Sex work has long been a contentious issue – divisive for feminists and policy makers alike.
The adoption of the “Nordic model” in Northern Ireland and France – criminalising clients rather than sex workers themselves – chimes with a growing consensus that the purchasing of sex constitutes a form of male sexual violence against women.
But many disagree with this focus – especially organisations representing sex workers, who oppose legislators, NGOs and campaigners seeking to “save” sex workers without asking them what they really want. “Rights not rescue” has become the central slogan of this movement. Its advocates point out how criminalisation only sends sex workers underground, exposing them to new dangers.
In the UK things could go either way. There is very definitely a tendency towards decriminalisation, with a recently created safe zone in Leeds effectively legalising sex work. And yet the counter movement is just as strong, as the recent spat within the Labour Party over Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-decriminalisation remarks revealed.
With a select committee having just met to discuss the UK’s prostitution laws, everything hangs in the balance.
So what role can the arts play?
This is a question that the theatre company Experimental Experience has long been asking itself – leading it to create Sex Workers’ Opera. The show is being performed in London this month having already gained widespread media attention.
Experimental Experience is a company that works on the borderline between activism and art. In the past, its work has involved occupying public spaces, and creating performances in conjunction with anti-austerity campaigns.
Sex Workers’ Opera is the end result of a long process of working with sex work activist groups in UK, including the Sex Workers Open University, x:talk and the English Collective of Prostitutes. Groups providing services to sex workers outside the UK, including Project X from Singapore, and Fundación Margen from Chile, were also involved. Its makers also conducted a series of interviews through activist forums, escort forums and webcam sites.
Having spent months gathering together stories, the group then set up a creative team with a policy that a minimum of 50% of the company, including the design and technical team, would be sex workers. The show itself is a multimedia, interactive piece, combining musical numbers and storytelling. Its central and most powerful moments are the anecdotes, creative writing and social commentaries provided by sex workers.
Clearly, then, this show is more than just issue-based theatre. It’s about giving a voice to sex workers. Crucially – by revealing a striking consensus in opposition to the Nordic model – it demonstrates the radical possibilities of doing so.
As such, it can be seen to represent a wider development within verbatim theatre, in which the form is being adopted by companies hoping to directly instigate social change.
There were three playwrights who really helped to raise the profile of verbatim theatre at its inception. These were Moisés Kaufman (who wrote The Laramie Project in 2000 after conducting hundreds of interviews in Wyoming in the wake of a vicious hate crime), David Hare (whose 2003 The Permanent Way was another verbatim play about the privatisation of the railways) and Robin Soans (whose 2005 Talking to Terrorists interweaves the voices of former terrorists with victims of terrorism).
Today, the verbatim form is an essential feature of the UK’s theatre landscape. The National Theatre in particular has staged a series of very popular plays in recent years, from Dv8’s 2014 John (about gay saunas) to Nicholas Kent’s 2016 Another World (about Islamic State).
Sex Workers’ Opera is significant because it represents a countercultural fringe movement increasingly taking ownership of the verbatim form. Just in the past year in London, this has included shows about Syria, the housing crisis and chemsex (by Dragonflies Theatre – a company I am joint artistic director of).
As with shows by Dv8 and Out of Joint, work like this platforms a multiple and diverse range of typically marginalised voices. Where it distinguishes itself from these earlier examples is that among its makers are campaigners, journalists and members of protest groups – people directly invested in the issues they are exploring. The work is consequently less dispassionate than its antecedents: engaged, instead, in the business of determining common objectives.
The significance of shows such as Sex Workers’ Opera is not just that they reflect a desire to rectify an under-representation of marginal and oppressed groups by offering them a platform, in common with most mainstream verbatim shows. It is that they speak of a growing belief – in an age of rising inequality and prejudice – in the radical potential of doing so.