Posted at 23:47 on 29 May 2014 by Pandora Blake
Tonight I made a last minute decision (prompted by a friend who had a ticket to sell) to go to the Sex Workers' Opera, and I am so glad I did.
Sex workers are often the subjects (or objects) of stories, but are very rarely given the platform to tell their own story on their own terms. There's something profoundly refreshing about watching a sex work narrative unfold without feeling the usual tension; that fear that sex work will be misrepresented, sensationalised, demonised, glamourised; that sex workers will be objectified; that the narrative will hinge around a worker having her (it's always a woman in these stories) professional boundaries broken, or breaking them herself, for lurrrrve. (Show me a mainstream narrative about sex work which is not about this and I will give you a cookie.)
Sitting in the Courtyard Theatre for the Sex Workers' Opera, for the first time I felt that I could trust that whatever stories would be told, they would carry truth, and they would be told respectfully. It was an exhilarating feeling - as was my fizzing excitement to see the venue filling up and know that both nights of this radical new show had sold out. There's something glorious about sitting in a packed theatre knowing that everyone there is either a sex worker or an ally ... and if they weren't the latter already, they probably would be by the end.
This theme of sex workers trying to be heard above the clamour of non-sex workers talking about them runs through the heart of the show. It was at the forefront during the opening number, in which sex workers stepped forward to silence a shrill anti-sex-work feminist with a reversal that must have been very cathartic. "Listen to us", they sang - and we sat, and we listened.
"This project is as much about giving a personal human voice to a team of Sex Workers through workshops as it is about exposing a public audience to a hidden world to challenge stigma and stereotypes." (ClassicFM)
I laughed at the bit in the opening scene, where the cast sing "we get paid to FIST!" and suddenly the chorus breaks apart -
"Fist? It's not fist - it's kiss."
"No, no - it's piss!"
- and then shrug it off, united again as they chorus "Don't be a MISOGYNIST!"
While touching on the vast diversity of sex workers' experience, there is no doubt here that despite our differences, we all share the same fundamental human rights.
An opera based on stories submitted anonymously by people who have a lot to lose will never be fully representative. I know some people didn't send in stories for fear they would be recognised; and the organisers admit that anyone forced into sex work would be unlikely to take part. But if you had any doubts about the wide range of self-determined sex workers who freely choose their work, this opera puts them to rest. The cast take on the role of burlesque performers, escorts, poledancers, strippers, street walkers, pro-dommes and pro subs. The cast included a couple of women of colour, the most striking of whom was a tall, stunningly beautiful trans* woman, who stood out with her lithe dancer's figure and incredible jazz voice. None of the stories were about male sex workers, but this article in the Independent interviews one male sex worker who was a masked member of the cast. It could have been more diverse, but at least it wasn't all cis white women.
I loved the scene where two sex workers identify themselves to each other as queer in the police cell, and discover an instant connection and solidarity. I loved Charlotte Rose's jazz solo in character as a pro-domme who feels empowered in her work, singing about how much she gets out of it, not only fulfilling her clients' fantasies, but satisfying her own needs. Her voice was so strong and so amazing that her unflinching statement "I have power" brought me to tears.
I also cried during the amazing non-verbal poledancing scene set to compelling music by Aurist, which featured incredible dancing in six inch fetish heels. It felt totally appropriate that this part of the story should be told in movement, not words: a tale of performance, injury, sexuality, gender, shaving, pre-set prep and post-shoot fatigue. This scene included unexpected, unashamed nudity which was both sexual and non-sexual in different places, and physical performances so compelling that the whole theatre fell silent.
There were stories about street workers helping clients fix their marriages; about the arguments we have with radfems; about good clients and tiresome clients; about being disempowered by the law, but empowered by the work. Stories about self-actualisation, independence and personal freedom.
There were ambiguities too. For instance, there were interesting grey areas in the scene in which an escort argues with her lover. I wasn't sure whether he was meant to be a boyfriend who wanted to "rescue" her and was trying to get her to stop working, or a client who wanted her to sleep with him for free, who had bought the fantasy that she was selling him. He ended up paying her, but to me, some of the lines definitely sounded like a whorephobic partner, and others like a whorephobic client. Perhaps the point was that after a while, those two attitudes start to sound the same.
The other scene I wasn't quite sure how to interpret was co-director Siobhan Knox's solo about being a professional submissive. At least I think it was about pro-subbing - it wasn't entirely clear whether she was with a client or whether it was a scene from her personal life. Siobhan gave an unsettling performance kneeling, facing the audience, singing while a masked man behind her flogged and strapped her all over her body. It was a hugely personal scene. Her voice shook movingly with nerves as she started singing about the way submission is perceived, as abuse and mistreatment. I found myself rooting for her, and was thrilled as her voice found strength and clarity and the song took on a stronger quality, becoming about what she gets out of submission and how it makes her feel. She ended singing the refrain "all eyes are on me, and I feel free" while other cast members came in and started rhythmically smacking her all over her body. It was a powerful, personal piece of theatre, and I think overall it was an affirmation of the right to choose, but I wasn't entirely sure. From a selfish point of view however I was very pleased to see both pro-doms and pro-subs given a voice.
While a two hour show could never hope to tell every sex work story, this was an excellent start. A couple of scenes opened up the stage to different, overlapping stories, in which sex workers discussed the law, the Nordic model, brothel-keeping regulations and our human rights. One spoken word performance of this poem challenged radical feminists:
She stood in front of me and told me I had sold myself, I confusedly answered "But I'm still here," but she just ignored me, as though I wasn't.
It ended with, "Stop sadly singing my elegy. Radical notion: listen to me."
Another scene told stories in whispers as women moved among the audience and told their tales in low, intimate tones to different individuals, creating a susurration of barely-audible storytelling which was brutally interrupted by a re-enactment of the Soho brothel raids. As sex workers were expressing their humanity on a face-to-face, personal level, they were dragged screaming out of the crowd by cast members dressed as cops. They begged to be listened to as they were ignored and informed they were trafficked and were being arrested "for their safety". A reporter darted onto the stage and snapped photos of the restrained women as cops held them to the floor.
The show closed with a mashup of camgirl contributions, a sequence of recordings submitted by cammers across the world, which all ended with the words "Listen to me.. listen to me... listen to me...". That refrain was picked up and echoed by the whole cast in the final chorus. Inviting the audience to join in and repeat the words, the cast walked towards and alongside us, still singing, and looked us, one by one, in the eye, singing Listen. To. Me.
I find it hard to imagine how anyone could watch this and not comprehend that sex workers are multi-dimensional human beings, all different, but very much endowed with agency and independent thought. It seems likely that SWERFs will still find a way to deny sex worker self-determination and credit this production to the "pimp lobby", but nothing could be further from the truth. This collaborative, grassroots production is a modern piece of multimedia theatre, incredibly rehearsed and performed in a single week. The Sex Workers' Opera gives sex workers a space to tell their stories to each other, and to the world. Listen to them.