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.

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