PAINT ME LIKE ONE OF YOUR FRENCH GIRLS
Lauren Zoe, a feminist activist, artist and Vice President of the Goldsmiths Sex Worker Solidarity group, started these classes in the hope of demystifying sex work. She states on her website that the classes “will challenge the politics around power in art”, and this week’s session is held in the LGBTQIA+ friendly and feminist space Anatomie Studio in Peckham. There are two sessions on offer tonight – sex worker life drawing and KINK: sex worker life drawing.
The space is intimate and cosy, covered in cushions and net curtains, with ceiling hooks hanging on multicoloured ropes usually used for Shibari classes. When we arrive Lauren and Laura, the two performers for the first session and co-founders of the classes, are greeting everyone in silk robes with glasses of fizzy wine and beaming smiles.
The atmosphere is very casual and friendly. Our tutor for the evening is a young woman who occasionally models but is herself an artist, and she wanders around the room offering support and guidance to those who need it. Lauren and Laura begin the first set of poses with a seated kissing position, but this soon moves onto introducing sex toys and discarding a few more items of clothing. Unlike a traditional life drawing class where the model is completely naked, the women tonight wear a variety of stockings, corsets and bras.
This is perhaps the only signifier, along with the poses and toys, that the class is different from any normal life drawing class. Although the poses are innately sexual, the students and models retain the same professional relationship and the vibe of the space is one of respectful observation rather than outright titillation. It does beg the question however – why bother?
“This idea that somebody being naked means they’re readily sexual for everyone else is an idea that needs to be undone, not just for sex-workers but in general.” explained Lauren recently in Dazed magazine. “The aim is to create an educational space where marginalised people can speak their minds… The class is intended for people who want to discuss their own experiences of gender, but also relax and have fun.” The majority of students tonight are art students from Camberwell and Goldsmiths, 90% of whom are in their twenties. There are a few brave young men, but it doesn’t feel inappropriate – in fact, it seems ideal. Speaking to the tutor for the evening, I asked whether they would encourage more men to attend, or have male models. “I think it’s really important to have more men attending. After all, women know the deal already. There’s no point only preaching to the choir.”
By exclusively having female sex workers as models, Lauren is not only working to demystify sex work, but pushing the boundaries of feminism. Taking the image of the sexualised woman in static poses that we are so relentlessly bombarded with in everyday life, and placing that in the context of high art and educational creativity, she reminds us that sex work is legitimate labour. We are forced to observe women in the context of artistic expression, when the women before us are so often marginalised and stigmatised for their profession.
After the first hour we start the KINK session, with a new model and more appropriate sex toys. One pose consists of a model being tied up, while the other two dominate her. Another shows a model licking the other’s shiny latex boot. So whilst Kink play functions around a power exchange, it is an interesting reversal to observe a performed erotic scene whilst the models retain all of their agency and power.
At the end of the class, I observe the other student’s work. It’s clear to see that we have all depicted the women looking strong and most importantly, in control. Whether this is because the selection of students here are already engaged in feminist ideas and consciously made an effort to work that way isn’t, and can never be, clear, I know personally that I merely tried to accurately sketch what I had observed. And what I saw was a group of women, performing examples of sex work, and maintaining their power, agency and feminism. “People see sex work either as something you do because you’re desperate or something you do because you’re greedy.” she argues. “They think it’s something they won’t do because of their values or morals. But shaming the worker for what they do and ignoring the difficulties workers face is a problem – it’s still work.”