We know the sex worker storyline: A “hooker” is killed, a girl is “rescued” from a brothel, a beautiful woman “cons” the nice guy into paying for her time [it wasn’t his fault, he didn’t know!].
Film is filled with depictions of sex workers. They are flat, dispensable, and lazily built on misinformed, harmful and, frankly, trite stereotypes. Even when the character is afforded some “empathy” and escapes the well-worn fate of being murdered straight off the bat to further the plot, she is the “humble hooker”, with “a heart of gold”, in dire need of rescuing from her damned fate.
Filmmakers love to evoke little 2D renderings of characters they see as occupying the edges of society, adding just a splash of taboo and intrigue. For outsiders, a little look in is enough to add some edge.
But for those who are on the inside – the sex workers who, in addition to dealing with stigma towards their work on a daily basis, get to see their livelihoods and lifestyles mutated, fridged, farcified and diminished on the big screen – the reality of their profession is far more nuanced, complex and interesting in multitudes.
House of Whoreship is a 2022 film, directed by Holly Bates, an artist, director and sex worker of ten years. A VCA grad film produced in Melbourne, House of Whoreship is a queer comedy-drama based in a brothel. It’s a delicately told, empathetic look into the mechanisms of a workplace few outsiders would ever experience.
For Holly, “misinformed tales justify the horrific treatment of sex workers at large, inspiring, and continuing, criminalisation and patriarchal cycles of abuse.”
“The truth of lived sex worker experiences remain submerged, drowning under the crushing weight of the public’s prejudiced, misogynistic and politically conditioned imaginings of our lives; forever inspiring the landscape above, but never getting any tangible, sustainable airtime to ourselves,” she wrote in her director’s statement.
For Holly, sex workers can only be written and portrayed by sex workers. And it’s her mission, as “sex worker-director” to do just that. VICE sat down to chat with her about it.
Hi! Who are you?
Hi. Well, I’m Holly. I grew up in Brisbane and started out making as a Visual Artist. I have a solo practice and a collaborative art practice called ‘Parallel Park’ with my ex and best friend Tay Haggarty ,which are mainly queer performance works. I’ve been doing sex work for about 10 years now. I started out stripping, doing the odd sugar baby gig, and have been doing full service for the last three and a half years.
I transferred from art over to film because I was making video works in my art practice already, but found film as a medium to be a little bit more accessible. Art has the potential to be a little bit pretentious, inaccessible and classist whereas film feels a bit more approachable for the everyday. I wanted an accessible medium to make work about queerness and sex work.
Could you please describe your film, House of Whoreship, for someone who hasn’t seen it?
I call it a post-rom-com. It's a breakup comedy workplace drama, set in the work environment of a brothel. It follows Violet, a brothel worker who needs to make rent by the night’s end, who turns up to work to find her recent ex-girlfriend also working the same shift unexpectedly.
The film follows her navigating her work shift, as well as all the awkwardness of working alongside your ex in a space that pushes through all conventional social norms, like seeing your ex in their underwear, hearing about sex a lot, flirting with other colleagues… the painfulness of a breakup and the desire to seek closure.
Showing a queer relationship break-up was a writing device used to show the behind the scenes without involving any clients, and kind of unveil all the different worker dynamics within that community space that outsiders don’t see.
I think there are so many beautiful subtleties and funny instances that happen within the workspace that people just have no idea about. When people do make films about workers, they're typically not workers themselves, or they're just too busy focusing on the taboo aspect of selling sex for a living, rather than the lived experience of it.
What inspired you to make a film set in a brothel?
I feel like film has a lot to answer for, because it's where most people get their information about sex work.
When we were shooting this film, three quarters of the crew members weren't workers and most of them confided in me that everything they knew about sex work came from film. Because it's a mostly anonymous industry ( in order to keep both workers and client’s safe), people do gain a lot of insight from fiction and narrative on film. I couldn't see myself or my peers on screen, or, when I did, it was very traumatising, upsetting and just shallow, so I really wanted to make this for myself and my community. I wanted something out there we could relate to.
You’re currently in the process of entering the film in festivals around the world, in countries where sex work is illegal. What kind of hurdles are you up against?
It’s really interesting, because I think Australia has so much potential to be a lead storytelling source in telling decriminalised sex worker stories, because it isn't illegal in most parts here. We've recently had further decriminalisation here in Victoria as well in NSW & The NT. So there's a really wide scope for telling stories here.
But in the US, for instance, it is still illegal, except for in Nevada. The SESTA/FOSTA laws that came about under the guise of anti-sex trafficking were actually really just anti-sex work, full stop. They don't let sex workers into the US because they just assume that if you're a sex worker, you're travelling there to do sex work. They can scan your socials, web use, whatever device you’ve used to apply for a holiday visa there and deny it if there’s evidence you do sex work.
There's definitely a possibility of it showing over there and I’ve entered it into quite a few festivals already. I did get asked by a sex worker film festival ‘ Sex Worker Fest’ to screen in their program, which would be the dream context for it to be shown. I'm just not actually sure whether I could go and enter the US because of those laws. So the film has the potential to show in the US, but not so much for me to attend and speak on it or see its receival.
Which is a key fucking problem.
Yeah. And the US is the lead in filmmaking across the world. And they're making the most sex worker stories. But those stories are deeply problematic because as a worker it's an unsafe place to be out, or even to work with the laws they have in place.
It's true that Australia does have so much room to lead sex worker storytelling. How can it happen?
Yeah, actually, it’s one of my goals for this year to create a safe space for workers to make worker stories, having had a few workers on my set, a lot of them working across all different parts of the industry, in lots of different departments. And a lot of them want to make or want to work on films that are about sex work, but don't want to out themselves, because that’s such a complicated thing to navigate.
So my scheme for this year is to form a sex worker-run production company, that can be an umbrella that workers can make films safely under without being outed.
I also wanted to make a resource of ally film creatives safe to work with, because when you're making sex worker films, you have to do so much vetting on people that are appropriate to work with and people that are performative might say that they're appropriate and then their actions just say otherwise.
Did that happen on set?
They say with film, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and we experienced that and ended up pulling in people at the last minute. Our sound recorder canceled the day before we started shooting because of a shoulder injury, so we had a new person filling in every day. One guy that we had was just terrible, and completely disrupted the safe environment we had built. We had mostly a femme, queer team and it just changed the whole dynamic of it, and made everyone super uncomfortable.
So under this production company I want to make a resource of allies that are great to work with on sex worker films and opposingly, people that you should never work with on sex worker films. Vetting is so time consuming, and this resource would be super valuable.
You have a fundraising event coming up this week in Melbourne, I assume entering loads of festivals can get quite expensive?
Oh, my God. I've been entering them all on my credit cards, it's been like two grand so far. I guess another thing to mention is that I fully self-funded the film, wholly from hustling at the brothel. It was roughly 20 grand, and I absolutely annihilated myself last year, just hustling for months on end, going to uni the next day with like, three hours sleep, just trying to get enough money to come through with it all. I think it cost so much because I tried to pay everybody, because as an artist I think creative labor is incredibly valuable.
It was really hard, but my colleagues have been so supportive of me this whole time, which added fuel to the fire because it showed they wanted the representation on screen as much as I did.
I remember the day before shooting, I went to my brothel to pick up some last minute props, and all my favourites were there and they all hugged me, hyped me up and wished me good luck. And when it came out on MIFF Play, my work colleagues watched it in the smokers area at midnight as it came out. I’ve felt so supported in my community.
But I really hustled really hard. And I think now that it's out, and I feel like a lot of workers are happy with it, I'm willing to ask for help to spread it around.
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