A collaborative project by sex workers and artists shifting the focus of the 'object of desire' through archiving and artExploring sex work through object biographies, Objects of Desire brings an alternative narrative to the binary of exploitation versus empowerment that often dominates popular discourse around sex work.
Focusing on the personal stories of sex workers, from the day to day material dimensions of the work to relationships with clients, Objects of Desire shifts the conversation from one that centres on the purported objectification of people to one that examines the social relations within sex work and how these are engendered by the physical objects involved. It examines how objects both reflect and shape the everyday relations sex workers have with their clients, lovers, families and others.
Through a series of workshops and events, the exhibition will invite discussion around the ways in which both sex and labour are perceived, understood and moralised in the UK today.
This exhibition comes at a time when it is vitally important to broaden conversations about sex work and steer them away from abstractions and one-dimensional stereotypes. Sex worker organizations worldwide continue to fight for decriminalization as the best model to secure their rights and working conditions, a campaign that has been endorsed by human rights groups, including recently Amnesty International. However, debates around legislation have often excluded sex workers’ voices. The ‘Nordic Model’, which criminalises clients, has recently been adopted in France and is being considered by parliamentary inquiry in the UK, despite a growing body of evidence that it endangers sex workers.
In this context of political and legal contention, Objects of Desire takes the practice and everyday experience of sex work as a starting point for an alternative conversation about sex work. It is not merely an attempt to “humanize” sex workers through providing outsiders with a glimpse into their lives. Rather, sex workers’ stories about materiality and exchange challenge the wider public to reflect upon the dynamics of gendered labour, complex hierarchies of power and care under capitalism and the interplay of the emotional and material in all relationships.
Following an open call for objects from sex workers, Objects of Desire has collected gifts such as jam, The New Testament, an endoscopic camera, shiny leggings and a Blue Balls Fucking Machine (BBFM).
As well as gifts, the exhibition includes personal totems such as a necklace purchased on the first day of work and which holds much significance to the owner despite their own description of it as ‘cheap and plastic’. The exhibition objects range from the erotic to the banal. However, their biographies all illuminate the ways in which the relations of sex work are managed, play out and sometimes surprise.
As Rori says about the Assorted M&S, Fortnum & Mason and Tesco jams and preserves she was given by a client:
“I’ve wondered why he always gives me preserves. I can see that he gets a lot of pleasure from giving me food and feeling that he is caring for me [...] but I’ve also noticed that he is very into bodily fluids and often says how nice it is that we “taste” each other. I wonder if the jars of sticky jam are a symbolic substance, a kind of proxy for bodily fluids [...] if me storing them in my cupboard and ingesting them is a way for him to transcend the boundaries of our sessions, inserting himself somehow into my home and body.”
The exhibition runs from 5th - 14th August with a private view on Thursday 4th August.
Please support Objects of Desire Crowd fund! We are in the process of applying for Arts Council funding for an ongoing archive of sex workers objects and stories, but are relying on donations to cover costs for this exhibition!
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Rori: An anthropologist currently undertaking a Masters in social anthropology. Rori has an enduring interest in the stories and narratives of sex workers and has been an active sex worker in London for five years.
Eva: An artist and curator generally interested in people and the politics of their relationships, experiences and histories. Currently researching and making work about fetish and sexual or intimate obsessions and fantasies.
- Assistant curator, anthropologist and artist practitioner
- Email contact: firstname.lastname@example.org