As a vocal advocate for everyone’s right to sexual expression, Sydney sex worker Rachel Wotton is passionate about providing people with disabilities the opportunity to experience sexual intimacy. She helped set up an advocacy group, runs workshops for carers and sex workers, and is studying for a masters degree in her spare time.
The indefatigable blonde also provides a specialised service to her clients, two of whom, John and Mark, permit the cameras in to record their most intimate moments. Their pride and pleasure makes this one of the most uplifting films you’ll see all year.
|Running Time:||70/54 min.|
|Subject(s):||Disability, Education, Gender, Labor, Personal Story, Politics, Sexuality, Women|
|Producer(s):||Pat Fiske, Catherine Scott|
|Cinematographer:||Catherine Scott, Bonnie Elliot|
|Production Company:||Paradigm Pictures Pty. Ltd|
|At this year’s South by Southwest Festival, a very interesting documentary is premiering about Rachel Wotton. She is a “sex worker” in Australia who works for the rights of not only her fellow specialists but also for a manner of service that is liable to get some extra attention in 2012 thanks to a film that just premiered at Sundance. I spoke with Rachel and filmmaker Catherine Scott about one of the films that fest audiences in Austin should have on their radar.
Catherine, what drew you to the subject matter and how did you go about cajoling Rachel into being a part of the project? CATHERINE: Rachel and I met over a decade ago. We hit it off immediately and she has been part of my inner circle of friends ever since. In the early days we flirted with the idea of making a documentary about her and that stayed in the back of my mind. I ended up moving to Kenya for a few years and when I was back and after having my first son, it occurred to me it would be a great moment to embark on the film. I approached Rachel about the idea, and we discussed what possible angles I could take and I just picked up the camera and started filming. The focus of the documentary shifted and changed and finally centered on the work Rachel was doing with her clients with disability. Everything fell into place. This was the area in Rachel’s life she was most passionate about and very few documentaries have tackled this subject matter.I have always been intrigued by Rachel’s job and her openness about what she does was disarming. I found her honesty and views on sexuality and disability truly compelling. Rachel deeply cares about others who work in the profession and has a duality about her, on the one hand being a ’naughty‘ girl, who for a fee, is delighted to cater to her client’s various fantasies and desires, and on the other, a passionate advocate engaged with the cultural and political battles that surround this clandestine world.But even though Rachel and I had a long friendship the access was not as smooth sailing as I had expected. Rachel and I had a great rapport but even so, we still had to develop a new kind of trust in one another. Rachel had to trust that I was not going to do what most media people typically do and I had to trust that she knew what was most important to show about her life and let go of some my sometimes conventional expectations. Being a sex worker, Rachel is very good at negotiating her boundaries. However, in the early days I felt like I was constantly bumping hard up against them. As we went on, the more I engaged Rachel in the process of the film, showing her rushes, talking to her about how to go about filming events happening in her life, the more she opened up and let me and the camera into her world. What really surprised me was I had known Rachel for over a decade but there was so much more to learn about her life and experience in the world. I really thought about things I had never thought about before when I was making this film.Rachel, what were your greatest concerns about how your story was going to be represented on film?
It was around this time that a number of us were talking more about the sexual rights of people with disability and the barriers both sex workers and people with disability were facing when trying to connect and arrange appointments. We decided to create a forum for these two marginalized communities to talk and discuss these issues. From this day in January 2001, Touching Base was formed (www.touchingbase.org)
When it comes to America’s view of prostitution compared to the rest of the world, does it simply come down to our society having roots in religion, a freedom we fought for at the expense of so many other freedoms?
“What would be your concerns if you were on the solicitation side of things.” I don’t know what you are driving at exactly?. But if I was a client of a sex worker I would want the same rights and responsibilities afforded to me as any other time I was a consumer in society. If you compare sex work to an accountant: I would want the right to go to a large accountancy firm, a small collective of accountants who shared premises or perhaps a small independent accountant who worked from home or a rented premises 3 days a week. I’d want the right to know the charges before booking an appointment and negotiating what services I needed and wanted. I’d like to know how long I should put aside for the appointment and also how payment was to be provided…. Currently in America sex workers can’t legally work anywhere except in very prescriptive brothels in certain sections of Nevada. They can’t openly discuss and negotiate what they will and won’t provide and therefore can’t give an open and honest breakdown of their prices according to services requested. They can’t legally work in large, medium or small collectives nor even on their own or in pairs. They can’t legally refer to other sex workers who may be more suited to the client’s needs (ie. an accountant may only do personal tax and refer on to someone else who specialises in business taxes).
If I was a client or a sex worker in the United States I would also like to know that I will not end up with a criminal record for participating in a mutually consenting service (which is what happens now when clients of sex workers are charged during ‘sting’ operations).
When it comes to safety, precisely would be the 100% guarantees that an individual or a brothel could offer to put the most unsure of client or objector at ease?
RACHEL: Decriminalisation gives sex workers and everyone working in the sex industry (this includes receptionists, managers, owners, cleaners, security guards, delivery persons, electricians, plumbers, other tradesmen employed to either build or maintain equipment on premises) the best form of safety and security.
Have you had any negative responses from the disabled community or their caretakers?
CATHERINE: You know just before this went out into the world I got a little panicked for a moment, worried about what this could mean for Rachel who has come out as herself in the film. I always felt in my heart that this film would be good for her and all that she is trying to do in the world but I got last minute jitters. The discrimination and stigma that surrounds her profession is very pervasive. To my surprise and relief, we did not get any bad feedback at all from screenings or the TV broadcast and the disability sector in Australia has totally embraced the film. Touching Base, it must be said, has been working within this area for a decade and has paved much of the way. Touching Base provides links between people with a disability, their support organisations and the sex industry and was set up by Rachel and others eleven years ago. Many disability, sex worker and community organizations via the Touching Base network actively promoted the television broadcast in Australia. They became real stakeholders in the film and helped get it to a key target audience and that was just sensational. Touching Base received a deluge of emails that they could hardly keep up with from people all over the country wanting more information. There have been numerous requests from the medical and disability communities to have Rachel and her colleagues speak at their conferences. So you could not ask for a better response. They say that one in four people are either affected by disability or close to someone who is in Australia so when thinking about potential audiences you are talking about a significant amount of people who might have an interest in this subject. I am sure the same goes for America.
RACHEL: I have had the most amazing emails and phone calls of support since the film has been shown. I am overwhelmed by the amount of honest and heartfelt responses to myself and everyone featured in Scarlet Road. These messages of support and thanks have come from all over Australia and overseas by people who have been personally touched and moved by the film.[br]
In a film that just premiered at Sundance that is liable to get a lot of attention during the prestigious awards season later this year, The Surrogate, Helen Hunt plays a sex surrogate who caters to a man afflicted with polio who wants to lose his virginity. What you do now seems to be very much the same and yet you still refer to yourself as a “sex worker.” How often do you feel that the language of the profession and how it is discussed and debated get in the way of the real issues.
RACHEL: I think that there is a place for both occupations to have a meaningful existence in society. Yes, the skills, knowledge and the actual services provided do sometimes overlap but to me that’s OK.
I have seen numerous virgins throughout my career. Just like others – some like to just throw themselves in the deep end and go to a sex worker and “get it over with” or just experience everything all at once, in one go! That’s completely fine. Others like to build up their experiences and knowledge sexually in a slower way, just like people do with boyfriends and girlfriends during school years and beyond.
Helen Hunt’s sex surrogate says the difference between her and a prostitute is that a prostitute wants you to keep coming back whereas her job puts a finality on the number of visits. Seems more like a semantic argument on her part, but how would you define the difference?
RACHEL: I have worked as a sex worker and also as a sexual surrogate. I have provided services to virgins in both capacities. I do agree with the statement from Helen Hunt. With surrogacy you identify both short term and long term goals that the client wishes to achieve and collectively you are working towards that point . Each session has a learning component and your aim is that the client is moving forward in their learning capacities. There is definitely an end point to your sessions though. A lot of the clients I have worked with have had to work through other issues such as social anxiety and self esteem with a therapist well before they are ready to face the challenges of learning to be intimate with another human being and how to even ask someone out on a date. In addition – sexual surrogacy often works in a triangulated model where the client, the surrogate and the therapist all work together and share information openly with each other.
Sex workers are also great educators and many clients come to us to learn different and new techniques and sexual expressions. They know that we too create a safe and nurturing environment and are experts in our field. For some they don’t need or want to see a therapist – they just want to explore sex and intimacy and be touched. Some clients choose to see a different sex worker every time and enjoy the experiences of a new touch and new body every time. For others they become loyal regulars to one or just a couple of sex workers over the years. These sessions can be pretty much the same kind of session each and every time with no cut off date or outlined learning schedule needed.
Others come to visit a sex worker to learn to become better lovers before they throw themselves back into the dating scene. Others need a bit of TLC after a bitter divorce or bad break up. Some of the sweetest clients I’ve seen or heard about are widowers who have lost their life partner and choose to spend some quality time with a sex worker. At their age it often doesn’t equate to the imagined ‘hot sweaty sex’ but more the gentle companionship, the human connection and ongoing friendship that you build with someone…
At the end of the day, you can learn from both experiences and you have a physical component in both work places but I guess you can say that the surrogacy environment is one predominately of learning and goal setting that includes physical touch (though there are a lot of other social skills people normally need to learn in earlier sessions). With sex work the predominate rationale for appointments are for companionship and physical services (but of course clients also often learn a lot of skills and things about themselves along the way). The surrogacy sessions will always have a defined end point but the client of a sex worker could sometimes ‘grow old’ with their sex worker and see them for 20, 30 or even 40 years.
I have actually presented a number of times about sexual surrogacy, including in conjunction with Saul Isbister here as well as:
– Wotton R, “Sexual surrogacy: from a surrogate’s perspective”, Oral moderated poster presentation, 19th WAS World Congress for Sexual Health, Goteborg, Sweden, 23rd June 2009
Rachel, what positives or outright success have you had in your campaigns for sexual advocacy?
I think that the ongoing success of Touching Base over the last 11 years is an achievement in itself. We have been delivering successful workshops to both disability service providers and sex workers for many years. We have also written and published the Touching Base Policy and Procedural Guide which promotes the health, safety and human rights of people with disability accessing sexual services in NSW. We are hoping that this can be adapted and utilised by disability organisations around Australia and elsewhere around the world.
There has definitely been an ongoing increase in enquiries from people wishing to access services from sex workers. This is from people with disability themselves as well as disability support workers, carers, parents, siblings and friends of people with disability. I personally have had enquiries from around Australia and overseas, as have Touching Base.
The Touching Base website has been accessed by people residing in over 70 different countries in the last 18 months which really shows that there is an active and real need for information and services in this area.
It is also good that more politicians are interested in watching Scarlet Road and talking to us about sex worker rights. We are hoping in the future that that will equate to more countries enacting Decriminalisation into their legislation for the sex industry.
How broadly would you like to see Touching Base reach the world? Could it expand to areas of North America that either have legalized the profession or turned a convenient blind eye to it?
RACHEL: Touching Base has amazing success and has been acknowledged all over the world. We have achieved all this predominately through the generous in-kind donations and support from individuals and organisations. We are hoping that we will attract some very generous philanthropic benefactors over the next few years which will allow us to establish a permanent office and employ staff to continue our activities. We are still very keen to have a meeting with Sir Richard Branson (as seen in Scarlet Road).
We would definitely like to see the aims and objectives of Touching Base be established and enacted across the world. We hope that one day sex workers and their clients – some of which may have a disability – may be able to openly and confidently discuss and negotiate an appointment without fear of stigma, discrimination, arrest or prosecution.
What do you feel are the most commonly misrepresented aspects of the profession?
RACHEL: All aspects of sex work and sex workers are commonly misrepresented. Not all sex workers are female. Not all clients are male. Not all clients want “full service” (sexual intercourse). Some just want a sexual massage (in NSW, where the sex industry is decriminalised there are specific sex services premises which are locally known as ‘massage parlours’ which just cater to sexual massage (“rub and tug”).So not all sex workers actually choose to provide intercourse.
CATHERINE: Black White and Sex by John Winter is a recent narrative feature film that I saw at the Sydney Film Festival with Rachel. The script rang true and many things that came out of the mouth of the actors I had literally recorded with Rachel. So there were quite a few side way glances between us. It’s a very funny and confronting film that gives a real inside view of sex work, the dynamics of sexuality and power so the research was definitely there. There is an Australian TV series called Satisfaction that is set in a sex services premises (commonly known as a brothel). Even though it is over the top at times it had some interesting characters and story lines that defied many stereotypes. But really you have to ask Rachel who is in touch with hundreds, if not thousands, of sex workers around the world and very attuned to how sex workers are represented, and more importantly, how those representations play themselves out on the ground for sex workers. The main thing I have learnt from working on this film is the sex worker community is incredibly diverse. Even though there are a lot of commonalities in the profession, there are so many different stories. I think the problem is we often only hear about the negative side of sex work and that paints the whole industry into a corner literally with terrible consequences for sex workers’ basic human rights.
RACHEL: Yes most of Black, White & Sex was great. Personally the ending didn’t sit well with me, but I can see that they definitely consulted with many sex workers and their voices came through.
For all that’s been said about Pretty Woman I actually commend it in a few ways. Firstly the lead character was ballsy and up front with condom use. The sex worker movement in Australia – especially those demanding condom use for services – was led by the street based sex workers in Sydney in the 1980’s. I completely recommend the documentary “Rampant: How a city stopped a plague” to learn more about the Australian sex workers movement and their incredible efforts and actions that allowed Australian sex workers to still enjoy incredibly high levels of sexual health and still – to this day – lower levels of STIs than the general population. (An interesting side note is that Andrea Lang, who is the editor of Scarlet Road, was also the editor of Rampant. In addition, Julie Bates, who is predominately featured in Rampant, is a good friend of mine and I have learnt a great deal from her over the years through peer education and support)
Rachel and I met over a decade ago. We hit it off immediately and she has been part of my circle of friends ever since. In the early days we always flirted with the idea of making a documentary about her and that stayed in the back of my mind. I ended up moving to Kenya for a few years and when back and after having a son, it occurred to me it would be a great moment to embark on the film. I approached Rachel about the idea, and we discussed what possible angles I could take and I picked up the camera and started filming. The focus of the documentary shifted and changed and finally centered on the work Rachel was doing with her clients with disability. Everything fell into place. This was the area in Rachel’s life she was most passionate about and very few documentaries have tackled this subject matter. I set off on the arduous task of trying to find interest for the film. I ended up having a second child while this was all coming together and when Charlie was 5 months old, he came on the road with us when we filmed in Europe. In retrospect the timing of the documentary could not have been better because of what ended up unfolding in Rachel’s life once we started production.
Rachel’s openness about what she does I found disarming and her honesty and views on sex intriguing. She deeply cares about others who work in the profession and has a duality about her, on the one hand being a ’naughty‘ girl, who for a fee, is delighted to cater to her client’s various fantasies and desires, and on the other, a passionate advocate engaged with the cultural and political battles that surround this clandestine world.
Representation around both sex workers and people with disabilities is a minefield and I really wanted to tackle stereotypes head on. One of the aims of this film is to represent people with disabilities’ view of their own sexuality. People with disability have often been viewed as ‘non-sexual’ beings and on the other hand sex workers are often seen as ‘oversexed’, ‘victims’ or ‘damaged goods’. I really wanted to shift past all these preconceived ideas and get the audience to think about this in a whole new way. So when it came to filming Rachel with her clients it was a delicate balance. I wanted to show the touch and intimacy, without objectifying Rachel or her clients and reveal the sexual tenderness without titillating or shocking the audience.
I used an up-close, handheld and personal shooting style so viewers could be drawn into a complex and sometimes confronting issue in a direct and accessible way. It is Rachel’s voice and the events in her life that take us through the film. At times the camera was observational, following Rachel and the people she encounters – allowing scenes to simply unfold. This is intercut with interviews with Rachel and the other characters filmed over three years. As a filmmaker I relished Rachel’s comfort with the camera and her humor and ease with me being there in her life. This rapport came from our long friendship but even so, we still had to develop a new trust in one another. Rachel had to trust that I was not going to do what most media people typically do and I had to trust that she knew what was most important to show about her life and let go of some my sometimes conventional expectations. Being a sex worker, Rachel is very good at negotiating her boundaries and at times in the beginning I felt like I was bumping hard up against them. However the more I engaged Rachel in the process of the film, the more she opened up and let me into her world. Even though I had known Rachel for years, there was so much more to learn about her life and experience in the world. I think it’s the dynamic between us that really made ’Scarlet Road’ a wonderful film to make and hopefully to watch.
As the director I hope this documentary will help shed more light on the truly fascinating area of sexuality and disability, and demystify the stereotypes that often stigmatise sex workers and have led to repressive policies around the world. Ultimately I think it is Rachel’s view of her world and her access into the lives of clients and fellow sex workers that can truly surprise and challenge the viewer.