By Barbarella Karpinski
Ugly Mugs at Griffin Theatre was written and performed by Peta Brady and directed by Marion Potts. In her role as social worker for the Salvation Army, Brady had access to a booklet called “Ugly Mugs” that is distributed to sex workers as a way of warning sex workers against dangerous clients.
There has been alot happening on social media. Jane Green, Sex Worker and Activist, in her blog, Sexliesducttape, claims that the play is based on “confidential accounts of assaults (rape, violence and trauma) for sex workers for inclusion in the closed publication, Ugly Mugs.“
I interviewed Green, a highly intelligent blonde. “It’s an egregious breach of sex worker privacy. It has damaged a critical safety resource for sex workers. Sex workers are hesitant to report incidents because they are afraid of the lack of confidentiality.”
Griffin Theatre said that a meeting held with sex worker peer groups was “productive“ and that a press release would soon be issued. The release has not been issued as yet.
Jane Green makes the point that the name of murdered Melbourne street-based sex worker, Tracey Connelly, was used to publicise the play, but is not mentioned in the play. They “are missing an opportunity to publicise her case that remains unsolved”. Connolly was murdered on 21st July 2013. No persons of interest have been charged.
Although the play’s events are about a death and vigil of a murdered sex worker, and it is my understanding that Brady was working for the Salvos at the time, Tracey is never named in the play. Is the character based on the victim? Or is this just a theatrical documentary on a marginalized life, where the portrayed can’t complain, because she is dead? I can only say that the character brought back to life from the morgue, in a plot device borrowed from HBO’s Six Feet Under, is stereotypical in terms of the representation of sex workers.
I have never met Connelly and I do not know how she spoke or thought, but I have met many street-based sex workers and they are a diverse indie crew. Based on this, I reckon Connelly was probably more intelligent and softer than the rough and tumble strine-talking emaciated character that Brady has portrayed. The mourners at the “fictional funeral” are also portrayed as uneducated and in the play, a wreath that says “hoar”, rather than “whore” is left for the murder victim. I felt very uncomfortable at the moment when the audience laughed at this joke, as it set the audience up to see sex workers and their friends as one sandwich short of a picnic basket.
The weather-beaten drug-addled worker is a popular representation, but many street-based sex workers I’ve met are smart cookies paying off HECS debt. This play is like Neighbours (which Brady appeared in), come to the streets of St Kilda without the reality bite or the fabulous soundtrack of Underbelly.
I interviewed Jess, a forty year old Sydney sex worker who is university educated. She says: “The Ugly Mugs list should never have been made public. The playwright should just follow the rules like everyone else has to.” Jess has had many close friends in this resilient sub-culture who have been assaulted or even murdered. I have chosen not to publish details. She also spoke of the many kind clients she has met while working on the streets.
On August 20, the night after I saw the play, The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) celebrated itself as an independent organisation after being in operation for 24 years. Formerly it has been under the umbrella of ACON.
The keynote address was given by Dr Kath Albury, from the school of Arts and the Media at the University of NSW. Dr Albury has never been a sex worker, however many of her students and colleagues have. Dr Albury takes the feminist view that sex work is real work. The difference between SWOP and the Salvos is that all outreach workers at SWOP have experience of sex work.
Sex work has been decriminalised in NSW for twenty years though street work out of zone is stilll illegal here, as is all street work in Melbourne. This decriminalisation was following on from the murder of journalist and sex worker, Sally-Ann Huckstepp in 1986, when the Wood Royal Commission was set up.
Justice Wood’s investigations revealed that the notorious Kings Cross police force took regular payments from sex workers. In the words of a former sex worker, aged 60, who asked not to be named, the cops would take money so the girls wouldn’t “get pinched”. Although the police payments were known as “protection money”, it was the sex workers who protected themselves with a history of strong peer based networks. Veteran sex worker Julie Bates came along and got the heavyweight brothels to agree to safe sex and condom use at the height of the AIDS crisis. It was street workers who were the trailblazers when it came to safe sex and rights, refusing to have sex without condoms. Rather than being bunch of tragic vagabond victims as portrayed, these street savvy harlots have historically kicked arse in the fight against HIV by setting their own rules.
The Griffin publicist referred me to Alison Crogan’s interview with the director, where Potts claims that the list is “in the public domain…. The incidents within the pamphlets are completely anonymous, so nothing identifies these people to the broader public …” (http://www.abc.net.au/arts/blog/Alison-Croggon/Sex-workers-and-theatre-community-at-odds-over-ugly-mugs-140821/).
Had Potts agreed to an interview, I would have challenged her on this. The Ugly Mugs book is about reporting crimes against sex workers and this was demonstrated by the way the publishers would ask workers to keep it in a safe place and sending it to workers in unmarked envelopes.
In treating the sex worker publication disparagingly, the makers have unwittingly abused their privileges. An argument could be made that the Salvos have also breached their ethical responsibilities.
Even though the incidents in the pamphlets may be anonymised, a “mug” may be able to recognise himself and put the reporter at risk. The fact that the book is in the public domain is a legal point that lawyers in bad drag could argue about ad nauseum. If Brady had called the play Bad Johns, and not based her play on a dead sex worker’s life, then there would have been no probs, but the makers have crossed the line.
Resources that is sex worker friendly can be found at:
SWOP- 9206 2166
Kings Cross Sex Worker Liaison Office – 83560099