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Meet The Fokkens (2011)

(Screenshot from "Meet the Fokkens")
(Screenshot from Meet the Fokkens)

Meet the Fokkens, a 2011 documentary directed by Gabriëlle Provaas and Rob Schröde, follows the lives of Martine and Louise Fokkens, 69-year-old twins who have spent many years as full service sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district. At the time of filming, Martine was still working, albeit reluctantly, while Louise had been retired for two years because of her arthritis. Though the documentary’s main focus is the sisters’ careers as prostitutes, we also see their homes, meet their friends, and hear pieces of their personal histories.

In addition to its focus on a fascinating topic, Meet the Fokkens also presents a charming aesthetic experience. The movie involves many scenes of the Fokkens sisters in matching outfits, and at least one of those outfits is primarily pink! Louise brings her Chihuahua with her everywhere she goes. Even if nothing else in this movie caught my attention—which is not the case—the matching outfits and Chihuahua would have been enough to enchant me. But, happily, Meet the Fokkens is as intellectually engaging as it is, well, precious. The film does more than skim the surface—it delves into sexuality and labor through the exploration of the lives of these two women.

To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa (2016)

tolivefreelyA version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine

In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.

Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.

To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.

Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.

what purpose did i serve in your life (2013)

mariePrior to the publication of her debut novel, Marie Calloway was best known for the stories “Adrien Brody” and “Jeremy Lin.” There’s been a lot of commentary on the sexual themes in Calloway’s text, but no discussion by sex workers of Calloway’s treatment of her month escorting in London. Charlotte Shane and Caty Simon rushed to fill that void.

Caty: I guess I should start with full disclosure: I have chatted a bit over the past few months with Marie Calloway on the internet and she seems to be really sweet for a literary enfant terrible. But I didn’t know her from Adam when I first read her work in 2011.

Charlotte: I feel strangely protective of her in spite of never having met or corresponded with her. So it’s good to air out our biases.

Caty: I’d like to focus on the parts of her book examining sex work, because otherwise we could be here all day having the same debate that’s consumed the rest of the media about whether she’s a worthless narcissist whose very existence is endemic of essential problems with confessional writing, women and sex, and internet culture, or whether she’s a brave, feminist descendant of Bataille and Jean Rhys, who galvanizes strong responses from her readers because people are uncomfortable with her brilliance and…blah blah blah, you know where this is going.

Charlotte: Right, we’ll stay limited to T&S relevant moments.

Striptastic! (2017)

Anyone who knows me will tell you I struggle with nuance.  Different people have different ways of expressing this: two of my friends describe me as a typical Capricorn, I’ve been called an “angry bumblebee,” “strident,” and “ideologically rigid” by some of my best friends.  They aren’t exaggerating! I’m capable of nuance, especially when talking about my own experiences, but when I see good things said about the sex industry without any mention of the bad, my internal alarm starts screeching.

Which makes me a really weird pick to review Jacqueline Frances’ (AKA Jacq the Stripper) celebration of strippers, Striptastic!, right?

Something Beautiful You Can Truly Bone: Prostitution For Partnership on Mad Men

TOTAL SPOILER ALERT. If you watch Mad Men but haven’t seen Sunday’s episode yet, you’ve been warned. But the whole wide internet has been talking about this episode all week, so we don’t really know how you don’t know. Despite this being Friday, Charlotte and I couldn’t possible expect you all to get along without hearing what Tits and Sass had to say about “The Other Woman.”

Bubbles: Along with the smoking, racism, Beatles references, and plastic raincoats, the subordinate place of women in the workplace and the home is one of the ways Mad Men reminds viewers it’s set in the Sixties. Last Sunday’s episode, “The Other Woman,” gave each female lead gender-related obstacles: Peggy Olson was thwarted in her efforts to be recognized professionally, Megan Draper had to assert her independence within marriage, and Joan Harris confronted her treatment as an asset to be used to win an account.

Joan turned/was turned out for one very expensive trick in this episode when she agreed to sleep with a sleazy Jaguar dealer—thought to have a crucial say in whether the agency would land the account, and willing to booty call- blackmail the firm —in exchange for a partnership stake in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Harris? Holloway?). The act was revealed in an effective, emotionally manipulative bit of story structure. First we think she didn’t go, as Don Draper stops by her apartment to tell her that 1) he wasn’t in on the partners’ decision to extend the offer to her and 2) it wasn’t worth it (I hoped she’d just look at him and say “I’m not your damn mother, Don,” instead of giving him that maternal “good boy!” pat on the cheek). But then in cutaways, we see he came by after the deal was done. My first reaction was mild panic as I thought “Oh, no, I hope this doesn’t mean she misses out on the payday!” It would be like getting ripped off by a customer/client. And then I thought “Boy, when Sal wouldn’t bang the closet case from Lucky Strike, they didn’t offer him shit, and then they just canned his ass.”

But Joan went through with it and grabbed the brass ring of partnership, which in my opinion is as much of a happy ending as we’re likely to see on this show. Opinions in the weird world of television recapping varied widely, though, and give us a great opportunity to look at some of the tropes that get trotted out whenever people talk about prostitution. Woman’s bodies don’t just belong to their inhabitants, after all. They’re for everyone to have an opinion about! Starting with their value.