News & Commentary, Stage

Sex workers accuse playwright of exploitation

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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.

9 responses to “Sex workers accuse playwright of exploitation

  1. So the Griffin Theatre Company has released a statement saying that no actual Ugly Mugs material has been read out during the play. Ok.

    But the Griffin Theatre Company blog itself says that “Ugly Mugs [ie. the play] began when Peta Brady came to the theatre in early 2012 to tell myself and our Associate Writer Van Badham about what she’d been working on. She pulled an ‘Ugly Mugs’ pamphlet out of a thick file of research material and we were immediately transfixed. Horrified, moved, confronted by our own ignorance, this was documentation that pinpointed the brutality of the streets we drive through every day. It exposed a woeful tendency to hide our heads in the sand – a kind of collective collusion that we felt compelled to interrogate.”

    Now, unless they found just the action of her waving around the pamphlet to be horrifying, moving, etcetera, I think we can assume what is meant is that she had people examining the contents.

    In other words, Peta Brady was showing around the Ugly Mugs statements of sex-workers to bunch of theatre people. People who contribute or have contributed to the Ugly Mugs projects – not the play, the sex-worker safety efforts – have a legitimate expectation that people who work for the Salvation Army or similar ‘helping professions’ won’t use their access to such materials in this way.

    We didn’t make our statements about violence and sexual assault and rape so that she or anyone else could use them like this, could get a bunch of strangers to take in the statements for their own purposes, agenda, entertainment or profit.

    Can the people at the Griffin Theatre Company really not see why this was inappropriate?

    Can people not see why this is a violation?

    Hey theatre people, why not get people working for therapists, or lawyers, or social workers, to help themselves to some statements people have made about being raped, and show them around to each other and some theatre people, get some ‘inspiration’? Or is it only sex-workers who can apparently expect the allegedly helping professions to so abuse access to materials that only exist as part of sex-worker efforts to keep each other safer?

    1. So does that mean that nobody is allowed to write about any occupation/experience/concept that they haven’t directly experienced? That would drastically limit the amount of fiction written in this world. No cop shows, no hospital shows, no westerns, no sci-fi, etc etc. Th idea that “When you’re speaking about something from a basis other than personal experience, you’re going to get it wrong” is nothing short of ludicrous. If, as the playwright and director states – that the pieces from the pamphlet are fictitious – then what ‘s the problem here? All sounds like a storm in a teacup to me. I have also noted that most of the folk against this play actually haven’t seen it. I have (in Melbourne at the Malthouse) and thought it was great. It showed the sex worker as a bright, happy, independent lady – not as a victim at all. It highlights the danger of violence to women as a whole, not just sex workers (a la Jill Meagher). Could just be a publicity stunt to get some recognition for Scarlet? – not a genuine complaint, as none of the arguments hold water.

    2. Writers write about things. Preferably things that matter which, when presented to audiences hopefully have some affect. Writers don’t sign confidentiality agreements. Some writers are exploitative but Griffin doesn’t have a reputation for showing exploitative work and nothing in this article points to an act of exploitation. As is often the case when people begin to condemn a work “Green hasn’t seen the play herself” and that’s her choice but it doesn’t help her argument. Let’s hope the debate becomes a better informed debate rather than less.

      As for inspiration. Many terrible stories have inspired many works and those stories are gleaned from all sorts of publications and all quarters.

    3. Surely your latter suggestion happens quite regularly. I’d be very surprised if playwrights interested in the accuracy of how they depict sexual violence (i.e. those seeking to AVOID sensationalising a very serious issue) haven’t used Austlii to look up the court reports of similar incidents.

      You seem to be saying either that writers must not write on anything that they haven’t themselves experienced (in which case, we’d have to throw out almost all literary works in all languages), or that art/literature should not address serious or traumatic issues. Perhaps that was your intent, but I doubt it will have much support. Many of us believe it is part of art’s purpose to examine such issues, and have no desire for any artform to be confined to trivia.

  2. I am a co-founder of the Ugly Mugs List created by the Australian Prostitutes Collective NSW in the early 1980s. As such I am outraged by the potential harms using this list as ‘entertainment’ might cause to sex workers. It was never ever meant for public consumption and/or ‘entertainment’ as Brady has used and abused it. Even if Brady says she hasn’t used word for word verbatim from the UGL she still asked for
    updates of UM Lists from NSW when her victim pawn production was coming to Sydney. Regardless, she has been privvy to reading the stories and hearing the first hand experiences of sex workers via the List and probably in ‘counselling’ sessions. To use this priveledged position is unconsciounable. If Brady was in my employ, it would be a sackable offence. The UML was created to be used as a tool to alert other sex workers to perpetrators of rape and other harm as sex work was largely still criminalised and police did not take reports of violence and abuse against sex workers seriously. Also, given the illegality of the industry, and as it exists largely in Victoria today, sex workers themselves were afraid of the legal consequences and stigma associated with reporting crimes against them. It is not about not writing about human life experiences. This is simply about misappropriatation and exploitation of vulnerble people. The author Peta Brady was in a position of trust working with very marginalised women who had experienced harm at the hands of what we in the sex inndustry termed all these decades ago “Ugly Mugs”. Brady has made a living off sex worker ‘tragedy’ and now she is making more money off ticket sales of her ‘victim porn’ play. We are not fodder for entertainment.

  3. Of course people who have seen a piece of art have a right to be offended by it, and voice those issues, however I want to make a few points.

    Whether you agree with her work or not, Peta Brady has definitely has not spent years working on it for profit. As a playwright I can guarantee you that she hasn’t received some huge financial windfall from the many years she has spent researching, writing and acting in this play. There are small fees and wages paid along the way, yes, but I assure you that theatre is definitely not something you do for the profit. I don’t know a single theatre actor or writer who can live off the pay of theatre alone.

    After watching the play, I certainly did not view it as pure “entertainment”. It is gripping, passionate and moving, yes, but it asks a lot of very hard questions of its audience and doesn’t shy away from forcing us to face some very uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our culture. It is not escapism. It is not porn. It is the opposite. It is what theatre, I believe, should be. It shines a light on areas of our society that we need to understand more about. If Peta didn’t use personal stories directly, then I don’t understand how she can be used of appropriation in an exploitative sense. If that is the case, any writing based on any aspect of the real world or professions or dilemmas could be accused of the same thing.

    What Peta has done in my mind is create a piece that does not simplify or demonise those involved, but instead shines a light on an area of our society that is so often simplified and demonised. She humanises the very complex women, and men in her play, asking incredibly important questions of us all as people in a society facing big questions around domestic violence and violence against women. What’s more, she takes responsibility for her words by acting in the play, in a performance that to me represented a woman who was intelligent, charismatic, poetic and moving. I did not read any judgment passed on the industry of sex work itself or sex workers, but rather against the society that fosters the violence that kills and hurts sex workers.

    Of course anyone who has seen it has a right to be offended. And voice their concerns. However, I would argue that by bringing these issues out of the darkness and into the small spotlight created by good theatre, Peta has started a conversation that can only bring more awareness, recognition, and ultimately more humanity to the issues she deals with.

  4. I know Peta Brady, live in St Kilda and am married to a welfare worker who has worked in the St Kilda area for over 15 years.

    Whatever the situation is currently in NSW (or Victoria in the 80’s) the Ugly Mugs handbook in St Kilda is not a closed publication in the way it’s been described by Jane Green and Julia Bates, and hasn’t been for years. There are a number of services that serve a broad cross section of the community and the handbook is accessible to anyone who uses these services, not just sex workers, and is openly displayed on shelves alongside a range of community and health notices. (Ugly Mugs posters used to be visible around St Kilda for years, though I know this practice has ceased.)

    Most of the play’s critics haven’t read or seen the play. I don’t believe it’s victim or pity porn. Popular culture often portrays sex workers as drug addicts, victims of sexual violence, slaves to abusive pimps, or all of the above, Brady’s play does not do that. It’d be useful and instructive if critics like Jane Green actually saw or read the play and articulated where and how Brady reinforces negative perceptions of sex workers, and why as a non-sex worker she has failed to capture the truth of their experience. Green’s explanation that she’s afraid her experiences might be read out on stage strikes me as disingenuous and gives her license to continually misrepresent its contents. (E.g. The post on her blog entitled “Imagine your rape played out on stage” when there is no rape enacted in the play.)

    I’m not dismissing the validity of various arguments regarding writers’ responsibilities, but to incorrectly claim that actual victims’ statements were being read out from the actual handbook, has caused a climate of outrage and condemnation that may have irretrievably poisoned any debate, especially in the blog and twitter spheres.

    While Bates believes Brady’s conduct constitutes a sackable offence, the fact that there hasn’t been any condemnation from the major stakeholders in St Kilda might be a clue as to the transparency and integrity in which she operated.

    I know Vixen Collective have said they raised concerns with the theatre company in May, but their website hasn’t been updated for 18 months. This means that during the period they say they raised their concerns with the Malthouse, they didn’t see fit to mention it. I also failed to find any reference to the controversy on Vixen’s facebook page until Green started sharing her posts with them last week.

    (My wife and most of her co-workers, who between them have had thousands of contacts with sex workers over many years, had never heard of Vixen before this controversy.)

  5. “When you’re speaking about something from a basis other than personal experience, you’re going to get it wrong” says Jane Green yet she hasn’t seen the play and is publicly commenting on hearsay. Shakespere wasn’t in Rome for the assasination od Ceasar but still wrote a damn fine play about it.
    If the play had used her personal story then she would have a case otherwise theatre is free to imagine stories in any way that it wishes. Critique and public opinion will determine if it is good or bad theatre. The play doesn’t purport to speak for sex workers or speak for victims of violence but presents stories to make audiences aware of the continuing issue of violence against women.
    Do all sex workers feel that Jane Green or The Vixen Foundation speak for them, I doubt it.

    1. She also seems to miss the irony, in that by saying those words, she’s breaking them. To my knowledge, Ms Green has never written a play, nor worked in professional drama – and yet she (rightly) has little difficulty ‘speaking about [play-writing] from a basis other than personal experience’.

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