Whore (A Sort of Theatre Review)

So last night I went to the play Whore, put on by the Charlatan Collective.  It was a play that promised to challenge people’s perceptions of sex work and was apparently written after the author conducted interviews with Auckland sex workers, so I was pretty excited about it.

R and I turned up at Lot23 and were immediately given giant stickers to wear reading “DO I LOOK LIKE A WHORE?”  

A large black and white sticker reading "Do I look like a whore?"

A large black and white sticker reading “Do I look like a whore?”

Ultimately I love the word “whore”.  I have a whole other post in me sometime about its connotations and power.  But as an ex-whore in a crowded room full of middle-class theatre-goers, it was a bit confronting to wear.  Being confronted is good sometimes, of course, but it felt all wrong here.  It seemed to be intentionally titillating.  Because most of the people there had lives that were untouched by sex work, their stickers were theoretical, ironic, a bit of a joke, even.  Not so much to me.

Inside was wall-to-wall with the aforementioned middle-class theatre-goers – and two actors, a man and a woman, dressed only in cling film and intricate Shibari ropework.  They had the “Whore?” portion of the stickers that we were all wearing stuck over their mouths and were writhing sexually and getting their photos taken with theatre-goers.

Look, intricate Shibari ropework is hardly some sort of symbol of sex work.  Sex work, certainly as Whore approached it, is about sex.  One of the character mentioned BDSM as an aside but made it clear it wasn’t part of her work.  In real world sex work… prostitutes are not the same as dominatrices.  And on a practical level, when you’re paying by the hour to see a dominatrix, it’s going to be a very specialised kind of client who’s going to want to spend the sort of time it takes to be trussed up in an elaborate full-body harness – especially one that doesn’t actually restrain them, as the actors were wearing.

The effect of the Shibari-clad actors was yet more titillation.  The atmosphere in there was hugely sexually charged – so much so that I was wholly unsurprised when someone grabbed my ass when I was queuing for a drink.  Not an “accidental” brush, but a full-on, buttock cupping, firm, intentional grab.  I (and R, when I relayed the incident) felt better when I realised the grabber was a woman.  Why we felt that and whether we should have is a whole other thing, though.

When it was time for the play to begin, the announcement over the loudspeaker was “Ladies and gentlemen, pimps, hoes and ladyboys, please take your seats.”  That’s when I started to realise that perhaps this wasn’t going to be the sensitive take on sex work I was hoping for. I know, I’m a slow learner sometimes.

Before I actually begin to talk about the play itself, a small but practical consideration: if your venue does not have sloped auditorium-type seating and your stage is not raised very high, why the fuck would you have your actors mainly sitting down, and some flat on the stage?  In my seat about six rows back, I couldn’t see a thing for most of the play.

So, the play itself.  It was a series of six monologues – six different characters telling their tale of sex work: ‘Rent boy’, ‘Refugee’, ‘Illegal migrant’, ‘Married woman’, ‘Underage sex worker’ and ‘Transgender’.  Except it wasn’t exactly six different stories of sex work; it was six almost identical stories of sex work with six different back stories.  Each monologue was basically a pick’n’mix of the following: drug use (universal amongst all the monologues), drug addiction, homelessness, childhood sexual abuse, childhood violence, adulthood violence, unmanaged mental health issues, running away from home as a teen, having no other options available (also universal amongst the monologues).  Most of the characters expressed a visceral hatred of their clients, most mentioned the violence done to them by clients.  The only character who expressed any pleasure in her work was Underage Sex Worker: “Sex work is sick!” she exclaimed gleefully as she skipped off the stage.  But her story (my reading of it, at least) seemed to be presented as the start of a downward spiral: she inhaled glue as she told her tale and her glee seemed like a sign of her teenage naivety. 

Because I couldn’t really see the action on the stage, I spent a bit of time watching a couple sitting in front of me – the couple who laughed loudest when one of the characters mentioned wealthy people with house cleaners who read Metro magazine (“That’s us, darling!”).  And with every tragic layer slathered on to each tragic tale, this couple nodded sagely and sadly.  Their impressions of sex work were not being challenged; they were being utterly reinforced: sex workers are sad victims with terrible pasts and no real choice; sex workers are so far removed from their immaculate world.  Fucking spare me.

The thing is, there are almost as many sex work stories as there are sex workers.  I’m not denying the tragic tales exist – of course they do.  But they’re not representative of why all sex workers decide to enter the industry – not even why most of them do so.  Want to challenge people’s perceptions of the sex industry?  Yes, tell the tale of the desperate junkie, but also tell the tale of the lawyer who does sex work because she loves sex, the 50-year-old housewife who’s amazed to discover she’s still desirable, the woman in her 40s who considers it her career and has never worked in any other job, the married woman in financial strife who starts working with the blessing of her husband, the single mother who likes the flexible hours, the student saving up for her OE, the lesbian who finds the work hilariously easy, the woman who dreamed of being a whore from the moment she knew what one was.  (These are the stories, in a nutshell, of some of the women I worked with.)

Don’t just tell the same story everyone constantly hears about sex work six times over and pretend you’re challenging people’s perceptions of what it is.

Oh yeah, a final discomfort: the transgender character was played as a lip-synching queen by a male actor.  Please, please, please, can we not have this sort of bullshit?

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