View of “Decriminalised Futures,” 2022. Table: Copies of Danica Uskert and Annie Mok’s Unsustainable, 2020. Photo: Anne Tetzlaff.

View of “Decriminalised Futures,” 2022. Table: Copies of Danica Uskert and Annie Mok’s Unsustainable, 2020. Photo: Anne Tetzlaff.

“Decriminalised Futures”

View of “Decriminalised Futures,” 2022. Table: Copies of Danica Uskert and Annie Mok’s Unsustainable, 2020. Photo: Anne Tetzlaff.

Curated by Yves Sanglante and Elio Sea in collaboration with the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement

WE HAVE ALL PRESUMABLY HEARD the oft-repeated demand that sex workers be allowed to speak for themselves. This assertion, while a definitive rejection of tired, paternalistic tropes of prostitutes either as pitiable victims in need of saving or as social deviants who threaten public safety, health, and order, is hardly radical in 2022. Surely most visitors to “Decriminalised Futures,” the London Institute of Contemporary Arts’ exhibition of sex-worker art, will be in agreement on such matters. Perhaps the more pressing question, then, is what are they saying, and who is listening?

When we insist that sex work is work, we must not then call on sex workers to convince us that it is good work or that work can be good at all.

As is evident from the title of the show, curated by Yves Sanglante and Elio Sea in collaboration with the United Kingdom–based Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), the primary demand of sex-worker activists from around the globe has long been that states fully decriminalize both the purchase and the sale of their services. Prohibitionism, in place throughout most of the United States, home to five of the show’s thirteen artists, has obvious deleterious effects on poor cis and trans women, while the Nordic model, once lauded as a progressive solution to what was imagined as the ethical dilemma of condoning commercial sex, harms sex workers even though technically only their johns—those who purchase their services—are in contravention of the law. For the most part, abolitionism prevails in Britain, Brazil, India, and several other countries, meaning that neither selling nor buying sex is illegal, but third-party businesses that profit from prostitution are criminalized, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation if they choose to ply their trade in off-the-books establishments in the company of other sex workers. As for who is listening to these appeals—which the exhibition’s organizers tell us first surfaced in the nineteenth century and began coalescing into social movements across Europe, the Americas, and Asia in the 1970s and ’80s—the answer is in most cases, regrettably, not those creating the legislation that has far-reaching consequences for sex workers and their families. Today, only in New Zealand and one of Australia’s six states are all forms of voluntary sex work fully legal and not subject to onerous regulation, making a decriminalized future for all sex workers a distant one indeed.

Hanecdote,  Still Life for Sex-Workers, 2020, embroidery, 8 1⁄4 × 11 3⁄8".

Beyond the call for decriminalization, sex workers have rallied around the claim that their services function as labor and should be recognized and protected as such. Wall text asserting that “sex work is work” greets the viewer entering the first gallery of the exhibition. (The fact that the terms sex work and sex worker have been so thoroughly absorbed into common parlance is testament to the movement’s partial success on this front.) Yet what exactly are we doing when we call something work? Since the second wave, feminists of all stripes have debated how to engage with the West’s prevailing ethic of work, with both housewives and domestic laborers staking their claim to labor as a crucial node of women’s liberation. Feminist scholar Kathi Weeks has noted that sex workers in particular have made strategic use of the language of work, but in attacking the moralism around female propriety (“Call off your old tired ethics” was an early rallying cry), some mobilizations of sex workers have “tapped into and reproduced another” dogmatism, namely that of the power of work to structure society and dictate individual value. Sex workers–cum-theorists Juno Mac and Molly Smith, whose thoughts on these topics can be heard at a series of listening stations sprinkled throughout the show, take up this point in their 2018 book Revolting Prostitutes, arguing that when we insist that sex work is work, we must not then call on sex workers to convince us that it is good work or that work can be good at all.

To its credit, “Decriminalised Futures” portrays sex work as neither an unambiguous site of empowerment nor an unequivocal source of abjection and oppression.

It seems that the international movement of sex workers finds itself at a juncture, one that is gestured to, though not explicitly addressed, in the four galleries that make up the exhibition: Now that activists have established that sex work is work in addition to being sex, what arena should constitute the movement’s primary site of struggle, sex or work? Should sex workers frame their battle as one against normative sexual practices and toward a more expansive definition of sexuality, untethered to heteronormativity and the private family? Or should they understand themselves to be workers above all else, finding solidarity and the potential for collective action with other exploited workers, especially those who perform other forms of intimate labor, such as domestic work, childcare, bodywork, and eldercare?

Aisha Mirza, the best dick i ever had was a thumb & good intentions, 2022, plants, digital print, vinyl, latex, paddles, whips, gags, mirror, faux fur, foam, personal objects. Installation view. Photo: Anne Tetzlaff.

Activists who choose to foreground the sex in sex work tread on fraught terrain. In one sense, sex workers who refuse to be cowed by stigma flout social conventions that continue to condemn female promiscuity and promote sexual discretion. Moreover, as a spokeswoman for the Marxist-feminist English Collective of Prostitutes wrote in 1977, “Prostitute women put a price on a service all women are expected to provide for free.” There is something undeniably radical in this reading, in that it renders visible and subject to negotiation forms of labor that have been naturalized and made compulsory through the institutions of heterosexual marriage and the bourgeois family. “Prostitutes stand at the flashpoints of marriage and market, taking sex into the streets and money into the bedroom,” writes veteran theorist of sex work Anne McClintock. And of course, some sex workers, especially those who work as dominatrixes (or in other areas of BDSM) or with disabled clients, can offer useful alternatives to the sexual archetypes that circulate most widely in popular culture, ones that reinforce male domination and female passivity. Take Pakistani-Egyptian artist and stripper Aisha Mirza’s installation here, the best dick i ever had was a thumb & good intentions, 2022, which displays whips, paddles, and gags (a femdom’s tools of the trade) in a makeshift living room, complete with a plush pink rug, leafy hanging plants, and a window seat for rest and contemplation. Mirza’s piece suggests that pain and pleasure, humiliation and care, are more proximate than we might imagine. Yet despite vociferous claims from some sex workers that their efforts are revolutionary and empowering, the fact remains that most cis female sex workers service wealthier male clients in search of more standard fare; as McClintock writes in the same essay, “The current social context of most prostitution—pleasure for men and work for women—well-nigh guarantees its sexism.” In an understandable reaction to radical feminist and conservative condemnations of prostitution as “female sexual slavery,” sex workers with public platforms have tended to downplay these dynamics in order to highlight their agency, and in so doing have perhaps overplayed the extent to which their labor, or really any type of work, is voluntary. In recent years, however, after a decade or two steeped in the uncritical impulses of sex positivity, feminist scholars and activists have begun to question the notion of consent as the de facto threshold separating good sex from bad sex and good work from bad work. As writers such as Mac, Monique Prada, Smith, and Amia Srinivasan have convincingly argued, many forces attenuate our ability to grant or withdraw consent, and the coercive structures of male domination, racism, restrictive immigration policies, and capitalist economics present a formidable challenge to the liberal notion of free will, especially within the field of sex work.

Screen capture from Cory Cocktail’s video game aíčhimani, 2020.

Yet is there pleasure and agency to be found even within the sexual roles that patriarchal capitalism assigns both cis and trans women, roles that sex work can credibly be said to both subvert and reinforce? To its credit, “Decriminalised Futures” portrays sex work as neither an unambiguous site of empowerment nor an unequivocal source of abjection and oppression_, _its artists presenting a heterogeneous view of an unstable field, a “terrain of struggle” in which “the meaning and terms of the sexual exchange are vulnerable to cultural and political contestation,” per feminist scholar Wendy Chapkis. Letizia Miro and Yarli Allison’s two-channel video installation This Is Not for Clients, 2021, which is buttressed by a giant steel flower sculpture and features a pulsating score by poet and sound artist Littio X, most effectively accesses this tension. Miro, who is from Spain and based in the UK, narrates the trajectory of a semifictional version of herself, repeating the refrain “and that’s why I’m a good whore” over rapidly rotating images of supine nude male bodies with green skin, someone crudely applying lipstick, and an unmade bed. Miro introduces a series of noms de guerre—Gala the Escort, Miss Faux Naif the Dominatrix, Laia the Low-Cost Whore—associated with her various personas, investigating the elaborate theater of sex work that can serve to fuel client fantasies while also granting workers crucial protection and emotional distance. “Being a victim is the best angle from which you can be a persecutor,” Miro tells us, suggesting that amid the precarity of sex work there may be pleasure to uncover and power to be wrested from out of the darkest recesses of male domination.

Tobi Adebajo, ẹjẹ (Blood), 2022, ink-jet print on fabric (triptych), Polymorph and gloss sculptures, odor vaporizer, agbalumo seeds in glass bowl, three Yoruba deities, three HD videos (color, sound, 3 minutes 15 seconds; 4 minutes 22 seconds; 9 minutes 11 seconds). Installation view. Photo: Anne Tetzlaff.

Other components of the show are less successful. Conversations surrounding self-care and community values come off as rote and don’t always rise beyond the level of vague platitudes. Terms like trauma and healing are bandied about but likewise fail to gain much purchase. Motherhood and disability, however, are broached with more nuance, as in Tobi Adebajo’s ẹjẹ (Blood), 2022, a multimedia installation featuring three videos presented in curtained and carpeted booths resembling dimly lit massage-parlor cubicles. In this piece, Adebajo, dressed in an iridescent pleather bustier and miniskirt with a black mask obscuring most of their face, wields a cane like a phallus, then uses it while walking hand in hand with a young girl, asserting that they are a better parent because of sex work. Thoughtful considerations of migration and transnational solidarity are also on display in the show, with Cory Cocktail’s drab yet clever choose-your-own-adventure video game, aíčhimani, 2020, conveying the fear and disorientation of life as an undocumented migrant working in a criminalized industry, and Liad Hussein Kantorowicz’s Mythical Creatures, 2020, capturing recent collaborations between sex workers of various origins—Israeli, Palestinian, Russian, etc.—to resist repression. The latter video, which depicts a bewigged and corseted sex worker decked out in a lace mask and holding a parasol riddled with holes, evokes a ragged yet insistent Victorian-era femininity, besieged by violence yet buoyed by the possibility of cultivating unexpected kinships.

Liad Hussein Kantorowicz, Mythical Creatures, 2020, HD video, color, sound, 17 minutes 34 seconds. Production still. Photo: Aviv Victor.

On the whole, the show feels somewhat weighed down by its didactic mission, its aim to dispel misconceptions about sex work coming off a bit clunky in the way that art-as-activism paradigms can. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hardest-hitting components of this presentation are to be found at the listening stations, which feature edited conversations from a 2019 conference organized by SWARM on topics ranging from the convoluted ethics of feminist porn to the impacts of austerity in Britain to—much to my glee as a historian of sex work—the importance of the archive as a political tool. In these conversations, movement luminaries such as Selma James, who in the 1970s was a founding member of both the socialist-feminist Wages for Housework campaign and the English Collective of Prostitutes, and younger activists such as Smith and Mac return to the perennial question of work, cautioning against an inadvertent celebration of labor in efforts to uplift sex workers. As Mac says, “Work mostly is bad and sex work mostly is bad.” Yet as theorist Heather Berg reminds us—and as the artists of “Decriminalised Futures” seem to intuitively understand—beauty, joy, and pleasure, while they may render us more susceptible to exploitation by “making work tolerable,” also act to shield us from the most violent and dehumanizing forces of capital.

“Decriminalised Futures” is on view through May 22.

Meg Weeks is a writer, translator, and Ph.D. candidate in history and gender studies at Harvard University.