Siobhán Knox: “It’s important for sex workers to reclaim their narrative”

Siobhán Knox, co-director of Sex Workers' Opera, on bringing the real human stories of a misrepresented industry to the stage.

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“What do you think of when you hear the term ‘sex worker’?

“For most people it conjures up images of a glamorous Julia Roberts being saved in Pretty Woman. Or a tragic Anne Hathaway broken and harrowed in Les Misérables. Maybe Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!; lovable and bejewelled but ultimately meeting a gloomy end.

“These are clichés and stereotypes. Art and the media play straight into them all the time. Mostly these stories are written by rich, old, white men. Very rarely are they told by actual sex workers.

“In our show, Sex Workers’ Opera, the cast and crew are 50% sex workers and friends of sex workers. All creative processes are sex worker-led. We tell our own stories, our friends’ stories and stories of the global sex work community that were sent in from 17 different countries, across five continents.

Sex Worker's Opera at Ovalhouse (Image: Julio Etchart)
Sex Worker’s Opera at Ovalhouse (Image: Julio Etchart)

“We tell the story of an outdoor worker giving marital advice to her client. The stories of police violence and raids in Soho. The story of a sex working mother being interrogated by social services. A webcam model singing with her ventriloquist dummy. We tell real stories of sex work. Stories that show there are as many different types of sex work as there are types of work in the arts, and many reasons why people do it. Some love it. Some hate it. Most are doing it to try and make a living under capitalism!

“It is so important for sex workers to reclaim their own narrative. And to reclaim opera, arguably the most elitist institution in the arts. Darren Henly, chief executive of the Arts Council, says that ‘opera must adapt or die’ and he is right! With inaccessible ticket prices, dwindling audiences and poor representation it is clear something needs to change.

“We feel that opera, and art in general, has a moral responsibility to represent people on their own terms and in their own words. It does this by listening to and including marginalised voices first and foremost.

“One of the most exciting things about going on tour has been taking this show out of London and running workshops with local workers, creating art and songs and being able to include these (with consent) in the show.

Sex Workers' Opera at Ovalhouse (Image: Julio Etchart)
Sex Workers’ Opera at Ovalhouse (Image: Julio Etchart)

“There are so many sex workers all around the UK. Some of them have never even met another sex worker – or have never even told their family or friends about their job – let alone seen an accurate and empowering representation of themselves on stage.

“By touring hard-to-reach areas, receiving enthusiastic responses to our workshops for local sex workers, feminist and LGBTIAQ groups and selling out all our shows to standing ovations, we’ve demonstrated how necessary the sex worker voice is.

“Pretty Woman, Moulin Rouge! and Les Misérables may seem like harmless fluff, but the reality is they reinforce extreme stigma. And stigma causes violence. Stigma means sex workers don’t feel safe reporting violence. Stigma causes people to be isolated from their families. It causes bad policy, bad law-making and encourages people to view sex workers as two dimensional ‘others’ instead of real human beings. They’re mothers, daughters, brothers and lovers.

“We are part of a wider sex work activist movement that has been working tirelessly for years to fight for full decriminalisation and to end stigma. We bring the sex work narrative away from the sensationalist moralistic misrepresentations that sex workers have to endure on a day-to-day basis.”

Sex Workers’ Opera runs at Ovalhouse until 2 December 2018.