Objects of Desire

Raspberry and damson jam. Birch twigs. A souvenir hourglass from Paris, a ‘Fatboy’ penis extender, a soft toy crocodile. These are all objects owned by sex workers, given to them as gifts from clients. Photos of the items- some religious, some domestic, some edible, some stolen from hotels- feature in a project called ‘Objects of Desire’. The project is an online archive of photographed artefacts from around forty contributors, arranged by theme. Exhibited in London’s Red Gallery in Shoreditch last August, the project is ongoing with another exhibition planned for Autumn 2018 after collecting objects and stories from Berlin based sex workers.

Objects of Desire is a collaborative project which began as a way of providing “an alternate narrative of sex work to the binary ‘exploitation versus empowerment’ discourse”, explains Rori from her bedroom in Berlin. She’s a 28 year old sex worker who co-created and curated Objects of Desire early last year with Eva, a London based artist, and Jeeva D, an anthropologist*. At the time, Rori was living in London, completing her MSc in anthropology and doing sex work to support herself.

“Too often there’s this duality of personalities for sex workers,” she says. “Either they hate their job, or they love it. They are a victim, or they are empowered. We get these sensationalised or one dimensional notions of what sex workers are like. We wanted to disrupt those binaries and reflect the multiplicities of identities among sex workers.”

After putting out an open call for objects that would tell the owners’ stories, along with a few words about why the item is significant to them, the donations began arriving. A cat food bowl, digital weighing scales, an endoscopic camera, a pearl thong, a bracelet blessed by monks. As the material objects started to accumulate, many sent in anonymously, it allowed for a conversation to develop about sex work that seemed more truthful. Based on real people, real interactions and real lives. Objects of Desire created a way of reflecting the everyday relations that sex workers have not only with their clients but also with their lovers, families and friends.

Rori donated several of her own items: jars of fancy preserves from a man who was into bodily fluids. Pig shaped salt and pepper shakers that she’s never used but which made her smile every time she did the washing up.

“There are definitely times when I’ve not wanted to keep the gift,” she says. “Maybe the client has crossed a boundary, not necessarily sexually, but emotionally. A gift can sometimes be a way to leverage intimacy, in an almost aggressive way. If I’ve felt they’ve been disrespectful, or maybe pushing for a way to insert themselves into my home that I’m not comfortable with, that’s a reason for me to throw the gift away.”

In Rori’s view, the objects collected so far have the potential to do several things: to show the complex dynamics and power hierarchies that can exist between sex workers and clients, to demonstrate the variety of sex workers everyday experiences, to address some of the more nuanced political issues around gendered labour, and also to provide a way for sex workers to connect with each other. The aim of the project was always to go beyond mere voyeurism, to take things a stage further than simply satisfying the curiosity of the viewer. Objects of Desire challenges the stigma around sex work by challenging the viewer to reflect upon the complex interplay of materiality and emotion at play in all relationships, sexual or otherwise, and shift the conversation from the objectification of people to the social relations of sex work, through these objects.

The aim of the project was always to go beyond mere voyeurism, to take things a stage further than simply satisfying the curiosity of the viewer.

Various grassroots organisations shared similar intentions when they linked up to organise the Sex Workers’ Festival of Resistance in Glasgow. Arika- a progressive, community arts organisation based in Scotland- supported the festival and provided a space for sex workers and their allies to meet up and raise awareness of the issues they face. Over four days, in a collaboration between the Scottish sex worker charity SCOT PEP, the volunteer-led sex worker support group Umbrella Lane and the campaigning collective Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement, the festival created a platform where sex workers could “share knowledge, discuss, debate, dance and strategise on how to protect and support sex workers’ rights”.

The festival screened documentaries from around the world, including the story of Joy- a Nigerian migrant sex worker selling sex in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris- and indigenous trans sex workers who were honoured at a Sisters in Spirit vigil in Toronto, covering issues of trafficking, violence and exploitation. There were panel discussions on topics including ‘Criminalisation of Sex Work: Experiences from Europe’, community talks on ‘LGBTQI People & Sex Worker’s Rights’ and workshops that allowed sex workers to develop skills to advocate more powerfully for legal rights. While many of the events were designed for sex workers only, some of the festival was open to the general public- including “Golden Flux”, a performance by the French artist Marianne Chargois which examined the topic of urophilia, a fetish for urine, and a fundraiser party with DJs.

Siobhan Knox, of Sex Workers’ Opera, performed at the festival on the Friday night. The show, created and performed by sex workers and friends (with a policy of never publicly revealing which of the cast are which), uses music, projections and poetry to tell stories from around the world. The cast is a mixture of cis female, queer and gender non-binary performers, giving a glimpse into the lives of over 50 sex workers from 17 countries. The last performance of Sex Worker’s Opera in Islington was a sell-out, receiving glowing reviews everywhere from VICE to the BBC World Service; so much so they had to extend the run due to huge demand.

“Think about the way sex workers are represented in the films and TV you’ve seen,” suggests Siobhan. “Art and the media have continuously represented sex work in this very clichéd, stereotypical fashion. It plays into extreme stigma. What we’re trying to say with the Opera is that sex work is human and therefore very varied.”

The idea for the show grew out of this frustration with the common portrayals of sex workers in art. “Generally, shows or films are still written by non sex workers, for audiences that aren’t sex workers. The dominant narrative is often written by rich, old white guys. Occasionally sex workers share their experiences, like Brooke Magnanti did with her Belle Du Jour blogs, but we wanted to look at the much broader picture and represent many voices from different people- maybe people who weren’t comfortable performing onstage, or didn’t feel safe revealing their identity, people who couldn’t afford to travel… If our cast is predominantly cis female, for example, that probably reflects a level of privilege amongst the sex workers; that cis women feel safer than, say, trans women.”

As we discuss the topic further, Siobhan suggests that sex work is becoming a practical solution for a growing number of people living in times of austerity. As harsh budget cuts impact particularly strongly on the gay community, ethnic minorities and women, sex work represents a way of making money fast, without papers or a fixed address. The Sex Worker’s Opera website features audio recordings from sex workers who are paid for webcam work, stripping, teasing, porn modelling, escorting and street work.

“Recently we’re hearing more about sugardaddying, or people who are swapping sex for lodgings. Some people may love what they do, for others it can be a way of avoiding homelessness, or fleeing an abusive relationship. There’s this common reaction to try and do the saviour thing- look at how we can get these ‘poor, tragic’ people out of these degrading situations, without really looking at why they got into them in the first place.”

SWARM, a UK based collective led by sex workers, also wanted to drill a bit deeper into what they see as the “un-nuanced discourse” around sex work, and have published a series of zines available to download for free from their website. With titles like ‘Trans Rentboys: love don’t pay the rent’, ‘Whorecore: Fucking Queer and Getting Paid’, and ‘Ho Lover: About Dating and Friending Sex Workers’, they want to pick apart issues of transphobia and whorephobia, while giving a space for sex workers to “unpack baggage” and “create caring considerate environments for those we love who do sex work.”

The zines are part of a library of resources that SWARM provides. They also work with media groups and researchers to encourage responsible reporting of issues around sex work, report on raids and deportations of sex workers, and supply downloadable briefing papers on issues around decriminalisation.

“The laws around sex work are complicated, throwing up unique legal issues,” says Rori, who has experience of both British and German law around sex work.

“Sometimes the hardest part of my job as a sex worker is asserting to people that it is in fact work. Like all work, there is bureaucracy, admin, emotional labour, good days and bad days. There’s this tendency to over simplify everything and give things neat definitions. If we are serious about breaking down social stigma and also creating laws that protect the workers’ rights and also the human rights of sex workers, we need to go beyond the stereotypes.”

words  claire sawers
photography – antonio paredes

Just as Rori believes in the importance of consulting with actual sex workers before making changes to policy and law, she believes that sex workers must be also be consulted when producing art around the topic of sex work.

“You need to talk with the people affected- you don’t add this maternal or paternalistic dimension where you speak about them in a caring way, or a pitying way. That’s when things can either get sensationalised or just plain wrong, which can be dangerous. Wrongly reporting sex work plays into the hands of the right wing enforcers and so called radical feminists who enact laws that endanger sex workers, putting them at higher risk of violence.”

While sex worker organisations around the world continue to fight for decriminalisation as the best method to secure sex workers’ rights and improve working conditions, the art world has an important role to play too, incorporating the voices of sex workers to paint a more honest picture of a still very misunderstood and badly represented section of society.

*The organisers of Objects of Desire prefer not to include their full names due to sensitivity around the project.