“Rage is common in Palestine-Israel,” says performer, artist, activist and former sex worker Liad Hussein Kantorowicz. “Marginalised groups face so much aggression and violence. And rage is a good starting point for political action.”
When I meet Kantorowicz on Zoom, she’s sitting in her flat in Berlin. Sun streams through her window and she turns her face to it: “This is rare in Berlin!” We’re here to talk about Kantorowicz’ film, Mythical Creatures, part of the Decriminalised Futures exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). The exhibition features 13 international sex worker artists, united in their call for sex worker rights.
Mythical Creatures describes the birth of the Argaman Alliance, the first sex worker organisation in Palestine-Israel, formed in 2019 when the Israeli government criminalised the purchase of sex under a form of legislation known as the Nordic Model. (The term “Palestine-Israel” is used here at Kantorowicz’s request – “‘Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories' is a politically selected term that inadvertently gives a preference to Israel and gives a false understanding that Palestinians live only in the occupied territories,” she explains.)
The Alliance, which began as a Facebook group in which sex workers shared their fears about the new legislation, has given voice to a diverse coalition of sex workers – mostly trans and cis women – including Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Russian-descent Jews, and is supported by queer and feminist allies.
Kantorowicz stars in Mythical Creatures herself, dressed in lace and flowing bubble wrap – part debauched bride, part superhero – surrounded by out of context sex work signifiers; a dildo on the pavement, a red umbrella in tatters on a path. We see her pinning posters to trees, crawling in front of a graffiti-covered wall, performing, cam-girl-style, to a laptop.
“For ten years, sex workers knew that, once it passes, this law will be like a death sentence cast upon them,” she tells the camera.
Years before the formation of the Argaman Alliance, Kantorowicz had become the first sex worker in Palestine-Israel to be out as a spokesperson for the movement and she was responsible for coining the term “sex work” in Hebrew.
It wasn’t easy. Around the world, stigma and fear of repercussion leave most sex workers unable to publicly defend themselves. Sex workers are mythologised and pathologised, seen as both helpless victims and as sexually dangerous. It’s this dehumanisation, the creation of what Playing the Whore author Melissa Gira Grant calls the “prostitute imaginary”, that allows for our silencing. When we don’t speak, other speak for us; when we do, we are dismissed. Mythical Creatures explores this forced invisibility.
“We are mythical creatures,” Kantorowicz says on the film’s soundtrack. “We don’t exist. Every missionary service, anti-trafficking coalition, white feminist organization and just about everyone else in the world told us so. And yet, we are here.”
Mythical Creatures focuses on one incident in particular: the moment sex workers in Tel Aviv were dragged from a public event about sex work, an event at which no sex workers had been invited to speak. Dressed in Pussy Riot balaclavas and carrying banners, sex workers stormed the stage, shouting back at the political lobbyists, “Half of the MPs are our clients!”
Emotions were high. While the new law hadn’t yet been implemented, sex workers were feeling its effects. An interim report by the Argaman Alliance had revealed an increase in police brutality and violence by clients, a decline in sex workers’ income, a ramping up of brothel raids and an increase in the arrests of sex workers. There was huge support for the Argaman Alliance, and many human rights groups joined the call to halt the introduction of the new legislation.
Sex workers, however, continued to be excluded from political decision-making about their own lives.
“The idea of inviting sex workers to parliament was not anything a parliamentarian could imagine,” Kantorowicz says. “They couldn't believe such a person would have agency or capacity to articulate their needs, or to be an expert on their own situation. Sex workers are only allowed to be a tellers in other people's analysis, to give witness reports for other people to make the decisions.”
Rage at being endlessly talked over will be familiar to sex workers everywhere. For this reason, the Decriminalised Futures exhibition is a glimmer of light. Exhibiting artists hold diverse views – you don’t have to agree with them all – but there are united demands. Sex workers, for instance, need access to housing, healthcare, a safety net from poverty, safe migration routes – and they need to work without police harassment and violence.
“There’s a tendency to look at Palestine-Israel as this exotic place and therefore as exotic in its approach to sex workers rights,” Kantorowicz says. “But the issues that sex workers in Palestine-Israel deal with, and the demands of the Argaman Alliance, are actually incredibly universal.”
I tell Kantorowicz how I’ve been thinking about the specificities of pro-criminalisation lobbyists around the world. In the UK, feminists who fight for the Nordic Model are almost always transphobic too; in France, there’s a strong crossover with Islamophobia, and many anti-sex work lobbyists are also campaign against the veil; in the US, the overlap is with Christian fundamentalists. Kantorowicz points out that this too has a universality.
“While there are differences, there is a very clear common denominator: It is an alliance between SWERFs [sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists] and policies, as well as organizations that belong to the right – a consolidation of power. SWERFs and TERFs are often the same people and refuse any intersectional perspective on feminism. And this is true in Palestine-Israel as well.”
Despite its heavy themes, Mythical Creatures is a joyful thing to watch, and it is exciting to see sex workers given this space. Activism is often exhausting and bleak. People burn out all the time.
“Rage is not enough,” says Kantorowicz. “You need to collectivise, to strategise, to give each other emotional support.”
She is right. And we need space to dream. It’s so hard, right now, to imagine a better world, but it is vital that we do.
“Sex workers, like many people who come from disempowered backgrounds, are so busy in day-to-day survival they cannot sit there and just visualise this fabulous, incredible future,” Kantorowicz says. “But when we do, we speak about very specific changes that we want. And I think that that's what makes an exhibition like this so interesting.”
You can find Liad Hussein Kantorowicz on Instagram.
The Decriminalised Futures exhibition at the ICA is open from 12 – 9pm, Tuesday 15th – Sunday 20th Feb. Buy tickets here.