In a blog post published last night, endorsed by the Scarlet Alliance (Australian Sex Workers Association) and Vixen Collective (Victorian Peer Only Sex Workers Organisation), sex work activist Jane Green accused playwright Peta Brady of appropriating real life sexual assault stories without consent.
Brady’s look at violence against women and violence against sex workers Ugly Mugs (pictured above), which is currently playing Sydney’s Griffin Theatre after a season at Melbourne’s Malthouse, has been fairly positively received by audiences and critics alike. But the response from some members of the community that it’s about hasn’t been so positive.
In a blog post published this morning, Griffin Theatre said the play was entirely fictional and strongly denied using real sexual assault stories. Brady developed the play following 15 years working with sex workers as a safety outreach worker.
In one scene, a character played by Steve Le Marquand finds an “Ugly Mugs” booklet in the pocket of a dead sex worker (which both Griffin and Malthouse say is fake) and reads accounts of sexual assault to the audience. Sex worker associations across Australia (and around the world) distribute these booklets to sex workers, which outline details of assaults and the clients who commit them. Those clients are known by the sex work community as “ugly mugs”, and the booklet is intended to warn sex workers against them by providing details of the person and their behaviour.
“It’s a sex worker-only publication,” Green told Daily Review. “Every copy of the publication has a confidentiality statement in it. It says on every copy that it’s a sex worker-only publication. You can’t be clearer than that. To have something that’s a safety resource for our community abused in such a way is extremely traumatising.”
Green says sex workers saw the play during its Melbourne season and expressed various concerns to both Malthouse and Griffin about various aspects of the play beyond the use of the booklet.
“The fact that they’re speaking on sex workers’ behalf in a form of ‘entertainment’ that preys on sex workers’ stories — they’re not denying that, and that’s a huge problem,” she said. “We have a long history of people and organisations seeking to save and rescue sex workers from their work. I, personally, don’t need to be rescued from my job. Peta Brady doesn’t speak for me or my community. The play presents us as singular, one-dimensional characters, as victims without agency. That’s not who we are.”
Malthouse artistic director Marion Potts, who directed Brady’s play, said she’s surprised that the work has received a negative response from some sex workers.
“It seems to me there’s been a slight misunderstanding about the genesis of the project,” she said. “The idea that there is somehow real experiences cited in the play is completely fallacious. The reading the character makes from those documents has been completely imagined by Peta.”
According to Potts, the document in the play, which Green posted a photograph of Le Marquand holding on her blog, uses a photocopy of a real Ugly Mugs booklet as the cover, but includes slabs of Brady’s fictional text printed inside — no actual content from an Ugly Mugs booklet.
“There was a really rigorous consultation process, as with all the work that we do,” Potts said. “From inviting people from the community to various other processes that Peta put in place while she was writing various drafts.”
Potts said the emphasis placed on the sex worker storyline overlooks the fact that the piece uses two simultaneous narrative threads, side-by-side, to explore a broader issue.
“This is a play about violence against women,” Potts said. “It’s not just a play about the violence perpetrated against sex workers, although that is very important. Then you get back to the question of: who has the right to tell what stories? The story of violence against women is a really important one that I, as a woman, feel I have a right to tell.”
Green maintains that even if the booklet is fake, there are broader questions at play about representation and appropriation of sex workers’ stories, and says that Brady was wrong to have even accessed the document and used it as “inspiration”.
“When non-sex workers speak about sex workers’ lives, that’s always an issue,” Green said. “When you’re speaking about something from a basis other than personal experience, you’re going to get it wrong. The crux of this issue is the disclosure of a closed publication that was established by sex workers to keep our community safe. These are confidential accounts of rape, violence and trauma. I’m sure anyone can appreciate that this is a very personal issue for sex workers who have contributed to the publication.”
Green hasn’t seen the play herself and has made her comments from accounts from other sex workers. She says she’s avoided attending as she has personally contributed to the Ugly Mugs booklets and is concerned that she’ll hear her own experiences read out.