Feature: Unconventional Opera: Removing the Stigma Surrounding Sex Work

In the final leg of its tour of the UK, the Sex Worker’s Opera has garnered a huge and passionate response in its various incarnations since 2014. Siobhan Knox, one of the directors, describes the kind of reaction the team behind the show – sex workers themselves, and their supporters – are most satisfied by. “In a show, we overheard an audience member in the interval say ‘They haven’t convinced me yet,’ and her friend replied ‘No, but it does make you think, doesn’t it?’”

The cast and crew of the Sex Worker’s Opera aren’t aiming for a uniform response to their show, or for their audience to all reach the same stance; they know that those who come to see it will be from vastly different backgrounds, experiences, and politics, but by making them listen to what sex workers have to say, they achieve something impressive. The predictable sensationalism which accompanies its performances (“Real Sex Workers Singing!”) is largely shaken off by now, as is the bizarre accusation of somehow being the work of pimps, or funded by the pimp lobby. From sex workers themselves, there has been a real gratitude at seeing this representation of their work and role in fearless terms.

The wide variety of the narratives included in the Sex Worker’s Opera are striking, and allow for the cast (half of whom are ‘out’ as having experience in sex work) to sharply critique the treatment of vulnerable sex workers by clients, the general public, and the government. Knox is clear that raids against brothels allow the government to use the concept of ‘saving’ sex workers to enforce an often racist agenda, which in turn leads to the deportation of migrant workers. Depicting this in the show, to distressing effect, ensures that where this issue might be passed over, it is instead amplified.

The show has changed with the cast developing it, Knox notes. “Every time we include a new member we make space within the show for them to add their own story, or a story of their choosing.” This has led to the current show’s emphasis on austerity and its positioning of sex work as one of the few viable options for working class mothers, and a new scene concerning the UK’s restrictive porn laws which disproportionately affect feminist and queer porn rather than mainstream (and more often misogynist) porn. Including these varied stories into the tapestry of the Sex Worker’s Opera means that people leave the show with their preconceptions of what actually constitutes sex work challenged, for example – in a world where the webcam industry alone was estimated to be earning $1 billion in 2015.

Knox is careful to note that capitalism necessarily complicates the element of choice when it comes to sex work, with the result that minorities have far more limited options than others: “Sex work, like other work, is gendered and racialised.” She recounts a story sent to them and included in the production’s run at the Pleasance in which a non-binary person of colour with two sex work personas online – a very feminine one and a more masculine one – received an email inquiring after a threesome with both workers. There was no possibility for this person to be honest about their entire gender identity in their work, and they were also unavoidably fetishised a great deal as a person of colour.

The attention which the Sex Worker’s Opera gives to accounts like this – small, humanising and funny details which would fall outside of other musical productions’ interests – lead to an unparalleled representation of what it means to be a sex worker. Knox suspects that there are a few “nuanced, truthful sex worker characters in theatre and musicals,” but hasn’t seen many. The figures which spring immediately to mind from fiction (Les Miserables, Pretty Woman, Moulin Rouge!) tend to serve a didactic purpose, and are either saved or die. And these two inescapable endings are far from harmless: “The reality is that they reinforce extreme stigma – and stigma causes violence. Stigma means sex workers don’t feel safe reporting violence. Stigma causes people to be isolated from their families. causes bad policy, bad law making and encourages people to view sex workers as two dimensional “others” instead of real human beings – mothers, daughters, brothers, lovers.”

Knox is not only proud of what the show itself has done so far, but also the access and activism work that has accompanied it; taking the Sex Worker’s Opera on tour after three successful London runs meant that sex workers around the UK, not merely in the capital, could get involved in their workshops. The production is soon to start a sex worker arts and artist blog, promoting more sex worker-led art, and their first night in London, a free night for sex workers and their community groups only, was “electric, so supportive.” Knox looks with admiration at the work organisations such as the Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) and the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) are achieving, such as last year convicting a serial rapist who specifically targeted sex workers, in the first ever private prosecution for rape in England and Wales.

The Sex Worker’s Opera stands, with these efforts and other theatrical productions such as You Should See The Other Guy’s Land of the Three Towers (about the Focus E15 occupation of empty council houses) as a pressing example of the power unfettered, uncensored storytelling has as “a way to spread, continue and celebrate resistance.” Its continuing existence and adaption is a testament to those who inspire and contribute to it with their lives.

Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking is a small person, full of hate, who lives and writes in London. He likes to go to the theatre and the cinema. Sometimes they let him in. He is trans and Malaysian-Chinese. He always orders xiao long bao. Follow him on Instagram at @absentobject.