In Les Demimondes, Prostitution Herself confronts whore stigma

It was just a happy coincidence that Buddies in Bad Times Theatre was available for Operation Snatch's production of Les Demimondes on International Sex Worker Rights Day, but that didn't make it any less a fantastic way to celebrate whore culture and whore resistance. Operation Snatch (formerly The Scandelles) treated audiences in Toronto this weekend to a whore-lovin' cabaret, hosted by Prostitution Herself. Les Demimondes has been workshopped occasionally in Toronto since 2005 and will play again at the Edgy Women Festival in Montréal at the end of the month.

Operation Snatch has a long history of bringing sex workers' rights to the stage. Cabaret is a politically and socially critical genre, both in its historical uses and by design. "The idea of protesting nude compels me," says performer and writer Alex Tigchelaar. "There is power in nudity, but there's also vulnerability." On stage, the egos that sometimes make activism challenging are right at home, even demanded, letting Operation Snatch bring a powerful, no-holds-barred critique. The performance -- especially in its compelling use of sampling and appropriation -- leaves no doubt as to how pervasive, and how damaging, the "everyday" representation of sex workers is.

The show re-presents images of sex workers in culture, examining the ways that representations of sex workers seem to show up everywhere, while sex workers themselves are denied the privileges of producing images of themselves or benefitting from their distribution and sale. After the show, Tigchelaar summed up the strategy of bringing sex worker activism to the stage: "entertain people with a fucking idea, and they'll cotton on to it."

The idea is a revolutionary one. "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think" is a sentence famously given to sex workers by author Dorothy Parker, and it has gone on far too long. Prostitution Herself leads us through an array of representations of whores, making the case that the "universal contempt for sex workers" demonstrated in sentences like the above and reproduced consistently in representations of sex workers has influenced dangerous law and policy decisions and facilitated deadly violence. Tigchelaar (as Prostitution Herself) joins performers Jesse Dell, Andrya Duff and Cat Nimmo and production designer Charissa Wilcox to tell the story of how whores got ripped off by the culture industry.

Les Demimondes makes brilliant use of mixed media presentations to sample representations of whores from movies, music, television, print media and capital-A Art, weaving these images together with monologue, video and dance performances. In a mesmerizing scene, Dell and Duff dance out the queer and capitalist tensions of sex work -- intimately guiding and supporting each other's bodies, even as they are screaming and at each other's throats -- against the backdrop of the Arctic Monkeys' "When the Sun Goes Down." The song leverages the "street" appeal of a sex-working body to boost the artists' indie cred, while describing the real dangers sex workers face: a "scummy" exploiter and a narrating busybody who sees the dangers sex workers face in his community, but focuses on the illicit character of prostitution instead of on how conditions could be improved.

Nimmo performs as herself in a scene that uses screenshots of a blog to document the harassment of sex workers by one such busybody. The unknown author behind "Prostitmuse," a blog that exposes sex workers' real names and straight jobs, shaming the women even as the author brags about his sexual encounters with them, targeted Nimmo in early 2011. The on-screen image of Nimmo, appropriated by the "Prostitmuse" blog and reappropriated in Operation Snatch's performance, comes to life and stalks towards the stage, breaking the barrier between art and audience that gave us permission to passively consume her supposed shame. The real-life Nimmo delivers a passionate monologue, "waxing poetic" about the good she does for her clients and the joy she finds in her work -- reclaiming both body and reputation by refusing to accept the shame reserved for her.

But Prostitution Herself steals the show, exactly as we expect her to. Prostitution Herself is a body that refuses to cohere. Cast as a Greek statue, her costume evokes the unchanging character of representations of sex workers, but her disheveled hair, toga that won't quite stay on, swaying tits and swinging hips refuse to be contained. She maintains a sense of timelessness, while refusing to be pinned to a stereotype.

Described by Tigchelaar as a "trickster figure," Prostitution Herself adapts her voices and personalities to the demands of her environment -- and Tigchelaar's corresponding performance of a variety of accents and characterizations is a delight. From her rewrite of The Police's "Roxanne," to her retelling, perfectly punctuated by Duff's tap-dance, of "how many whores does it take to screw in a light bulb," Prostitution Herself keeps us paying attention through illuminating explanations of Canadian prostitution laws, the Victorian morals behind them, and the contemporary harms they cause. While sometimes sly and often bawdy, Prostitution Herself is an engaging, funny, angry, sexy and, above all, human character.

In one of Les Demimondes' most poignant scenes, Prostitution Herself delivers a monologue on shame, exposing popular 1950s tabloid images of brothel raids -- image after image of women hiding their faces -- for the abuse they really are. While prostitution isn't inherently shameful, culture imposes shame as a punishment. What the images reveal is that prostitutes are "normal" women, and the threat implied is that any woman who steps out of line can be similarly punished. "The shame is in the medium," Prostitution Herself cites Marshall McLuhan's famous media theory. Making what can only be described as the international gesture for wanking, she finishes: "not the massage." Les Demimondes' cabaret structure and interdisciplinary media use refuse to cohere in one simple storyline -- defying our expectation that stories about prostitutes will be simple to tell and easy to interpret.

Through Prostitution Herself, the whores and allies of Operation Snatch add their voices to sex workers' demand for rights -- cultural, legal, social, and political critiques coming from prostitutes and other sex workers themselves, demanding not only access to culture, but also racial and economic justice, queer rights, decolonization, legal reform, labour reform, and for sex-working communities to replace top-down social service systems. No one performance or action can represent the whole of sex workers' resistance to oppression, but Les Demimondes delivers an integral piece of the puzzle by laying bare the "everyday" images of sex workers that pervade culture with dangerous misrepresentations of sex workers' lives and needs.

Les Demimondes is showing at the Edgy Women Festival at Studio 303 in Montréal, QC on Mar. 30 (8 p.m.), Mar. 31 (6 and 9 p.m.), and Apr. 1 (4 p.m.), 2012. $10-20.

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