Focus on Festivals

Surveying Sex for Sale

Hot Docs lived up to its name, programming films on sex work.

Meet the Fokkens, dir. Gabriëlle Provaas and Rob Schröder (2011) / Courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.

The world’s oldest profession gets a perspicacious spin in a handful of judicious films at Hot Docs 2012. Rather than images of long-legged women plying their trade on deserted streets, often alone and generally portrayed as victims, we meet a bold sex trade activist in Australia who specializes in disability clients (Scarlet Road), 70-year-old twin sisters contemplating their exit from Amsterdam’s red-light district after “whoring” for 50 years (Meet the Fokkens) and high-risk survival sex workers in Canada offering their DNA to police to assist with missing persons cases and to identify them in the event of their murder (Who Cares?).

Prostitutes are shown servicing clients in two of the three docs but not to titillate, stereotype sex work or show it as mundane. Rather, these private moments help audiences better understand the uncharted territory of sex work being offered by entrepreneurs leading the way. Witnessing the business encounters in Scarlet Road (dir. Catherine Scott, Australia, 2011) leaves a lasting impact.

Rachel Wotton, the controversial protagonist of Scarlet Road, advocates for sex workers rights and for people with disabilities. After 17 years in the sex industry she has merged both interests by working with disability groups, educating sex workers and specializing in disability clients. Wotton flaunts her business, wears T-shirts to promote sex work and unabashedly announces to strangers when they meet, “I’m a sex worker.” Her cheerful confidence is a throwback to the 1970s era of renowned happy hooker Xaviera Hollander.

With only a smattering of sex workers worldwide who are servicing people with disabilities, Wotton travels the globe as an educator, speaker and advocate for prostitutes and disability groups to work hand in hand. There is camaraderie among the small number of dedicated sex workers, both male and female, shown educating themselves and each other on methods to handle their client’s special needs.

Mark is an adult with cerebral palsy who communicates his thoughts and desires through a computerized speech board. He saves up for his first all-night sexual encounter, a date with Wotton. Himother is part champion and part coach, helping him orchestrate the business part of his date and setting an erotic scene in his bedroom complete with hundreds of rose petals on his bed.

Scarlet Road, dir. Catherine Scott (2011)

The evening gets underway with Wotton gingerly embracing Mark’s body as they shower together. This scene is an eye-opener about disabilities and eroticism, and a lesson about prostitution being useful for more than just getting a man off. Mark is shown relaxing, and it’s effective to witness his change. In bed the next morning the camera lingers on his peaceful face, with barely a muscle moving. When filmmaker Catherine Scott interviews him post date, he explains how sex helps him relax his muscles. It’s therapy for him, and he is already saving up for his next date/session.

The medical role that sex can play for people with disabilities is so obvious in the film that one questions why servicing disability clients isn’t more prominent in countries besides Australia, where prostitution has been decriminalized.

Wotton is never shown waiting around for a customer. On the contrary, she is busy all the time, arranging dates by telephone, spending time with her clients, educating other service providers, advocating at street fairs and catching up with her fully supportive boyfriend. She never says what led her into the sex business but she promotes it as a viable career choice. Her next chapter, if successful, will make another inroad in the bias against prostitution. She is trying to open a not-for-profit brothel in Australia.

Directors Gabriëlle Provaas and Rob Schröder filmed Meet the Fokkens (2011) in the Netherlands, another country where prostitution is decriminalized. Seventy-year-old twin sisters Martine and Louise Fokkens have been in the sex business for 50 years. Louise is transitioning away from sex work but Martine still needs the money. The filmmakers have gained full access to record their discerning take on prostitution, economics and aging.

Plump, silver-haired Martine dresses flamboyantly, travels by public transit and purchases a box of condoms on her way to her small windowfront working cubicle in Amsterdam’s red light district. After masturbating a client she serves him fresh brewed coffee and chats him up like they’re old friends. She vividly recounts dominating a masochist client and is shown momentarily with another fetishist. These scenes, along with shots of her squeezing into in a fishnet lingerie and knee-high spiked-heeled boots, show a survivor, working on her terms and not daunted by being granny-aged profession where women a quarter of her age are pervasive.

The Fokkens sisters travel Amsterdam by bike, spend a day at the beach, lunch together and visit a sex shop to check out the latest toys. They enjoy a comical moment of spontaneous dance in the street to entertain tourists. These effervescent times turn startling when they reminisce about the number of clients they’ve had. Louise guesses that their combined total would fill a cruise ship and Martine agrees, estimating that a normal fetch for each sister is 10 clients daily, six days a week.

Believing that the public sees all working girls as “whores,” they’ve joyfully claimed the term without shame. Whether it’s sex work or leisure, the sisters give it their full gusto but getting to this stage of buoyancy was not without tribulation.

Martine and Louise were naïve young women when they entered the business. A photomontage of them shows two mod girls who get progressively harder and more vamped up over the years. They reminisce about meeting their mates at the same time when they were 20; apparently they’ve been inseparable their entire lives. Louise’s husband was abusive, forcing her into prostitution with beatings and threats, and keeping her there with more beatings.

The sisters kept their pimp husbands in style during the 1960s sexual revolution, buying them fine clothes, nice cars and expensive trips. After nine years they left the men and set up shop for themselves. They formed the first prostitution union in Amsterdam and ran an independent brothel until government controls forced them to shut down. Since then they’ve rented storefront rooms. When Martine has enough money, she plans to spend more time with Louise enjoying their leisure activity of painting penises and working girls. The next chapter for the endearing Fokkens is holding gallery openings to sell their colourful erotic art.

Who Cares?, dir. Rosie Dransfeld (2012) / Photo taken from production, courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada

The most difficult exit from prostitution is from the survival sex trade. Survival sex workers turn tricks to buy drugs that feed addictions, and it’s cyclical. Not only is it harder for this category of sex workers to leave the trade, the sex work comes with heightened dangers due to risks taken to get the needed drugs. Who Cares? (Rosie Dransfeld, Canada, 2012) is an examination of survival sex workers and a task force of Edmonton RCMP and police officers who have ramped up efforts to protect them.

Project KARE was born a year after Robert Picton was arrested in 2002 for preying on survival sex workers from Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Serial killers who have targeted prostitutes have also been jailed in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan.

Director Rosie Dransfeld sets out to capture Project KARE in action, and profile two street prostitutes: Courtney, who has recently left the sex trade, and Shelley, who is trying to get off drugs to erase the need to support her habit through sex work. It’s a smart approach, getting to know the two main women while witnessing the cops process half a dozen others whom we never get to know, subconsciously urging the viewer to imagine the ones not profiled as gone, which is at the heart of Dransfeld’s film.

Edmonton KARE officers are to be commended for showing concern for prostitutes instead of harassing them. There is still plenty of danger in the trade but at long last, enforcement is taking positive action. Project KARE boasts a register of 1,200 at-risk people in their databank since its inception in 2003. But officers make no claim that registering street workers will keep them safe. One cop admits to a worker, “I can’t make you safer. For that, I’d have to get you off the street.”

Several heart-wrenching moments punctuate the bleak world Dransfeld captures. One shows how alone some street workers are. A cop from Project KARE registering a street worker asks her a series of questions. She pulls a few strands of hair for him when he asks, which he carefully bags. Then he asks if there is any family she would like notified if she meets with foul play. She thinks for a moment and softly answers, “No.” Not willing to stop there, the cop verifies that she’s sure, and she confirms it. Then she goes back to work. It’s not lost on the viewer that if she meets with danger, she would not only be facing that but also the belief that no one she knows would even care. Her courage for cooperating in the KARE program is admirable, especially given that there is nothing in it for her.

Another jolting moment appears when Courtney, who has recently left the streets and is trying to stay off drugs and out of the sex trade, talks about what it was like to be in a bad situation with a customer. When she describes the horror of landing with a bad date that suddenly turns ugly and could become violent or life-threatening, the work of Project KARE hits home, and the life-anddeath reality that the sex workers face is made crystal clear.

It’s not possible to predict if Courtney will reach her goal to stay clean. She has selfimage and self-mutilation issues that are hard to overcome. Perhaps if Project KARE set up a liaison with rehabilitation facilities, there might be more promise for her.

Shelley is almost 40 and would like to get out of sex work. She knows the first step is eliminating her crystal-meth addiction, which she is working to do. It is not easy, and no alternatives for her to make a livelihood are shown, likely because there are few. Determined, she leaves on a bus for Calgary where the rehab facilities are located. She has been in the sex business since she was 18 and, 20 years later, she knows it will take incredible determination for her to succeed. Even she is not sure she can do it.

Who Cares? does not offer a pretty picture of hope but rather a gritty snapshot of harsh realities. If not for Edmonton cops showing concern for sex workers, there would be no glimmer of light in Dransfeld’s depiction of a gloomy world of loneliness, addiction, violence, disappearances, murder and despair.

This select survey of sex work worldwide leaves one contemplating positive aspects of prostitution as an advocacy tool on behalf of clients who can benefit medically, and for women who have led an independent and fulfilling lifestyle well into their golden years. The despairing portrait is the one closest to home. Canada’s sex workers are vulnerable to addiction and murder and face few options for change.

Only Scarlet Road offers insight about the needs of the clients. If there were not a clientele, would there be a need for service providers? This question is raised any time decriminalization is considered, or when reviewing whom to charge for acts of prostitution— the sex workers or their customers. If there is a demand there will also be a supply. These three films show no sign of the demand lessening.

Janis Cole holds an MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University. She is a professor at OCAD University, and her award-winning documentaries include Calling the Shots, about the working lives of women filmmakers.

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