These Sex Workers Are Using Theatre to Fight for Their Rights
The cast of a new London play have diverse experiences of sex work, but they share a dim view of the police.
Lead image by Matt Humphrey courtesy of the Young Vic.
Like lots of girls, Beth grew up dreaming of being an actress. As with many, life played out differently. In Beth's case, she became a sex worker. It wasn't lack of talent which stopped her, however, or lack of ambition, but the brutish boot of UK law.
"I went to drama school," she says. "And when I came out, sex work was the only thing that allowed me to pay off my debts. Then the police raided the brothel I was working in and I got a criminal record and that drew a line under all the theatre education I was doing."
Beth's chance to stand on stage – London's Young Vic – has come. She's taking part in a new play, See Me Now, the cast of which are all current or former sex workers, and whose content is made up entirely of their stories.
"I don't particularly want to be on stage talking about what's happened to me," Beth says. "I'm doing it for a reason. It can be excruciating – I'm quite a private person – but the story needs to be told."
See Me Now, a Young Vic, Look Left Look Right and HighTide co-production, is as a collaboration between the performers, writer Molly Taylor and director Mimi Poskitt. It was inspired, in part, by conversations Poskitt had with a friend who volunteered at a sex work support project. Poskitt felt there were stories to be told and, of course, there are.
"'Sex work' is such a blunt phrase," says Taylor. "It doesn't even begin to tell you about the myriad stories and experiences and areas and factions of work. 'Sex work' will never mean the same thing to me as it did before. Those words are translucent now."
There's vast variation in the stories told by See Me Now. Performers were recruited via outreach projects across the capital and come from a range of backgrounds; outdoor, indoor and independent sex work are all represented. Some have second jobs, others survive solely through sex work. Performers are male, female and trans. However certain experiences unite everyone. The performers I speak to have clear messages they're hoping to convey.
"We're all from such different backgrounds and have such different experiences, but the one thread we all agree on is that we all want decriminalisation... Most of us have had negative experiences with the police." Beth.
"I want the audience to know about support services," cast member, Zariya, says. "A lot of them are having their funding cut. It's really upset me and made me feel like I need to say something. I don't want them to be shut down quietly."
Sex work is a hot topic, not least because the legal model with which it should be governed is highly contested. Existing legislation – in which selling sex is legal but almost any activity around it, such as working with a friend (this is classed as a brothel) or soliciting – is illegal. This framework has affected every cast member in See Me Now.
"We're all from such different backgrounds and have such different experiences – some more negative than others – but the one thread we all agree on is that we all want decriminalisation," says Beth. "Most of us have had negative experiences with the police."
The feeling is echoed by Ric London, a sex worker and See Me Now performer, who cites the current threat of the Nordic Model, in which sex workers' clients are criminalised.
"For some people, sex workers are some sort of underclass or outcasts," he says. "I hope this will help a little bit, particularly now there's all this discussion around 'shall we criminalise this side or that side'."
All performers in See Me Now work under partial criminalisation and those I speak to are vocal about it. For this reason I'm surprised, when I ask Poskitt and Taylor what they think of current legislation, that they're noncommittal. In fairness, both say they're passionate about services being cut and aware that support for sex workers is vital. But beyond that, they choose not to venture, whatever sex workers might tell them.
"Calling for decriminalisation is one of the things all our company agree on," Taylor says. But… "It's tricky for us to comment on. I'm not a sex worker so how can I say? Part of it is not having a finessed enough knowledge of the different legal models. If you asked me to define the Nordic model I don't know if I could."
Poskitt points to the self-selection process of casting a show like this, which undeniably favours those with the mental, physical and practical resources to come to rehearsals. "I don't think you can generalise in any shape or form whether decriminalisation would be the predominant voice among sex workers," she says.
Taylor and Poskitt will be lauded for their work and rightly so, it's a great project. But mining the perennially marketable stories of a minority group with so little engagement in the legal situation they work under seems dubious to me. Sex work is mired in politics. This is inescapable; ask Beth. I try to imagine Ken Loach making a similar comment about I, Daniel Blake. "I made this film but I'm not on benefits so I can't really comment on whether the system is broken," perhaps?
None of this will stop the actual performance from being wonderful. The cast, Taylor and Poskitt are dedicated and full of passion for the project and See Me Now looks set to be warm and enlightening; a force for good.
"This is an opportunity for people to escape from all the stereotypes around sex work which are usually very extreme and don't represent all the people in between," says Ric London. "Not everything is negative, not everything is positive."
Following in the lineage of the Sex Workers' Opera, which began in 2013 and, likewise, told the stories of real sex workers, the show began as a series of workshops in which people began to tentatively explore what they could share with an audience. The Brolly Project, the show's first incarnation, was performed in August 2015, as part of Young Vic Taking Part project.
Some stories in the show are funny, some tough, but the experience of working with other sex workers has, the performers say, been positive. "I found it quite sad hearing some people's stories," says Zariya. "But because we're such a supportive group that helps a lot in dealing with different issues."
Most of the performers have no theatre experience but that's not the point say Taylor and Poskitt. This type of theatre calls for the genuine, rather than the super-polished.
"It's been such a privilege to have gained [the sex workers'] confidence and we've learned so much about the world and relationships and sexuality and gender through their stories," Taylor says. "And that's what we're aiming to transfer. So the audience feels by the end that they've had a really special conversation with someone they didn't know."
If you can get tickets to See Me Now, go and see it. Sex workers have things to tell you and this will be a place in which you can listen.
"I want audience to go away knowing this industry needs decriminalisation," Beth says. "My dream before was to be an actress but now that's my dream."
Tickets for See Me Now at the Young Vic are now sold out, but you can join the returns queue at the Box Office from 6.45pm for evening performances and 1.45pm for matinees. More information: www.youngvic.org 0207 922 2979