Writer Samuel Sims interviews Melina Antunes, who can be seen performing across the country in an opera about and created by sex workers. She opens up about exhaustive stereotypes, governmental violation of women's bodies and the glaring link between misogyny and poverty.
It feels like the stereotypes long littering the mainstream are being approached and obliterated far more now than they ever have been. We are seeing stronger and more varying roles for women, particularly in TV and theatre; same with trans and people of colour, who are finally not always represented as the tragic plot point or drug lord etc etc but whilst we can be positive and hopeful in light of what is happening, we know there is still a long way to go for the marginalised to be accepted by all as equals and actual human beings. Let’s face it, reflection of the self – or an entire group or community of people doesn’t just arrive one day.
We know that if we are being portrayed to the public as a singular idea and a two dimensional projection with no depth then something is wrong. As a gay man who really, compared to many minority groups, has a lot of privilege I still struggle with how I am portrayed in the mainstream; at how I am expected to be happy with the rights I have, to shut up and just accept my apparent liberation. It’s bullshit. What about people with disabilities? How often are they given a prominent voice to the masses in an effort to change minds? The only way to create truthful narratives is to hand the power back over to those that should have always had it: those with the experiences. This is exactly what has happened with Sex Worker’s Opera which, after touring the UK, arrives at London’s New Diorama theatre at the end of this month.
Comprised of at least 50% sex workers, this is a heavily collaborative affair that seeks to tell real stories because well, we really need to fucking hear them. Originally a 45 minute series of cabaret-style vignettes, the Sex Worker’s Opera is now in its fourth incarnation and a fully formed two-hour piece. All of the creative processes here are sex worker led and all songs and scenes have either been written and sent in from sex workers or devised by all as a group. Some people are telling their own story in the show and some are telling their friend’s with currently over 60 different stories sent in from 17 different countries across 6 continents.
An initial feeling – a prejudice really is that a contrast lies in the exploration of this area and probably one of the most highly regarded and elitist art forms. How on earth will people react to an opera about something so heavily stigmatised? Very well it seems, as past productions have received huge critical acclaim and let’s not forget that some of the most famous stories within the canon are about sex workers: La Traviata and Madama Butterfly. But unlike these, death does not have to befall (spoiler alert). I wonder about the stereotypes associated with sex workers. Promiscuous? Predatory? Drug addicted? A shell attuned to objectification? Used to and deserving of violence? Emotion-less?
Melina Antunes, one of the ‘out’ sex workers in this production (some would rather remain anonymous), is exasperated at being asked the same old question. “I don’t want to talk about stereotypes anymore. I think everyone knows about that,” But she is keen to approach the reasons why it is so stigmatised. “People have a lot of morals around sex. Not just sex work, but any type of sex. Some people feel disgusted and disturbed when they think about sex with strangers or sex with people that they don’t desire and that is absolutely fine. What is not fine is to judge the people who can do it and who can also do it for money.”
Sex work, like so many other professions is not only a means to an end in order to survive and support yourself and your family but is actually enjoyable. Many societies all over the world are told in no uncertain terms that this is so wrong as to be criminal. Why is it treated so severely? Clearly the dominance of Heteronormativity is partly to blame with the idea that sex is purely for reproduction but also, isn’t it extremely dangerous? How many safeguards do sex workers have against abusive clients? “Criminalisation of men i.e clients is not going to solve anything,” Antunes explains. “The majority of clients are not violent. And the ones who are can’t be seen as clients, they are people who are violent. If they are violent to one woman, they are violent to every woman. If they are violent to a sex worker, they are violent to anyone.”
“To think that a client's wife isn't being naughty too, is diminishing power of female sexuality”
It is easy to see the transaction – the business clients enter into as another world that we are programmed to see as completely separate to ‘real life’. Antunes agrees. “People like to think that our clients are a sub species of men, because they like the comfort of thinking that their partners, sons, fathers, close friends can never be a client. Sorry for the binary here but the truth is, a lot of our clients do have families and they can be good fathers and sons…maybe not honest partners. But that is another story to think about.
Monogamy and desire - people cheat and people do not just cheat with sex workers, and not just men cheat.” Misogyny rearing its ugly head again? “To think that while a client is seeing me, his wife is not being naughty too, is to diminish the power of female sexuality!” Despite this very pragmatic approach to her work, Antunes and many other sex workers still must deal with violence at work and it appears this will continue to be the case, but whilst many of us are protected by the law in our varying professions, sex workers do not have such ‘luxury’.
What can be done? Stamp it out completely? “Abolishing the (sometimes) only way that we have to provide and survive, pay our studies, or help our families and friends, is definitely not the way.” Antunes fundamentally does not think this is the solution. She elaborates. “The only problem with transactional sex is the power dynamics between gender and economics but these exist everywhere, in many different societies. Poverty is also pretty sexist. Women are the poorest gender. Creating poverty, more poverty, is not going to help anyone.”
One of the most startling yet common stereotypes of women throughout history is their complete lack of awareness and single-mindedness. Take the most atrocious fictional genres where the woman strives for nothing more than the man’s permission; for his mind and body to finally give her validation - it has completely and destructively ingrained itself into reality.
"It’s this presumption still that women do not know their arse from their elbow, that they do not know the difference between harmless flirtation and something far more sinister"
Take a very recent example of #MeToo, and heterosexual men worrying how their very innocent advances could give women the wrong idea and subsequently land them in hot water. It’s this presumption still that women do not know their arse from their elbow, that they do not know the difference between harmless flirtation and something far more sinister. Antunes sees this very often in people’s perception of her profession. “Some people think that sex workers, while at work are constantly being sexually assaulted and raped and it’s such a dangerous thing to put out. Basically says that we have no agency, not only over our bodies but also over our mind. To say to someone that they don’t know what rape is constitutes violence in itself.”
It all feels very 1984, like Big Brother is constantly overseeing and you are never truly free. “So many people have the privacy of their bodies constantly violated by the Government. It’s disgusting.” It’s very difficult to envisage a world where sex work is not stigmatised, especially when sex itself comes with so many complex branches. It is totally apparent from talking to Antunes that this is a profession, just like any other and that the main dangers lie in how it is controlled and governed by those that are completely blind to it but most crucially how it is all of our very beings that are being censored. Decriminalisation needs to occur, like last week so that the necessary safe guards that most individuals in most jobs have can be implemented.
To wrap up this extraordinarily fascinating chat I ask whether she thinks there would still be a desire to narrow down such broad experiences to a single narrative if the stigma lessened. “If we look at media and art making, we can basically observe that humans do like to single everyone’s who isn’t a cis-white straight person, stories”. A typically practical and somewhat depressing answer but as long as people such as Antunes are challenging perceptions and voices like hers are being heard, the future, however bleak it may often seem, is only going to get more open-minded and brighter.
Read more about the opera here.