This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"The first time I did it, it was supposed to be a one off—I was 23 and pretty desperate for rent. But I remember coming out of the room and thinking, Why do I not feel bad about it?" says Melina, one of the 13 cast members of the critically acclaimed Sex Workers' Opera—a production scripted by professionals of the sex industry and their supporters.
"We will not be silenced," is the tag line of the cast of women and men who have chosen to put their bodies on sale. They take the stage to share their experiences and shatter the expectations of those who assume that all there is to prostitution is PVC and deprivation. To the sound of everything from baroque arias to hip-hop beats, they speak out against the criminalization of their trade and tell the other side of the sex industry story.
Sitting backstage at London's Arcola Theater, Melina tells me that, after that first experience, she toyed with the idea of becoming an escort. But for a long time the risks outweighed the benefits. She worked as a webcam performer for a few years, but found the job satisfaction simply wasn't the same. Eventually, she took the plunge. "I was so excited about it that I took on three clients in my first day," she says. "By the end of it I was exhausted, but also happy that I had money and felt independent."
"What many people don't understand is that this job empowers me," says Charlotte Rose, 34, who began her career in the sex industry posing as a dominatrix at the age of 17. She is now one of the UK's most successful escorts and won "Sex Worker of the Year" at last year's Sexual Freedom Awards.
UK legislation doesn't currently recognize that sex for cash can be a free choice. Policies are, instead, geared toward rescuing "sex slaves" as prostitution becomes a synonym for the exploitation of vulnerable women. But for the sex workers I meet, there is nothing more terrifying than the idea of "being rescued."
From tributes to last year's police raids in Soho to re-enactments of the Anti- Pornography Bill that was recently introduced in the UK, the theme of regulation runs through the core of the production, as most members of the cast find themselves living in a legally gray area.
"This Sunday I was in a hotel and a member of staff said he would kick me out if I didn't give him a blow job. I refused, but he felt he could treat me that way because he knew I would never press charges," said Melina. "He knew that, when it comes to the law, sex workers are vulnerable and that we are afraid of going to the police."
The near absence of a legal framework also makes sex workers more vulnerable to financial exploitation. "I have always been a stripper, but within a burlesque context," says Miss Cairo, a 23-year-old drag artist and stripper who, despite her young age, is one of London's top go-go dancers and is regularly flown around the world to perform. "I would like to do it in a strip club, but it's risky. Just yesterday I had to threaten someone with a lawsuit because they were late on a payment. As a stripper [at a strip club] you can't do that."
In its latest edition, the play features an explicit reference to the so-called Swedish model, a legal framework which criminalizes the purchase of sex. In one skit, the cast compares policy makers to naïve fishermen, who tell others to go and fish in safer seas where there are, in fact, no fish.
"It would simply tear apart the industry," says Rose, who, after years of political activism, is now running as an independent candidate for Brighton in the elections. "The only clients that would come to us would be the ones who have no problems with breaking the law, and standards would drop as sex workers compete to secure a decreasing number of clients."
The measure has recently been passed into law in Northern Ireland, with policy makers saying there could be a real push for it in England and Wales following this year's general elections. London MEP Mary Honeyball, who would like to see the Swedish model implemented across Europe, has argued that the measure will drastically cut trafficking and offer further legal framework for sex workers.
Many of the women feel the model is out of touch, though. "All of these laws are passed by politicians who just don't get it," said Miss Cairo. "If you want to make sex workers safer, then come and talk to us. I think our last song 'Listen to Me' sums it up perfectly."
"Listen to me, I am so many things you cannot see / mothers and brothers, sisters, and lovers, listen to me."
Since Sweden became the first country to criminalize the purchase of sex in 1999, the country has gone a long way in curbing trafficking offenses, but it has also failed in bringing sex workers out of the shadows of illegality, leaving many of the women more vulnerable to harassment. What also risks being lost in the midst of this concerted campaign to protect vulnerable women, and what the stars of the Sex Workers' Opera are arguing for, is the freedom to choose—without the fear of consequences or persecution.
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The Sex Worker's Opera runs until tomorrow evening at The Arcola Theater in London.