Saturday, January 16News For London

Sex Worker’s take to the stage to tackle stigma

Sex Workers’ Opera returns to the Pleasance theatre, Islington in May. Co-directed and produced by Alex Etchart and Siobhan Knox, Sex Workers’ Opera allows marginalised voices to speak for themselves.

The girls on stage are tackling the stigma and stereotypes behind sex work. Photo by Sex Workers' Opera Press
The girls on stage are tackling the stigma and stereotypes behind sex work. Photo by © Manu Valcarce

A voluptuous blonde approaches.

Painted red lips, black fishnets, piercing and inviting emerald eyes; the guise of Charlotte Rose advances.

She is one of Britain’s most recognised sex workers and has recently returned to media headlines after wavering her £150 hour fee so a 44 year old man could loose his virginity. He was a wearing a bionic penis.

Despite being best known as an escort and a sex worker activist, this coming May Ms. Rose will be involved in another demanding role, a role that requires skill, dedication and natural talent. Rose will once again be donning the black fishnets and latex corsets, but not for sex. Rather she performs ‘Domme’ in the second scene in the production of ‘Sex Workers’ Opera’ at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.

“I love every second of it”, she tells Westminster World.

“Anything that helps people see the REAL side of the industry is a good thing.”

Rose (centre) tantalises the audience with her seductive aria. Photo by Sex Workers' Opera Press
Rose (centre) tantalises the audience with her seductive aria. Photo by © Manu Valcarce

Sex Workers Opera is a multimedia production written and performed by sex workers and their friends. It aims to break through the stigma attached to the industry and society’s stereotypical view that prostitution is merely a den of deprivation, iniquity and PVC.

“We are interested in direct action through theatre”, Co-director and producer Siobhan Knox tells Westminster World. “We are trying to change people’s perception of sex work through art and allow marginalised voices to speak for themselves.”

Knox’s fellow Co-director and producer Alex Etchart adds: “Opera has a long and rich tradition of representing sex workers, but when are those stories written by sex workers themselves? They are generally written by rich white men and this is usually the status and nature of the art world.”

Etchart uses Puccini’s acclaimed La Traviata as an example. Puccini’s protagonist is Parisian Courtesan, Violetta, who passes from lover to lover before tragically dying of tuberculosis in the final act. Puccini drew inspiration from the life of notorious Parisian courtesan Marie Duplesis. Duplesis was noted for her beauty, wit and discretion, but like Puccini’s protagonist, died penniless at the mere age of 23. During her life it was believed that her lovers had bought shares into parts of her body.

Perhaps this is why Puccini offers a tender depiction of his Parisian courtesan, a woman so possessed by others she didn’t even own her anatomy.

Sex Workers Opera aims to completely absolve these prior conceptions of the sex worker as menial and destitute. It is a production written and performed by sex workers. There is no other penetrating voice or gaze; this is the modern day sex worker’s story.

“I think it’s an extraordinary way of using music to express the hopes, fears and dreams of sex workers, whilst also ridding stigma for the industry”, says Rose.

Sex workers performing one of the more unconventional acts. Image by Sex Workers' Opera Press.
Sex workers performing one of the more unconventional acts. Photo by © Manu Valcarce

The cast comprises of escorts, webcam performers and strippers. Interwoven in this eclectic mix are a number of men and women who do not work in the sex industry, but who support sex workers. Rose, who appears in a solo in the second act fits under the ‘escort’ category. Beginning her career in the sex industry at 17 when she took part in a dominatrix themed photo-shoot, she has since appeared on Channel 4’s documentary Love for Sale, won ‘the British Erotic Award for Sex Worker of the Year’ in 2013 and claims to be the most expensive escort in South West England.

It is this kind of brazen and unapologetic approach to sex work that we can expect from Knox and Etchart’s production.

“There is so much anger around sex and the way sex is performed in society”, Siobhan tells me. “The production is about building bridges and listening. It shows that sex workers have agency of themselves and that they should not be solely defined by their work.”

This is the second year Alex and Siobhan bring us Sex Workers’ Opera. Last year’s performance was met with rave reviews, “shattering expectations” (Vice) and achieving what “all great opera should do” (Royal Opera House). Yet despite the positive response, some maintain initial skepticism of whether the promotion of an industry that is ‘misogynistic’ and ‘demeaning’ is acceptable.

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society told the audience at Conway Hall for the We Trust Women Campaign that prostitution is demeaning for women and therefore does not support sex work. Despite Fawcett being the leading campaigner for equality between women and men, sex work for Fawcett promotes inequality. Furthermore, the International Catholic news weekly, The Tablet, which has a circulation of around 20,000 in the UK, recently published an article titled ‘Sex Work Always Demeans Women’.

Prostitution is the oldest profession for women and yet it often clouded by criticism and controversy. The role of a sex worker has become popular in political conversation as of late and recently Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn told an event at Goldsmiths University: “The sex industry and prostitution should be decriminalised.” His party was quick to respond, stating this was his personal view and not that of the Labor Party.

For Siobhan and Alex this media attention has become “more about what people have said, rather than people listening to what has been said.”

“It was great that Jeremy came out in support of so many people and so many sex workers, but in the end it all became about his gender rather than the issue at hand,” Alex adds.

It this kind of media hype, where the conversation turns from a discussion of an issue to a debate about personalities that Siobhan and Alex hope to avoid.

“We want to amplify sex worker’s voices. Too often does the media voyeuristically delve into the lives of sex workers, often describing the misogyny behind the industry and how women are ‘forced’ to work,” Siobhan tells me.

Surely there are some women and men who are forced into sex work due to financial hardship and circumstance? We cannot be so naive as to think that all sex workers are empowered and choose to enter the industry.

“There are all kinds of different sex workers,” Alex responds. “Some people might be doing it with more choice or less choice, but it is very problematic to associate sex work with misogyny”.

Etchart and Knox give a platform for all sex workers and their friends to perform their own experience of sex work on stage. Thus considering, their performance narrative, like its content, is hardly conventional opera. Featuring baroque arias, hip-hop beats, tantalising soprano solos, physical theatre and the spoken word, Sex Workers Opera is an eclectic and refreshing take on the traditional operatic format. All acts speak out against the criminalisation of sex work and show, as according to Charlotte Rose, sex work is not solely comprised of “lying on your back and opening your legs.”

Sex workers and their friends come together in a series of performances to fight against the mistreatment and stigma surrounding sex work. Image by Sex Workers' Opera Press
Sex workers and their friends come together in a series of performances to fight against the mistreatment and stigma surrounding sex work. Photo by © Manu Valcarce

“Most sex workers perform in a history of abuse and 2,000 of misogyny,” Alex tells me. “We want to shift the narrative of opera, who is creating it and who has agency over it. Anyone can be an artist and everyone should be respected for their art.”

I now imagine my interviewee Charlotte Rose on stage. She performs in Sex Workers’ Opera, is a mother to two children, an activist, a daughter and an ex-wife. Her roles in life are as varied as the acts we will see on the Islington stage. These sex workers and their friends should not be solely defined by their occupation, for we may all know of, or be a sex worker ourselves. These women and men on stage make no apologies for their profession and have responded to 2,000 years of abuse with arias, song and the spoken word. Maybe with some fishnets and latex thrown in.

Sex Workers’ Opera will be running from 17th May- 29th May at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington. 

Currently Sex Workers’ Opera charges fringe theatre prices with no funding. Until now Sex Workers’ Opera has been created, directed, produced and performed for free. Sex Workers’ Opera wants to maintain its accessibility to all members of the public, but due to increasing demand for more performances they ask for your help. Join and support Sex Workers’ Opera and help them to grow, stay inclusive and maintain accessible ticket prices. Currently they are crowdfunding and to support and maintain this unique opera please visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/xx-experiments/sex-workers-opera-bigger-braver-and-badder

For more information please visit http://www.sexworkersopera.com/ 

Sex Workers’ Opera Co-directors and producers, Siobhan Knox and Alex Etchart are trying to change people’s perceptions of sex work through art. In an exclusive interview with Westminster World, Alex and Siobhan discuss the narrative of opera, its inaccessibility and how their production is the new wave of feminism.

Words: Catherine McMaster
Images: © Manu Valcarce and © Vera Rodriguez