Experiences of art are subjective; experiences of sex are personal. The law is the law.

Works of art can help us better understand the personal effect of cultural and social barriers. Decriminalised Futures, the current exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London showcases works by 13 selected artists who, through performance, embroidery and video narratives, inform the audience of the impact and issues created by legal barriers around the sex trade. Opening visitors’ eyes can help bring about changes in the law.

Sex work is a topic laden with historical implications, political motives, and cultural stigmas. It’s difficult to have conversations about sex work — about how to legislate it — without questions arising about a trade that is tangled up in stories of gender disparity. The rallying cries of the Sex Worker Rights movement are not harsh or confronting but rather, poetic, their manifesto proudly presented on the wall in the ICA’s Lower Gallery:

Abolish poverty not prostitution.

Sex work is work.

Rights not rescue.

Nothing about us without us.

No bad whores just bad laws.

Decriminalise now.

Someone you love is a sex worker.

In the UK it is legal to exchange sexual services for money, but it is illegal to solicit in public, to kerb crawl, run a brothel, or work as a pimp. Furthermore, laws around sex work differ across borders, ranging from the trade being deemed legal or of limited legality, to being fully illegal and criminalised. Countries that include Ireland and France have adopted the use of the popular Swedish model, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services and decriminalises sex workers. This, on the surface, appears to be protective of the sex worker and against their exploitation. However, in reality it’s the prosecution of the clients that has heightened danger in the conditions for sex workers. It forces the client to be anonymous, to rush negotiations, and it forces sexual exchanges to occur in isolated areas that evade police interference.

In discussing utopian feminism and its links with decriminalising sex work, Oxford University professor of social and political theory, Amia Srinivasan, has highlighted the dilemma. “Whether decriminalising sex work would have the hoped-for utopian effect of transforming the basic relations, the wage relation, the relation women have towards work, and would allow sex workers to refuse sex work,” or “whether it would just make sex workers better off as workers but reinscribe sex work into a capitalist order…? ” A dilemma that is in all respects accurate, unfortunately, but this should not deter the ambitions of full legalisation.

In response, London-based Spanish artist Letizia Miro, one of the show’s contributors and also a sex worker and poet, powerfully writes:

“I feel that the question around whether decriminalisation would make workers better off as workers is interesting. I certainly think this would be the case. Sex work being criminalised threatens vulnerable people with further vulnerability. For instance, with fines that could push those workers into the need to get further involved in sex work in order to pay the fines..."

Decriminalised Futures runs until 22.05.2022, London UK



Still from This is Not For Clients by Yarli Allison and Letizia Miro, split-screen film, 2021, image courtesy the artists

Photo from Mythical Creatures by Liad Hussein Kantorowicz. Photography by Aviv Victor. 17m35s film, 2020, photography by Aviv Victor

Triptych by Tobi Adebajo, digital collage, 2020, image courtesy the artist

This article appeared in DAM81. Order your personal copy.