Art has been obsessed with sex workers for centuries. From Picasso to Dostoyevsky to Satine the courtesan from Moulin Rouge!, sex workers have long been a favourite muse.
But how often do we see sex workers as the artists themselves?
Jordan Quinn has changed that. She’s a 28-year-old Wellingtonian and sex worker, and the curator of Sex Workers of Aotearoa.
It’s a look at the day-to-day life of sex workers, with every piece made by a sex worker.
“This may seem obvious, that of course a sex work exhibition should be done by sex workers,” says Jordan, “but more often than not sex work and the people within the industry get represented and misrepresented by those outside the industry.”
Sex workers in art history have been divided into two categories: either dirty and sinful, or the prostitute with the heart of gold.
We’ve all seen the story of the delicate and tragic courtesan, redeemed from her ‘sin’ by the power of true love. A man comes to save her, and then she dies from consumption.
Jordan says nothing’s changed when it comes to how sex workers are portrayed today. The narrative still only shows two ends of the spectrum - either poor and helpless, or glamorised.
“It erases all the people who fill the gap in the middle. We're either voiceless and need rescuing or we're privileged-glamorous-money-hungry-whores. Which is it?
“I am neither glamourous or voiceless, just an everyday person working to make ends meet.”
The artworks in Sex Workers of Aoteroa address boundaries, stigma, communication and stereotypes. We see the mundane day-to-day admin that’s just as much part of the job as the sex.
“If you're attempting to portray it from the outside, without being a part of it, your work is going to have bias in it, or this preconceived idea of how the finished work should look,” Jordan says.
She created two pieces for the exhibition, including The Golden Vulva, an anatomically accurate sculpture of her own vulva.
“I was toying with the idea of portraying a literal sense of what my day was like using polaroids,” she says. “But at the time I started creating my work, my Twitter timeline, which I read almost daily, was filled with anti-sex work comments and articles.
“And I thought, this is a regular part of my work, people who do not see my job as work, people who believe I do not have bodily autonomy and people whose life mission is to end demand for my services. That's where both of my pieces came from initially.”
In the artist notes for The Golden Vulva, she writes how sex work abolitionists view her as an little more than “orifice for rent”.
Stigma is a theme that’s woven through many of the pieces. “Society sees sex and touch as something that can dirty or degrade you,” the artist Nova writes in the notes accompanying her sculpture Touched. “That creates stigma for those who are paid for it.”
One of Jordan’s favourite pieces, Comfort Zone, is a poem by Amanda Jameson. “It hits every aspect of being a sex worker, good, bad and mundane.”
Another is Watching You Watching Me, by artist Daddy Long Legs.
“This series didn't muck around, and I think that's why I really liked it. It was in your face, very real sexual moments, beautifully and elegantly portrayed in watercolour.”
Jordan hopes the exhibition will show that sex work is just work. “Whether you think it’s wrong, or you're indifferent to it, whether you view us as helpless or empowered, whether a person enjoys the job or hates it, we're all human and we all deserve the right to work safely and on our own terms.”
The exhibition is showing at Flux Gallery until the 25th of July.