"We Are Human": Putting the Stigma of Sex Work to Music and Challenging Preconceptions

SEX WORKER’S OPERA will be touring the UK, beginning in Cambridge, 4 November and culminating in London’s Ovalhouse, 2 December. The delightful and potentially ironic titled show aims to destroy the stereotypes and stigma that have long plagued the sex worker profession.

Beginning its life in 2014, this is the fourth outing for the SEX WORKER’S OPERA. Across the cast, crew, directors and tech team, there are always at least 50% sex workers, with all creative processes sex worker led and all songs and scenes either written and sent in from sex workers or devised by all as a group. There are currently over 60 different stories sent in from 17 different countries and across 6 continents.

Initially a 45 minute piece with cabaret-style vignettes, the show’s run at the Pleasance Theatre in 2016 was its most fully-developed at over two hours with a cast, crew and mini-orchestra of 24. It was praised widely for both its humour and importance in bringing forth a true narrative of the profession.

In the run-up to the SEX WORKER’S OPERA’s return, I had a fascinating chat with Co-Director Siobhan Knox about the show, before talking to members of the cast, Melina Antunes and Charlie Rose about the intricacies of sex work.

DISCLAIMER: HI SIOBHAN, WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOTIVATION IN CREATING THIS SHOW?

Siobhan: Opera has a rich history of telling stories about Sex Workers, but never from their perspective– think La Traviata, Madame Butterfly… We wanted to subvert this tradition and create an anti-opera. We also wanted to contrast one of societies’ most silenced and stigmatised voices with one of its most respected institutions.

DISCLAIMER: THERE’S A LACK OF REAL NARRATIVES OUT THERE FOR PEOPLE LIKE SEX WORKERS. HOW DO YOU THINK IT CAME TO THIS?

Siobhan: Art can be pretty exploitative - many are expected to work for free and just do art for “art’s sake”. There are so many artists who have only been able to survive because they are able to work for free till they make it big...in the meantime living off their parents’ money. It makes sense that there would therefore be a dominance of privileged narratives. This is why it is so important to us to pay sex working artists for their work.

DISCLAIMER: DO YOU THINK THE SHOW HAS CHANGED PERCEPTIONS OF SEX WORKERS?

Siobhan: A lot of people have told us that the show did really challenge their preconceptions of sex work. It really aims to take your stereotypes and turn them on their heads.

DISCLAIMER: HI CHARLIE AND MELINA, CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES AS A SEX WORKER?

Charlie: I’ve been in the industry for 17 years covering modelling, domination, producing, escorting and sexual training.

Melina: My experiences as a sex worker have been positive overall. I started full time in 2012 to pay a big debt in Portugal. I finished paying it around2015, but kept doing it because it has also helped me a lot with my mental health. Before I became a sex worker I had around 40 jobs. For me to keep a job was always hard. I have PTSD, which means that I can’t deal with people shouting at me or at others, making me anxious, depressed and angry. I start fearing going to work and I quit. As a sex worker I have never had a client shouting at me. My job is not perfect for many reasons, but until now it’s the one that fits me better. My happiness has never relied on work; I am happy when I am with friends and family. Work has always been a way to provide, never a passion.

DISCLAIMER: HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THE SEX WORKER’S OPERA?

Charlie: I was looking for something that combined my love of sex work and singing and a good friend of the industry Tuppy Owens put me in contact and I jumped at the chance. I’ve been with the opera since the very first meeting in 2013.

Melina: I found about it through the sex worker community. Some people gave me the contact of the directors so I contacted them and asked if I could join. They said yes. By that time I was already out as a sex worker, but I always felt very protected by the policy of the show, that we are made from at least 50% sex workers, 50% friends and allies.

DISCLAIMER: WHY SO MUCH STIGMA?

Charlie: The majority of stigma has been created by misconstrued judgement by the media especially portraying Sex Work as only 2D, glamorous or very tragic - there are many different sides to it.

Melina: People have a lot of morals around sex. Not just sex work, but any type of sex. Some people feel disgusted and disturbed when they think about sex with strangers, or sex with people that they don’t desire. And that is absolutely fine. What is not fine is to judge the people who can do it, and who can also do it for money. The way to tackle down sexism doesn’t start with abolishing sex work, because the result of that would be that a lot of people and families would stop having income. The only way is to decriminalise. SO we can be safe, create unions, make reports when something bad happens. So that people who want to stop or take a break from sex work can be supported, so that survivors and people who have been coerced and trafficked can reach without facing deportations or further punishments. It amazes me that a big proportion of the population of the world loves sex and still condemns it so much. Oh well!

DISCLAIMER: HOW DOES THE SHOW HOPE TO EDUCATE AND INFORM THE MOST CLOSE-MINDED AUDIENCE MEMBER?

Charlie: They might not agree with what we do but we deserve rights to be safe at work just like them.

Melina: The show hopes at least to create conversations around sex work, and to remind people that we are humans. We have fragilities, strengths, dreams, traumas, and even talent (wow), like anyone else.

DISCLAIMER: WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FUTURE OF SEX WORK?

Charlie: More people coming forward and to grow stronger unity to fight the stigma and dehumanisation to campaign for decriminalisation.

Melina: Maybe what I really want is that we stop being represented - that we will be just that person with a job, no wows, no ews.

For more information on the show or to book tickets, follow the link.

Samuel Sims

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