$exquisite: Sex workers in the Spotlight

An interview with artist Maedb, founder of $exquisite, by Ngaire Ruth – legendary feminist music journalist, and Maedb’s mum.

Working towards making the unconventional, conventional, the invisible, visible: Maedb. She’s a writer, poet, performer, curator and the producer of $exquisite events – a night of stigma-defying art, activism and glamour from artists, performers and comedians who work in the sex industry, which aims to bring the audience and artist closer through performance, debate and Q&A discussion. The next is on 15th November, at London’s Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club.

Why did you decide to work with multidisciplinary arts and sex workers?

Well, I’m an artist – poet and theatre maker – and knew I wanted to curate a cross-arts night. It was only in discussion with a friend – a full-service sex worker and human rights law student – that I was informed of a law passed in the states, FOSTA-SESTA. This prohibits sex workers all around the world who work online, and the bill was passed with the view to stop sexual exploitation but has in turn prohibited sex workers working safely. It has shut down various sites sex workers use to work safely online and feeds into algorithms designed to silence sex workers on Tumblr, Instagram and other social platforms. This is really dangerous and prevents workers from screening their clients and could even potentially push sex work into the streets. I was shocked that no-one was talking about it, at least in my circle. So, I thought it would be really cool to create a celebratory space for sex worker artists, to build a community and have conversations.

You’ve pin pointed a feminists’ armour: female friendship and support – which seems especially key for isolated online sex workers. Events like $exquisite give sex workers an  opportunity to share their art, but also where they can meet other sex workers, creatives and have some kind of camaraderie, fun and friendship. It’s really important; did you consider that at the time?

No, I didn’t. I do think it is important to mention that issues that exist within and for the sex worker community certainly expand that of those who work online – of which I am learning about now. But, in regard to camaraderie, fun and friendship – no I didn’t expect it. I really just was focused on creating my first event and set on getting to know the women first. I guess it is just an amazing by-product, and one I definitely want to build on. In the future I am planning to start a collective, so a community can exist beyond the events.

What was some of the feedback you got from the first event?

Many people approached me afterwards and presented good feedback. But I was most shocked by those of my university friends, who said that the event had opened their minds and changed their views on the industry. Some said it was a journey of education and were pleased that there was a space to speak on such ‘taboo’ topics. I think it’s really important that the night remains a space where people outside of the industry attend. I want creating conversations, with a view for it to continue beyond the event, to be a strong focus. That way we can make a ripple effect.

So, you have performances – what sort of things have you had before and what can we expect?

We try to have a consistent mix of different art forms, and primarily focus on poetry, theatre, dance and comedy. I think the event lends itself well to cabaret and burlesque so we will be seeing a bit more of that this time, alongside some drag.

So what about sexuality, are you an intersectional feminist? Do you believe that using your sexuality as an object is empowering?

Different things empower different women. I simply can’t say that it is empowering, or I would be speaking for everyone. I don’t think we have the agency to speak for every woman. The best I can do as a feminist is to support other women. Patriarchy has and will continue to divide us; I don’t believe you are a feminist if your feminism is exclusionary. And, furthermore, I don’t agree with the assumption that sexuality is an object. I’m not quite sure by what you mean, but if you mean to make money. I don’t think it is empowering, I don’t believe in a ‘happy hooker’ narrative to defy stigma. I think it is work, and sometimes it is shit, but having stigma and a society that isolates you is even shitter.

And, do you have men coming to your events?

Yeah.

And, do they behave themselves?

Yeah, and I think there’s nothing wrong if men want to come and enjoy themselves. It’s a safe, powerful and feminine space. It’s always a celebration and never an exploitation.

What do you think you’ll do next?

I would love to start a community where we will have monthly meet-ups. I think sex work can be really isolating – the stigma can destroy lives. Some people can’t even be open with their friends or family, as the judgement can often be so harsh. So, I really think it’s important that we have spaces where we can just make friends and form our own families and even debrief about our days. It’s just a job. Society makes it a label.

What about helping people develop their art?

Yes, I would love to eventually programme workshops where people can develop their craft. I remain in contact with the artists throughout the creation process in the lead up to events and am there if they ever want feedback or a second eye.

Do you think you’ll come across stigma when applying for grants or rehearsal spaces? If so, what’s your argument? In the past, feminists have, for example, picketed Soho saying sex work is demeaning to women.

I think that type of feminism is very exclusionary. It’s one type of middle-class, white, feminism that cannot speak for everyone. A lot of women who enter sex work are generally working-class women and it’s a very small minority that enter it with a “Hey I wanna have sex and get paid for it” mentality. The bottom line is that people need to make money, pay their rent and we are all victims of capitalism. Survival sex work and sex work are two different things. But most people enter it with a view to make money and I don’t think you are a feminist if you put down another woman for doing things you wouldn’t do.

A lot of people fall victim to sex trafficking, or, begin sex work because of poverty or abuse. Arguably it’s not a choice, even when empowering as financial independence, or enabling the pursuit of further education, but a result of a patriarchal society in which women are de-humanised. Bringing it out into the open is a most brilliant way to make the invisible visible.

Yes! If we decimalise sex work, it will certainly cut down sexual exploitation. Decriminalisation equals regulation. The more something is pushed underground, the further room for misconduct. The more it is pushed into the darkness, the more room for those entering underage or trafficked. Currently the law in the UK states if two or more girls are working in a location, it is a brothel and therefore illegal. But if one works, it’s okay. Tell me how on earth can that be safe?! If it is legalised it allows for monitoring, screening and ultimately safety.

Have you considered giving money to any charities related to sex work?

Yeah, so at our next event we are hosting an ‘afterhours’ pop up strip club which will take place after the art section of our night from 11pm-2am. This is in collaboration with East London Strippers Collective to raise money for United Strippers of the World and United Voices of the World Union; who provide legal advice and action for sex workers.

Is there anything else you want us to know, is there any way we can get involved?

We would love to have your support, come and listen to what sex workers have to say and join the conversation. All the money raised will go back into $exquisite, we hope to eventually programme a sex worker festival where we can further support sex workers and sex worker artists. Share some love with us on Instagram, we just want to build an online platform and a real-life community.

How can people get in contact?

Instagram, email or Facebook. The next event is 15 November at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club – event details here

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