The Sex Workers Opera, Ovalhouse

Sex, Lies and Streaming

Designed to challenge our misconceptions about sex workers and their industry, Sex Workers Opera is a campaign, a celebration, a cabaret by and about sex workers. SWO offers us an affectionate critique of a strand of feminist views of sex workers and the sex trade. It questions society’s morals and double standards about sex workers. This multimedia production is based on the real life stories of sex workers collated across 17 countries in 5 continents, who demand that we listen to their experiences and their wishes. It is definitely not dry. Yes it is very thought provoking, but it is also sexy, mocking, fun, clever and very funny.

A quartet of classically trained musicians, who are part of the international LGTBQ cast, form the orchestra of violin, piano, cello and clarinet players who give us a deceptively gentle introduction to the lives of the sex workers, at the start of the Opera. SWO uses a stereotypical self-professed feminist to scrutinise and debate a strand of feminist thinking which is critical of sex work. At the beginning of the play this feminist cliche, who is the sister of one of the sex worker characters, jumps up from the audience to protest against SWO’s degradation of women, urging the audience to leave, because the show is like a “glorified brothel” and is not feminist. The cast dressed in sexy clothing -including stilettos, corsets, fishnet stockings and thigh high boots, – harmoniously sing that they are old enough to make up their own minds. The strong LGBTQ cast provide the essence of their campaign, in a series of slogans. They sing and dance about sex workers needs for “rights not rescue,” that they “ will not be ashamed” or shamed and that there are “no bad whores just bad laws.” I like the call and response section of this musical number which emphasises “whatever we wear wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no,” which should apply to everyone regardless of what we do for a living.

SWO is fearlessly polemical, it is purposefully provocative displaying great wit, panache, style, fun and self-mockery whilst being like a good old fashioned variety show. Although SWO emphasises the positive aspects of sex work, which is very thought provoking, it does discuss the exploitation which can occur in the sex industry.

SWO uses various techniques to bring sex workers stories to life, including the Boring Bingo game show, with slogans on different placards used to confront negative stereotypes of sex workers such as that they are all trafficked, stupid and/or drug addicts. The comedy sketches they perform are effective in portraying the positive effect sex workers can have on clients lives. These are fun, sexy and sometimes moving accounts, without being sentimental. It also demonstrates to the audience how sex work can be empowering for the sex worker and the client. A cast member tells us how a woman, who had an invisible disability, had to frequently take time off work when she was unwell. The unpredictable nature of her condition meant that she could not hold down a job.  So she turned to phone sex work and escorting, which meant she could be her own boss as well as do a job which she enjoyed. It was empowering for her and she valued giving care and affection to disabled clients who otherwise did not have anyone in their lives who would touch them in an intimate,  sexual and/or sensual way. This works well for her and other workers who have found freedom and empowerment in the sex trade, where they say they can be free. But what about campaigning for better employment rights for disabled people and helping or advocating for disabled people to make full use of their current employment rights in addition to  campaigning for civil and employment rights for sex workers?

SWO strongly critiques the criminalisation of sex workers and related stories where some sex workers had children taken away, due to the moral opinions of society, rather than due to their children being at risk. So SWO is also being used as  a vehicle to campaign for civil and employment rights for sex workers and against the oppression of sex workers. SWO is highly critical of the Nordic Model for sex workers which is designed to criminalise sex workers clients instead of sex workers. SWO and its supporters and collaborators  ( English Collective of Prostitutes, Sex Worker Advocacy & Resistance Movement, Sex Worker Stories Project, East London Strippers Collective,  Sex Work Research) are against the Nordic Model. In the Opera through song and dance the cast explain how the Nordic Model has resulted in reducing the number of clients sex workers have, which creates hardship for sex workers as they still have bills to pay and families to support. It can also force some sex workers to accept clients whom they may have previously rejected as they felt unsafe, reducing their choice and increasing their danger. It has also led to sex workers being unable to work with each other for safety. SWO opens up the debate about whether the Nordic Model is beneficial for sex workers, SWO say that it is very detrimental for sex workers, forcing many to go underground and further endangering them.

In a change of mood and pace, the actors perform several clever, witty and very funny tableaux of online porn sites, which challenge mainstream and/or tabloid assumptions of online porn and porn workers. The talented cast portray various porn sites including one where a male and female couple make videos about vegetable insertions, the porn site is called fruit and  with a hilarious tagline- the kinkier way to your five a day.  The cast exhibit great comic timing in these scenarios.  There is also a student live streaming sex acts to fund her course and a lesbian couple who perform various sex acts. The cast members simulate a variety of sex acts which is very tongue-in-cheek and makes great use of slapstick humour. I love how self-mocking these online porn scenes are. It was so funny I, along with the audience, screamed with laughter. The tone changes when targeting the online porn scenarios, a  government official implements government legislation which is supposedly aimed at preventing and ending the abuse of children. But according to SWO the legislation is actually being used to prevent people, particularly LGTBQ people, from expressing their sexuality.

SWO is also a variety show, we watch the performances of the highly skilled male, female and trans pole dancers display their acrobatic, athletic and sensual talents. Their performances are also a tremendous credit to Siobhan Knox Director of Movement for SWO, whose choreography is exciting. SWO succeeds in arousing our interest, knowledge and understanding of the lives of different sex workers from porn actors and strippers to pole dancers and prostitutes. Alex Etchart- Director of Music and Global Sex Work Voice, must be commended for the music and song along with the excellent orchestra. Congratulations to the strong international, multi-talented cast whose superb singing, acting and dancing demonstrates that it takes great talent, intelligence and hard work to create an Opera which is both entertaining and educational.

SWO involves the audience throughout the show, including when the individual actors, in the characters of different sex workers, approach small groups of the audience to speak to us about their experiences. It is very intimate, emotional and personal and another intelligent technique to make sex workers lives real for the audience.  

SWO does, to a limited extent, explore the negative aspects that the sex industry can bring to some sex workers. One character discusses that “ being broke with drug and alcohol addiction wasn’t working” so she started sex work to fund her life and habit. Other characters gave accounts as migrants crossing the border to escape war who “did things I had to do, for my family.” This is sharply put in focus by one line where a character explains, “ When I crossed the border, I crossed my own border.” SWO requested 1 minute silence be held during the performance, to mourn and remember sex workers who have been attacked and killed at work and promoted 17 December, which is the International  End Violence Against Sex Workers day. The balance of SWO is weighted towards the positive empowerment and freedom which sex workers can gain. SWO’s exploration of the exploitation of  sex workers is in the context of all workers being exploited under a capitalist system. A line from the song the Capitalist Blues sums this up when the cast sing “no matter what you do , no matter what you choose, workers always lose.” And of course many people now know how prevalent bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault are throughout workplaces in most industries, in the light of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo campaign.  

I hope that many people will support civil and employment rights for sex workers, decriminalising sex work and ending violence against sex workers. My questions are how much of a choice is sex work for all individuals? I am now more aware that many sex workers, choose  and enjoy sex work for various reasons. As one character states, “sex work doesn’t solve all my problems but it is better and I choose it today.” But there are sex workers who have been trafficked and have been forced into sex work. There are  some sex workers who do sex work to fund their addictions. And many of SWO’s stories from sex workers say they started sex work because they needed to earn a living. So how much of a choice is it in these circumstances? And what are the solutions for those sex workers who are damaged and exploited by sex work because they are trafficked, have drug or alcohol addictions, physically attacked, are in desperate financial need and/or are physically coerced or groomed into sex work?

Ultimately as the cast say at the end, SWO opens up a debate and is a springboard for us to listen to sex workers, to research how we can support rights for sex workers, how we can join the campaign to decriminalise sex work and end violence against sex workers.

The Sex Workers Opera is on at the Ovalhouse from 22 November to 2 December 2017. For further information click on

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