Reading time: 7min.

by Polly Loughlin

The Sex Workers Opera, a review


This was my first journey to the Pleasance theatre in Islington. A sultry early summer evening, I looked forward to a night of theatrical delight.

All I knew was that this was a musical production entirely by ‘sex workers’. I absolutely forgot about this and viewed them all as very talented actors. I could not possibly fault a single performance.

However, I could fault just about everything else in this unsubtle piece of pure agitprop. Sex Workers Opera was unbearably sanctimonious. Aided by an episode of Borgen, I already appreciate people’s rights to capitalise off their sexuality, as I’m sure the entire audience did. Not only was it so overzealously preachy but it was preaching to the choir.

A fusion of infotainment, that for me, managed to neither inform, nor entertain. I don’t know if I was suppose to enjoy or learn from my lecture on the virtues, freedoms and morals that come from selling your body for sex.

There was another small credence paid to the millions of trafficked sex workers, but really the overarching message was: ‘we are happy prostitutes’ with no appreciation of what a small lucky minority they are – privileged, sexually liberated Westerners who have the luxury to capitalise on their attractive bodies and sexual prowess. The Government can fuck off for trying to implement legislation that tries to help these third worlders who are pimped out.

What’s a million trafficked African women’s lives compared to the rights of Westerners who charge £500 an hour to businessmen who want a good spanking?

No policy suggestions were made, or ideas on how to tackle these delicate issues, beyond, a tired; “criminalising my work limits my freedom” line. I would have appreciated a political angle, because these people, the ones on stage, they’re all truly free, they make their own hours, they’re their own boss. One line even ridicules people who work in Boots, as if retail is a lowly profession, unlike the lofty heights of sex work, which us mere mortals can never understand.

There was a supposedly charming story from Argentina about a prostitute who gets picked up by a man who instead of going arse to mouth merely seeks marital advice. When he tells the prostitute that he kisses his wife on the lips, she replies, “which ones?” in a typical illustration of the puerile humor littered throughout.

A slapstick number that portrayed a range of online pornography turned out to be superbly funny and the only moment I could look back at fondly, beyond that I can’t recount another minute I’d willingly see again.

The nearest we have to a central structure is the story of Simone, a young woman who instead of completing the internship she was on, decides to become a prostitute. This much to the chagrin of her concerned mother who keeps repeating that she just wants to take her home. This is played out in numerable dramatic conversations with the mother’s arguments reeking of second wave feminism. The mother was rightly worried about her daughter’s welfare and brought up drugs, danger and all the things one would associate as being the perils of street prostitution. All these issues are derided throughout as ‘clichés’, despite the fact that I imagine they’re a hell of a lot more common than these bourgeois sex workers would be willing to admit.

At one point the mother brought up trafficking, which her daughter compared to working in a sweatshop. I really don’t think systematic rape can be compared with dismal working conditions. Both are global injustices and atrocities, but only one implies certain unwanted penetration of a vulnerable person’s body.

But this segment relentlessly confused me, was I suppose to engage with the disagreement between second and third wave feminism or acknowledge the characters as mother and daughter? Very few parents, I’m sure, would be thrilled at the notion of their children selling their bodies and yet we the audience were encouraged to root against this woman, who was quite reasonably worried about her daughter and didn’t like her chosen career. This continued in the interval, Simone and her mother argued loudly at the bar in a clever piece of Promenade theatre, as I elbowed my way to a much needed beer.

Another profession denigrated was that of bankers – never mind their contribution to the functioning of the global economy, just making a cheap joke at their expense to further glorify sex work.

Freedom was a common theme reiterated ad nauseum and all I could think of was exercising my freedom to leave and go and get a beer. Maybe for somebody with Victorian morals it might prove enlightening, but I didn’t get anything from it that I couldn’t of found re-reading Belle de Jour.