‘welcome to our world’

‘Every person who works in the sex industry has a different story, has come to this profession for different reasons and lives it in a different way. Owing to this, all generalisations made about prostitution are necessarily false and do not do justice to those who live this reality day to day.’

– ‘Le prix des toutes choses’ excerpt, Bains des Plaisirs, author unknown

As I walk back from the freezing pier, I notice a dark doorway framed by a string of bright yellow lights. Red velvet curtains hang around the square, as though this were the entrance to a circus show. I walk past, stop. Go back. I guess, from one point of view, my association wasn’t that far off the mark.

I go down some steps and through the doorway. In the dark hallway is a row of cabins, which I later realise are the old changing rooms for the public baths. On the left the same string lights vaguely illuminate bunches of flyers laid on a wood shelf. On the right, the cabin doors are open. A triad of fluorescent green strip lights shine at the  end of the hallway. They look very far away. I peek into the first cabin on my right. It is tiny; barely large enough to get changed. In it is a small gold mirror with a neon pink bra dangling from the shelf below. On the walls are framed pictures of women’s grooming products; a comb, more underwear. Each is hot pink. The plaque on the doorway starts ‘Chaque personne qui travaille dans l’industrie du sexe... [Every person who works in the sex industry…].’

A pleasant surprise. I have stumbled into an exhibition on sex work created by those who actually work in it.

Les Pâquis in Geneva is, historically, home to the city’s sex trade. At nighttime sex workers share the streets with the punters of gay night clubs. The area is called the bohemian quarter of Geneva. I wonder about this historical connection between sex workers and queers. Haven’t the two communities mixed, shared the same oppression? Isn’t this still the case? Walking from my hotel to the lake, I notice a couple of organisations for gay youth and smile at the street art that says ‘Respect means treating someone well, even when you don’t like them.’

This exhibition has been organised by artists, sex-workers and Les Bains des Pâquis, Geneva’s public baths, in collaboration with Aspasie, a Swiss organisation that works to promote the rights of and educate sex workers. It comprises the work of 25 different artists, some sex workers, some sex photographers, and seeks to represent the associations mainstream society has with sex work as well as to give some of the sex workers’ points of view. On each advent day in December, a cabin was unlocked and the work of one artist revealed to the general public. By the time I wandered in at the beginning of January, the exhibition was about to close. But that meant I got to see all 25 cabins.

“the exhibition suggests that the respectable and those who are disrespected are not as far apart as we like to think”

It was probably intentional to put the exhibition in a place frequented at daytime by ‘respectable’ families, but which is only 100 metres away from the boulevard where sex workers walk at night. It is, after all, the city’s tourists, diplomats and the well-to-do daytime visitors who form the sex workers’ clientele. I like the shock-factor of the exhibition, its blunt suggestion that these two worlds – the respectable and those who are disrespected– are not as far apart as we like to think. Like all other social categorisations which sustain the status quo and power of a few, these social classes are co-dependent.

Returning a few times over that day and the next, I see a few families, both Swiss and tourists, wandering through the exhibit. Children – ‘Dad, look! What is that?’ – pointing at the blown-up condoms which surround an open letter from sex workers to their clients (‘wear one and keep us all safer’) and their fathers’ nervous responses. Some viewers laughed openly, some took the photos of women in underwear for pure titillation, others wandered through slowly, like I. Despite the fact that not all the visitors I observed really seemed to appreciate the exhibition’s politics, the show was politically effective in itself. It would be hard to walk through that exhibition without gathering that it was about sex workers and without recognising that these workers have a voice. Even if you didn’t stop to listen for long.

While also erotic, the exhibition manages to suggest to the average punter (let’s face it, as a feminist activist, I’m not that average) that, perhaps, these women aren’t just for looking at. Not just for consumption. They, too, have something to say. I imagine that most visitors would have been challenged on some level by the artwork, and I appreciated this confrontation.

The cabins suggests circus cages and glory holes; the voyeurism of the freakshow and the collaboration involved in cottaging”

The exhibition was excellently curated. Walking down the steps into a dark hallway lit only by lamps, fairy lights and the strip lights at the end, gave the impression of entering a dark, seedy underworld. The dark corridor, the use of red lighting, water dripping onto our heads. Walking through the red curtains reminded me of what I had learnt about turn-of-the-century freakshows. People with physical ‘anomalies’ such as bearded women, intersex people, were exhibited alongside the strong man and sword swallower. The cabins on one side with their naughty invitation to peek in suggested circus cages and glory holes. Both the voyeurism of the freakshow and the collaboration involved in cottaging. Come, stranger, to our exhibition of worldy wonderments and natural curiosities. Whores and dwarves. Meet the underworld. In the late 1900s, New Yorkers used to call this slumming. Rich men and women would pay a guide to show them the working-class tenements of the slums. They would get the thrill of living a bohemian life while still having the comforts of a richer life to return to. Of course, this still exists today, in various forms. Tourism in third-world countries. The Berlin art scene, anyone?!

The halfway point of the exhibition’s unfolding was also marked by the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on 17th December. Perfect timing.

I wander further down the dripping hallway. Free cartons of condoms, their contents long gone. I am glad someone has used them. In one cabin is a lighthouse. The silhouette of a man goes round and round chasing a clockwork woman. He is crouching; the evil wolf; she runs away, arms thrown up mouth open. A cartoon scene of danger and a play on the idea of the sexual predator. I smile.

Another cabin is wholly covered by partially inflated condoms. Some of the condoms are filled with small plastic pipes. On the far wall is a pink poster, hard to read. It is an open letter from Geneva’s sex workers to their clients. Please, agree to wear condoms. In this time of HIV, we all need to be safe. The condom-balloons remind me of my own, more-light-hearted burlesque performance with its related safer sex message.

I walk past the strip lights and emerge into the light. I pass blue painted doors and stand at the end of the pier, looking at Geneva’s old town across the lake. Seagulls are in a feeding frenzy on the water. Cold, I go to the cafe, buy a tea and sit by the log fire. I am safe and warm, looking out at the water.

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