are interested in sex work in a voyeuristic and quite sensationalised kind of way, and it never felt like that. It was very social – sex work is quite an isolating form of work – so it was a lovely thing for us all to come together and share experiences.’

For Smith, a vocal part of SCOT-PEP, the project largely coincided with writing Revolting Prostitutes – which feeds into the film quite wonderfully, the screen acting as a counterpart to the page in regard to the topic – but this meant that she was ‘real stressed all the time. I remember yapping at Petra about borders [a chapter in the book] for 90 minutes.’ Ultimately, this served the group well, making room for others within the charity to become more involved, she suggests. (Later she will describe how working on the film became a richer form of community building than other practices performed by the group).

‘It was super interesting, because you were so into that subject and that just fed into the conversations that we were having,’ acknowledges Petra. ‘It’s one of the first projects [that I’ve worked on] where I’ve felt there was a real exchange; we exchanged both sex worker politics, but also, I shared knowledge about filmmaking – we had this crash course in political film making. That was super nice, because it created a common framework, which I think was so important.’

‘Yeah, before Petra first came to us, I definitely had no sense of what a film could really be if it wasn’t just like, a movie,’ Molly concurs. Discussion of this kind is lifted from the workshops and directly spoken about in Workers!, with references made to other political films such as Les Prostituées de Lyon Parlent (Carole Roussopoulos), the 1975 documentary which looks at the occupation by 200 sex workers of the St. Nizier church, following sex worker murders in the city and subsequent police harassment, which remains a common practice today. Chantal Akerman’s arthouse film from the same year, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commence, 1080 Brussels – named as the ‘first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema’ by The New York Times in its release year – was another piece of this research.

In this vein, how do the women feel film and the wider creative arts are placed to serve political issues such as sex workers’ rights? ‘The arts make room for complexity in a way that some other things don’t. That’s really valuable,’ advises Molly. ‘There’s something about the value in people working together on a creative project that is different from working together on more, capital P political projects. The sex worker movement is quite productive in terms of producing artistic content of various kinds. When I said about people wanting to make art about prostitution, sex workers are also some of those people – it’s a really rich terrain of money and power and capitalism and womanhood and masculinity and race and all of those things, in the pot that comprises prostitution.’

Petra meanwhile, stresses that Workers! is not a campaign film, it doesn’t set out to directly change politics – in the way, say, a film with plainly instructional language might – ‘but I think it can trigger or generate a more complex conversation, and that’s what is so necessary. So, the effect might not be tomorrow, but it adds another layer to an existing conversation, in the best case scenario.’ There is a lot of space left, Sally coincides, for people to think about what’s being said. It’s subtle, even if you can instantly read the red umbrella motif (first used as a symbol of sex workers’ rights by protestors in Venice in 2002), it doesn’t shout.

A migrant sex worker voices her concerns about going to the police regarding a stalker – she’s learnt from experience.

A further subtlety of the film is the race issue: black sex workers are one of society’s most marginalised groups. Like many areas of the movement, the film is made up of self-elected individuals, those with the time and energy to contribute, and, ultimately, who are the least at risk. While in one sequence a migrant sex worker voices her concerns about going to the police regarding a stalker – she’s learnt from experience the outcome will most likely see her criminalised – the perceived make-up of the film is otherwise unrepresentative of the wider sex worker community. And the team are well aware of this.

‘Obviously, not everyone in the community is white, and we wrestled with that, but that was how that figured out,’ Molly responds. ‘We had a bunch of conversations about whether or not to explicitly address it in the film, and in the end we didn’t.’ In many ways, by not addressing it, the subject is quietly addressed. ‘You want people to ask why it’s less of a risk for we who are white,’ stresses Petra. ‘Within that there is also a privileged position which has to do with structures, how structures function, and that’s really important. Why are we able to speak and other voices are not?’

In April 2019, the film will be part of a broader exhibition at Collective’s new space on Calton Hill. It is also scheduled to be screened at Edith-Russ-Haus in Germany and will act as learning tool with Edinburgh Art College. ‘We want it to be able to circulate within the sex worker movement as well as within the arts with different aims,’ addresses Petra of the footage’s subsequent positioning. ‘So one is to see if we can actually, for a more general or an art audience, make the image more complex of the politics of sex work, and relate it to other forms of work on a visual level. In order to discuss sex work, one has to relate it to other forms of feminised and precarious labour, and I think that this was also what we wanted to address with the way we set up the film, it’s a lot of feminised labour – you clean and prepare food – and the idea was of course to link these forms of labour.’

This association with reproductive labour brought Silvia Federici – a leading figure within the Wages for Housework campaign, which explicitly connected house work with sex work during the 1970s – to Edinburgh, invited by Collective to join Molly, Petra and Sally on a panel at the premiere of Workers!. Screened in the city last weekend, the event ran in tandem with the Scottish Labour Women’s conference, at which, to the delight of those gathered in Edinburgh, the women voted against the Sex Buyer Law for Scotland, which would introduce the Nordic Model. The framework, currently in place in Sweden, Ireland and France, criminalises those who buy sex work but not sex workers, in practice further endangering those selling sex, driving them to take bigger risks with potentially more dangerous clients.

‘The mainstream idea in Sweden is that whatever we do, we should make sex work go away,’ Petra tells me ahead of the vote, ‘but it doesn’t link sex work to other forms of structure, so this idea that it would just vanish is stupid. Poverty won’t vanish. The reason people enter sex work, because they need money, that won’t go away. That’s something I learnt, to link those two. If someone just understands that [from the film], then personally, I’d be super happy.’