“Reclaiming our stories”: 6 powerful images that change the narrative around sex work

Written by Amy Beecham

The Institute of Contemporary Arts’ Decriminalised Futures exhibition asks: why aren’t we doing more to protect sex worker rights?

“We’re talking about survival being criminalised,” reads a quote plastered on the wall of the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ latest exhibition, Decriminalised Futures.

The installation, which runs until 22 May 2022, covers different feminist perspectives on sex work and the interwoven issues faced by sex workers, people of colour, trans people, migrants and disabled people.

The work of 13 international artists speaks to the multiplicity of contemporary sex worker experiences, from social justice and labour rights to anti-austerity work, and queer and trans liberation.

This is Not For Clients by Yarli Allison and Letizia Miro

Activists have been pushing for the worldwide decriminalisation of sex work for many years. In 2003, New Zealand removed all criminal penalties surrounding prostituion, and in 2016 the human rights group Amnesty International called on all countries to do the same.

However, in the UK, while it’s technically legal to be a sex worker, the criminal grey area means that workers are often denied many of the rights, regulations and safeties than if prostituion were decriminalised completely.

The Session by Khaleb Books

“Full decriminalisation of sex work is the rallying cry that unites the sex worker rights movement across the world,” say Yves Sanglante and Elio Sea, co-curators of the exhibition.

“Under this banner, sex workers and their allies have fought tirelessly for strong workers’ rights, an end to exploitation, an end to criminalisation, and real measures to address poverty. Decriminalised Futures is a celebration of this movement.”

Hanecdote hand embroidery

“It was important for me to stray away from both recreating visual stereotypes of sex workers: usually sexy, minimal clothes, high heels, long hair, and defying them,” Liad Hussein Kantorowicz explains to Stylist.

“I wanted to avoid the inevitable exotification of sex workers.

Mythical Creatures points at the fact that sex workers don’t have the right to exist in the public imagination outside of the world of sex work. Even though we are also partners and lovers, and have other jobs and interests and rich lives outside of their sex industry jobs.”

Mythical Creatures by Liad Hussein Kantorowicz

“We have other jobs and interests and rich lives outside of the sex industry”

Triptych by Tobi Adebajo

“We hope our work inspires action toward redistribution of wealth and power as well as collective healing,” artists Chi Chi and May May tell Stylist.

“We hope that our work is something other sex workers can see and feel inspired to make their own art or creations. For people who aren’t sex workers, we hope our work inspires you to be more genuine, curious, and supportive to sex workers in your lives.”

Chi Chi & May May

“Most of all, however, it was important to just reclaim our images and stories. Working on this video was very healing for that reason. It’s too common to see non-sex workers benefit from images and stories of sex workers without any attempt of redistribution of power, access, or finances.”

The ICA’s Decriminalised Futures exhibition is open to the public until 22 May 2022. Visit their website to find out more.

Images: courtesy of artists/the Decriminalised Futures exhibition/ICA

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