When looking at media articles, TV shows, films or any media that depicts women involved in prostitution, webcamming, escorting, stripping, etc more often than not we tend to get the same stereotypical stock images. No matter what the issue or key story is, the same images are used over and over again with little variation or alternatives.
Women are usually portrayed as either oversexualised or completely disenfranchised, they appear uniformly in fishnets and high heels, they are standing in a dark street under a spotlight, they are leaning into cars or exchanging money with anonymous men. Very often, women are shown just as body parts – legs in stockings, feet in high heels, arms, the back of the head or just a dark shadow. They are not shown as whole beings but reduced to objects, bodies sexualised in their entirety or a sum of sexy parts.
You only need to see these examples taken from local mainstream media articles (Daily Record and BBC News respectively):
But what’s missing from the picture is the fact that women selling or exchanging sex lead rich and complex lives just like anyone. They have been reduced to tropes, indicators and stereotypes which reinforce the message that this is about sex instead of women very often faced with difficult and complex choices and different pressures and coercion.
These images do not recognise women as individuals with qualities, personalities, experiences and skills, “othering” them instead. They can feed into stigma and judgements and hide the realities of vulnerabilities that put women into situations where selling sex is needed to bring money into households. There is no one-size-fit-all standard of a woman who becomes involved in this industry.
From direct work with women, we know they can be mothers, students, office workers, service workers. They may struggle to find work and they may have attended college or university; they may enjoy dancing, cycling, music or cooking; they may speak one or several languages. Of course, despite how the media portrays them, they are not one dimensional. Women involved may be close to us and we may not know of their involvement. This diversity and richness of experiences away from narrow stereotypes is what we wanted to represent in our CSE Aware illustrations.
Learning from previous work with women through Inside Outside and more recently the CLiCK magazine, there is a need to break these stereotypes and challenge the norms within how women are presented and shown.
To bring our project to life, we decided to commission a series of illustrations that will be feature in our website and resources. In order to foreground the reality that women from all walks of life may be involved in selling or exchanging sex, we created five characters: Alice, Alina, Paula, Precious and Sinead.
These characters are fictional woman based on the collective experiences of different women who have told us their stories through projects like Encompass Network, CLiCK, Inside Outside and through other research. Each character is shown in two different day-to-day setting: spending time with her kid, attending a clinic, going shopping, relaxing, etc. The idea is to move away from the typical trope of women shown only in situations where they are selling or exchanging sex.
The result are ten illustrations in total which will be launching on our website very soon. These images will also appear in our events and other resources and social media materials. We hope that they bring reflection on the stereotypes we hold of women involved and that they inspire new and more positive representations that attest to the complexity and variety of experiences that exist in this area.
Here is a sneak-peak of our illustrations:
We don’t often reflect on what life looks like for people who lost a loved one to violent crime. This perspective is what Victim Support Scotland set out to share through their exhibition HUSH – Breaking the Silence.
For the exhibition, families connected with the Support for Families Bereaved through Crime service (SFBC for short) at Victim Support Scotland used participatory art methods to express their voice and experiences in the aftermath of the murder of a loved one.
The CSE Aware team had the opportunity to visit this one-off exhibition and below we share our impressions:
On a spring day, I attended the exhibition set up in a venue tucked away in Glasgow’s East End. Upon entering, my initial reflection was the little focus there is on the aftermath of a murder and what this unbelievable event brings to the families of the victim. Many times, the attention is on the criminal process of investigating and finding the criminal.
However, to me this exhibition honed into two things that are often overlooked when it comes to violent crime: the trauma and the grief, and how these can become even deeper whilst going through the lengthy criminal justice process. The trauma of not just the sudden loss of a loved one, but the harsh reality of the other practicalities that some of the families in this exhibition had to take care of: cleaning the crime scene, funeral arrangements, debt, stigma, the continued violence from the murderers, and the injustice they faced in their justice process.
One of the most impactful pieces for me were the audios. Hearing the voices of family members explaining in their own words how they experienced the aftermath of losing their loved one, but also the strength they had to build around themselves in order to keep going. One of the audios was a song composed by young man who lost his mother to murder. The lyrics convey not just the sense of loss that was replaced by an immediate sense of responsibility over his siblings, but the great admiration and deep love he had for his mother.
It was refreshing to see the families’ point of view, their memories, fears, the consequences they bear today and their hopes to move on from this experience in some way. Our host Alice explained just how important it was for the families in this project to meet and find not only understanding but also to build community.
Through recorded conversations, photography and music, HUSH revealed the suffering, the multitude of emotions, and a profound sense of injustice for the family members of murder victims – collectively creating an emotional, powerful, and an eye-opening project.
Whilst each of the participant’s story has touched me, it was the shared theme of the flawed criminal justice system and how families had navigated it that struck me the most. In one way or another, the grief of those families was compounded by systemic failings – be it the treatment by the police or the court staff, an unfair process or the Not Proven verdict.
In all it felt like the families were left powerless at some stage; yet, they resisted giving up. They summoned the courage to share their story – authentically and unapologetically. Some continue fighting for justice – for their families and our society.
To each participant of the project – thank you for sharing your vulnerabilities and exposing the cracks in the justice system.
I was delighted to get the chance to see the HUSH exhibition, particularly as it was influenced and inspired by Inside Outside, a project which featured the voices of women involved in selling or exchanging sex. I also had the chance to support the SFBC team to develop their own approach using the learning and experiences from Inside Outside.
The SFBC families exhibited some beautiful and impactful pieces including a recording of a Victim Impact Statement, a newly written and recorded song, striking photos and images along with installations. The power of the direct voice and creative input from these families was evident and clearly had an impact on and strengthened the emotional connection of those of us who attended.
Sitting listening to families talk, the impact was clear of not only losing a loved one but also being thrust into a system over which they had little control and unfortunately can become an insignificant part in a much larger picture. Having already met some of the families involved in HUSH, I was also reminded of the incredible strength people have to find to manage and deal with traumas.
HUSH made me think of how often the term “lived experience” work is talked about. It means different things to different people but work like HUSH and Inside Outside show that when we expect people to share their experiences and realities for us to learn, then there must be clear benefits for individuals. This may mean it takes longer, is more complex and takes more resources but the investment is worth it for the quality of the whole approach.
I appreciated the openness and honesty of the HUSH families, allowing us an insight in creative and beautiful ways. I’m very proud and pleased that the work of the women in Inside Outside and Outside continues to influence new and emerging work using the power of survivors’ voices to highlight realities and what needs to change.
HUSH will be going on tour later this year so make sure to go and see it in your local area. You can also read the exhibition booklet with the families stories here: https://victimsupport.scot/hush-sfbc