As a writer, a former sex worker, and someone who has been quite vocal in my writing about the industry, I’ve been approached quite a number of times to write about the play Ugly Mugs by Peta Brady.
I’ve declined each time. Firstly, because I have not seen the play. I’ve only read about it online and read sex workers’ concerns about its content. Secondly, because I wondered how much I could really contribute after reading such powerful and articulate pieces by people such as Jane Green on the subject. But I was asked again, and this time I had just been on the phone to an old friend talking about an incident that happened many years ago. And something inside me clicked, something that made me feel compelled to tell my story.
When I was in high school I had a diary. Like most teenage girls’ diaries it was full of angst and bad poetry, interspersed with observations of the people and situations around me.
I was not a popular girl in school. I had been given the “slut” label very early on and it stuck. I guess, if you were using the vulgar base meaning of the word “slut,” I was one.
I ran around with boys. I liked getting their attention. I was not afraid of sex, sexuality, sexual pleasure, and sexual gratification. I masturbated as often as I could. I watched porn videos and read Playboy magazines.
I was very lucky that despite being shunned and shamed by the “popular kids,” I had a friend, a girl who was pretty much just like me, who shared my obsession with sex and sexuality.
My girlfriend and I would swap my diary back and forth and fill it with our own dirty stories, our fantasies about the different boys (and sometimes girls) that we knew. We would tell our deepest secrets and horniest stories to each other within those pages. We also used it as a way of communicating what others were saying about us. What the rumors were about which girls were going to “fight us” after school. Where they’d said they’d be “waiting for us.” Which boys to stay away from because they were the ones who ran around telling the rest of the school about the things we had done.
It was our little safe haven. Our solidarity. Our secret.
I’m not quite sure how it fell into the wrong hands. I think I had it in my bag at a sleepover party. I don’t know why I would have even taken it with me… but I did. And when I got home the next day I realized it was missing.
I tore everything apart looking for it. I accused my sisters and my mother of swiping it. I even wondered if my girlfriend had taken it, but was too scared to ask her in case she hadn’t, and then she would know I had lost it. I felt sick inside.
And then the phone calls started.
The taunting. The laughing. The “we’re gonna get you, slut.” They called my friend too, and she turned up at my house crying tears of anger, blaming me and hating me, as I rightly deserved. I had taken our most private thoughts and practically given them over (albeit innocently, or is that ignorantly) into the hands of our enemies.
I had my own words thrown at me in the school halls. I had boys use my fantasies against me. Taunting me. Touching me without consent. Whispering and nodding and laughing to each other when I passed. There were some sympathizers. But not really. These were girls who looked at me with pity. Who pulled me aside and told me maybe the journal had been found for my own good because now that I’d been confronted with the error of my ways, I could do something to change who I was, to be more like them. To fit in.
I did eventually get the diary back when it was anonymously and unceremoniously dumped on my front door. The pages were ripped and vandalized. Words of hate and vitriol scribbled on what had once been a source of private pride.
This all happened well over twenty years ago, and I still feel the sting when I think about it. I rarely talk about it.
It was a blatant and hateful violation of our privacy. It was done solely to hurt and isolate us. To prove to the rest of my school what bad and indecent “sluts” we were.
But I am writing about it now. I am writing about it because I feel my story has a place in this recent debate over Ugly Mugs.
Because I want to make an analogy between my journal being stolen and the production of the play. Although my story occurred on a much smaller scale, it demonstrates just what this play has done to an entire group of people. It has violated their privacy. It has opened up the door to danger and to misinterpretation, to stigma and to hate.
Ugly Mugs, a fictional story told from the perspective of a dead sex worker, was shown to the public earlier this year in Melbourne. Social worker Peta Brady found inspiration for her play from the Ugly Mugs document, a sex workers’ resource which reports warnings about violent men posing as clients. This confidential document depicting accounts of rape and trauma was intended for sex worker eyes only, and Brady used it to write her play without our consent. When Victoria’s only peer-based sex worker organization,Vixen, objected to the content of the play, their protests fell on deaf ears.
The analogy only goes so far. My friend and I faced the verbal abuse and the threats of our peers, but sex workers whose means of protecting themselves were opened up to the public are now mortally endangered as potential ugly mugs are made aware of the document’s existence. Knowing now that their old phone numbers are blacklisted, the perpetrators of these crimes can change their numbers and contact new workers. As a form of revenge for hampering their efforts to commit violence against sex workers, some ugly mugs have been known to target, harass, stalk and victimize the sex workers who report them. My friend and I had our sexual fantasies jeered at, but the workers who shared the rape and violence they endured from clients to protect other workers must now live knowing that their worst traumas have been replayed for public consumption.
But all this play has done, the way the outing of my diary “proved” to my schoolmates what sluts my friend and I were, is “prove” to the nay-sayers how dangerous sex work is, confirming their biases. It has told them about how violated and threatened sex workers are. The play’s makers either don’t realize or don’t care that they are contributing to that very stigma, the hatred and danger sex workers face, by exposing this safe-haven created by and for sex workers to the public. A public which will contribute nothing to the safety of sex workers by being privy to the existence and the contents of ugly mug documents.
The means sex workers use to stay safe and keep connected is not fodder for entertainment. It is not anyone else’s business to produce, fictionalize, glamorize, or demonize. It is not anyone else’s business to produce, fictionalize, glamori