By Frankie Jenner
Decriminalised Futures really challenged me. I entered the exhibition space with so many pre conceived ideas of what sex work was, who it was enacted by, who the ‘victims’ of the industry were and ultimately my deep seated prejudices towards the whole thing. But I very quickly found myself calling these assumptions into question …
The exhibition presents thirteen artists whose work speaks to the multiplicity of contemporary sex worker experiences. It adopts not only an interdisciplinary approach to its themes, but an intersectional representation of modern-day sex workers. There is a strong emphasis on how the sex workers’ rights movement overlaps and intersects with many other struggles, such as mental health, poverty, racial injustice, disability rights, migrant struggles, trans rights, anti-austerity measures and gender disparity. As such, the exhibition tries to envisage a future in which sex work is not only legal, but sex workers are visible and given safe spaces to be heard, understood and valued: it is, essentially, an exploration of freedom.
Decriminalised Futures forms part of a broader project under the same name, led by artists and members of SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement). SWARM is a UK-based collective founded and led by sex workers who believe in self-determination, solidarity and cooperation. They simultaneously advocate for the full-decriminalisation of sex work and campaign for the rights and safety of everyone who sells sexual services.
Aisha Mirza’s installation, the best dick i ever had was a thumb & good intentions, serves as a powerful introduction to the sacred spaces that belong to many sex workers, with a particular emphasis on post-binary pleasures. Photography, writing and personal items are delicately curated in a semi-domestic environment, furnished with a light blue fluffy window seat, sweet pink cushions, hanging plant pots and the calming purple hue that emanates from a floor lamp. The stereotypical associations attached to Domination are exhibited on one of the walls: latex, paddles and whips. But Mirza presents a challenge to these traditional material expressions, emphasising the care, intimacy and freedom associated that takes place within this form of sex work. The space invites you to interact with it - whether that be through reading the various zines on the coffee table, or to question your reflection in the Dominatrix mirror. By far the most engrossing element lay in the ‘tell me a secret’ book, its pages filled with visitors’ confessions and explorations of comfort, play, desire and shame. Some serve as responses to the artist’s prompts, whilst others are extensions of strangers’ divulgences. Paging through the contents initially felt voyeuristic,and I almost wanted to shield it from prying eyes, but I soon became captivated by the honesty and resounding resonance to the sexual experience as both debilitating and restorative, traumatic and gracious: the dichotomy always persists.
‘My ancestors are happy … finally we get to charge’
[Quote from Stone Dove]
The second piece that continues to play in my mind is Chi Chi Castillo & May May Peltier’s series of narrative and experimental short films, Stone Dove, that reflect on ancestral and intergenerational joy/pain, magical realism, sex worker spirits and decolonisation. Through a compilation of beautifully curated shots of sex workers, the subjects are presented not at work, but rather as an expression of themselves: an embodiment of the freedom they strive for. But their stories speak to the intersection of sex work with modern systems of oppression such as incarceration.
One subject locates the power of sex work in ‘the freedom to have self determination, not having to depend on white power structures, I feel like sex work is powerful in that way too because I have this financial cushion, I was able to do shit, like bail a resident out of jail, so I feel like that was just one material instance of the way sex work funds were able to be used for literal abolition.’
The video sheds light on how many sex workers are part of a larger abolition of these systems of oppression. For many sex workers of colour, their job is a meaningful way to combat centuries of white oppression: ‘My ancestors are happy … finally we get to charge.’
Sex workers are some of the most oppressed and marginalised figures within society, constantly fighting a war often unseen. Their voices are their weapons, but they don’t exist to mainstream audiences. Instead, they are too often concealed behind webcams, illuminated computer screens, brothel walls and motel room doors. This exhibition not only grants them the righteous visibility they deserve, but also the financial reimbursement. The artworks on display are by sex workers, not just about sex workers. It doesn’t ‘other’ an industry that is already heavily dismissed but instead gives them the space they need to share their stories.
Decriminalised Futures is on view at ICA, London, until 22 May 2022. Admission is free on Tuesdays.