Workers!, the title of a new film made collaboratively by artist, Petra Bauer and sex-worker led charity, SCOT-PEP, serves a dual purpose. The two syllable, defiantly exclaimed single word can be viewed as a nod to Bauer’s past film work, Sisters!, which she made with the Southall Black Sisters in 2011. Crucially, it also positions the subject of sex work in line with a broader history of unionised labour movements. The film takes place within the Scottish Trade Union Congress, a site of political organisation in the fight for workers’ rights with a history that spans over 100 years. It is in this context that anonymous members of SCOT-PEP casually discuss Les Prostituées de Lyon Parlent, a film documenting the 1975 occupation of a church by sex workers following a series of murders, and recount the personal and material repercussions of sex work. These include accounts of police brutality, the workers’ vulnerability as undocumented migrants, and the pressures of ‘end demand’—which sustains a dangerous power imbalance in favour of the client. By aligning sex work with unionised labour movements, the film focusses on the material and practical implications of working in the field, fore-fronting the worker and the unsafe conditions that they are forced to operate within under current laws of criminalisation.
By framing sex work in this way the film avoids the application of moral and value judgements which are typically reached for when discussing the subject. These are perhaps most associated with the so-called Sex Wars of the 1970s and 1980s, where anti-prostitution feminists vehemently clashed with anti-censorship and pro-sex activist groups over whether sex work and pornography should be viewed as a form of gendered violence. To this day debates continue to be dogged by these polarised positions and, as such, discussions are often circular, producing a deadlock that pits the sex industry as representative of an extreme power imbalance against sexual expression and positivity. Workers!, by choosing to emphasise the labour and economic implications of sex work, provides an alternative perspective that has been historically omitted. ‘Our concern as sex workers,’ write Juno Mac and Molly Smith in their recently released and excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, ‘is the safety and survival of sex workers.’ It is understandable, then, that their approach to the topic privileges the lived experience over the philosophical and theoretical implications.
An emphasis on a labour-centred analysis of sex work is further reinforced by a series of scenes which connect it to other forms of feminised labour. Through long, slow, methodical takes that unfold in real time, members of SCOT-PEP are seen performing a series of domestic tasks that include sewing, ironing, cleaning, preparing food, and making tea. While these scenes make reference to Chantal Akerman’s hugely influential Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), in Workers! they serve to embed sex work within a Marxist feminist perspective that analyses gender oppression through a re-reading of economic history. For a succinct overview, Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (1998) is essential reading. Federici traces the history of capitalist organisation in order to link the banning of prostitution and the expulsion of women from the workplace with the creation of the housewife, whose essential contributions to the labour workforce are produced for free. In addition to this theoretical gesture, which posits the bringing together of prostitution and reproductive labour as intrinsic to thinking through female subordination, these scenes, charged with great care and sensitivity, temper the already mild-mannered accounts of faced difficulties, stigma, and precariousness. They sustain a tone that refuses sensationalised stories of exploitation, a vast departure from one of the most well-known films on sex work, Not a Love Story (1981) by Bonnie Klein. Film critic B. Ruby Rich famously described Klein’s film as an ‘exercise in show and tell’, the highly biased, moralised lens of which accentuates and relishes in the most abhorrent sides of the industry. The outrage that it steeps, Rich claimed, can itself be viewed as a form of titillation—a sophisticated form of voyeurism.
Through these accounts and actions the past echoes in the present, culminating in a list of key demands that open with decriminalisation. Sex workers are the most marginalised in society, and the film—by presenting a nuanced argument that insists that it is possible to both oppose the sex industry whilst supporting those who sell sex—shows how important it is to support, rather than dehumanise and demean, an already oppressed and struggling group of individuals. In line with this sentiment, Petra Bauer, in a post-screening discussion, expressed her hope that the film would be seen by the wider feminist movement.
Lauren Houlton is a curator and writer based in London. In 2017 she was awarded the Michael O’Pray Prize by Art Monthly and FVU for new critical writing on artist moving image. She has contributed to Art Monthly and Orlando.