Being a sex worker has never been easy, but since the government introduced prohibitive anti-vulgarity laws in 2014, the problems associated with sex work have become much more acute. Pornography, prostitution and stripping remain stigmatised, while other forms of sex work – likesugar babies and escort services – barely register in the public consciousness.
Lauren Zoe is trying to change that. A final-year art student at Goldsmiths’ University – and vice president of Britain’s only student sex worker solidarity group – Lauren has just started running a series of all-female life-drawing classes that use sex workers as muses. She’s hoping to demystify sex work, pushing back against mainstream depictions of the profession. Most sex workers in Britain, she tells me, aren’t lavishly-paid call-girls or desperate women with no other option. I went to one of her classes to find out more.
There aren’t many events like this – what made you want to do this class?
Lauren Zoe: I’ve life-modelled predominantly for white male artists, and I didn’t have a great experience with it. I was sexually assaulted by an artist, and when I spoke to the police about it I was told that there was no point going through with it because I was naked. In my work with the Sex Worker Solidarity Society, I heard about similar experiences, and the idea for these classes developed from there. I’ve done various jobs, from certain types of sex work to life-modelling, being a secretary; all these jobs were performative and revolved around my femininity and sexuality. This idea that somebody being naked means they’re readily sexual for everyone else is an idea that needs to be undone, not just for sex-workers but in general.
“This idea that somebody being naked means they’re readily sexual for everyone else is an idea that needs to be undone” – Lauren Zoe
You say models shouldn’t necessarily be sexualised – how will that work in your class?
Lauren Zoe: Our models will be performing sexual acts, but the artists and the class members will not behave sexually towards those performers. There will be an understanding in the room that people can’t react sexually towards them. It will be still poses first, then either a striptease or a live cam show, and we’re deciding whether she’ll do some re-enactments of BDSM. That’d be quite a good variety of performances to experiment with.
What kind of performers have you got involved?
Lauren Zoe: Our first performer works as an escort, as a camgirl and as a pornstar. She does a lot of activism as well, she runs the SWSS. I like the idea of using people who won’t normally be used as life models… it’s kind of hard with the sex work performances, because I absolutely refuse to underpay a sex worker. That completely goes against what I’m trying to do. I’ll pay the performers as close as I can to the rate they would get for sex work.
Why is it so important for you that sex workers are paid a certain rate? Is it about legitimising it?
Lauren Zoe: It’s because it’s fair. I’m consuming their time that they could be using to work elsewhere. I don’t think any work should be cheapened for the sake of art. People see sex work either as something you do because you’re desperate or something you do because you’re greedy. They think it’s something they won’t do because of their values or morals. But shaming the worker for what they do and ignoring the difficulties workers face is a problem – it’s still work.
Has there been any negative feedback on it?
Lauren Zoe: Not on campus. But we do get people saying we shouldn’t be condoning sex work. A lot of those people aren’t based in the UK, so they come from countries where the politics surrounding sex work are different. We do like connecting with people abroad, and screen a lot of documentaries from other countries. But we do find that people from America, say, will inbox us and abuse us. But it doesn’t drag us down at all. The aim is to create an educational space where marginalised people can speak their minds. I think art should encourage that sort of personal development and self-expression. The class is intended for people who want to discuss their own experiences of gender, but also relax and have fun. It’ll be quite a diverse group.
Do you think the lack of funding for similar art shows a bit of a lack of care?
Lauren Zoe: I’d love it to be arts council-funded, but I don’t see that happening! I think the fact that it’s funded by individuals rather than supported by institutions shows a lack of respect. Even the SWSS shows have been funded through sex work, not via university funding. I think that spoke volumes.