Sex Worker’s Opera ‘On the Cultural Battleground’ by Imogen Flower
Updated: Aug 25
Sex work is an LGBTQ+ issue. Sex work is a race issue. Sex work is a class issue. Sex work is a migration issue. Sex work is a disability issue. Sex work is a feminist issue. Sex work is a capitalist issue. Sex work is a legal issue.
In Sex Worker’s Opera, music takes many forms and tells many stories. What unifies it is the implicit and explicit demand it makes of audiences to listen to sex workers.
I am so many things you cannot see,
Listen to me, Listen to me.
Mother and brother and daughter and lover,
Listen to me, Listen to me
(‘Listen to Me’, Sex Worker’s Opera)
It takes more tenacity for an audience member to shut down a show than it does to stop reading an article or watching an interview. Sex Worker’s Opera harnesses the conventions of musical theatre performance (that make it relatively uninterruptable) to invoke a cultural shift. Chanted in 3-part harmony, ‘Listen to Me’, the closing song of Sex Worker’s Opera, swirls hypnotically around the theatre: the simplest of community-led activist demands, and yet one that has powerful implications for public engagement in sex-worker activism.
The vast majority of sex worker-led organisations around the world are campaigning for the decriminalisation of sex work. Sex work is work. When sex work is decriminalised, sex workers have equal access to justice, healthcare and safety, in addition to labour rights and legal protections against exploitation. Notably, organisations such as Amnesty International, WHO, UNAIDS, UNFPA and Human Rights Watch, as well as the medical journal The Lancet, all support decriminalisation.
In London, where my research is based, sex work is partially criminalised. It is legal to sell sexual services, but some associated practices, such as brothel-keeping and soliciting, are illegal. As brothels are defined as premises where multiple people sell sexual services, the criminalisation of brothel-keeping prevents sex workers from working together for safety. It also makes sex workers who do work with others less likely to report violence or harassment for fear of being prosecuted themselves (Pitcher & Wijers, 2014:551-557; Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2017:160).
Criminalisation does this; it compromises sex workers’ strategies for keeping themselves safe. This forms the core argument against the ‘Swedish’ or ‘Nordic’ model, also known as the ‘sex buyer law’, in place elsewhere. Implemented in 1999, the Swedish model was designed to eradicate the sex industry, supposedly reducing demand by criminalising clients. In reality, as it forces sex work underground, the risks it poses for sex workers are far greater.
When client bases shrink, it’s more difficult for workers to turn down clients who make them nervous. When the risk of arrest is heightened, clients are less likely to give their real names in order for sex workers to run background checks for previous offences. When the focus shifts towards eliminating the sex industry, essential harm reduction services, such as condom provision, are cut. Meanwhile, rehabilitation services for those who do wish to leave the industry remain insufficient (Levy, 2013; Levy & Jakobsson, 2014; Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2017:169; Wagenaar & Altink, 2012).
The Swedish model demonstrates frighteningly little consideration for the intersecting factors that might lead to a person doing sex work, pushing it out of sight but not out of existence.
Fighting our ways of fighting poverty is violence. No to the Nordic model!
(‘The Fisherman’s Tale’, Sex Worker’s Opera)
Nor is legalisation a quick-fix. This model, seen in the ‘liberal’ haven of the Netherlands, gives the state control over how, and which, sex workers can work legally. It exacerbates inequalities by further marginalising (and effectively criminalising) those who are unable to jump through an obstacle course of bureaucratic hoops (Hubbard, Matthews & Scoular, 2008:146-7; Pitcher & Wijers, 2014).
While decriminalisation is a move in the right direction towards justice for all sex workers, it is not the end-goal. Sex-work law reform must be mirrored by seismic structural shifts away from the violence of poverty, racism, policing, colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism (Mac & Smith, 2019:191). 1
Decriminalisation needs to be coupled with social action to lift people out of poverty, fund effective health and social care services and empower marginalised groups (SWARM, 2018:35)
Sex work is a cultural issue.
You could have decrim tomorrow but it wouldn’t necessarily make it any safer or easier to come out to your family, because stigma is cultural. Stigma is reflected in the laws but it is embedded in our culture and the way we treat each other (Alex Etchart, co-director of Sex Worker’s Opera, personal communication, July 2019)
If you’ve only got one story of a sex worker being someone who is victimised, or someone who hasn’t got agency, or someone who is ‘other’… Unfortunately, the same people who watch Pretty Woman, as simple and fun as it can seem – It’s just a film, you know, who cares? – They’re the people who are writing the policies. They literally are! (Siobhán Knox, co-director of Sex Worker’s Opera, personal communication, July 2019)
Legal change must go together with cultural change. Enter Sex Worker’s Opera, a grassroots activist project that grew out of London’s Queer sex worker community in 2014. The group created and performed Sex Worker’s Opera, a musical theatre show in which performers tell their own stories, the stories of others in the group, and stories sent in to the project by over 70 sex workers in 18 countries across 6 continents (The Global Voice facet of the project). At least 50% of the directors, cast and crew are sex workers. Straddling the fields of activist performance, community music and applied theatre, the project was facilitated to produce a show (Sex Worker’s Opera) that would elevate the voices of sex workers in an engaging and accessible way.
It was all about starting caring conversations. It was about platforming and amplifying the voices of multiple people. And we’ve involved marginalised, isolated sex workers in activism through the project (Etchart, personal communication, July 2019)
My research, supported by the Guildhall-SIMM studentship, focusses on the social impact of making music as part of Sex Worker’s Opera. I’m interested in the potential of musical theatre as a platform for grassroots activism. More specifically, I’m investigating the radical political power embedded in the intentions behind and experiences of an activist performance project that is majority-led by those within the community it aims to represent.
We were an activist project that kind of just became a theatre project, as opposed to a theatre project that tried to make itself political (Knox, personal communication, July 2019)
Over the three years that I’ve been involved in Sex Worker’s Opera, my approach has reflected Clifford Geertz’s concept of ‘deep hanging out’ (1998), although this says more about the generosity of the group in accepting the nerdy Masters student who kept following them around trying to be ‘useful’ than it does about any conscious methodological choice. My personal experiences of the project – which have included semi-reluctantly performing the roles of a radical feminist sister, as well as a cop in a scene depicting the 2013 Soho Raids – have no doubt shaped the research. But, in a study of a project that emphasises plurality, it’s vital that mine isn’t the only perspective.
To incorporate members’ experiences, I am conducting interviews and holding listening sessions. These make use of recordings from the Opera to elicit memories and feelings, fuelling discussions about the role of music within the show and the impact of creating, performing and listening to the music for members.
Silencing’s not feminist,
Am I just a stock image in today’s politics?
So why’s my own community
Trying to take control of what I do with my body?
(‘Freedom Song’, Sex Worker’s Opera)
I see Sex Worker’s Opera as a Trojan horse, the performance acting as an unthreatening, fun, sexy disguise for hard-hitting politics and the amplification of voices many would prefer to keep silent. This has made it possible to engage diverse audiences: not just sex workers, queers and anarchists, but also self-declared ‘good’ clients, ‘high culture’ people such as Arts Council funders and well-known theatre names, groups of friends looking for ‘something a little bit different’ – people who wouldn’t go to a protest, wouldn’t sign a petition, wouldn’t usually listen to sex workers.
We’ve reached about 15,000 people in live audiences over five years. We’ve reached about 15 million in online audiences, and television and radio audiences over five years (Etchart, personal communication, July 2019)
Similarly, being an arts project has shielded Sex Worker’s Opera from the media attacks that front-line sex worker activist groups face as a matter of course.
We didn’t get the same vitriol or pressure that any of these people who’ve done these interviews have because we were an arts project (Knox, personal communication, July 2019)
Sex work is an opera issue.
Well-meaning people often ask about the title: ‘Why Sex Worker’s Opera?’
Seemingly less well-meaning people often comment on the title: ‘It doesn’t sound like opera’.
Luckily, interview material provides a more diplomatic response than I would often be capable of:
If the most respected, best-funded and highest art form in the land, in the Classical canon, is constantly appropriating the stories of sex workers and misrepresenting and violently representing them… then the culture is deeply and fundamentally embedded with ultra-violence. So, I think actually it’s irresponsible, or even ridiculous, not to target the cultural sphere, not to challenge these narratives, or not to take space (Etchart, personal communication, July 2019)
Reclaiming the genre of ‘opera’ is political. It is a joyful ‘fuck you’ to the white, male opera composers and librettists who have tended to vilify sex workers “as the femmes fatales who lured men into sexual temptation only to destroy them” (Showalter, 1986:88, quoted in Hutcheon & Hutcheon, 1996:79). It signifies an antidote to the cultural venom of misrepresentation, offering alternative narratives to those that determined the fates of Verdi’s Violetta, Berg’s Lulu and Puccini’s Manon.
Sex Worker’s Opera takes Susan McClary’s suggestion that the hackneyed images of women in opera could be ‘wielded either as weapons of misogyny or as signs used out of context in ironic, self-empowering strategies’ (1988:xiv) and unequivocally chooses to play with the potential of the latter.
Arguably, this is best seen and heard in ‘Hollywood Clichés’, the song that makes a mockery of three of the most pervasive sex worker tropes: Vivienne, the ‘Pretty Woman’ who wants rescuing (preferably by a very wealthy man); Dolores, the repentant nun, seeking forgiveness for “all those dirty, tiny cocks” she’s sucked; and the 19th-century sex worker, Satine (a tribute to Moulin Rouge), who repeats the word ‘Pain’ in chromatic ascent, briefly parades a blood-spotted handkerchief and swiftly collapses on stage.
Sex Worker’s Opera is not musically operatic in the typical sense. Like the rest of the show, much of the music and lyrics were collaboratively written, or contributed by sex workers who wanted to tell their stories through song.
The opening chorus number, ‘Freedom Song’, depicts the divisions between sex workers and radical feminists, pitting sex worker protest slogans such as ‘Rights not rescue’ against the radical abolitionist calls of ‘I don’t know what I’ve been told, women’s bodies won’t be sold’.
In ‘Porn Protest’, Kurt Weill’s ‘Mac the Knife’ theme from The Threepenny Opera is played with comical accenting on violin, cello and piano, accompanying increasingly exaggerated porn vignettes that include a clowny 1980s housewife doing unspeakable things with a string of home-made Brussels sprout anal beads, a kinky lesbian couple playing an imaginative version of rock, paper, scissors, and a CEO who spends “all day every day crunching numbers and crushing dreams” but finds relief in being double-fisted by a duo of professional dominants.
‘Porn Protest’ mirrors real-life protests against The Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014, which censored things like face-sitting, female ejaculation, fisting and spanking in UK-produced internet porn.
The empowerment felt by a professional submissive is expressed in ‘Sub Song’, the aria that, with its more conventional operatic vocal style and lush orchestration, gives a stylistic nod (and a wink) to opera as we mostly know it.
Prohibitionists, now don’t you cry for me,
With a big ball gag stuffed in my mouth,
I’m where I want to be
(‘Sub Song’, Sex Worker’s Opera)
Sex work is an arts research issue.
Every time a sex worker is written about in institutional form, a poem dies. The pointed ways in which our stories have been mistreated is the opposite of poetry… Every time a sex worker writes a poem, we rise above subjugation (Amber Dawn, Hustling Verse, 2019:19)
This quotation, taken from Amber Dawn’s introduction to the game-changing anthology Hustling Verse, also works if you change the word ‘poem’ to ‘song’. Sex Worker’s Opera is part of a cultural movement among sex workers to take control of how their stories are treated, to use art to rise above subjugation. Given the history of misrepresentation the community has endured, that is, in itself, game-changing.
Perhaps the medium is unimportant; maybe my investigation of the social impact of making music could just as easily be an investigation into the social impact of making poetry, making dance, making visual art…
In the same way that grassroots sex-worker activists are politicising art to engender a cultural shift, I am slowly trying to politicise this arts research. Riding out a dip in motivation and questioning the social impact of the research itself (we’re in the middle of a pandemic, go figure), I’m taking inspiration from Sex Worker’s Opera and adopting the Trojan Horse approach. Hopefully you won’t be the last reader to come for the LGBTQ+ music research and to stay for the sex-work politics.
Watch a short film documenting Sex Worker's Opera first international run: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6MchiLdkXY
The title quotation, as well as later quotations marked as ‘personal communication’, is taken from interviews with the co-directors of Sex Worker’s Opera, who also co-founded the project.
1. See Revolting Prostitutes (Mac & Smith, 2018) for a comprehensive but accessible overview of the key differences between international approaches. Or, if you’re new to the world of sex work politics and looking for something more concise, Lola Olufemi’s chapter on sex work in her book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (2020:95-108) is a must-read. Peer organisations such as Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and, on a larger scale, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) also offer excellent resources.
Dawn, A., & J. Duchampe (eds) (2019). Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Geertz, C. (1998). ‘Deep hanging out’, The New York Review of Books, 45(16), 69-72.
Hubbard, P., R. Matthews, & J. Scoular (2008). ‘Regulating sex work in the EU: Prostitute women and the new spaces of exclusion’. Gender, Place & Culture, 15(2), 137-152.
Hutcheon, L., & M. Hutcheon (1996). Opera: Desire, Disease, Death. University of Nebraska Press.
Levy, J. (2013). Swedish Abolitionism as Violence Against Women. Retrieved from https://www.swarmcollective.org/briefing-documents
Levy, J. & P. Jakobsson (2014). ‘Sweden’s abolitionist discourse and law: Effects on the dynamics of Swedish sex work and on the lives of Sweden’s sex workers’. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 14(5), 593-607.
Mac, J., & M. Smith (2018). Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights. London: Verso.
McClary, S. (1988). ‘The Undoing of Opera: Toward a feminist criticism of music’, in C. Clément, Opera, or, the Undoing of Women, Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ix—xviii.
Olufemi, L. (2020). Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power. Pluto Press.
Pitcher, J. & M. Wijers (2014). ‘The impact of different regulatory models on the labour conditions, safety and welfare of indoor-based sex workers’. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 14(5), 549-564.
Sanders, T., M. O’Neill & J. Pitcher (2017). Prostitution: Sex Work, Policy & Politics (2nd ed.). Sage.
Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) (2018). No Silence to Violence: A report on violence against women in prostitution in the UK. Retrieved from https://www.swarmcollective.org/briefing-documents
Showalter, E. (1986). ‘Syphilis, Sexuality, and Fiction of the Fin de Siècle’, in Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, ed. Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. Baltimore. John Hopkins University Press. 88-115.
Wagenaar, H. & S. Altink (2012). ‘Prostitution as morality politics or why it is exceedingly difficult to design and sustain effective prostitution policy’. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 9(3), 279-292.