Sex work is a complicated thing that has been violently oversimplified by politics, the media, feminism, public health, social welfare, and most other groups of congregating adults. When sex work is a choice made by a consenting adult, why is this choice not respected? What does it mean for a an act to become suddenly criminal when money is exchanged? If sex work is indeed the last refuge of the desperate, how are things improved with criminalization?
Sex work is a broad concept that is rooted in making ones income from the sex industry through direct or indirect means. A sex worker may work over a phone line or a web cam, a sex worker might dance on a stage or make movies, a sex worker may offer spankings or perform in role plays or be spanked, a sex worker might rub the genitals during a massage with a hand or a mouth, a sex worker might have intercourse.
Sex worker solidarity is crucial. Most groups have the tendency to form hierarchies and sex worker circles are no exception. Every sex worker is under enormous pressure from relentless stigma that encompasses all parts of life. Sadly, it is all too common for us to differentiate ourselves from those who are more marginalized as a form of protection. Some forms of sex work are legal but technical legality does not afford social protection. The legal work of performing in adult pictures is considered fair game for employment discrimination with impunity for life, a career as a dancer can impact child custody proceedings. The bonds of love and intimacy are challenged by secondary stigma placed upon our families, friends, and romantic partners. Sex worker rights are predicated upon by sex worker solidarity.
Sex work has a very rich history. In fact, history is not fully told without mention of the way that sex workers have shaped human civilization. Sex workers have offered counsel and companionship to the world’s greatest leaders, provided support, advice, editing, and promotion of many artists and scientists. Sex workers have held the highest political posts and have been highly regarded sacred priests and priestesses. Sex workers have also been condemned and executed as criminals, subject to behavioral modification programs, and infantalized for taking agency over their lives. There is no intrinsic value to sex work that distinguishes it from other forms of consensual labor within a capitalist society. There is only the way we regard our sex workers.
December 17th is a day claimed by sex workers in memorial of the gross acts of violence perpetrated against us for their nature of our income. This violence may include that which is done to us by clients when our lives are obscured at the margins of society and it is the violence of police surveillance, raids, and abuse. It is also the violence of social and familial exclusion and the turned back of the justice system that sees no humanity in our slain bodies.
The majority of the work that went into this installation was spent on researching the names of sex workers and writing them on paper and then suspending them from the twine. There is a mythological idea that we are all immortal so long as someone on earth remains to speak our name. On December 17th, sex workers host vigils and recite the names of those who passed during the year. We grieve our dead, we support one another, we and remember the dignity and value of our lives. I wanted to find the names in my sex worker ancestry and so I turned to ancient bibles in many traditions, examined catalogs of courtesans, consulted with registries for brothels on the American frontier, and I strongly relied on the lists archived by Dec. 17 activists.
This year, one of the higher profile deaths among sex workers was that of a Swedish activist named Jasmine Petite. The Nordic Model of sex work “end demand” campaigns are picking up steam in Europe, a pseudo-compromise to criminalize those who purchase sex rather than those who sell it. This is an ultimately untenable solution that continues to keep sex worker lives in jeopardy. It has no demonstrated efficacy and has not involved sex worker input into consideration or implementation. As seen with Jasmine Petite, who was told that her occupation as a sex worker made her more dangerous to her children than her abusive ex-husband, feminists and social welfare agencies are not listening to or protecting sex workers and are letting stigma interfere with the way they are handling their work. This is inevitable in a climate that favors rescue models rather than extending human rights to sex workers.
This year the SoHo raids were broadcasted around the world when London police coordinated with the media to document the raids of nearly two dozen sex worker flats. In the name of ending human trafficking, undocumented women were detained and now face deportation. Sex workers must navigate the court system to claim their belongings which are now considered evidence. These raids demonstrated the way that the language of trafficking is used to legitimize anti-immigration initiatives, gentrification, glorification of police power, and how sex worker bodies are considered common property for media scandal and punchlines to jokes. Regardless of the language, raids are not rescues. They are violent seizures of person and property made possible by implied or actualized police violence.
Please enjoy the high resolution images from the gallery and a quick video of the installation. It was my honor to be able to focus on this project as an artist-in-residence at the Museumsquartier in Vienna, Austria where I was recommended by Monochrom. I spent a lot of time with my nose in books looking at the history of sex work, much of which has been documented in esoteric spiritual terms. This project is not an endorsement of any given spirituality or religion but does strive to articulate that sex work and faith have not historically been mutually exclusive. Sex work is not an intrinsically immoral occupation and has been considered a sacred vocation in strong and thriving times and places in society.