Wednesday, 15 June 2011

London's first Sex Worker Film Festival

"Hard to believe it's the first, isn't it? We've been having sex for years." (The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence).

London’s first Sex Worker Film Festival took place last Sunday at the Rio Cinema in Dalston. The audience were a strange mix of male and female sex workers (some in wigs and masks to avoid identification), activist, allies and the incurably curious.

The event was held as a fundraiser for the Sex Worker Open University which will take place in September. Before the short films were shown, the audience were treated to such delights as a man dressed as a nun (one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) fellating a dildo before ‘educating’ the audience on how best to put a condom on using only one’s mouth. Personally, I felt his technique lacked finesse and concluded the boy needed more practise.

The first film in the programme was ’69 Things I Love About Sex Work’ (Canada, 2006). This was a clever film to open with as it was the only piece that was sexually explicit. Over footage of various sex workers with their clients, a list of 69 quite light-hearted reasons why sex work is enjoyable were printed. They ranged from ‘toys’ to ‘referrals’, from ‘room service’ to ‘bi-curious wives’ (this last one raised a laugh). At this point I feared that the festival might simply be a collective ‘cheerleading for sex work’ event, and one which didn’t grapple with any difficult issues. Thankfully I was to be proved wrong.

Onto the second film, ‘Hands Off! (UK, 2011), and already we were into more complex territory. This film deals with the ‘nil policy’ introduced by Hackney Council, allowing no ‘sex encounter’ establishments in the borough, meaning striptease clubs like the long-established Browns were faced with closure. The film includes interviews with strippers at the aforesaid club, as well as the two women who run it. They were keen to stress that this is work they enjoy, and that they feel safe and protected whilst working.

The most interesting contribution though was from Reverend Paul Turp of the Shoreditch Church, who approves of the clubs as they are well-regulated and largely well-run. His comment that “the people who say they want no sex establishments, they’re good moral people, but it’s not going to work” struck me as both enlightened and a good summing up of the argument for decriminalising sex work generally.

Another film, however, problematised the issue of decriminalisation. ‘Ni Coupables, Ni Victimes’ (Not Guilty, Not Victims (Europe, 2006)). Filmed at the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration in Brussels in 2005, it was composed of interviews with sex workers (male, female, transgender) from around the world. (One of them, a French transgender sex worker, also proudly announced that she is an elected French Green Party representative, which of course impressed me!). It was particularly interesting to hear what the legal situation is in each country, and whether or not it worked.

In Denmark, for example, sex workers are supposed to register and pay tax, which gives them legitimacy but also, inevitably, no privacy. This means that people often do not register themselves. In this country, and others where sex work is regulated, workers often resent the tight laws and constant health testing that is required in order to work legally, and so often choose to work outside the law. So laws which are put in place in order to protect sex workers are, by some at least, neatly circumnavigated, rendering them useless.

Clearly, there is no one system which is perfect, and which would make sex work completely safe nor, because of societal conditioning around sex and morality, uncontroversial work. However, I remain convinced that the Green Party approach of decriminalisation, despite its problems (another one of which might be that the most vulnerable women, i.e. those selling sex on the streets, often to finance drug habits, wouldn’t be deemed ‘suitable’ for working in clean, well-regulated brothels) is the best – or perhaps the ‘least worst’ - solution to an issue that isn’t ever going to go away.

‘Sex Worker Open University’ (UK, 2009) was filmed at the first event of its kind in London, where over two hundred sex workers and allies from the UK and abroad took part in workshops, discussions and actions. An interesting point was made in this film about trafficked workers, and the fact that the textiles and agricultural industry make a lot of use of such labour, but it is the sex industry where there is an outcry about the issue. Why is this? Clearly, it’s because sex work is seen as more exploitative – and I agree that there may be a point there – though harvesting spring onions in a blizzard twelve hours a day on a slave wage/no wage doesn’t sound like a picnic either. And of course we’re all culpable in this as most of us shop at supermarkets and enjoy price reductions that this sort of labour makes possible.

I found it refreshing when, in a discussion which took place at the event between sex workers, one woman asserted that they had to be honest that some clients were “misogynist murderers” but there was a pressure on workers not to admit this, as it would be used by people who were against decriminalisation. Instead, there is an emphasis on saying how empowering and enjoyable sex work is, when of course, like any job, it isn’t fun 100% of the time. Indeed, much of the time it can be frightening and dangerous, a situation greatly exacerbated by the current legal situation in this country.

There were other films I haven’t discussed here, and the festival also included a panel discussion. The directors of several of the films, the coordinator of the festival (Dr Heidi Hoefinger), plus a sex worker and a stripteases artist attempted to answer some very tough questions from the audience. The first two questions were about trafficking, a subject that really seems to dominate the issue of sex work, and for good reason. The problem was that the panel had very little knowledge of and no experience of trafficking, and so were slightly at a loss when it came to answering these questions in any depth.

What became increasingly clear to me was that sex workers who have gone into the sex industry of their own volition cannot speak for trafficked sex workers/slaves. Similarly, anti-decriminalisation campaigners who purport to speak for trafficked sex workers/slaves cannot also speak for sex workers who are doing this work of their own free will. To categorise both sets of workers as in the same position is both erroneous and harmful, and results in either trafficked workers being dismissed as not existing/being a tiny minority of sex workers, or all sex workers being viewed as victims.

The festival was definitely a stimulating and alternative way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and it was good to see the event was completely sold out. What’s for certain is that for me at least it raised far more questions than it answered, though that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Body 'watchfulness': a pregnant pause

Pregnancy can be an alarming process. At perhaps no other time does your body change so swiftly and so radically. As women, we are conditioned to be ‘watchful’ of our bodies, forever checking that we haven’t put on weight/sprouted unacceptable hair/our clothes are well-fitting, age-appropriate, flattering and fashionable/our hair and make-up hasn’t utterly disgraced us in some unimaginable way.

With pregnancy, a woman has to accept that there is no way she can control her body in the way she has been used to doing. Hormonal changes alone will mean weight gain and a complete change of shape. This shouldn’t be distressing, but so often is. Plus, there is always another woman who seems to be doing pregnancy ‘better’ than oneself; she will remain immaculate and her neat little bump will be the only outward bodily change visible.

Pregnancy magazines, which are primarily designed to sell STUFF, don’t help the self-conscious expectant mother either. They’re full of ‘sexy maternity underwear’ (is there any time in the lives of women where they are ‘allowed’ to be unsexy?), and also healthy diet tips, ostensibly there to promote healthy ante-natal nutrition, but clearly with a nod to the weight-conscious woman. Articles ‘warning’ women about hidden calories, with tips about healthier snacking, only serve to guilt-trip women who may be reaching for sugary snacks because of low blood pressure or terrible pregnancy sickness. We all know, surely, that an apple is healthier than a donut – we don’t need it ramming down our throats (I don’t mean literally!).

I recall seeing a full-page piece about a post-natal corset (all black satin and red ribbons). The theory was that if you didn’t strap your ribs down after birth, fat would build up behind your rib cage. Hmm, I’d like to see the science behind that…are we talking about fat lungs here?! Yeah, that definitely sounds like something to worry about. Honestly, what garbage!

As an overweight teenager, and then later a self-conscious woman, I too find the prospect of piling on a few stone a difficult one to tolerate. As much as one tells oneself ‘I’m pregnant, this is what happens’, ‘This shouldn’t be a concern right now – having a healthy baby is more important’, it is difficult to shift a lifetime of conditioning, and it would take a stronger mind than mine to be completely free of this nonsense.

One thing I have learnt is this: after having my daughter in 2007 (and at the height of that pregnancy weighing, as I recall, 14 stone 4 lbs – of which my daughter made up 10 lbs 9 oz!), my self-consciousness and weight-obsessiveness diminished (though sadly didn't disappear entirely) a huge amount. Why? Well, I think I was kind of happy to just let my body ‘be’; it had done something pretty amazing, and I wasn’t going to give it such a hard time anymore. This didn’t mean I didn’t diet and go to the gym to lose the baby weight – I did, but I wasn’t going to go down the ‘I hate my body’ route any longer. I simply couldn’t hate something that had produced someone I love so much.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Horse Riding in Haringey

Here's a curious - and brilliant - idea: horse riding in Haringey. Resident Lydia Rivlin has long encouraged horse riding in the borough, providing ponies for kids to ride, at, for example, the Lordship Lane Festival. Lydia believes that all children should have the opportunity to ride, not just those with rich parents.

Her latest idea is an excellent one - I'll let Lydia explain:

'For those of you contemplating long drives out to Enfield to satisfy your kids' ambitions to ride, think how much more carbon and time efficient it would be to have riding right here in this borough. We have cricket pitches, football fields, gymnasia, tennis courts and golf clubs all catering for sports dominated by men and boys. Riding is a sport which appeals very strongly to girls and gives them a chance to shine. It is also an opportunity to give the disabled some good exercise and psychological therapy. Why are the Council not making the most of their parkland resources to help it along?

'As some of you may know, I have been lobbying the council to lease part of Alexandra Park to any company which is prepared to make a go of it as an equestrian centre. The interest from the councillors on the AP Trust has left something to be desired but interest from us ordinary folks has been phenomenal. We are holding a meeting in the Salisbury in Harringay (corner of Green Lanes & St. Ann's Road) on the evening of Wednesday 15th June and would welcome anyone who has ideas for furthering this project or who wants to show some support. All are invited, especially Trust members but also Councillors who have an interest in diversifying Haringey's programmes for fitness, youth welfare and sports for the disabled.'

I completely agree that Ally Pally would be a good place for this facility. Indeed, it has a 'horsey history', housing as it did a race course until 1970. I can also attest to the popularity of horse riding amongst girls; as a decidedly unsporty youth, I nevertheless enjoyed going riding every weekend for years. My daughter (pictured above, enjoying some pony time last summer in Norfolk) is also keen on the sport, and I'd like to be able to encourage her without having to trek out of London or pay a fortune for the privilege.

Here's to a good turnout for the meeting, and to the council daring to 'think outside the box' for a change!