QotD: “Sex industry’s cultural celebration of female sexual exploitation in the ACT”

The Canberra Museum and Gallery obviously called in a range of favours to stage its latest exhibition. The ACT’s [Australian Capital Territory’s] most successful pornography distributor, Robbie Swan, gave it access to his private collection of sex industry memorabilia; a local Canberra medical centre formerly undertaking STD checks on women in prostitution supplied corporate sponsorship, and the commonwealth Censorship Board conferred the exhibition with a ratings classification.

The resulting ‘X-rated: The Sex Industry in the ACT’ production pays homage to the business of prostitution and pornography in the Territory: the venues, products and operating environment of the sex industry are showcased in glass-boxed exhibits featuring brothel photos, pornographic video covers, industry magazines and government whitepapers.

The pimps and pornographers whose financial interests drive the sex industry, and the sexual interests of the customers who supply their income stream, are mostly the authors of the perspective that shapes the exhibition.

The industry’s hard-fought battles in throwing off government ‘repression’ and ‘censorship’ are narrated in great detail, as are its trials and tribulations in achieving brothel legalisation in the Territory. There are humorous anecdotes about a sex industry association running a brothel ‘open day’ fundraiser in 1992 for World AIDS Day, and a pornographer applying for a government export development grant.

Declines in the industry’s $34-million-dollar turnover in the 1990s are lamented; the internet, and the fact that police don’t raid illegal pornography sellers, are blamed. Stories about profit-making and industry deregulation are the threads that run through the sex industry’s exhibited history of its operations in the ACT.

Amidst the industry’s alternating self-congratulation and self-pity, exhibition goers are led to forget how pimps and pornographers actually make their money, and what cost Canberra residents continue to pay for their commercial activities. The exhibition mentions these costs only briefly: the rape and sexual enslavement of Thai woman ‘SK’ in a Braddon apartment in 2007, the death of 17-year-old Janine Cameron in a Fyshwick brothel in 2008, and the arson attacks on legal brothels in 2010 and 2012 are cited in a far-off corner of the room.

The fact that ACT Police failed to undertake checks of any sex industry venue in the Territory for a period of five years in the early 2000s, and reports that a Canberra pimp estimated 20 women were being brought into the ACT for prostitution each week in 2014, do not warrant a mention.

Public funding of the Canberra Museum and Gallery appears to have given no pause to the curator in compiling an exhibition that showcases the private business achievements of an industry that wreaks havoc on the lives of the citizens it exploits and the communities it infiltrates. Indeed, from the exhibition’s design, it’s not entirely clear Rowan Henderson brought with her any awareness of the human rights violations that fundamentally underpin the business of prostitution and pornography. Her glass boxes offer evidence of the sex industry’s abuses openly and unselfconsciously, and entirely uncritically. Exhibits are blithely presented as merely part of the industry’s spectacle, as if they couldn’t possibly pose any ethical challenge to visiting patrons.

One exhibit, for example, describes the sexual use of an Aboriginal woman, ‘Regina’, in the production of a pornographic film ‘The passion of the Canberra brickworks’ in the early 1990s. Another presents the first-hand testimony of a woman named Nikki Stern that poverty and pressure from her boyfriend caused her entry into prostitution and subsequent use in pornography. A few other exhibits narrate the fact pornographers from countries like the US and Germany flew into Canberra immediately after the industry was legalised and brought women with them for filming.

Patrons are confronted with no ethical challenges arising from the exhibition’s inclusion of women who have been used in Canberra’s sex industry. There is no mention of how their lives ended up after years of being pimped and made into pornography; in fact, the exhibition features close-range photographs inside brothels showing women’s faces clearly in colour.

For museum curators and others in the creative arts, making a public spectacle out of the sex industry and its activities might be a titillating and curiosity-satisfying endeavour performed in service of the leisure and entertainment needs of middle-class people who have never been homeless, exploited or destitute. They will never be held to account by the sex industry victims they put on show.

Victims don’t have a platform allocated at the Canberra Museum and Gallery from which to speak back to the sex industry’s six-month long, government-funded public assertion of its historical legitimacy in the ACT. Their suffering, humiliation, physical and psychological pain, and lost sense of self are nowhere explained in Henderson’s exhibition, and their murders, suicides and overdoses are almost wholly undescribed.

Museum curators, along with their patronising publics, are never confronted with the human toll the sex industry inflicts on society’s most vulnerable people. Exhibitions like that currently spruiked by the Canberra Museum and Gallery supplant this reality with a predictable stream of comforting propaganda about the sex industry’s flamboyant history, colourful characters and whimsical endeavours.

The sex industry exhibition runs till September this year, and so for a full six months the Canberra Museum and Gallery will be giving cultural endorsement to female sexual exploitation in the Territory. This endorsement will forever stand in the Museum’s own history as an act of betrayal of the ACT’s most vulnerable women and girls. I hope this history is one day narrated in an exhibition where the sex industry’s victims are finally able to respond to elite cultural celebration of their degradation; then we will see many curators, creative producers and artists ducking for cover.

Dr Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University

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