Under the Sheets: A Review of Paying For It - An Insider's Guide to the New Zealand Sex Industry, Volume II
Shannon Friday reviews an unconventional and deeply moving night of storytelling and interview about the New Zealand sex industry, as told by the industry.
Note: Due to safety concerns around public identification of the performers involved in Paying For It, we have tried to avoid describing the performers in ways that may make them identifiable to the general public.
Sex can be so many things: healing, injuring, intimate, transactional, tender, trusting, dirty, fun, silly, kind of gross, demeaning, empowering. But so often, we only see sex in really limited ways: as an emotional connection within a relationship, or as a dirty dirty sin. Paying for It: An Insider’s Guide to the New Zealand Sex Industry serves as a place of meeting between Muggles like me and workers in the sex industry. In it, we are shown sex outside of that puritan dichotomy, as something else entirely: a job, as work, complete with the personality conflicts, moments of pride and accomplishment, existential crises, friendships, and shitty clients found in so, so many jobs.
Paying for It is verbatim theatre, but not like The Laramie Project or Munted. For one thing, it isn’t slick: two chairs and a table for set, no sound design and some of the worst lighting operation I’ve ever seen. But there’s also no acting, and that gives the show tremendous power. No-one is playing pretend; no-one is slice-and-dicing the stories of a bunch of other people. Everyone on stage works in the sex industry and, with the exception of one presenter who fills in for a colleague who couldn’t be there, everyone presents their own story. This means that Paying for It feels intimate and risky; we’re reminded not to take photographs, and some presenters are so nervous that their hands shake as they hold their speaking notes. It’s a reminder of how present the stigma around sex work is, and it feels special to be let into folks’ confidence.
Given the strength of this stigma, the opportunity to hear people speaking honestly, thoughtfully, and heartfully is so rare and precious. And the presenters are adamant that we meet them as equals. The first presenter centres this early on: “These are strong, smart, empowered humans,” she asserts, “who do not need your pity.” We meet a variety of workers over the course of the night, from the worker with more than 40 years’ experience to the young man who has been in the game for less than a year. With such diverse experiences, including working both before and after decriminalization, we get an astounding range of both presentation styles and topics.
No-one is playing pretend; no-one is slice-and-dicing the stories of a bunch of other people.
Our first presenter, an experienced woman who has worked her way up in the industry over decades, tells her story simply and without embellishment. As she talks about all the changes in the industry, we get a peek into the history of Auckland and Wellington-based sex work. She is laser-focussed on working conditions, interspersing her stories with details about her own business best practices for handling difficult or unruly customers – what she calls her “two strikes” rule – and she forcefully calls for better Health and Safety standards and other industry-wide reforms.
So much of the night is about situations that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had a job: the co-worker who steals your lunch, the colleague who sees work that needs to be done but prefers to text friends instead. The final presenter focuses on their day-to-day, from the financial uncertainty of freelance work to a stuck-up client whose condescending attitude would make me want to throw things at them. And it is all handled with a light deftness that borders on stand-up comedy, playing down the stakes, because, hey, these things are part of the job sometimes. I can picture a bunch of workers cackling and giggling together over their tea breaks as they swap stories back and forth.
That’s one of Paying for It’s most striking takeaways for me: how utterly banal sex work is, until it isn’t. It is striking to compare the tussles of my own job – balancing multiple deadlines, personality conflicts in the workplace – with the stakes that come with doing work that so intimately involves the body. One presenter tells of how he got into the industry, starting as a queer teenager constructing a twink-y identity online for his own exploration. Years later, he wonders about how his invented self had taken over his total identity. “I was watching a movie, totally alone, and I was still acting.” He’s unclear where his professional self ends and his personal self begins; his struggle feels unfinished. It feels immediately familiar. It’s the same way I wonder about my self-worth after a proposal for a show gets rejected or feel anxious when a student wants to be friends outside of class; I just don’t know how to be another version of myself in that situation.
Paying for It: An Insider’s Guide to the New Zealand Sex Industry serves as a place of meeting between Muggles like me and workers in the sex industry. In it, we are shown sex outside of that puritan dichotomy, as something else entirely: a job, as work, complete with the personality conflicts, moments of pride and accomplishment, existential crises, friendships, and shitty clients found in so, so many jobs.
Another man reads a testimony on behalf of a sexual surrogate and professional companion, whose emotionally fraught work requires a lot of emotional discipline. He starts with the surrogate’s story of working with a disabled client toward his first sexual experience. So much of the story focusses on the slow building trust over multiple sessions, and I tear up as the presenter describes the client’s response to simply being held. There’s a remarkable tenderness in his stories – especially in their last session, as he reminds the client that their meetings were a service and tries to prepare him for some of the difficulties he can expect in the wild – and for me, it is revolutionary to see sex work operating as social work. It’s a potent reminder that the workers in front of me are addressing one of the most basic human needs, something that is a fundamental and healthy part of most folks’ human experiences.
Such stories run directly against prevailing narratives of sex and sex work, revealing all the complex ways in which the workers relate to their jobs. And all the presenters are working to dismantle the stigma around their work, whether it is the worker reminiscing about taking her mother out to dinner with her earnings or the calls to consider the real practicalities of sex work as work, where the consequences of such pain-in-the-ass things like internal health and safety policies can have such a profound impact on workers and clients. It reminds me of how tough you have to be to be so intensely vulnerable with a client. I leave with deep admiration for the workers who have shared their stories, for their skill, their resilience, their humour and their determination.
Paying For It - An Insider's Guide to the New Zealand Sex Industry, Volume II ran last week, from 10 to 14 October, at BATS Theatre.
The production was sold out; information on the special one-off showing of the production, on 26 October at The Fringe Bar, is available here.