Dan Rawnsley went the London Sex Worker Film Festival (12 June) at the Rio Cinema, Dalston.
Introducing the day, Dr Heidi Hoeflinger, a sex worker activist and academic, argued that sex workers were “stigmatised as victims or criminals and rarely have their voices heard”. The day aimed to “shed some light on the complexity and diversity of sex work”. From what I saw the organisers were successful in their aim.
The blurb for the event rightly argued that films usually portray sex workers as either “vulnerable, fallen angels, without agency or power”, or “shallow, materialistic, manipulative and without ethics... if we are even alive to begin with — much of the time it doesn’t get past the dead hooker, killed violently by pimps, drug dealers or crazed punters.”
Several of the films I saw, most notably Hands Off by Winstan Whitter, which looks at strip clubs in Hackney, focused heavily on the fight for legalisation. This is an important campaign, but it portrays a struggle where sex workers and their bosses are united, in this case against local councils. Those sex industry bosses who are not interested in legalisation are mentioned in passing, and those who work for them, amongst the most hyper-exploited in the industry, do not get a look in.
Though Thierry Schaffhauser, a sex worker organiser from the GMB, was interviewed the issues that workers faced outside of the fight for legalisation were not touched upon and throughout they were referred to as “the girls” without any effort by the interviewer or director to address the “belittling”.
The Street in Red dealt capably and powerfully with the violence faced by many sex workers which is completely overlooked by the police. Ni Coupables, Ni Victimes dealt with the issues of legalisation by interviewing sex workers and shop owners, but without dealing with the disparity between their aspirations and understandings of their struggle. The event was certainly significant — it was attended by around 400 people, and definitely an engaging and interesting experience.
I felt that there is a risk that the fight for legalisation — which for us is just a step towards organising sex workers to fight for control over their industry — currently dominates discussion in sex worker activism, potentially side-lining very immediate issues of pay and working conditions.