When is it okay for occupational stories to become strange tales for public and private consumption? Most of us offload work experiences with family and friends to let off steam, but there are some jobs where this is totally unsuitable.
A play called ‘Ugly Mugs’ – which finished its run at Griffin Theatre in Sydney two weeks ago and was previously at the Malthouse in Melbourne – has been the subject of public debate because of its controversial use of a resource, as impetus for both the show itself, and as a prop within the production. The story revolves around a murdered sex worker, addressing violence against women through interweaving narratives. The resource in question is also the title of the play.
Ugly Mugs is a booklet that is maintained and distributed by sex workers in the community, as a measure of safety and precaution to warn other workers about violent encounters with clients. According to director Marion Potts, this booklet was integral to the development of the drama. Yet, as sex workers have asked, how can it be that a closed resource utilised as a measure of protection for a vulnerable community, can become a source of middle-class entertainment? Sex workers have condemned the misuse of this booklet, protesting the play in Sydney, where they confronted viewers with the reality of their existence, their agency and outrage at what they perceive as theatrical exploitation.
How are other people’s stories best represented? Peta Brady, the playwright, was an outreach worker with the Salvo’s in Melbourne and has enjoyed a privileged position amongst sex working communities there, which is how she came to be in possession of the Ugly Mugs resource. Brady utilised her insider status and knowledge to craft this story. Has she made a mockery of professional ethical boundaries expected of outreach workers in the field?
As a former outreach worker (with a different organisation in another city) I remember well the requirements. Confidentiality, relationship and trust are key. There were clear guidelines for any discussion of the work we were doing. No stories, life insights, names or identifying details revealed by people accessing the outreach service were to be shared with outsiders, not even family members or friends. If an outreach worker had difficulty processing any aspect of their job, this was to be addressed with staff in daily debrief and also in regular sessions with a professional supervisor, both confidential environments. The booklet Ugly Mugs was never discussed with anyone outside the sex working community or the support and outreach project. These boundaries were unambiguous.
It takes a particular set of skills to become a good outreach worker. An individual must have the ability to quickly establish rapport with strangers who are (rightly) self-protective. They must exhibit warm-heartedness tempered by sharp discernment. A talented outreach worker will have the ability to ‘think on their feet’ and be comfortable, even in uncontrollable situations. Especially important is an appreciation for gallows humour.
When people in vulnerable communities seek the support of outreach teams, it is often due to very complex life experiences, including violence. This can sometimes give outreach workers a slanted perspective, as they are continually exposed to the raw aspects of humanity. While a good outreach worker has the skills to rise to this challenge, it takes a great outreach worker to see past brutality and encounter the other in a relational matrix that acknowledges shared humanity, strength, wisdom and competency, even in the midst of oppression.
When promoting the play, Brady said that she wanted to create a space to talk about violence and represent sex workers as rich, full human beings. As research has demonstrated, street sex workers typically experience high levels of violence, stigma and abuse. This is an outrage, largely ignored in public discourse. However, to craft a show about a dead sex worker criticised as ‘pity porn’ may not be the best way to address these issues.
The concept of the ‘victimised prostitute’ utilized throughout the performance of ‘Ugly Mugs’ ideologically reinforces the idea that sex workers are always located in a space of weakness and fails to acknowledge that Ugly Mugs (the resource) is an instrument of empowerment. The public exposure of this safety mechanism also puts sex workers at higher risk, ironically reinforcing vulnerability, while disrespecting the autonomy and privacy of the community. This is profoundly antithetical to great outreach work and it is surprising that Brady did not pause for a moment of self-doubt before revealing her sources. It also reflects poorly on the faith-based organisation that permitted one of their employees to breach protocols of confidentiality and professional ethics. The play and its process of construction may prove to be a set-back for marginalised communities of sex workers and those who do a bloody great job at outreach, without the applause of the audience.
(DISCLAIMER – I have not seen the production)