“Stop exploiting sex workers!”: Scotland’s two sex worker-led organisations criticise the ‘invisible men’ exhibition; call it ‘exploitative, non-consensual, silencing’.

Sex worker-led charity SCOT-PEP and workers’ collective the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) have today highlighted how the exhibition depicts sex workers as faceless, excludes the voices of sex workers, and uses depictions of sex workers in intimate or even distressing situations – without those women’s consent. 

We don’t need to be ‘spoken for’ by so-called feminists who depict us as featureless blank white masks, or who try to use men’s voices – as in this exhibition – to shout us down”, said Vee, a sex worker in Scotland.

Susie, a sex worker, said, “I don’t need the worst days of my job turned into ‘art’ without my consent, because that makes you worse than even bad clients. I hope that sinks in: worse. Really. I need you to know how I educate, how I listen, what my comebacks are to that bullshit, how I feel about it, and the complexities and the dangers inherent in the implications of your dangerously ill-thought-out ‘art’ show. You are silencing us and what’s worse: licensing hate speak and making it more legitimate.”

A spokeswoman for SCOT-PEP said, “This exhibition is disturbing on a number of levels, not least because it pushes for a failed legislative model – the criminalisation of clients – that has been shown again and again not to reduce the number of people selling sex, but rather to force sex workers into less safe conditions, where they are at greater risk of violence and HIV transmission. UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation both accept that this is the outcome of the criminalisation of clients, and therefore oppose it – why are some campaigners in Scotland so keen to introduce laws that harm sex workers?”

Cat, a sex worker within SWOU, said, “No one is saying that some men you encounter as a sex worker aren’t misogynist or even violent – that goes for men in general, so it would be surprising were it otherwise. We need laws that allow us to work together for safety, same as any other worker. But these campaigners have so little concern for us: I’ve been raped by a man posing as a client; if he’s written about that, will they plaster his depiction of my rape all over GoMA? I don’t give consent for that, any more than if it was a video – that’s a violation. How can they treat sex workers’ consent as so insignificant?

A spokeswoman for SWOU said, “This is disappointing – sex workers within SWOU curated an exhibition of art produced by sex workers, at the University of London just this December. If GoMA want insight into sex work, why not start by asking sex workers? After all, we produce art that depicts sex workers as human beings, rather than empty masks – a low bar, but one this Invisible Men exhibition fails to clear. We call on GoMA to offer its platform to sex workers: we are capable of creating art that is complex, nuanced, and challenging – and of speaking for ourselves.”

Molly, a sex worker within SWOU, noted, “The fact that these campaigners choose to amplify the voices of male clients, rather than the voices of sex workers, is so telling. People who want to criminalise our clients – and by extension our workplaces, our income, us – never want to hear from us. When MSP Rhoda Grant tried (and failed) to criminalise our clients, last year, she initially attempted to skip the ‘consultation’ stage that’s standard for a draft Bill. That’s how much she didn’t care to hear from sex workers. The campaigners who have put this exhibition on support her – they support shutting sex workers out of policy debates that are about our lives, whether that’s through trying to get out of the consultation stage of legislation, or through running exhibitions ‘about’ sex work, that fail to feature the voice of a single sex worker. Shameless.”

Both SWOU and SCOT-PEP noted with concern that those running the Invisible Men exhibition are citing research – ‘Challenging Men’s Demand’ – undertaken by Melissa Farley, jointly with Glasgow-based organisation the Women’s Support Project (WSP). Seventeen academics and activists signed a criticism of this research, stating, “this report would not be accepted if subject to ordinary peer review processes… [it] makes no contribution to our understanding … this research violates fundamental principles of human research ethics”(1).

The spokeswoman for SWOU added, “we run a support service for sex workers that’s sex worker-led. We do that because sex workers often don’t feel safe in ‘rescue’ projects. That the Women’s Support Project is proud of their research with Farley, and still citing it, despite the fact that Farley is on record making jokes about the gang-rape of sex workers(2), illustrates why we often aren’t safe within organisations like the WSP, and why we have to run our own support services”.

Both organisations said, “We would urge the Gallery of Modern Art to meet with us and hear the concerns of actual sex workers about this effectively abusive exhibition. We will be writing to them today to try to arrange such a meeting, and, if they are prepared to hear us, we will be urging GoMA’s curators to review the decision to hold this exhibition as a matter of urgency.”

Sex workers call on GoMA to engage with us on how to depict the complexity and nuance of sex work, and call on ‘feminist’ campaigners to stop violating our consent, shutting us out of debates that are about our lives, and pushing for laws that have been shown to harm us, whether we’re working through choice, circumstance, or coercion.