Dear Dan: I have a question that is neither related to sex or relationships, but rather on the ethics of doing a theater project on sex work. I’m a puppet theater artist based in Montreal, and I am interested in creating a documentary theater piece on the topic. My friends told me that it isn’t my place to explore the topic since I have never done sex work. I am interested in talking with providers, clients and advocates, and I plan to donate a portion of any (unlikely) profit to local groups. Puppetry is the perfect medium for this topic, but I don’t want to do harm to a marginalized group. What do you think?
— Puppeteer Understands Personal Privilege Extracts Toll
Dear PUPPET: Anyone can make art about anything — good art, bad art, meh art — and lots of people with “lived experience” have made deeply shitty art about their own experiences, and lots of artists without “lived experience” have created moving and deeply humanizing works of art about people whose experiences, identities and employment histories bear no resemblance to their own.
That said, structural barriers prevent extremely talented people who happen to be racial minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities (which includes sex workers), etc., from getting funded, published, produced, exhibited or greenlit. Creators, curators and consumers need to bear that in mind and work to correct it. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from making their own art.
The novelist Lionel Shriver gave a famous/infamous speech about identity and art at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2017. Shriver cited Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham, who defined cultural appropriation as the “taking [of] intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”
“What strikes me about that definition,” Shriver said, “is that ‘without permission’ bit. Are we as writers to seek permission to [create] a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights [the] way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?”
If you’re creating a show about sex work based on interviews with sex workers, their clients and their advocates — and you’re honest with the people you interview about your intentions — your subjects are essentially granting you permission to tell their stories. You could still wind up making a shitty puppet show that pisses off a bunch of sex workers and/or their allies, PUPPET, but the existence of a few pissed off pupaphobes isn’t by itself proof you’ve done something wrong and/or created shitty art.
But if it makes you feel better, PUPPET, find someone who’ll pay you $20 to suck their dick, and then hand that same $20 to someone who’ll suck your dick, then go home and write a letter to Justin Trudeau about how you made and lost $20 doing sex work and — et voilà! — you’re a provider, a client and an advocate.