Comes Naturally #137 (June 27, 2003):
Sluts Unite: The Politics and Art of the Third San Francisco Sex Worker Film Festival


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COMES NATURALLY #137
Spectator Magazine -- June 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 David Steinberg

SLUTS UNITE: THE POLITICS AND ART OF THE THIRD SAN FRANCISCO SEX WORKER FILM FESTIVAL

"It's easy to marginalize people who are unlike you, until you look them in the eye, eat a meal with them, and see that they are real, live, breathing human beings who are just trying to be happy." -- Marco Porsia, documentary cameraman

"The desire to live was desperate in my belly, and the stories I had hidden all those years were the blood and bone of it. To get it down, to tell it again, to make sense of something -- by god just once -- to be real in the world, without lies or evasions or sweet-talking nonsense." -- Dorothy Allison

"The truth will make you free." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

There's something important about telling your story. About telling your story your own way, in your own voice, the way you feel it, the way you really feel it, down under the layers of other people's expectations, down under the desire to please, under the desire to be accepted and acceptable, respected and respectable.

When it comes to sex, where the rules are multiple, fierce, and ridiculously arbitrary, telling one's true story becomes especially important -- liberatory, even. The more a person's sexual reality deviates from The Way It Spozed to Be the more important telling the truth about sex becomes.

Imagine, then, the energy released and stereotypes challenged when a group of sexually scorned, marginalized, and deeply misunderstood people -- sex workers from around the world -- begin to creatively and passionately tell the truth about their lives, especially when their creative outpouring reaches critical mass and can be assembled into anthologies of writings, exhibits of paintings and photographs, and festival screenings of films and videos.

This is exactly what is happening within the rapidly expanding international movement for prostitutes' rights. In countries as diverse as India and Italy, Taiwan and the United States, sex workers are coming together to campaign for respect, improved working conditions, and equal rights with other workers. And, alongside more traditional political and legislative efforts, sex workers are increasingly using a full spectrum of art forms to tell the real stories of who they are and how they lead their lives, to articulate their political demands, and to call on the public to acknowledge and respect their fundamental humanity.

As the 51 films recently shown at the Third San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival demonstrate, there are many ways to use film and video to contrast the reality of prostitutes' lives with the presumptions most non-sex workers have about who sex workers are and how they live. Even more importantly, the films collected by Festival organizer and long-time prostitute rights advocate Carol Leigh (Scarlot Harlot) illustrate the wide variety of sex worker stories that are socially hidden and just waiting to be told -- ranging from transgendered women working the streets of Milan to mothers supporting themselves and their children in the red light district of Calcutta; from suburban women happily working in massage parlors to runaway teenagers trying to pay for basic food and shelter without being forced to return to their parents.

Indeed, the most striking thing about this collection of films by and about sex workers -- aside from their universally refreshing honesty and straightforwardness about the business of sex -- is the panoramic vision they paint of sex work. If you ever thought the lives, personalities, motivations, struggles, and joys of sex workers around the world (or around the corner) could be lumped into two or three (or ten or twelve) categorizable "types," the Festival's two-day cram course in sex worker cinematography will forever disabuse of you such simplistic notions. And if you think sex workers are nothing more than a pitiful band of powerless, confused, and abused women needing to be saved from themselves by condescending big brothers and moralizing older sisters, the fiery, articulate, and often politically astute women who are the subjects (and often the creators) of these films will quickly rid you of those misconceptions as well.

Much like sex work itself, the films of the latest San Francisco Sex Worker Film Festival are at once enlightening and disorienting, inspiring and disturbing, an emotional and informational whirlwind of the first order. At one moment, we happily watch
ex-sex-worker-now-college-film-instructor Julianna Piccillo tell the story ("I Was a Teenage Prostitute") of how she lied about her age to get a job at a massage parlor in suburban Levittown, Pennsylvania, naively thinking she would be rubbing people's backs. When she discovered that she was expected to rub the cocks of her customers as well as their backs, and that she could make a good deal more than minimum wage doing it, she was surprised, but hardly distressed. "I was a teenage prostitute," Piccillo prints on screen at the start of her film. "And I didn't have a pimp or a drug problem," she adds. "And I liked it," she finally affirms.

"Jerking off guys for a few hours a week -- there are a lot worse things you can do in life," Piccillo tells an appreciative audience largely composed of fellow sex workers and friends of the family, in the discussion following her film. "I was being rewarded for being a slut and it was really quite fun." For Piccillo, sex work was an avenue for sexual exploration, personal empowerment, and a way to make a lot more money than working at Burger King.

Moments later, however, in her films "Deconstructing Crack Ho" and "Swallow," Ariel Lightningchild is telling quite a different story -- what it's like to run away from an abusive, drug-ridden home and try to survive on the street with the harsh realities of crack cocaine, racism, negative body image, and the being intensely marginalized by "respectable" society. "My story is not represented by the celebratism of the sex-positive prostitutes movement," Lightningchild insists harshly.

When, in much the same spirit, Maria Beatty and Margie Schnibbe's "Let the Punishment Fit the Child" takes viewers on a wrenchingly surreal journey through the emotional horror of an abusive, eroticized mother-child relationship, the painful tale is soon balanced by a bevy of short films ("Scrub," "Mashed Potatoes and Gravy Meditation," "A Woman's Place Is in the Kitchen") that playfully depict cooking and even the most mundane housework as delightfully erotic when approached with the proper attitude and imagination.

Sex and sex work can be fun, fulfilling, lucrative, and delightfully transgressive we are told by some Sex Worker Film Festival contributors. Sex and sex work can be painful, destructive, and dangerous, we are told by others. The realities of sex work, it would seem, cannot be reduced to simple polarities of good/bad, empowerment/degradation, or enlightenment/abuse. Forget the anti-prostitution crusaders and the Broadway-show romantics. Here are the realities of sex work, straight from sex workers' mouths, eyes, ears, cocks, and cunts. Joy one minute, pain the next, not unlike the lives of people who earn their livings in more socially acceptable ways, except that sex workers must also deal with the consequences of being legally and socially under the table.

Not surprisingly, many of the Festival's films focus on that important exception -- issues of violence, illegality, and the consequences of being socially ostracized. These are, after all, primary issues for sex workers, even if they're generally ignored by mainstream films that use sex work backdrops. "NHI: No Humans Involved" documents an art show organized to protest the refusal of San Diego police to diligently investigate a rash of sexual assaults and the murder of 45 sex workers between 1985 and 1992. ("No humans involved" was the term used by the police for the cases they dismissed as "misdemeanor murders" of biker women and sex workers.)

"aka Kathe" tells a brutal story of family violence surrounding the murder of a Tucson Mexican-American sex worker. "Adventures in the Sin Trade" addresses issues of feminism, personal empowerment, class, and race, through the eyes of articulate San Francisco sex work activists Veronica Monet and Siobahn Brooks, among others. "1-900-ASIANPRINCESS" is an amusing tale of how one very clearheaded, no-nonsense outcall sex worker takes very effective charge of three progressively rowdy, abusive, and threateningly dangerous young clients. "Miss Erochica's Burlesque Diary" depicts a Japanese erotic dancer's determination to incorporate the art of classic burlesque into her exotic performances.

In addition to this array of short subjects, several artfully-produced feature-length dramas and documentaries at the Festival dealt with a number of sex work issues in more depth Two extraordinary films, "Tales of the Night Fairies" and "Licensed Prostitutes: Apocalypse," bring word of powerful sex worker political movements in India and Taiwan not widely known in the U.S. "Tales of the Night Fairies" is the remarkable story of the Durbar Women's Collaborative Committee (DMSC), an organization of 60,000 sex workers in Calcutta and West Bengal, India. In addition to actively campaigning for the decriminalization of prostitution in India, DMSC (run entirely by sex workers and their children) operates a network of 33 health clinics and a cooperative banking system. The group sponsors a cultural troupe that uses elaborate dramatic and dance productions to bring issues of prostitute rights to the public, a "companions collective" of outspoken and supportive regular clients, and a network of self-regulatory oversight boards that work to keep minors and unwilling adults out of the sex work trade. Watching a series of DMSC women (and one man) of all ages adamantly argue their case in rapid-fire Bengali, mixing humor and playfulness with obvious strength and determination, one can only be inspired by the combination of personal strength and political clout these previously disenfranchised people have achieved through persistent and passionate political organizing.

"Licensed Prostitutes: Apocalypse" is the equally impressive story of Taiwan's Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS) and its two-year campaign to maintain a long-standing system of prostitute licensing in the city of Taipei when the system is attacked by conservative business interests. Striking footage of thousands of sex workers and supporters marching in the streets, confronting police, and demanding to be heard by mainstream politicians demonstrates the possibilities of prostitutes achieving real political power through collective action. And, alongside the outspoken women of Calcutta, the scene in which one prostitute advocate refuses to be cowed by the moral indignity of an irate housewife ("Your marriage is a long-term rice bowl; mine is a temporary one," she shouts back at the scowling woman) provides a model of standing up to antisexual moralists everywhere.

The Festival's feature-length dramatic films provided equally enlightening portrayals of the emotional aspects of sex work, noticeably distinct from the standard depictions of Hollywood sex worker fare. "Princesa" is Director Henrique Goldman's moving true story of a young Brazilian transsexual who moves to Italy and becomes involved in the circus-like transgendered streetworker sex scene of Milan. Francesca's sometimes friendly, sometimes competitive, interactions with other street workers, her affectionate but troubled relationship with the woman she works for, and her attempt to maintain a traditional live-in relationship when a client falls in love with her, are portrayed with sympathy and complexity. Ingrid de Souza, a non-professional actor, plays the title role magnificently.

"Rub and Tug," a lower-budget drama about three women who work at a massage parlor, their relationships with each other, and their dealings with the parlor's owner and manager, effectively dramatizes the situation of many women who do this type of sex work. One woman is trying to put enough money together to open a massage parlor of her own, another is dealing with a boyfriend who has trouble accepting her work, the third is an immigrant who is desperately searching to find a man she can marry before she has to go back to the family she is supporting in Asia. Again, in contrast with the deprecating or romanticized oversimplifications of mainstream sex work dramas, the women and their concerns are portrayed with subtlety and compassion.

By providing a venue where realistic work by and about sex workers can be shown, by offering the public insight into the real issues and concerns of sex workers around the world, by publicizing the real political power being attained by organized sex workers in some countries, and by simply serving as a gathering place for dozens of articulate and creative sex workers, the Third San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival takes a big step forward in giving voice to a group of people whose issues and concerns have been widely ignored by a misunderstanding and disapproving populace. Perhaps, as more and more sex workers tell their stories in film, in written stories, and in visual art, their lives, their concerns, and their basic humanity will come to be better understood and respected in the years ahead.


[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at eronat@aol.com. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at eronat@aol.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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