I've worked in the sex industry for 11 years, in brothels and independently, and I've been an activist with the International Union of Sex Workers for nine years. From Shakespeare to Grand Theft Auto, sex work features in a lot of our culture – and, overwhelmingly, the way women who sell sex are depicted says more about social attitudes than it does about our real experience.
Bertrand Bonello's amorphous but ravishing-looking film, set in a high-class Paris brothel around 1900, is no exception, even if it does convey some of the tedium of working long nights. The freedom of the women is limited: if they leave the house unaccompanied by the madam or a client, they may be arrested for soliciting. This made me think of the legalised brothels in Nevada: some don't allow the women out unaccompanied after 5pm. I could also see parallels with the UK today, where premises with more than one sex worker are legally classified as brothels, which brings the risk of prosecution.
This means that if one of us is subjected to violence, which happens to a character in the film, contacting the police means risking arrest. So, just as in the film, many of those who commit crimes against us go unpunished. In the area where I work, I know of one man who has raped several sex workers; none are willing to talk to the police. Street sex workers are frequently shouted at and abused. Some even have cups of urine thrown over them. But, contrary to stereotype, clients are not the primary source of violence against us.
The film does attempt to depict the complexity of the relationship between sex worker and client: when one woman falls ill with syphilis, a client continues to pay for her accommodation and support. Medical advances mean that the risk of contracting syphilis is much lower today, but that emotional connection between workers and clients can definitely still exist, especially when you've been seeing them for many years.
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