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
What a very touching, riveting story. Are you still in touch with your friend?
Was not easy to write… But actually quite therapeutic once I started.
Sort of. It was never really the same after this incident and we lost touch for many years.
Facebook reunited us. But that’s about the sum of it. I have not seen her physically in about fifteen years.
Thank you Eva, a brilliant analogy. As I was saying, I didn’t need to see the play. It was enough that they had used and misappropriated the UG list for their own fame and financial gain without concerning themelves with the potential harms such misuse would cause. Thank you again. Julie B co-founder of the UGLY MUG LIST..
Your writing always engages me. Honest, to the point and connecting to a person like me who is not easily moved.
Thank you for sharing this with us.
“… some ugly mugs have been known to target, harass, stalk and victimize the sex workers who report them”
I went onto the link you provided and I fail to see how it supports the argument you’re making. Are you saying the rapist described in the story took revenge on the victim for making an Ugly Mugs report? Where is your evidence?
That’s actually my doing, I edited this piece and added that section and link to enhance the gravity of reality as experienced by sex workers. This man is a known offender in the sex worker community in Australia, he has broken his parole twice, has baited girls under a number of aliases and has a history of assaulting sex workers.
Yeah, not cool. And he continues to change his alias once his identity is outed through the Ugly Mugs (cheers to Brady for letting it be known!)
Hope that answers your question,
thanks for your clarification.
However, I would suggest that if you are going to provide links in future, you make sure that the link illustrates the argument being made. This one clearly doesn’t.
I’d also note that the perpetrator you describe has been assaulting sex workers for many years and if he was aware of Ugly Mugs, I’m sure it wasn’t because he saw Brady’s play. (In fact I’d hazard a guess that serial abusers of sex workers tend not to be avid theatre goers, but that may just reflect my personal bias.)
I’d also suggest that linking to a story about someone who targets sex workers (I take your word for it the victim was a sex worker as no mention of that is made in the story) does exactly what Eva Sless condemns Brady’s play for doing, i.e. “prove to the nay-sayers how dangerous sex work is, confirming their biases.”
I’d add that Eva Sless is guilty of the same bias when she refers to Ugly Mugs as a “safe haven”. If sex work (in particular “street sex work” which is what the play touches on) wasn’t dangerous, there would be no need for a “safe haven”, and no need for the Ugly Mugs pamphlet.
Also, as a St Kilda resident, I have to say the notion that Brady was revealing some kind of trade secret by writing the play is ridiculous. Most residents have known about it for years. The generally held view among workers in the field is that perpetrators are LESS likely to repeat offend if they know their actions are being reported within the sex worker community.
To make the point I’ll provide a link to a photo taken outside the office of RhED, the sex worker advocacy group that produces Ugly Mugs. I’d draw your attention to the poster on the building. It’s about 5 ft high and 8 ft long and used to be on display in one of St Kilda’s busiest streets, about fifty metres from the strip where most of the street workers operate.
I’m sure many more mugs saw that poster than Brady’s play.
Unfortunately that’s my lack of foresight at work, especially on the international front. I thought that it was quite clear that the person was a UM even though the report didnt say so (why would they?).
And you’re right, this man was aware of the documents existence before the play. But the implications are not dissimilar, any UM who learns of the play now knows if they didnt already. They know how the document works how to work around it. Above this, sex workers don’t feel safe sharing this information – Brady shouldn’t have for the sake of her play.
The woman in that article is not in fact a sex worker (to my knowledge). But it’s the same man. The crimes he’s committed on sex workers haven’t had the same coverage (I know for certain he’s assaulted one worker, and I have a foggy memory of other reports).
With the safe haven, most victims look at the justice system for their ‘safe haven’. A cashier who is held up can get WorkCover, an investigation, a court proceeding. But we know sex workers dont have the same luxury, not only is it difficult in the judicial process but the sex worker needs to relinquish their identity to access recourse. Ugly Mugs is sex workers doing what they can to combat this and it doesnt just details crimes already committed but warnings and general observations for the next sex worker to consider.
While it’s true that it’s common knowledge that sex workers have a ‘blacklist’ (a very vague and ominous threat to criminals), it is not where sex workers want put up on a platform, in a play. I should note that RhED isn’t a peer support group either. The fact that VIXEN couldn’t contribute is saying something. This is not where we should get attention – we’re not looking for pity or sympathy – we are always hoping people will look at the hundred other things we need help with. Sex workers feel used and abused by the media and arts community when people use their stories for their own ambitions. If it were up to sex workers, that’s the last thing they would want. They dont feel safe with a play using the Ugly Mugs document without permission, self titled as so. At the end of the day, the only people who should be discussing ugly mugs are sex workers. It shouldnt be a source of inspiration.
Also Ugly Mugs exist in every aspect of sex work. That poster is designed specifically to target street workers mugs. A street worker would identify an offender through their license plate and physical description. A mug isnt going to change cars to reoffend. But other ugly mugs now know the document holds numbers, that’s a threat to brothels, private and agency workers.
you raise a lot of interesting issues but I’ll just focus on one.
“A mug isn’t going to change cars to reoffend. But other ugly mugs now know the document holds numbers, that’s a threat to brothels, private and agency workers.”
You seem to be suggesting that public knowledge of Ugly Mugs is fine for street sex workers, but will have an adverse effect on sex workers generally. I’m just not convinced.
To put it into context I’d make these observations. According to information on the Scarlet Alliance website, street sex workers make up roughly two per cent of all sex workers. This means that brothel workers, private and agency workers make up about 98% of all sex workers. Yet this 98% rarely make Ugly Mugs reports (at least not in Victoria).
Yesterday I spoke to a couple of support workers including one who works with RhED (who, while they may not be “peer only”, have strong peer representation), They tell me that the vast majority of reports are made by street sex workers. One said they could only recall a couple of reports made by brothel workers in the last ten years.
At my request that worker randomly checked Ugly Mug reports done over a 16 month period. Out of 34 reports, 33 were made by street sex workers, and only one was made by a brothel worker.
So from that sample I’d conclude that while brothel workers, private and agency workers make up 98% of the sex worker community, 97% of reports are made by street sex workers.
My point is that public knowledge of Ugly Mugs is not much of a threat to brothel workers, private and agency workers when they rarely use the service.
The support workers also told me that the document does not contain phone numbers. (Again, I’m referring to Victoria but they’d be surprised if it was different elsewhere.)
In any event, what serial abuser is in the habit of leaving phone numbers?
While I’d concede that sex workers would feel less safe if they believe the notion that mugs will use the pamphlet to work out strategies to avoid being recognised, I’d really need to see evidence of it before I was convinced that was a legitimate fear.
There’s one thing I can say with up most confidence, and that is brothel, private and agency workers have a functioning Ugly Mugs system within the whole of Australia. RhEd probably doesn’t know how it works as it requires sex worker access (that’s a major flaw with non-peer support groups). And there is a huge number of us involved.
And there are many, many forms of abuse us sex workers suffer through telecommunication devices.
To that end, I probably don’t want to go into any further details about how it all works for the reasons we’ve already mentioned.
your response raises a lot of questions about how the Ugly System works outside of Victoria and I respect your right to not offer any further detail.
But your comment; “And there are many, many forms of abuse us sex workers suffer through telecommunication devices.” seems to again affirm the bias that Eva Sless takes issue with i.e. it proves “to the nay-sayers how dangerous sex work is”.
And that kind of brings me to the central problem I have with Sless’ analogy. Since the furore began sex workers have claimed that they are a community full of empowered individuals with agency. So an analogy that characterises that community as being as vulnerable and fragile as young schoolgirls seems to be sending completely the opposite message about that community.
As far as I can see the entire article appears to affirm the kind of bias which Brady has been accused of.
Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been sick.
Firstly, I just want to clarify that the Ugly Mugs System is inclusive of Victoria. So none of this Victoria VS everywhere else.
The comment of abuse through telecommunication devices is this whole new breed of abuse that’s coming into play with the rise of technology. This new type of abuse doesnt really ‘prove’ anything of the old world of abuse. There has been reported higher levels of abuse for women through telecommunication devices. All it proves is that douchbags can use phones and the internet. And there isnt danger as in, real ‘I’m going to punch you through the iPhone’ sort of danger, but there’s been threat of life and stuff like that. It’s happened to me. It’s not out of control, we’re working on it and none of us are going to end up dead on a table because of it. But we dont want to risk it but letting people know how it all works either.
I guess playing on the possibility that sex workers MAY die, regardless of all the safeguard we put into place, is where the problem lies. Because she’s created a narrative where one just completely exposes and overthrows those safeguard and puts us on a silver platter for the public to consume. This is how sex workers are presented in media – we dont want people to receive a message where it’s expected or even ok for us to end up dead because of our work. We would have been better off without their storytelling. It also sends a message to potential mugs that these are the types of women to target, because they are vulnerable, because no one really cares enough to look for the culprit.
On the pity porn front, the definition of pity porn is something different to what you think, I believe. Pity porn isnt a search term you can enter in PORNHUB and find a result. Pity porn is a type of narrative, one illustrated above, where as a direct result of sex women (and it’s always women) end up victimized, exploited, dead, injured rah rah rah. It is completely detached from porn in the sex on camera sense, and also detached from the narrative where an otherwise chaste or undeserving women is victimized through sex. I hope that’s a fair definition to make?
Anywho time to rest on my mothers lap as she nurses me back to health,
Sorry to hog the thread but there was one more point I had to make about how much of the debate coming out of the sex worker community is sending mixed messages to those of us outside it who have taken an interest.
One of the most common accusations directed against Brady’s play is that it’s “pity porn”. It’s one of the tags at the bottom of Sless’ article. It’s always struck me as odd that in accusing the play for stigmatising sex workers, some sex workers have used the word “porn” as a pejorative. I’d argue that using the word “porn” to condemn the play stigmatises those who work in the porn industry.