Attempting to occupy a position of uncompromising solidarity with sex workers means that rule number one is to shut the hell up unless absolutely necessary. There’s a heavy irony, then, in my own reflection on these incredible objects. Caveat: these words were not written by a sex worker. They were inspired and informed by the curators of this exhibition, who kindly invited me to reflect on their incredible collection, and every sex worker I have loved and cherished whose truths, shared, have burnt off so many myths. In recent times it has become more common to see (entirely correct) critiques of ‘feminism/s that don’t include sex workers.’ When doing this, we must remember not to turn too smoothly from a bulkier truth: this has never been about centre to margin, but quite the inverse. Indeed, any analysis of gender and money or sex and capitalism with any sort of wheels has always come, credited or not, from the mind of a sex worker. Big up and all credit due, then to those as-yet unpublished, still never outwitted. BB – 2019
We move through our lives weighted and buoyed by a carousel of objects. Jammed in boxes, cherished on altars, shelved or stashed, crammed or held, we choose objects for our journeys. Objects for remembering and objects for forgetting. All of us are altered by our altars, whose centrepieces, real and metaphysical, over time remake us. Object permanence is the name given to our ability to know that something is there even when we cannot see, touch, hear or smell it. This magical brain-work requires of us a mental map of the touch-smell-taste-sound-sight-feel of the thing itself. The object can become a source of comfort or a trauma trap.
But wait! Someone’s walked into your house with some very strong opinions on the lighting. They’ve grabbed up a handful of your trash and talismans off their perch for a wipe down. The precious and incidental both get a bleach bath. Don’t know where they’ve been, you see. They’ve already started repainting the shelves, deciding on a saviour colour scheme. Letting the light in. Such is the predicament of the sex worker, whose own object collection rarely survives such encounters unjudged or untouched. In this way the objects — that is, the everyday life, the full flesh human existence — of the sex worker become an unspeakable display for this bad faith interior moral arbiter. Too much.
Building this multi-dimensional cache of sex workers’ objects becomes a radical response to the stilted fiction, that imposed shame-shroud over sex workers’ individual, ordinary realities, which proclaims them either too oppressed or too empowered to represent themselves or their own interests. The objects, displayed without pride or shame but with a simple ‘here,’ cuts through the low buzz of judgement present whenever sex work is alluded to, just like the ‘liiing’ of the Gay Romeo sound effect submitted as a sonic object and a clarion call of understanding, a frequency to tune into, a tiny sound heard through a wall with a thousand implications. Amongst these objects, an anarchic thread runs as the objects themselves become curious interlocutors. A train ticket for a journey never taken to one worker represents the power in refusal and the thrill of the risk. They prove that detritus can be re-classed as sacred talisman or mundane clutter, both equally viable. The graspable, the askable. The object never lies, except when it does. Even then it tells a true story. One thousand ‘Hail Mary’s’ on an anal bead rosary. Too true; the objects submitted to this collection are not always ‘of desire.’ The knife; the call-back to violence, the connection that colours all. He tried to kill me with a knife. Pain, fear and stigma hold equal weight with joy, acceptance and love. The objects speak through their owners, and their owners speak through them in loud and declarative voices which resist everyday judgement. This altar is meant to look that way. Each object contends with the right to make a world and live in it. In turn they, and their owners, defy legions of interloper decorators and moralising life cops with their great idea for a makeover show. The lighter is not heavy in her pocket. It was €800 so I took it.
None of the objects speak to one particularly charmed life, because the blessed or the damned binary of sex work is broken logic. This diversity is a mirror to sometimes conflicting views. The objects speak only in the language of the person who has submitted them, whether translating a client, translating a moment, interpreting a moment as they lived it. Here is the magic of this collection; each piece resists alienation within the life of its caretaker. These objects belong to Chief Educational Officers, Pleasure Advocates, Hygiene Specialists, Dream Coordinators, Careful Surgeons, Fashion Visionaries, Brand Strategists, PRs, Time Management Consultants and Trauma Counsellors. For the endless queue of uninvited commentators, the work in sex work is too often an inconvenient truth, a society of prurient retinas stuck on the flashing neon burn of thesex, all too content to ignore the labour, despite sex work in all its diversity laying out a role specification like no other. It’s all there for the Consummating Professional, yet the bloody wages of stigma leave these sharply honed skills unspeakable for CVs.
The object might be a gift which lies for the giver and tells the truth for the receiver. From the mundane to the profane, everyone knows it’s not the truth, a quaint contractual silence towards negotiated sacred space. ‘Lower’ callings, higher truths. Secure the bag. The bag is full of secret things, small useful objects – big useless ones, too. The bag is a sports holdall, the bag is leather. The worker becomes fully knowable as a self-written total fiction, a semi-true mélange, a paper thin mask, a day-dependent mix. Women and truth and sex and power and labour. Lube and dust and keys and a penknife. The mundane and the massive. She’s everything all at once and she’s not always even she (Gender is so gauche).
The chorus is here. They’ve come for your altar armed with spray bottles! For your own safety! A dowdy army led by Alice Schwartzer, hands overflowing with pearls, shouts “Stop treating women like objects!” The object, barely stifling a yawn, opens its mouth with a wry smile, speaks back. “Stop treating objects like women.” Alice’s Wonderland has somehow neglected to notice the deck of cards falling on everyone else’s face except hers. But Oh! This was not in the plan. Far too much clarity. She needs soft focus images of a desperate victim (waist down, back to camera, please) with an outstretched hand the perfect dimensions for her own grip. Alice retreats, agape, for the oppressed were once again being inconveniently loud with inconveniently advanced ideas about their own conditions and the small matters of who was doing the oppressing, what freedom would look, feel and taste like. How very annoying.
The stories of these objects and their people are infused with a thorough rejection of stage-managed faux salvation through state regulation (read: enforced debasement, cue papers cue passes in out yes no more no more) and supplanting it with the total denial of shame, an open door. It’s the biggest trick of all, and a life’s work in our reality where shame and its saturation is the animating principle. These objects peer out accusingly at you. They talk back, asking you to consider how you too can sabotage this worlds’ sick social scaffolding. Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics! they shout. These objects, in the end, are counters in a bigger game. Anonymous was a sex worker, but you’d better not forget their name.