Sex Worker Sinema at the 8th Biennial San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival
by Festival curator, Laure McElroy
The San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Art Festival, as always, focuses on the lives, the art, and the struggle for workers' and human rights of people employed in sex work industries. The festival strives to maintain a forum for diverse voices, including youth, sex workers of color, migrant sex workers; sex workers' rights organizations around the world, queer and trans sex workers, sex worker artists, saints, heros and she-ros, and sex workers both within and outside the borders of the United States. Films and topics address the impact of trafficking policy and discourse on sex workers; sex work as a labor issue on the international agenda; sex work and gender identities, sex education, sex art, porn, fetish culture and erotica, as well as portraits of strippers, prostitutes, doms, madams and much more.
The festival lens has always ranged far and wide around the world; this year two of our dearest feature films draw the viewer back to the gritty strolls of these United States.
Director Alexander Perlman brings us "Lot Lizard" (for those who are unfamiliar with the term, a lot lizard is a prostitute who works primarily at truckstops serving drivers). Inspired by a conversation Perlman had in 2009 with a woman working out of the same truckstop he happened to be hitchhiking, Perlman and his two person crew put together 200 hours of documentary footage over eight weeks of filming in 2010, following a selection of sex workers as they ply their trade in a uniquely American setting, including: Monica and Frank, the boyfriend with whom she shares a room bordering the lot; Jennifer, a single mom who struggles to walk away from sex work as a livelihood because it has become bound up for her with drug addiction; Betty, who says, "I don't have to date if I don't want toâ€¦ but sometimes you have to," and makes no apologies about her life on the lot. The street workers of "Lot Lizard" are by-and-large working class and poor women who are engaged in what sex worker rights movement terms "survival' sex work, that is, sex work that is performed as a way to meet very basic needs of the worker, such as shelter or food or medicating; these workers, in addition to dealing with the general stigmatization of sex work, are arguably prone to more intense criminalization due to the exposed (outdoors) nature of their work. Along with criminalizing policies, agendas of "rescue" that silence the actual voices of workers trying to communicate their own needs are heavily slanted toward people engaged in survival sex work. "Lot Lizard" does not take any easy ways out by simplifying the stories of the featured or making them pithy; and although poverty and even desperation may at times inform their work and their choices, there is in every story a clear element of strength, of will and independence that transcends victimhood.
Some people envision catty strippers trash-talking each others' weight and ratting out co-workers to management for crimes imagined or real for the prime stage time or just for bitchy kicks; mainstream media throws up stereotypes of hookers pulling out each others' weaves over status in the eyes of a pimp or "dibs" on a john; what people do not see is the great affection and support that can exist between workers in this oldest and arguably hardest of professions. "American Courtesans", a feature film that is the culmination of a dream project for filmmaker and escort Kristin DiAngelo, watches like a love and acceptance letter from a sex worker to her sisterhood of fellow whores. In line with a trend in sex worker cinema that festival producer Carol Leigh identifies as arising out of the contemporary, ubiquitous genre of intensely personal reality shows, the stories of the women featured in "American Courtesans" begin at the beginning, where many of the women featured relate a past of family or professional victimization, and pull the viewer through the trauma and catharsis stories to bear witness to eventual claiming of spaces of radical empowerment as whores.
Scarlet Road documents the specialized practice of Rachel Wotton, as she works with clients who are disabled, campaigning for both sex worker rights and to increase awareness and access to sexual expression for people with disability. "Pay it no Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson," memorializes the woman who thew "the shotglass that was heard around the world" in this tribute to sex worker and LGBT history, screening with "Remembering The Living: Monica Forrester on Sister in Spirit and Indigenous Sex Workers."
An array of brilliant shorts include new work from Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers; "A Kiss for Gabriela" by Laura Murray, "Whore Logic" by PJ Starr featuring The Incredible Edible Akynos, "Stripper Damage" by Gina Gold, "Sex Worker Open University 2011," "Transitioning Through Sex Work" by Jay Very, "Nada" by Nada Felini and Christian Vega,Creative Trafficking" by Operation Snatch and many more.
Festival founder, Carol Leigh AKA Scarlot Harlot says, "Sex workers have an excellent vantage point from which to view social hypocrisy, expressed in many contexts--by the lawmakers who use their services, then sponsor policies which further criminalize them, to the wanna-be saviors who claim to 'rescue' but only increase our vulnerability. This whores-eye-view of society is reflected in this body of work by sex workers."