‘Sex Workers of Aotearoa: A day in the life of’ exhibition
Sex Workers of Aotearoa: A day in the life of exhibition came into fruition because of the stereotypes and stigmas that sex workers face from people who judge the industry from the outside. These stereotypical representations are what make sex workers afraid to share who they are, or what they do.
In 2018, I was interviewed and filmed for a TVNZ documentary, The Secret Lives of Sex Workers, to show the New Zealand public the behind-the-scenes life of a sex worker. It got me thinking about what I could do to represent myself and others in the industry and to challenge public perceptions. Having always been crafty, and as I know some sex workers who also enjoy art, I came up with the idea of an all sex worker art exhibition.
With a growing interest from the community, I started searching for venues to host the exhibition. I wanted it to align with International Sex Workers Day on June 2nd; however, that was under 4 months away and no matter how eager I was to get the ball rolling, I wasn’t always met with the same enthusiasm.
Of the six galleries I contacted, most were already booked for the month of June and the others had shut up shop. I contacted empty studios for rent, even empty commercial lots, and considered the space below New Zealand Prostitutes Collective’s head office. Still, none of these spaces seemed like the right fit or were just unavailable. I was panicking that I wouldn’t find the perfect place and I would most likely have to change dates. I ended up at Wellington Library, with the new issue of ‘was my exhibition child friendly?’ – well possibly not, which meant I would potentially have to restrict artistic expression.
While browsing the Wellington City Council website for display stands, I came across the Hancock gallery which was available for hire. It was after contacting them that they suggested the exhibition sounded perfect for Wellington Museum as they had a space called Flux. After 13 failed attempts, what was one more shot?
A short email later and I was elated to be told that my proposal fits the Flux kaupapa nicely, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A day in the life of
I feel most people have this idea in their heads that sex workers, more specifically full-service sex workers, are constantly just having sex, as if there is nothing else required in the profession.
For myself, sex is such a small proportion of my work. I think back to working in a donut shop – was the only requirement for me to sell donuts? No. I made coffees, counted the till, cleaned the shop, made milkshakes and so on. I can only assume that the other elements of my current job are forgotten, due to the many in society who don’t see sex work as work.
For me, my average week is consumed mostly with administration – from posting ads, writing copy, updating social media, scheduling bookings, to answering texts and emails.
Secondly, it’s preparation for a client, from the way I set up my space, to deciding what clothes to wear, making sure there’s enough fresh towels, massage oils, drinks and condoms. A large majority of my time is spent washing and folding sheets and towels, and remaking the same bed, sometimes multiple times a day. It’s pretty mundane stuff and in many ways not that different from other professions – yet sex workers remain stigmatised and treated as ‘other’.
Finally there can be a lot of emotional labour that goes into sex work. As well as creating a positive atmosphere for my clients, it’s about providing a quality service. A ‘good’ service is different for everybody, and it’s about finding out what each person’s specific needs are, sexual or otherwise, and attending to them 110%.
My hope is that people who visit the exhibition with a preconceived idea of what sex work is, will leave realising that sex work is a just a job, just another way to make a living. Before anything else, before the labels and stereotypes, we’re just human.