Restricted: Keeping sex work, minorities, and economic actualisation in the back room
What happens when a museum decides to put up a barrier to the entrance to part of its exhibition? What happens when I decide that it’s unfair to an overlapping set of marginalised groups? Here’s a look at what did happen recently, when I visited the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway to view Generation Wealth, the featured exhibition by documentary photographer Lauren Greenfield.
This story is about sex work. It's about women of colour. It's about transwomen. It's about young women being active agents in their economic self-actualisation in whatever way they can. It's about body positivity. It's about sex positivity. It's also about censorship and double standards.
Greenfield's Generation Wealth and the curation by the NPC combine for an amazingly thought-provoking exhibition. It's on until August 21, 2019 so make sure to see if you're nearby. The photographer and director is known for delving into the complicated and frenetic layers of feminine presentation, and gender and youth politics in her works Fast Forward, Girl Culture, and THIN. These themes are also consistently present in Generation Wealth, hung on a framework of economics, internet culture, and examination of materialism.
When these topics confront each other within the rubric of sex work, however, it can make people quick to complain and react. Quite early on in the exhibition, there was a room that I nearly missed going into because of a large, sternly-worded placard on a pedestal warning of graphic content blocking the two entrances to the room. At first I took it for a section of the exhibition that was closed that day. But, when I finally realised that one could indeed enter, it all made sense.
The room was about women who supported themselves through sex work. Porn performers, strippers, escorts, camgirls. Cisgender, trans, women of colour and white women. Predominantly young women. And they were sharing their stories and experiences about how and why they engaged in sex work to support themselves, their education, and in many cases their families.
There was no extremely graphic nudity. A few buttocks to be sure, but that I can remember not even a clearly bared nipple. There were women in bikinis, in bathrobes, in showgirl outfits, pyjamas and cocktail dresses. But no real graphic nudity.
There was no profanity or graphic sexual language in the text accompanying the photos, either. Just women talking about working to pay their college tuition, to buy a house, to help support their family, start a business, or to get them out of whatever personal or emotional trap in which they found themselves. They talked of assault, of disrespect, of being given ultimatums because how they were taking responsibility for themselves was judged negatively by those who were in positions of decision-making or power. Sound familiar, ladies?
In a nearly mirror-image position to that room, caddy-corner and antepenultimate to the exit was a section on physical enhancement and youth. Nearly the whole time I'd been walking through the exhibition my mind was chewing on the fact that that the sex-work room had been blocked off in such a way that most people didn't realise they could enter.
In my mind these women's stories were being physically blocked from being told. Women who were already to varying degrees marginalised for being female, brown, trans, poor, or young. Blocking exposure to their stories and voices marginalised them even further.
My best friend who was with me pointed out the absurdity of a photo where men at a tradeshow were holding extremely realistic phalluses used for penis enhancement protruding up from their laps. He said that for a split second, at first glance he was a little shocked to see a photo of men holding their penises out in public. "Why are they showing these photos of people's plastic surgery and realistic dick enhancements, and that other room is blocked off?", he asked. "It's a double standard."
I listed all the reasons for him, and he nodded his head wryly, knowing that deep down he knew but had wanted me to verbalise it; to have my words legitimise it for him.
We continued to talk about it the rest of the weekend we spent in Oslo — over the endless procession of seafood soup, at the Knut Hamsun-inspired opera that was the featured event of our trip, at night in the double hotel bed we shared talking until our voices grew softer and more hurdled with drowsiness until we were asleep.
Norway is supposedly one of the most sexually liberal countries in the [Western] world, with their model of straightforward sex education being held as an example for countries like the United States, with lower thresholds for sexual openness (and arguably more dissonant double standards about sexual pleasure and women's sexual agency). It's even still legal to sell sex there, although buying it has been criminalised. So why the barrier?
When I came home, I wrote an email.
And I got this reply.
I thank the staff of the NPC for carefully considering what I had to say, and for recognising the importance of the issue. Your institution should be serving as a place where all voices are heard, where all stories are told — from women who strip to pay for their bachelor's degree, to elderly hibakusha with scars on their bodies and trauma in their hearts whose horror stories were documented just one floor above.
Let's also recognise that the double standard that is at the root of this whole situation still exists and wasn't quite directly addressed. There's still a long way to go in terms of forming a constructive vocabulary with which to confront and discuss our attitudes about sex, economic agency, gender inequality, and trans and racial marginalisation.
Note: The images of Greenfield's work are linked from available resources pertaining to Generation Wealth, and do not necessarily represent the full scope of the works displayed at the Nobel Peace Center. These images definitely did appear in the exhibit, however there were many more references in my text for which I could not find online image resources to link to. I also cannot confirm that some other images in the linked exhibition gallery from 2010 were also present at the NPC's exhibition.