Art opens window on sex work for New Yorkers

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 March 2020 18:14 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A protester takes part in a demonstration in front of City Hall in celebration of International Sex Workers' Rights Day in San Francisco, California March 3, 2008.REUTERS/Kimberly White

Image Caption and Rights Information

Artists, many from the sex industry, have come together for an exhibit on what it is like to make a living from sexual acts as global debate on criminalising the industry continues

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, March 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New Yorkers get an intimate view of sex work this week - free of charge - courtesy of a pop-up exhibit of international art aimed at building support for legalising prostitution.

Sculpture, photographs and other works by more than 20 artists - most from the sex industry - festoon an exhibit space in downtown Manhattan, portraying what it is like to make a living from sex and sexual acts.

"Sex work is often misunderstood and stigmatised, and this exhibit is really about authentic storytelling, and we want people to hear directly from sex workers," Daveen Trentman, co-curator of the show, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the United States, prostitution is governed by state laws and is illegal everywhere except in pockets of the western state of Nevada.

Globally, nations are divided.

Many countries outlaw it, some including Canada and Sweden punish the clients, while others - such as Germany and New Zealand - have legalised or decriminalised it entirely.

Women make up eight in 10 of the world's estimated 40 million or more sex workers, according to research by the French Scelles Foundation, an anti-exploitation group.

Advocates for decriminalising the work, or legalising it with regulations such as pay and health standards, say the age-old and universal occupation isn't going anywhere.

But many sex workers are feared to be trafficking victims, according to campaigners known as abolitionists who support a ban on prostitution.

Of the estimated 24.9 million people believed to be victims of forced labour, some 4.8 million are locked in forced sexual exploitation, according to the United Nations.


The art from 10 countries shows dark, political, joyful, funny and intimate aspects of sex work, including an installation of red umbrellas to symbolise sex workers' rights and up-close portraits of the faces of transgender sex workers.

Japanese-born Midori created a floor-to-ceiling rope installation woven with tools of the sex-work trade.

Comics drawn by Jacqueline Frances, a New York stripper and comedian, portray strip clubs with a wicked sense of humour.

"What I really want to do is celebrate the people who do this work," said the artist, who goes by Jacq the Stripper.

"We are entertainers. All we do is tap dance for all of you. We deserve to have someone tap dance for us, so here I am."

The show, which opens this week, aims to promote efforts to decriminalise and legalise sex work, said Sebastian Kohn, project director for sexual health and rights at Open Society Foundations, a global charity sponsoring the exhibit.

"Bringing it above the surface, out of the shadows, is a way to bring rights into the industry," Kohn said.

"Once you criminalise an industry, there are no rules. You can't have workplace health and safety standards. You can't have labour law if you criminalise the entire sector."

Abolitionists say prostitution is inherently exploitative and should be prohibited. Some anti-slavery groups argue that decriminalisation provides a cover for human traffickers. In New York, proposed legislation was introduced last year to decriminalise prostitution; a similar effort failed in the capital when the city opted not to vote on the measure.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.