We know the sex worker storyline: A “hooker” is killed, a girl is “rescued” from a brothel, a beautiful woman “cons” the nice guy into paying for her time [it wasn’t his fault, he didn’t know!].
Film is filled with depictions of sex workers. They are flat, dispensable, and lazily built on misinformed, harmful and, frankly, trite stereotypes. Even when the character is afforded some “empathy” and escapes the well-worn fate of being murdered straight off the bat to further the plot, she is the “humble hooker”, with “a heart of gold”, in dire need of rescuing from her damned fate.
Filmmakers love to evoke little 2D renderings of characters they see as occupying the edges of society, adding just a splash of taboo and intrigue. For outsiders, a little look in is enough to add some edge.
But for those who are on the inside – the sex workers who, in addition to dealing with stigma towards their work on a daily basis, get to see their livelihoods and lifestyles mutated, fridged, farcified and diminished on the big screen – the reality of their profession is far more nuanced, complex and interesting in multitudes.
House of Whoreship is a 2022 film, directed by Holly Bates, an artist, director and sex worker of ten years. A VCA grad film produced in Melbourne, House of Whoreship is a queer comedy-drama based in a brothel. It’s a delicately told, empathetic look into the mechanisms of a workplace few outsiders would ever experience.
For Holly, “misinformed tales justify the horrific treatment of sex workers at large, inspiring, and continuing, criminalisation and patriarchal cycles of abuse.”
“The truth of lived sex worker experiences remain submerged, drowning under the crushing weight of the public’s prejudiced, misogynistic and politically conditioned imaginings of our lives; forever inspiring the landscape above, but never getting any tangible, sustainable airtime to ourselves,” she wrote in her director’s statement.
For Holly, sex workers can only be written and portrayed by sex workers. And it’s her mission, as “sex worker-director” to do just that. VICE sat down to chat with her about it.
Hi! Who are you?
Hi. I’m Holly, obviously. I started out as a visual artist from Brisbane and I grew up there making art. I had a solo practice and still have a collaborative practice with my ex, which is queer performance. I’ve been doing sex work for like 10 years now. I started out stripping and have been doing full service for the last three years. I transferred over to film because I was making video works and art already, but I find film to be a little bit more accessible, because art can be a little bit pretentious and inaccessible and a bit classist whereas film, I feel like it’s more accessible for the everyday. And, also, I wanted to make work about queerness and sex work.
Could you please describe your film, House of Whoreship, for someone who hasn’t seen it?
I call it a post-rom-com. So, it’s a breakup comedy workplace drama, set in the work environment of a brothel, and it follows Violet, the main character, who needs to make rent by the night and turns up to work to find her recent ex-girlfriend also working the same shift unexpectedly.
The film kind of follows her navigating the night, as well as all the awkwardness of working alongside your ex in a space that pushes through old social norms, like seeing your ex in their underwear, hearing about sex a lot, flirting with other colleagues… the painfulness and seeking closure.
The queer relationship was a way to show the behind the scenes without involving any clients, and kind of unveil all the different worker dynamics within that community space that no one really sees.
I think there are so many beautiful subtleties and funny things that happen that people just have no idea about, because when people do make films about workers, they’re not workers, or they’re just too busy focusing on the taboo side of things rather than the lived experience.
What inspired you to make a film set in a brothel?
I feel like film has a lot a lot to answer for, because it’s where most people get their information about sex work.
On my film, three quarters of the crew members weren’t workers and everything they knew about sex work came from film. Because it’s an anonymous industry, people do gain a lot of insight from fiction and narrative and film. I couldn’t see myself or my peers on screen, or, when I did, it was very traumatising, upsetting and just shallow, so I really wanted to make this for myself and my community.
You’re currently in the process of entering the film in festivals around the world, in countries where sex work is illegal. What kind of hurdles are you up against?
It’s really interesting, because I think Australia has so much potential to be a lead storytelling source in telling sex worker stories, because it’s legal here and we’ve had recent decriminalisation here in Victoria as well and in other states. And so there’s a really wide scope for telling new stories here.
But in the US, for instance, it is still illegal, except for in Nevada, after the SESTA/FOSTA laws that came about under the guise of anti-sex trafficking, that were really just anti-sex work, full stop. They don’t let sex workers into the US and they can scan your phone, scan whatever device you use, because they just assume that if you’re a sex worker, you’re travelling there to do sex work.
There’s definitely a possibility of it showing over there, I’ve entered it into quite a few festivals already. And I did get asked by a sex worker film festival to show over there, which would be a dream. I’m just not actually sure whether I could go or whether they would let me in because of those laws. So the film has the potential to show there but not for me to speak on it or elaborate in any way.
Which is a key fucking problem.
Yeah. And the US is the lead in filmmaking across the world. And they’re making the most sex worker stories. But it’s an unsafe place to be out.
It’s true that Australia does have so much room to lead sex worker storytelling. How can it happen?
Yeah, actually, it’s one of my goals for this year, because I did have quite a few workers on my set, and a lot of them had worked across all different parts of the industry, in lots of different departments. And a lot of them want to make or want to work on films that are about sex work, but don’t want to out themselves, because there’s also that complicated thing to navigate.
So my scheme for this year is to form a sex worker-run production company, that can be an umbrella company that lots of workers can make films under without being outed. Anonymously, if they wish, or not anonymously.
I also wanted to make a resource, because when you’re making sex worker films, you have to do so much vetting on people that are appropriate to work with and people that might say that they’re appropriate and then just aren’t at all.
Did that happen on set?
With film, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and we often ended up pulling in people at the last minute. One guy cancelled the day before we started shooting, so we had a new person in every day. And one guy that we had in was just terrible. We had mostly a femme, queer team and it just changed the whole dynamic of it, and made the actors super uncomfortable.
So I want to make a resource of allies that are great to work with on sex worker films and people that you should never work with on sex worker films.
You have a fundraising event coming up this week in Melbourne, I assume entering loads of festivals can get quite expensive?
Oh, my God. I’ve been entering on my credit cards, it’s like two grand. I guess that’s another thing to mention is that I fully self-funded the film, wholly from brothel money. It was 20 grand, and I absolutely annihilated myself last year, just hustling for four months at least, and going to uni the next day with like, three hours sleep, just trying to get enough money to come through with it.
It was really hard, but my colleagues have been so supportive of me the whole time, which added the fuel to the fire because they really wanted to see it as well.
I remember the day before shooting, I went to my brothel to pick up some sponges, last minute props, and everyone was there and they all hugged me and wished me good luck. And when it came out on MIFF Play, my work colleagues watched it in the smokers area at midday as it came out. It’s just been so supportive.
But I really hustled really hard. And I think now that it’s out, and I feel like a lot of workers are happy with it, I’m willing to ask for help to spread it around.
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