Sex Worker Voices
'Nothing About Us, Without Us'
An Open Letter to the BBC and Louis Theroux from the Participants Filmed for the Upcoming Documentary, Selling Sex
Georgina Tyson and Ashleigh Williams, are practising 'full sex' sex workers that live together, care for each other, study together and make art as Babeworld. Recently commissioned by the ICA for work about sex work and accepted at the RCA to develop their practice, they welcomed a chance to share their individual stories of sex work and to show the world what sex work looks like for two mentally ill/disabled, working class artists in 2019. I mean who could say no to Louis Theroux? With the best intentions we fought to show an accurate representation of sex work - speaking only from our own experiences and learned knowledge. Things did not pan out in a way that added value to conversations around sex work. So in an attempt to control our own narrative where the BBC failed, we have documented it and shared it online.
To be a part of a BBC documentary felt like an opportunity to give back to the sex work community. Since opening up about my sex work, I found a supportive and creative community of sex workers online and I found my voice. I started to use my stories about sex work in my art work. Sex work comes in so many different forms and I struggled to align myself with some writing and art made by sex workers because I didn’t look like them or have the same experiences as them. Within sex work there is sometimes a societal hierarchy that looks down on 'full sex' sex workers and champions workers who don’t have to have sex with their clients. It always made me feel dirtier, or less than. But my body and personality can’t allow me to do certain forms of sex work like stripping or camming. This gave me a need to share my own stories about my own specific sex work to show there are many layers to sex work and to dismantle certain stereotypes.
Our initial conversations with the production team made us hopeful we could contribute something valuable to the sex work community by helping de-stigmatise it by sharing our experiences. We were constantly reassured that we were going to be part of something that had a sex worker involved in production, and that this would be respectful towards us and sex work. The communication and back and forth was relentless.
From the beginning, the producer started overstepping boundaries and asking us for free labour, like helping them find clients willing to speak with them. Sex work is built on discretion, which I felt would be obvious to people even those that aren’t involved in sex work. They insisted on running late making Ashleigh late for a client. It was disrespectful and showed that they didn’t really see it as real work. This was surprising because they claimed to have a sex worker in production.
The first meeting with Louis was short. He asked questions about the website we use, and when I brought up things like FOSTA/SESTA, he had know idea what I was talking about.
Looking back, there were plenty of red flags that indicated no one had done very much research into sex work at all.
The second meeting with Louis was at a friend's house where we were meeting to discuss an art commission we are working on. I was strategically sat next to Louis and Ashleigh’s two friends were sat either side of her on the other end of the table. This felt like an attempt to silence me. And, okay, I know this sounds like paranoia but the edit we watched proved my concerns. I consistently felt silenced throughout the process and when I shared my feelings with Ashleigh, she relayed them to production, they reassured her, but I still felt uneasy. The meeting became less about how our art work was inspired by our sex work (which is what we were told we would be discussing) and more about Ashleigh, and how her friends feel about her being a sex worker. It felt like they where dissecting her personality and experiences looking for answers to how she ended up in this line of work. I was mostly silent during this part.
The third meeting was Ashleigh alone with Louis talking about her childhood. While Ashleigh is a sex worker, they supposedly wanted to follow a 'newish' sex worker to document that experience. This felt like they were pushing the stereotype of sex workers being sex workers because something bad happened to them. Which is not the case for everyone and is an outdated stereotype. And although I can’t speak for Ashleigh and how she came into sex work, I think they deviated from the initial storyline they proposed and perpetuated a stereotype that suited their narrative.
The fourth meeting was a photo shoot in our flat. They took photos intended for the cover of the show. It was fun and exciting because I felt like being invited to be on the cover, which meant that we had perhaps contributed something meaningful to the documentary, and that perhaps our voices had been heard. Because after all, our reasons for taking part and going into this was to speak about our different experiences of sex work to give a more rounded perspective of the scope of sex work, and to ultimately help de-stigmatise it. And being seen and listened to felt like we were on the right track. We were never sent the photographs.
The fifth meeting was at the editing studio. We were allowed to come and watch the edit to “fact check”. They told us it was to be called “selling sex”. Immediately I explained what was wrong with that title. It implies that escorting and full service sex work and sex work are like all the same thing, but there are plenty of clients that book escorts or full service sex workers that don’t even want to have sex. This was a clear indication that we had not been listened to or heard. At first we laughed along as they zoomed into aspects of our flat, and it was all a bit surreal. But as the show developed it just got worse and worse.
The first scene was our first meeting and Louis’ narration introduced Ashleigh as a sex worker, and Georgina her friend who is also a sex worker. They show a glimpse of my face as they enter and for the rest of the scene my hand was the only thing in frame. They focused on the jokes Ashleigh cracked and nothing valuable we said about sex work. When Ashleigh speaks of her own experience the only voice I’m given is laughing at her jokes. When I watched this. I was so fearful that I was then aligned with all the things Ashleigh said, even though we have such different experiences in sex work.
The second scene was Ashleigh and Louis together where they focused on her lightheartedness about sex work and jokes about Tinder. Tinder became a recurring theme throughout. Even the production said the Tinder comments were kept in because other sex workers involved spoke on the same topic, and this helped with their narrative. The irony is that sex workers Tinder profiles are repeatedly deleted by the app, including my own, even though we are NOT using it to solicit sex. Tinder deletes them simply because we are sex workers.
The third scene was the meeting about our art commission. Even though the work is jointly mine and Ashleigh’s, they call it her work. The only part of this bit I was given a voice in was when Ashleigh spoke of her friends hiring her and Louis asking about boundaries. I explain that the transaction is the boundary so it shouldn’t be confusing. Now, this needs so much more context because people and sex isn’t that black and white, but it was not given. And once again I was used to validate Ashleigh’s particular sex work, and once again I am seen to be aligned with it through lack of context and editing.
The person around the table whose a voice was prioritised after Ashleigh was her friend who is not a sex worker, and spoke only about our generation's attitude to sex and Tinder. This obviously aligned with the documentary's narrative. Her friend is well spoken and eloquent and charismatic, as is Ashleigh. After seeing this part I wondered whether I was being silenced because of how I look, or how I sound, or because I’m awkward.
Ashleigh is autistic and I am her carer. I helped her in school and I help at home. For her, processing stuff takes a little longer and sometimes she tells people what they want to hear. Throughout the process, in meetings we had together I was able to explain how saying certain things may be detrimental to sex workers. She kept telling Louis on camera about her autism to make sure that she wouldn’t be held completely accountable for saying something wrong by accident. They edited all of this out. In turn, this gave all her jokes and comments no context, which could result in a backlash against her. I felt as though they didn’t understand the danger of cutting out specific information and how many of the things they left in needed more context, because everyone will suffer without it.
The final scene was Ashleigh alone with Louis. After a few moments of reflection, I spoke up about certain things I felt looked really bad. Like the Tinder stuff, seeing as Tinder hate sex workers. And the stuff about 'daddy issues', and how that sex work trope is a stereotype that stigmatises sex work. I let Ashleigh air out her thoughts and feelings. The production seemed shocked and asked her why she was fine earlier. She had to re explain her disability to people that are well aware of it again. It was upsetting to watch the editor scoff at our notes and laugh at Ashleigh while she was crying and have to repeat and repeat again what they’ve done wrong, and how it’s dangerous for us.
I told them that if I feature in the documentary so little I want to be cut out all together. I’m not screaming for more airtime here, I’m trying to explain to them that outing myself as a sex worker to the entire world is a life changing decision and if I’m not speaking about my own sex work, which is much different to Ashleigh’s, then I’m not contributing anything of value to the sex work community and it’s then not worth me being outed. A major issue for me too was that like I didn’t even get to out myself as a sex worker during the documentary. It was Louis who outed me. Do you think I want to potentially alienate myself because Louis Theroux outed me and I wasn’t even given a sentence about what sex work is to me. or why I’m there? You can’t be outing sex workers with no context.
At the end of it all, I felt silenced. I am now questioning my worth and how my “lack of charisma”, accent, looks and sex work are always effecting how people want to platform my voice. At least when I out myself in my work I have control over the narrative and I’m involved in the conversation. I do acknowledge that the documentary was set to follow a new escort on her journey. And if this was the result I would understand why I’m not given a voice. But they deviated from that storyline so far I can’t wrap my head around why the valuable stuff I said about sex work that will de-stigmatise and educate was cut out. So I am pissed off.
They asked me if I wanted to be cut out or added into it more. To be honest, I didn’t know how to answer that because I didn’t know what nonsense they would edit back in. Because I know for a fact they weren’t listening to me, that they think I just want more airtime, and that I’m spitting my dummy out. So who is to say they won’t just edit in more clips of me laughing at Ashleigh’s jokes and reiterating her points, and not anything I said about how we safeguard or FOSTA/SESTA, or how clients are stigmatised too. They’ve proven themselves ignorant and misinformed about sex work constantly.
It’s mad as well that Ashleigh was sent a document about social media safeguarding and I was not. Further proof that they don’t care about me or my safety. I was the one that flagged concerns to begin with and talked about safeguarding, yet I am being denied any form of safeguarding. And maybe they thought Ashleigh would pass this information to me - but leaving something so important to remember with someone they know is registered as severely disabled is a bit of a piss take. It’s their responsibility and shows an extreme lack of care and professionalism. Circumstances in our personal lives means Ashleigh and I haven’t been together very much at all lately and to assume we can take on the responsibility of the BBC’s weak attempt to safeguard is unacceptable.
When first approached by the BBC, I didn't know whether to feel used, objectified, festishised, or all of the above. Georgina and I made the decision to use this opportunity as a platform to share real view points around sex work. We had hoped that we could contribute to the de-stigmatisation of the sex work community, and displace the current sex work hierarchy. These experiences relate directly to how I navigate relationships, friendships, the creating of work and everything in between. My main goal was allowing outsiders to support and witness our day to day lives, art work, and lifestyle.
The producer was fine. The director was very friendly, to say the least. After meeting us and coming into our home - he gave an enormous amount of reassurance - too much really, like, a creepy amount. Like he knows he’s doing something bad. Like his conscience was creeping up on him.
They kept saying how it needed to be 'natural'. Natural? An autistic girl geared up with a mic, chronic diarrhoea and 8 people in her tiny flat? That's not natural.
The filming often ran over and disrupted my working life. I told the film crew that I had to leave to meet a client and was ignored. If my pacing up and down the corridor yelling that we have to go wasn't an indication of the fact I had to leave immediately to meet a client, I don’t know what is. I wonder if I was on her way to a bar shift would they have pushed it so much? They didn’t respect my time, or my client's time, only that they get the perfect shot of my pussy splayed across the adult work website.
You know what’s crazy? The person who received the most airtime after me in my segment was a friend - who had no experience with sex work - talking about sex work. I don't want to criticise her, she’s an angel - but its very problematic that the second most important person in that scene was not even part of our sex work community. Representation is particularly important, and here they are denying us of this. It felt like my friends were egged on to admit I was a bad person. It seems to be what Louis says goes. Seems as though he’s an expert on my life despite only knowing me a week.
They didn’t even ask about sex work so much as asked about childhood traumas They basically took me for therapy in a pub with an Orangina. Amongst dirty glossed photos from my childhood, I was asked to show self harm scars and talk about past abuse. Of course I cried.
After this, was a denial of my disability. “Are you sure you’re autistic”? Louis Theroux asked me. I have been to several behavioural therapists. Yes Louis, I shall trust the word of the trained medical professionals. I am disabled.
They didn’t take my disability seriously. I say things I don’t mean, I people please, all as an attempt to fit in - to seem normal. Under pressure, I crack bad jokes, have an inflated self esteem, and the charisma of a cruise ship performer. This was a version of me they had chosen to display in the edit- nothing that actually added value to the sex work community.
If I make a joke it’s out of awkwardness. If I say what you want to hear, its anxiety, or it could be fear. It could be all three. Being edited to be the person they wanted me to be left me feeling hollow. To them, I wasn’t a young woman who helps support her family, friends and community, not only emotionally but financially. No, they cut that out. But they did leave me calling myself beautiful in, and talking about how many men I get. I am privileged in that I have never faced severe backlash because of the way I look. Clearly, talking about my looks was regarded as more important than offering a critical voice, analysis of sex work culture and over 7 years of experience.
This film outs me as a sex worker to the nation. If everyone’s gonna know that I suck dick professionally, I would prefer it were in a way where we had agreed with the narrative. This is the current narrative: I'm a wreckhead, I've been sexually abused, I'm hated by all my friends, have a posh voice, look white, and am privileged.
It’s only recently I have come to terms with my blackness - allowing my hair in braids, and present myself not so, well, white. I explained on the show I am a white passing POC, who has recently reconnected with her mother. They cut this out too. When I spoke about this, the editor very literally laughed in my face. So I yelled, and what did she do? Look down on the floor like a puppy who's just shit all over the floor.
Picture me, screaming PUT GEORGINA IN to two very posh white BBC workers. We’re still fighting for a voice. Mainly Georgina. I’m fighting for an accurate voice. They claim they’ve re-edited, they claim Louis cares about us, but I doubt it. What’s my surname Louis? You've known the fake me 3 hours.
You know what, I should be grateful to have been given a platform. But the whole of the BBC's attitude stinks. It hurts to stand by and watch your closest friend, coworker, carer, wife, life partner being axed at any given point. This has been a recurrent theme - I’m the face she’s the brains. I get the clout she gets nothing but being outed to the nation. I explicitly said I wanted both of us to be heard, shown and represented. Only thing shown seemed to be my bad jokes, crying and nervous laughter.
If you want to know about sex work from two sex workers that is honest and accessible follow @babeworld3000