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The Sex Worker's Opera

The Sex Worker's Opera

Ovalhouse (venue)

29 November 2017 (released)

1 h

A mixture of actors and sex workers themselves make up the cast of The Sex Worker’s Opera, a collection of stories based on the experiences of prostitutes, porn actresses and lap-dancers from across the globe. The performers rattle through slapstick sketches, emotional monologues and musical numbers as they endeavour to shed the stigmas of a controversial industry.

The show hits its peak when presenting the humanity of the workers and the intricacies of their relationships. We see their isolation laid bare as friendships break down and lovers leave. Meanwhile, reports of police raids, in which half-dressed girls were dragged onto the streets of Soho, leave the stomach churning.

The writers of the show deserve praise for championing sex workers’ rights to expect dignified treatment from society. However, this conflates with their firm belief that sex work empowers women, which is where the waters turn murky.

We observe the cast preach a pro-sex industry gospel with evangelical fervour. Detractors of sex work are parodied as comedy figures and humour is often used as a device to dismiss moral objections out of hand.

The script clearly emphasises that any struggles the workers encounter is not a result of the business of sex itself; it is priggish regulators, judgmental family members and lecherous men that are to blame.

Many of the sketches focus on a privileged kind of sex work, such as dominating and escorting, which are presented with hammed-up, razzle-dazzle showmanship. Performers toss out catchphrases like “I can finally be free in the sex industry!” yet scant reference is made to workers for whom prostitution is not about emancipation; it’s about desperation and misery. While the cast observes a minute of silence to remember the lives of sex workers lost to violence, they seem oblivious to the way this jars with their “prostitution is power” rhetoric.

The sex industry is overrun with thorny issues: rape, coercion and female objectification to name a few. With this in mind, it seems remiss of the writers to sidestep these matters instead of tackling them head-on.

While the performances on stage compel and tug at the heartstrings, it is easy to forget that this is a show in which defenders of the sex industry cross-examine the sex industry. Testimonies and rousing speeches seek to persuade, but let the audience judge for themselves if they are being told the whole truth.

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