Imagine you decided to tell the story of your sexual assault in an effort to help protect other members of your community. Now imagine that someone took your story and turned it into a play. Just how long do you think this play would stick around before public outcry brought the play down in flames? It’s been six weeks and no one seems to care that these accounts belong to real people who never gave their consent for them to be dramatically read on a stage before the general public. Why do you suppose this is happening?
The reason is simple: these are sex workers, so the salvation narrative applies. Being victims, they can’t speak for themselves, so someone must speak for them. This someone is Peta Brady, an actress who became an outreach worker to make ends meet. After working at a needle-exchange program at the Salvation Army in 2000, she settled into providing alcohol- and drug-safety outreach in the St. Kilda suburb of Melbourne, Australia, as a regular gig. In this capacity, she came in contact with sex workers, and learned the violence and harassment they face working the streets. Like most saviors, Brady genuinely believes that her particular skill set is the only path to changing the lives of sex workers in the streets of St. Kilda, and that she, herself is their best mouthpiece.
The suburb of St. Kilda has a rich history of sex work, with official reports about sex work dating back to the 1880s. The Second World War, which brought servicemen to the area, caused a boom in the trade, and sex workers remained a fixed aspect of the suburb for decades after. A number of laws were put into place to restrict this form of labor, many of which were abusive — the Police Offences Act of 1954 enabled law enforcement to send sex workers to “reform institutions” without their consent, and the Venereal Diseases Act 1958 authorized the further detention of those convicted for sex work until they were cured of all sexually transmitted infections. All these laws targeted women: the books would contain no law against sex work performed by men until 1961 (a law that was used, primarily, to brutally police homosexuality). Eventually, all prostitution-related laws were repealed in 1986, under the Prostitution Regulation Act. This act was expanded in 1994 and control over legal brothels and agencies was tightened in 1997.
As a result of these acts, sex work — though legalized — is heavily regulated in the state of Victoria, which includes the city of Melbourne. For the most part, sex work performed by licensed private workers or licensed brothels is legal in accordance with the law, but “soliciting and loitering for the purposes of prostitution” is prohibited, meaning that street sex work remains illegal. For some, however, working the streets remains a reasonable option: on the streets, workers have the power to negotiate the financial exchange themselves, charging for specific acts instead of thirty or sixty minute windows; there are no shifts, which enable workers to keep flexible schedules impossible to obtain at a brothel; and there’s no sharing of profits. For the homeless, drug users and those unable to legally work, street work is often the only option available. Unfortunately, working on the street leaves sex workers open to a much greater risk of harassment and abuse, because they are vulnerable not only to would-be criminals, but also police.
Because of the decentralized nature of their work, sex workers have devised a number of ways to keep themselves safe. One of these is recording and passing along of information about criminal or potentially dangerous clients — an industry blacklist, referred to as “ugly mugs” (“mug” being another term for “john”). In the United Kingdom, this concept proved so useful that the Home Office became involved, launching a successful pilot program to help reduce violence experienced by sex workers and encourage the reporting of crimes perpetrated against them. In St. Kilda, this blacklist is distributed as a “closed” publication by agencies involved in the support of local street workers. Ugly Mugs, as the booklet is called, contains descriptions of clients, their cars, and the events surrounding the experience of the sex worker involved in the incident or crime. To protect other members of their community, sex workers go through the ordeal of recounting traumatic, often recent, events. It’s an immense gesture of trust and faith, made in the hopes that it will keep others safe.
It is this book that inspired Brady to begin working on a play, which would take the blacklist’s name.
The result of her labor, which stars the author herself as the protagonist, begins in a morgue. Brady’s character is a sex worker who has been murdered, and as the medical examiner sets to his task, she rises, and begins to tell him her life story. It is clear here that Brady sought to turn upside down the disposable sex worker trope that is so common in media, by giving the stage to the sex worker after her death and making her a crucial character in the play — a character with a vibrant personality and a humor and vitality that force the viewer to face her humanity. But is it helpful to give herself, someone who’s never been in sex work, the stage to talk about sex work?
Victoria has a rich community of sex worker rights activists and advocates. Even places where sex work is illegal, like the United States, have found that a much better method of increasing the visibility of sex workers is to give them tools to speak for themselves. In New York, for instance, RedUP has made great strides in educating the public about the sex worker experience by giving sex workers the space to tell their stories outside the context of media’s sensationalism through open mic nights. In 2013, RedUP released the completely crowd-funded documentary The Red Umbrella Diaries, featuring seven sex workers, and they publish a quarterly literary journal of sex worker stories. The organization seeks to remove the need for interpreters and mouthpieces like Brady by providing sex workers themselves the tools to speak and write about their lives on their own terms, through writing workshops and media training.
The play “Ugly Mugs,” doesn’t only co-opt the story of the sex worker, it also introduces the concept of the Ugly Mug book to the general public, outing one of the most reliable mechanisms that the most stigmatized workers in the sex industry have to rely on for their safety. Worse — as previously mentioned — the book that the medical examiner finds on the body of this Jane Doe isn’t a fictionalized version of the blacklist, but the real article. Between May 16 and June 7, hundreds of people were able to watch a dramatic interpretation of the violence experienced by sex workers at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. From July 18 until August 23, hundreds more will watch it at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney.
“This is your rape played out on stage,” writes sex worker and sex worker rights activist Jane Green. “Permission not sought, nor considered relevant.”
The word “traitor” has been hurled at a number of writers, who, in telling their stories, inadvertently expose for the world the lives of anyone who’s come in contact with them. Nowhere has this been more obvious — or more immediate — than online, where often both sides of any one story appear side by side under their own domains. Reflecting on her compulsion to write about everything in her life, former Gawker co-editor Emily Gould confessed, “At some point I’d grown accustomed to the idea that there was a public place where I would always be allowed to write, without supervision, about how I felt. Even having to take into account someone else’s feelings about being written about felt like being stifled in some essential way.”
But this isn’t a new problem. Media may change, but story tellers have existed longer than writing. Indeed, the risk of exposure through any type of representation is so well recognized that a number of codes (“minimize harm“) and even legal concepts (privacy, public figure, private fact, etc.) exist to protect individuals.
Even in fiction one must exercise caution. New York Times best-selling author Catherynne Valente put it like this, in her 2008 essay How to Sleep With a Writer:
It takes a strong person to bear this: you’ll see your private jokes, your secrets, your childhood, the angle of your penis, the heft of your breasts, your personal griefs, your complaints, your house and your profession ground up and mulched, composted and laid out bare, for anyone to see, in her books. Her books are naked, and she will make you match her. It will not be comfortable. She’ll use everything you are — but she’s fair, she uses everything she is, too.
[…] You cannot castigate her for any of this. She will just smile at you and say: “Why are you so angry? It’s only a story.” And there is no arguing with that — it is only a story. But it’s also you, your soul and your marrow and your life with her, and she knows it, but she won’t let you spoil the tale. You made the choice when you slept with her the first time — you belong to her, and she will use you as she pleases.
Of course, Valente was talking about a muse who had something of a choice in the matter, but those are not the only sources of inspiration that exist — as we’ve seen, and as we’re so often reminded by the libel counter-hex on the copyright pages of so many novels, “Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” But, as Valente so aptly illustrates, the risk is not always a legal one. The creative is tasked with weighing the intangible question of whether the benefit of telling a story outweighs the risk for a subject of having the story told. It’s a question not easily navigated. In the case of the play “Ugly Mugs,” it’s a question the author might have spent more time considering.
Green writes that when sex workers raised concerns through the sex worker organizations Scarlet Alliance and Vixen Collective, the Malthouse offered them free tickets to the show — as though watching the assaults of members of their community play out on a stage would change their minds. The Griffin was even less sensitive: they inquired if they may be given a current copy of Ugly Mugs for them to use as part of their publicity materials for the play. When pressed for answers, the latter released a statement contradicting their original request and assuring that the entire play was a work of fiction, including the stories contained in the book. Brady has done the same, in a comment to WAToday.
There is no indication that the two theaters or Brady will seriously address the concerns presented by sex workers in response to the play. The damage done to the community will only grow, making sex workers less willing to seek out assistance out of fear that their stories will also become fodder for the masses, as the public appetite for “victim porn” grows. This is the key issue that Brady failed to consider when she decided to bring attention to the hardships experienced by sex workers on the streets: in trying to paint a scene that would make the public sympathetic to St. Kilda’s sex workers, she destroyed sex workers’ confidence in people doing outreach and in one of the only tools that they have to keep themselves safe.
It’s possible that Brady didn’t realize the booklet’s importance, given that she dismissed it as a “Chinese whispers prevention.” But the only thing that can explain her willingness to exploit crimes perpetrated against sex workers in order to provide the general public with a night of entertainment is her inability to really see sex workers as people.
“It’s not entertainment as such,” she told WAToday. “We don’t make theater just for entertainment, we do it for learning things about what’s going on out in the world.”
Brady is still working as an outreach worker.
“Write what you know,” is a tenet much debated by writers. Perhaps when it comes to stigmatized populations, that tenet should be expanded to “if you’re not in the group, stick to amplifying those who are” and obeyed. And by that, I’m not referring to reading accounts of the traumatic experiences that members of this group has lived to an audience eager for prurient details.