This article originally appeared on VICE UK
I have a confession to make. Attending a life drawing class run by and featuring sex workers only made me nervous for one reason: I hadn't picked up a number two pencil since college. As much as I love a Rothko, my "thing" in recent years developed into writing a sex column and exposés on sex parties—the nudity and sex toys weren't about to bother me.
At most, I figured I may catch sight of a couple of shielded hard-ons. But when I arrived, walking up to the first floor of a dingy pub in south east London, the atmosphere was incredibly relaxed. Subdued, even. Participants of different ages and genders perched on cushions, waiting patiently to begin. And kneeling on a blanket surrounded by vibrators was Ana, the bubbly woman who runs the classes.
She briefly explained that she'd be posing first, and Pussy Willow, who specializes in physically strong women fetishes, would take over for the second half. The props she was posing with, she helpfully added, were all gifts from a sugar daddy. Squeezing in between a young female art student and a hairy guy, I picked up my pencil and waited for the sex to begin.
It didn't. Instead, Ana posed alone with different sex toys, eventually ending up naked, and used her laptop to recreate a "camming" scene—where a sex worker performs in real time for a client online over webcam video. She spoke throughout, commenting and joking about her experiences. The context was sexual, but the actual experience? Disarmingly normal.
"I thought people would come into the class and just like, get a boner from it," Ana told me afterwards. "I worried about it being a free live sex show for people, but it isn't that at all. I'm trying to create a more accessible space for people to create art, a political space." So is it a political act, or does using sex workers just gain the classes publicity? For me, the intention to kick off a wider discussion on the politics of sex work is there. But the conversation feels useless if you're only preaching to the choir.
Anyway, the second half of the class then featured Dominatrix Pussy Willow and her "victim" Jonathan, in various fetishized wrestling poses. Drawing them felt unusual—with their muscles strained and faces pulled taut as Pussy Willow took on a normally masculine role—but not sexual or sexy. Their poses were quick and energetic, and felt more like a performance rather than the intimate setting of Ana's session.
"Within art I've always studied the performative element of sex work and performing gender," Ana said afterwards. "I looked into Thomas Ekings, a 17th century artist. He restructured life-drawing classes, so rather than using prostitutes and courtesans, everyone would draw each other. That created a whole new class division in the art world. But it's not the 1870s. If you are a prostitute you aren't this stereotype, riddled with disease, which is what they would have exploited back in the day, using you as an object to document through art. Now there's a lot of activism around sex work, and stripping and camming is very performative. The idea needs to be readdressed."
Ana has a point. As we learned last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee released a report calling for the decriminalization of sex work after a long enquiry that some worried would lead to more regressive policing of the occupation. For the UK's estimated 72,800 sex workers, this could mean safer working practices. But for others, it may not go all the way to solving the seemingly innate exploitation that comes with the job. I wondered whether Ana's classes were part of a trend towards further normalizing the objectification of women, or if sex work could actually be empowering.
"Not everyone that does sex work is greedy, or oppressed, or being exploited. But I don't think any work is empowering," she said. "The class is part of a movement towards decriminalization; but that is specific for certain sex workers. I want to de-stigmatize sex work, and not focus on sex positivity—because some people hate sex with their clients, so for them it's about survival. But working towards both de-stigmatization and decriminalization will help create safety for sex workers. I want the public to confront sex work, to show that it's not as black-and-white as the media usually make it out to be. It can be erotic wrestling, or going shopping."
Obviously, as the creator of the class, Ana's had a lot of time to shape her opinions on it. I grabbed a few of my fellow sketchers to hear from them too. Why come to the class at all, beyond a loose expectation of titillation? "I don't know what I was expecting," said Tegan, a 20-year-old art student, when we spoke after the class. "I've done life drawing before, but nothing like this, never two people, never in those positions. And I haven't ever met a sex worker before."
Like the rest of the attendees, Tegan seemed pretty nonchalant about the sex element: "Whenever you go to a life drawing class," she said, "it takes a minute to get over the fact that they're naked. I just liked that it was really relaxed."
"And it's not just about it being an artistic space," agreed Rachel, 22, also an art student. "It's just a nice, quiet room, and not a lecture."
Deliberately or not, Ana has taken sex work into a context so normalized that it's referred to as "nice" and "quiet." She's doing her bit to move the profession beyond the realms of stereotypes, which is saying something. And it was a boner-free evening, at least from where I was sitting.
Some names have been changed to protect people's identities.