“It was so good, I almost peed my pants,” says Julia Roberts’ character Vivian in Pretty Woman about her first visit to the opera. Her happy-go-lucky ‘hooker with a heart’ who had the good fortune to run into Richard Gere is probably the most famous prostitute in popular culture. But she is a vapid character if you ask Siobhán Knox, co-founder of the Sex Worker’s Opera.
“The arts and the media portray sex work in this really one-dimensional way,” she says. “It’s either very glamorous or very tragic. Anything written about it is done by very privileged voices, never by sex workers themselves, and we felt there was a real need to address that.”
The arts and the media portray sex work in a one-dimensional way. It’s either very glamorous or very tragic
Knox co-founded the Sex Worker’s Opera in 2013 with musical director Alex Etchart to help marginalised people tell their stories through the arts. “We knew from the very first workshop that this was necessary,” she explains. “The workers we spoke to felt that there was no art speaking for them, they felt misrepresented. We knew we had to change that.”
The first production was created in just three days, culminating in a critically acclaimed multimedia performance of sex workers’ stories. Now in its fourth year, the production has grown from a 40-minute show to a spectacle complete with projections and score – thanks to growing interest from participants, production crew and audiences.
Half of the opera’s cast and crew are former and current sex workers telling their own tales on their own terms. The production is developed from workshops where they share their stories.
“The stories that are shared and how the entire production connects is so important to the final show,” Knox explains. “That people are finally able to share their stories too, that’s as important to us as the final product.”
Putting on a show where the only stories told are from sex workers definitely provokes debate, bringing in an audience who might not otherwise encounter the sex work industry, or think about those involved. It quite literally turns a spotlight on something that is usually kept in the shadows.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
In the UK prostitution is legal. However, soliciting in public, kerb-crawling, pimping, and owning or managing a brothel (which includes working in pairs or groups) are all considered crimes.
“The crew are definitely pushing for decriminalisation, and that certainly is brought up a lot within the show itself,” Knox says. “But as a production, our message is to build bridges and make conversations because it feels that the more divisions there are amongst us, the less progress we make.”
A call for full decriminalisation does not have universal support. It is a complex issue. There are an estimated 10,000-13,000 victims of human trafficking in the UK, and sexual exploitation is the most common form of modern slavery. It is unlikely decriminalisation would help tackle this problem
Those who choose to be sex workers are not all in agreement either. Former sex worker Sabrinna Valisce has become a prominent critic of moves towards full decriminalisation. She had been a sex worker in New Zealand and campaigned for decriminalisation, but changed her mind after it was legalised in the country.
She says: “I thought it would give more power and rights to the women. But I soon realised the opposite was true.” She now calls for those who solicit prostitutes to be prosecuted, not the prostitutes themselves.
People definitely do leave the performance with a different view about sex work
Portuguese cast member Melina hopes the show sparks debate. “I think using art as a way to put your word out there is one of the best ways,” she says. “You can make people laugh, make people cry but most importantly you can make people connect.”
Melina moved to London from Lisbon and has always been outspoken when it comes to sex work. It was during her activism in the capital Melina met some of the soon-to-be opera’s cast.
“I said to a friend and fellow sex worker, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a performance only made up of sex workers?’ and she introduced me to the team behind the opera, which had just started at the time.
“I’ve been told the show is beautiful, that it’s poignant. I think it challenges stereotypes,” she says.
“People definitely do leave the performance with a different view about sex work. I don’t think it’s a radical change, I don’t think they’re running off to sign up for activist groups, but it starts a conversation. People seem more curious about it afterwards, about how we want to be described and what is important to us. That, to me, is a step in the right direction.”
Sex Worker’s Opera tours in the UK from November 4
Photos credit: Julio Etchart