Inside Outside: How these sex workers’ voices became a gallery of personal truth

Nathanael Williams

CommonSpace sat down with the facilitators of the Inside Outside project to hear how their magnifying the voices of some of Scotland’ s sex workers

‘THOSE WHO SPEAK BUT ARE NOT HEARD’: that was the message of the Inside Outside project when it launched with an aim to ensure that people in Scotland would hear the voices and see the lives of the women who work in the sex industry.

Last month, the SNP conference saw the governing party of Scotland adopt a “Scottish model” to address the law surrounding sex work and debate the rights of sex workers. Controversially the motion passed meaning that a Scottish system of law based on the contested Nordic Model will be adopted formally as a policy by the party of government in Scotland. Later during the conference, sex workers who disagreed with the policy were shouted at in their own party fringe event.

Separate to this political controversy, Inside Outside Scotland has run a project seeking to compile the thoughts and lives of sex workers into a book and exhibition supported by Encompass, a Scottish network of agencies working with people involved in the sex industry.

Linda Thompson, from the Women’s Support Project, said: “Very often those currently involved in the sex industry aren’t heard in the media and in policy debates. They are spoken down to or spoken over and most of them don’t have twitter accounts or are not plugged into the best sources of communication.

“So how can they be heard? One thing we were committed to was to make sure the words of the women arrived at people unchanged and authentic. It’s all their words and not edited by a third party. It was vital to give a sense that not only the words but the entire project was owned by the women who sell sex.”

The hard-hitting photography exhibition by women who have been involved in the sex industry is launched at the Scottish Parliament in March. The exhibition and a book feature photographs which symbolise the experiences of seven women who have been involved in different parts of the sex trade – from street prostitution to escorting, brothels and saunas. Kathryn Rattray, a Dundee-based photographer, was commissioned to help the women develop confidence and skills from documenting their story.

The governing principle of the work was that “the project had to be beautiful but truthful. Not a political agenda Because these women don’t have a business to defend. It could only be their experience.”

As Sarah Jane, who was in the sex industry for 15 years said as part of her story: “People judge women in prostitution. It’s a sad fact that they do. I’ve often said to people it’s an unfair judgement that’s placed on the women. Not every working girl is a dirty, skanky you know what. They’re just not. They’re just trying to get by. It’s the only option that they can see that is left to them that’s not going to put them in prison and that’s the upshot.”

“People judge women in prostitution. It’s a sad fact that they do.” Sarah Jane

From the very beginning, Rattray and Thompson wanted to remove the sterilised sense of an academic project in which the women were mere statistics to be studied and passed over. The six women (originally seven) would have full editorial control over what they chose to share and whether at the end of the process they still wanted to included in the book.

This came home in a moment before the Holyrood launch when one of the original women who authored the Inside Outside book phoned Linda to state she was not comfortable taking part and having her story in the book. Thompson proceeded to remove her not only from the exhibition but from all 100 copies of the project’s book before it even launched, a testament to dedicated to discretion and the importance of the respect and security of sex workers.

Thompson added: “In this, the women were in charge of their own storytelling. It allowed them to gain and develop skills, especially photography. For so many, it was a sharp learning curve but at the end of the process they could show the world that even though they have a crucial and powerful story to tell – prostitution wasn’t their whole lives.”

“In this, the women were in charge of their own storytelling.” Linda Thompson 

The idea is that, in the future, due to the success of the book new chapters could be added extending the number of women who can share their experiences.

The exhibition was at the Scottish Parliament from March 13 to 17 but will now go to Dundee University and Strathclyde University in June, then move on to Inverness, Stirling and the Borders. The tour will also include the new women’s prison at Corton Vale.

You can view more of the stories of the women and authors at the Inside Outside Scotland page.

Picture courtesy of Inside Outside Scotland

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