Monday 22 June 2015

Doing Debby in Darlinghurst

A print in Difficult Debby's
Whore Love series.
In early June, a collective of sex worker artists who call themselves Debby Doesn't Do It For Free hosted an exhibition of new and old artworks in Darlinghurst, Sydney. 

Difficult Debby explained what it was all about in her post on this blog in the lead-up to the exhibition.

Once the exhibition opened, AFAO Project Officer Jill Sergeant went along. In this photo-essay she shares her experience at a special viewing session for allies to sex workers.

I have a true confession to make. When I first started working at the organisation now known as Positive Life NSW, way back in 1990, I had no idea that one of the Board members was a sex worker.

It was a very long time before I figured it out. It's not that she was pretending she wasn't. I was just naïve, or maybe not paying enough attention. Not that it mattered.

My focus then, as a newbie to the HIV sector (although not to the LGBTI community), was to listen without judgement and learn how to be an effective ally to people living with HIV and AIDS in my role as editor of Talkabout magazine.

My passion, then and now, was social justice, which encompasses the conviction that who consenting adults have sex with, or how they earn a living, shouldn't be the subject of moralising and discrimination.

This cartoon by Despo Debby focussed on stigma.

In spite of that conviction, I still came to the job with plenty of stereotypes and misconceptions about sex workers (and people who inject drugs, but that's another story). I'm sure you know the stereotypes - especially the Christian/feminist one that all sex workers are victims and no-one would be a sex worker from choice. 

One of the stereotypes about sex workers is that they have 'dead eyes' because they are alienated victims. This series of paintings by Decriminalise Debby challenges that idea.

I kept my mouth shut about having these ideas in my head, because it didn't seem helpful to voice them, and anyway, they weren't relevant. My policy was to listen without judgement, notice the person I was talking to, and not pay attention to any preconceived notions about why they were a sex worker (drug user etc.). 

This approach soon led me question the stereotypes I held. Later, reading policy documents and personal stories published by sex worker peer organisations made it clear to me that the lives and motivations of sex workers were more complex and empowered than I had realised.

Delightful Deb Arkle's prints showed different aspects of sex workers' lives - like being a parent. 

Not everyone gets to have their stereotypical beliefs challenged by the experience of 25 years of working in HIV organisations, reading policy documents, attending conferences, meeting and talking to a hugely diverse array of people from stigmatised affected communities - so it's fantastic that there are shortcuts to enlightenment, like the recent Debby Doesn't Do It For Free Exhibition with its special viewing for allies.

I was one of around 40 people who attended the lunchtime allies' viewing on the second day of the exhibition. Other allies included sexual health and HIV sector workers, staff from local women's health and community services like the Wayside Chapel, and of course, a few old friends.

An ally inhales at a scent archive, one of three olfactory adventures offered by Debby Did It Again. 

Elena Jeffreys, a sex worker and a Debby herself, opened the session with a short film and a brief history of the Debby’s project, which began in 2002 with an exhibition for ARTRAGE in Perth, followed by a tour of several international HIV-related and sex worker conferences over the next decade. 

The 2015 exhibition, by 23 Debbys from Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart, displayed new works as well as some original pieces from the 2002 exhibition. 

Media and politicians' hypocrisy about sex work was the target of our MC, Elena Jeffreys
work in progress: 'My life with Craig Thompson', aka 'The knot of political insecurity'.

After Elena's intro we all trooped outdoors for a squiz at a window performance by Darlo Debby and her daughter Belly Debby, with cameo by her son Dimmy Debby. 

Darlo Debby shares whore wisdom with her daughter Belly Debby.

The window shows, which were on for the duration of the exhibition, were a tribute to the famous sex worker windows in Amsterdam. Elena told us these windows are being gradually shut down as the government buys each one that comes on the market. 

Here are some links to more info about the sex worker campaign against the closures in Amsterdam:

Darlo Debby - a long time local, in case you can't tell from her name - told me that
Palmer Street in Darlinghurst, where the exhibition was held, was home to a
thriving sex worker community not so very long ago.

The gentrification of areas where sex workers live and work, resulting in their exclusion and invisibility, was also raised in other artworks. 

Extract from Red Doors, a poster by Belly Debby which explores the cultural appropriation of sex worker symbolism and prompts the viewer to question their prejudices about home-based sex work.

It was hard to tear myself away from the Debbys in the window, but I couldn't turn down the offer of a Debby-guided tour of the exhibition, which was the next stage of our allies' journey. 

We split into smaller groups and I went with Despo Debby, who explained the ideas and history behind each of the artworks and invited us to get up close and personal with the scent archives (wigs, washing machine, and waste-basket) and peep-holes.

A woman’s body gleams through make-up smudges in Deep-Dish Debbie’s ‘Doubles with Becca’.
This was one of several evocative pieces by different Debbys that drew upon
the everyday details of sex worker’s lives.

Despo's cartoons and watercolours were among my favourites, so it was a treat to hear her thoughts about her own work.

After the tour, we broke for snacks and chat before the final event, a facilitated discussion with our MC Elena, Cam Cox and Chantelle Martin representing the NSW Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP), and Ryan Cole, the President of the national sex worker organisation Scarlet Alliance.

Decriminalise Debby’s ‘What do you do? …
I’m a sex worker’ installation with audio sex
worker stories and notes from clients was one of
several pieces from the original 2002 exhibition. 
'It's ok to pay' - Daredevil Debby uses
photography to document amazingly
detailed and creative body painting projects.
On the first night of the exhibition
Daredevil did a 2 hour full body
painting live in the 'Window' with the
model being one of the other Debby artists.

I felt it was a pity that by this time a lot of people had drifted away – we were getting close to the advertised closing time – because they missed the opportunity for an absorbing conversation.

We covered a wide range of topics, including the moral panic about sex worker parents, the crucial importance of supporting sex workers through peer organisations, and the experience of trans women and Indigenous people in the sex industry.

Chantelle told the story about a trans sex worker whose family, living in rural NSW, had no idea she was transgender or a sex worker until after her death. While this was initially confronting for them, with Chantelle’s support they were able to accept it and even welcome a busload of trans sex workers who travelled up to the funeral. I was almost moved to tears by this story of hope, love, and friendship.

Chantelle’s story was a fitting note on which to end my travels with the Debbys into sex worker culture and politics, because it was such a clear demonstration of the importance of sharing stories in order to further understanding. Art and stories enable us all to connect on a human level and break down stereotypes and prejudice.

I’ve been around for a while, and need no convincing, but I hope that the Debbys can take this show on the road, and continue to host allies’ events, so that newbies get the opportunity to learn, and oldies like me get to deepen our understanding about sex workers’ perspectives on their own lives and work.

Another day, another Debby in the window.
This time it's Debby Decay treating passers-by to a risqué cabaret.   


  1. Fabulous sex worker art - so inspiring - Candi Respect Inc

  2. Thank you Ms Candy - hope you can join us next year!