The sex industry in 2017 is as diverse as ever. The internet has paved the way for workers and customers to buy and sell pleasure and titillation in ways that just a few short years ago could never have been imagined. From webcams to sex shows, striptease to porn, the breadth of work in the industry is undeniable.
But while there are more opportunities than ever for those looking to use their bodies to make a living in the oldest profession in the world, there’s still a stigma surrounding those who populate the industry.
In her latest project, The Act, Photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten set out to tell the stories of sex workers on their own terms, gaining an insight through their eyes into how they see themselves and their profession. Interviewing 15 women for the project, Julia spoke to and shot a diverse range of sex workers, creating individualised mini-theatrical sets in which to capture their unique stories.
“During my meetings with my models, both before and during the shoot, I sensed that they tend to live their entire working lives as if on a stage,” explains Julia. “They are women who are proud of their bodies and choose to use their bodies in order to make an income.”
Julia created a personalised mini-set for each woman, which were then mounted on a stage as if they were giving a performance. “Each setting is relevant to the individual woman and her profession,” says Julia. “My choice of cinematic lighting imparts an enigmatic interpretation of their acts. It is a split second of a filmic recreation of their life.”
As far as possible, Julia has avoided shooting sexually explicit scenes. “Undeniably the images are sexy and provocative,” she suggests, “but also playful.”
The role of women in the sex industry is heavily debated: some feminists believe that sex work should be abolished, others argue it’s a contribution to a woman’s freedom of choice as to the work she engages in.
“Although it’s not a choice of career that I would make… I came to admire these 15 women,” says Julia. “They are honest to themselves and exhibit a high degree of self-respect. I’ll let their stories have the last word behind this extraordinary experience.”
“My job specification isn’t simply ‘stripper’. I’m a listener; an agony aunt. I am a constant companion to those who feel alone. I’m an outside ear providing support to those who seek it. I’m sometimes paid £600 per hour just to talk, that’s more than a qualified therapist.”
Eliza De Lite
“Burlesque as an art form draws together all sorts of creativity and skill. It pulls together aspects of dance, comedy, mime, costume, elegance, history, risqué humour. A performer can’t combine every single one of these things into their personal style, so most burlesque artists build their style on a more defined set of attributes.”
Ella and Chloe
“Being a sex slave is about living how the dominant dictates.” Chloe says. “Nothing is set. We roll with her mood – what we eat, how we eat, when we eat…what we wear, when we go to the bathroom…or not. The initiation process is bigger than a wedding in ways. We look at the collar like a marriage ring.”
“What’s it like to have sex with a stranger? Just like a weekend night out really! No, that’s awful isn’t it!? I shouldn’t say that. What I mean is; when you’ve done it once, it doesn’t make much difference to do it again. You meet them beforehand and stuff. I’ve never really thought about it that way. It’s fine really. You chat, you have sex, then you shake your washed hands and go home.”
“I like sex. I like everything about sex. I like to be the person they can’t usually have.”
“Having rope bound around you ensures panic by nature, but eventually you’re forced to submit to it. Once you have trained your mind to relax, it’s the most incredible feeling of bliss.”
“Every night is different and I love that variety. I’ve danced for artists, bankers, musicians, even couples. There’s a very personal element to stripping, as you make a connection with your client. I’ve had some great conversations with people. I once spoke for over an hour with a guy about a philosopher I was studying.”
“It’s quite simple, domination is no different to any other business transaction. Clients make contact and I’ll ask about their health and then of course what they enjoy. I need to discover what kind of person they are to give them full pleasure from the experience. There’s no point doing foot fetish work on a masochist, or for those who want to feel pain. But all types of torture is always agreed in detail first so it’s safe, then they pay me.”
“I’ll never push people past what their limit is because that becomes abuse and mistreatment of trust. It’s all about assurance and living out their fantasies in a safe environment, without being judged. Everything comes down to trust.”
“I’m never ashamed to tell people what I do – maybe that’s why I’m single. Maybe I should say I’m a nurse. I’M A NURSE!”
“This is the job I want to do and if I need to be naked, then I need to be naked…and if you don’t like it, then go find yourself a housewife.”
“I am ambitious and I like to make everything worthwhile with self-growth. I don’t want to do this forever but I do want to develop more self-confidence. I also want to get into clothing design – that’s my real dream. I didn’t want to be an escort, but here I am, so I want to grow towards that instead. Women get judged and people think what I do is sleazy and degrading, but that’s a misconception really. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”
“I don’t think my burlesque act necessarily turns people on, but I do think hair hanging and my drag king work does. I always get hit on more after those! For some reason those acts make me more approachable than stripping. As part of the performance I piss into a champagne glass and then drink it, that always seems to attract certain attention.”