June sees the arrival of a bold new exhibition at Darlinghurst’s TAP Gallery, revealing a rarely seen side of sex work. Debby Doesn’t Do It For Free comprises eye-opening works from an intergenerational collective of 26 sex worker artists, male and female, all telling their stories with art.
Participating artist Deep-Dish Debby* says: “Between us, we have artists exploring political, sexual, historical and everyday aspects of sex work. It’s really a chance for people to peep into the lives of sex workers, and learn about the sex industry from people who know it.” (*Privacy is imperative for those in the sex work industry, and so all of the participating artists have assumed Debby-centric pseudonyms to maintain confidentiality.)
The sex work industry is often relegated to the shadows of the public conscience, however it is a surprisingly large industry with “an estimated 20,000 sex workers in Australia at any one time,” according to Janelle Fawkes, CEO of the Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association. The organisation is made up of sex workers, such as those involved in the Debby Doesn’t Do It For Free group, to represent them and help them combat the myriad of issues they face on a daily basis.
One of the biggest issues facing sex workers is the stigma and discrimination associated with their line of work, “most people have limited knowledge about sex workers and mainstream media fuels misunderstandings,” explained Janelle. To combat this, the Scarlet Alliance regularly does presentations at conferences, speaks publicly, holds events and produces resources. “Recently we have undertaken lobbying with the Human Rights Commission on the need for sex workers to be covered by anti-discrimination laws across Australia. Groups like Debby Doesn’t Do It For Free also enable the public to hear from sex workers directly and engage with artworks and performances to change perceptions and help the community understand that sex workers are just like everyone else and should be treated as valued members of the community.”
Exhibition participant Debby Diva – who has worked as a writer, journalist, stripper and bondage practitioner – spoke of the importance of realising that the sex work industry draws people from many different backgrounds: “Sex work is real work. It is a legal occupation in NSW so we want to reduce the stigma that is often associated with it.” Sex work was decriminalised in NSW two decades ago, which she believes is “best practice, because it means the health and safety of workers is protected.”
The exhibition sets out to unravel some commonly held stereotypes. Deep-Dish Debby says, “One thing that people often don’t realize about sex workers is that we are a lot more than just our job – we do other things too: we are family members; we might do other jobs; we might be involved in community; we might be artists. Everyone is so many different things.”
Since forming in 2002, the collective has brought sex work, politics and irreverence to audiences across the country and abroad. Celebrating twenty years of decriminalisation in NSW, this year’s show is a self-proclaimed whoretastic, loud, proud, and playful expression of Australian sex worker culture.
Deep-Dish Debby explains, “If people had a greater understanding of what sex work actually is, and what our lives as sex workers are actually like, then a lot of [the] stigma would be greatly reduced.” She continues, “Art is a great forum for activism… Hopefully people who come along to the show will be able to explore those contradictions and dispel the myths.”
The artists’ stories are told in a range of mediums, everything from photography to body paint to embroidery. The exhibition features a series of lino-cuts by Delightful Deb Arckle, exploring the duality of being a sex worker and a mother, alongside new work by Debutante Debby (pictured on cover) entitled My Life With Craig Thomson, a montage archive of Australian mainstream media representations of sex worker issues.
The centerpiece of the show is the HJ Hooker performance window, occupied by members of the collective. The provocative installation promises to attract some attention from Palmer street passersby.
In collaboration with the collective, representatives from industry groups Scarlet Alliance and Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) will deliver free talks on industry trends and sexual health services on Thursday June 4 from 12 – 2pm.
From 1pm on Saturday June 6, artists Debby Decay (pictured on cover), Debutante Debby, Difficult Debby and Debby Diva will participate in a talk session, giving guests a rare insight into the lived realities of the sex work industry.
Deep-Dish Debby says, “There are these pervasive myths and negative stereotypes about the industry that are constantly being fed to everyone, including us, by the media. So, the Debby collective is important because it creates an opportunity for us to have our voices out there, and to process how we feel about our industry, and to express how we feel about the way that society views our industry.”
Exhibition: June 2 – 6, TAP Gallery, 278 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, FREE entry, Details: http://www.tapgallery.org.au/debby-doesnt-do-it-for-free/