Sex work has been around for centuries.
And yet it’s still hardly discussed, treated as though it has to be kept in the shadows as a top secret thing no one admits is happening.
There’s a lot of stigma around sex work – partly because it remains illegal in many places, but also because of our conflicted ideas about sexuality and relationships.
Photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten wants to help break down that stigma, and expand our understanding of what leads a person into sex work.
‘Possibly like many other “normal” women I have long been curious why women, often highly educated with university degrees, choose voluntarily to enter a career in the sex industry, risking social stigma and the disapproval of their family and friends,’ Julia told metro.co.uk.
She decided to create The Act, a photo series capturing sex workers in the act of performance.
Knowing little about the sex industry, Julia hired a casting agent to find subject from her work. She had two rules: the women must be voluntarily participating in the sex industry, and the women chosen should represent as many different types of sex work as possible.
Once found, Julia chatted with each woman to find out more about their background, their experiences in sex work, and their lives, and narrowed down the selection to just 17 women.
The women Julia ended up photographing work in a range of different types of sex work, showing how the industry is so much more than simply having sex for money.
There were sex workers where direct contact is involved in a private setting, escorts, porn-stars, lap dancers, pole-dancers, strippers, webcammers, burlesque dancers, aerial artistes, and a ping pong girl.
Tracking these women down took Julia six months.
‘As I met and talked with more and more applicants I became increasingly aware that the girls spend both their business and personal lives as if on a stage,’ Julia told us.
‘So that’s what I decided to do, put each of them in their own staged setting.
‘I found a set builder to construct staged settings for each girl to my design ideas and with the agreement of the girls.
‘The settings represent aspects of the girls’ lives when performing their “acts”.’
The idea: to capture the women’s performances of their acts while each on their own individual ‘stage of life’.
The project not only worked to capture the lives of sex workers, but also opened up Julia’s own view of the women who choose to engage in sex work.
‘Living a conventional style of life, I had pre-conceived ideas about sex-workers at the start of the project, their lives and their morals,’ said Julia.
‘I’d also been sheltered from seeing acts of this kind before.
‘I must say that it was amazing, exciting and exhilarating to watch them performing, Veronica hanging by her hair doing a striptease 3 metres above floor level, Sasha Flexy twirling around a pole, Monique doing her lap dance routine, and Mouse ejecting ping pong balls across the stage.
‘Chatting casually with them during the casting, ‘interviewing’ them during the shoot, listening to their stories, then seeing them in their acts’, I noticed how positive, happy and content they were at what they were doing.
‘I gradually began to understand and respect to some degree their reasoning for their career choice.
‘The journey I undertook with them with them over those few weeks was certainly eye-opening and instructive, and in many respects quite enjoyable.
‘After this experience, I recognise that regardless of the extremeness of their ‘profession’, they are still women like any other, except that they have for the time being and for their own personal reasons chosen a different path through life.’
Julia hopes that the resulting photographs will make people understand sex workers as people, not pornographic objects.
‘The staged settings concentrate your attention exclusively on the model, but not only on her nudity; you gradually perceive who she is as a person,’ explained Julia.
‘You see what she is doing and you get a sense of feeling that you know why she is doing it.
‘Despite any potential for prejudice, I hope that you will appreciate an inner strength in the girls and yet sense, too, a degree of vulnerability arising from their performance.
‘As you conclude your viewing I hope that you will have developed a greater understanding towards them and their life choice, as I did during the shoot.
‘In some way, my project became almost a sociological study, which I feel opened the concept that sex workers are not demons incarnate and shouldn’t be demonised as such.’
Julia is also sharing the interviews she conducted with the women on a DVD sold with her book, The Act, so that everyone can hear their stories and understand their lives with ‘greater sympathy’.
If you’d like to read The Act and listen to the interviews in full, you can buy a copy online. Julia will also be doing a book signing at Rizzolo Bookshop on Friday 19 May from 12.30pm to 1pm.