By Aline Fantinatti
I was 20 when Daspu was created in 2005 by Gabriela Leite, a pioneer of the sex workers movement in Brazil. Daspu is short for “Das Putas”, meaning (designed) by the whores. It is the name of a clothing brand created to raise funds for the sex worker NGO Davida. The name Daspu is also a parody on Daslu (“Dasloo”), a famous luxury department store created by and for socialites from São Paulo, the richest city in Latin America.
Coincidentally, Daspu’s creation was launched just before the rich, elegant and well educated owner of Daslu became the target of a federal investigation against tax evasion crimes. Daspu was thus perceived as a sharp provocation which awarded them much public attention and opportunity to share their political message. Daspu inserted itself into the Brazilian mainstream culture, giving a new meaning to the puta identity by performing fashion catwalks in telenovelas, official fashion weeks, cultural institutions and street events. Sex workers participating in Daspu catwalks recreated themselves as fashion models of their own clothes in a celebratory occupation of the catwalk, a territory that up to then had been reserved to Dasluzettes.
Reporting on Artivism
During my internship at the Red Umbrella Fund, I analyzed if and how their grantee partners have used artivism in their political and social interventions. I could not help but think back about how I had been influenced as a young woman growing up in Brazil when Daspu reached the mass media. These affective memories helped me to understand the significance of the artivism initiatives described by the 63 Red Umbrella Fund’s grantees whose reports I scrutinized. At least 2 in every 3 sex worker groups reviewed mentioned one or more examples of using artivism in their reports. And this was even higher specifically for national and regional sex worker networks. Using arts in activism is common across all regions, although groups reported it most often in Europe, North America and the Caribbean.
Sex worker activists make use of appealing visual elements such as color and shapes, poetic strategies such as word sounds and repetition, and performance to give strength to the messages. Creative methods such as storytelling and graphic design organize and simplify sex workers’ narrative. By making complex political issues more easily understandable, the targeted audience is finally able to connect and to relate to sex workers. A basic example of how social movements regularly use art to empower their message is the creation of rhythmic political mottos.
Somos lindas, estamos listas, somos puta feministas! We are beautiful, we are ready, we are whore feminists!
Leila Barreto, former member of the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes and GEMPAC (Women Prostitutes Group of Para State) and researcher of sex workers’ movements in Brazil1, explains that a specific characteristic of the sex workers’ movement is that it is oriented towards a guerrilla fight to occupy new spaces2. Expanding your visibility means to get out of your comfort zone and create and be present in conversations with wider audiences that are distanced from their realities.
Art offers sex worker groups guerrilla tools to achieve political visibility among different audiences. It is also used specifically to fight against the stigma imposed on sex workers, with the understanding that stigma is a collective political problem and not an individual fault. Artivism constitutes a useful strategy for many sex worker groups to establish a dialogue with civil society. As with the case of Daspu, many artivism actions that promote public visibility also target the community itself by introducing or affirming a joint identity as sex workers. To build and maintain strong community engagement in the movement, sex worker organizations are determined to tackle the stigma internalized by sex workers themselves.
Argentinian anthropologist Dolores Juliano describes the mechanisms of silencing used to control marginalized groups of women in hierarchical societies. In these societies, recognizing which discourses are legitimate and which ones are not is a tool to grant or to deny access to power.
“The division between good and bad women benefits the stability of the system. Prostitution stigma has nothing to do with what sex worker are or do. It represents a potent element of control for the women who are not in the industry. The model of the selfless wife and mother demands a lot of sacrifice. […] the only way to make sure that women adapt to it is to ensure that the other possibility is worse.” 3
The social panic about what sex workers can unveil about gender and sexual roles is the reason why sex workers are denied the possibility to speak for themselves. Sex workers’ discourse is thus constantly undermined and only validated when it presents them as victims. According to Juliano, the silencing of sex workers is used as a power maintenance strategy4.Sex worker organisations make use of the multiple conventional political dialogue tools: reports, formal advocacy actions, meetings, and field work, but only a narrow audience is able and interested enough to dive into dry policy reports. Sex worker activists therefore try more creative strategies to get their messages across.
Creativity as a Path to Success?
Georgina Orellano, secretary general of AMMAR (Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina) in Argentina, disclosed that a street art intervention in 2013 allowed the organization to realize that sex workers activism should take on a creative path. Together with an advertisement team, AMMAR developed an action to call the attention of the public to their mission using short and incisive communication elements. The campaign was based on data from AMMAR’s community based research which revealed that many sex workers in Argentina were single mothers and their family’s main source of income.
AMMAR came up with a street art intervention to get attention for the need to protect these women from exploitation and police violence. Illustrated black and white decals were placed on some of the busiest corners of Buenos Aires. On one side you could see a sex worker, but once you turned around the corner you could see that she carried a baby stroller or two kids by her hand. The message: “86% of sex workers are mothers – we need a law that regulates sex work”. AMMAR’s name and mission were clearly communicated. The murals went viral on social media platforms and received extensive local and international media coverage, including in The Guardian
“Street Corner Moms showed AMMAR that creative interventions can generate social consciousness among society in general and that it took the movement away from the sectors AMMAR always intervened, amplifying the message of the workers.”
– Georgina Orellano (interview April 2019)
AMMAR has since developed many other creative strategies using documentary and cultural festivals to “occupy spaces” beyond the usual, introducing counter narratives to oppose the stigmatizing discourses on sex work. One such example is their collaboration in 2017 with MAMBA (Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires), where AMMAR hosted guided tours during the exhibition of Argentinian painter Antonio Berni. Berni’s 1970s critical realism depict narratives about the world of sex work embodied by his muse Ramona Montiel. AMMAR’s members organized a tour covering different topics such as the street and stigma.
“A lot of the images settled by art history is present in sex workers narratives until today. For instance, people still think that we are always wearing high heels and fishnets. We were there to intervene in this narrative.”
– Georgina Orellano (interview April 2019)
Mock Arrests and Condom Seizures
Empower, a longstanding sex worker organization in Thailand, develops street performances through its Honey Bee Troupe to create awareness among the local public on sex workers’ issues. They pressure policy makers through media exposure and direct interactions with relevant stakeholders. By using basic props and costumes that are understood across cultures and languages, the group gets their message across in diverse locations.
The organization further developed their format to directly respond and to influence political decision makers during conferences. At the AIDS Conference in 2018, in order to protest against the “condom as evidence” policies used in many countries, the group dressed as police officers and performed mock arrests of delegates to get them to sign a ‘subpoena’ demanding end to the use of condoms as evidence and to decriminalize sex work. Approaching ‘suspects’ with typical verbal and gesture commands, the police characters seized over 1,000 condoms and attracted much attention.
Photo: Honey Bee Troupe during AIDS Conference 2018. Credit: English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP)
Establishing a puta conversation
As I grew up in a conservative suburban town around São Paulo, Daspu was my first point of contact with the sex workers’ movement in Brazil. Sex workers’ artivism sparkled in me a reflection on gender roles long before I came across feminism. The sex worker movement needs guerrilla tactics to occupy new spaces, as this struggle is not won with conventional strategies. Artistic elements in activism contribute to empathy and call attention to different and often larger audiences. Art has allowed sex worker activists to create opportunities to build support, influence opinions, and to challenge longtime encroached ideas.
What if I would never have seen sex workers perform on a Daspu catwalk?
…Perhaps I would still have become a sex worker ally, but there would certainly be fewer chances for sex workers’ political messages to be seen and heard without such artivism.
Aline volunteered as a research student at the Red Umbrella Fund while completing her masters degree in Gender Studies at the Utrecht University. She also a BA in International Relations from Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo. After working for 10 years in the corporate sector, she started to investigate and to write about sexual rights related issues. During her work at the Red Umbrella Fund, Aline investigated how sex workers use art to create and to sustain a wider debate about labour, exploitation, agency, class and gender roles.
With special thanks for the generous interviews offered by Georgina Orellano, Secretary-General at AMMAR in Argentina, Liz Hilton from Empower Thailand and Leila Barreto, former member of GEMPAC (a sex worker group from the State of Para) and the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes.
1 Barreto also likes to point out her identity as a Filha da Puta, daughter of a whore. Barreto is the daughter of Lourdes Barreto, one of the founders of the sex workers movement in Brazil. Leila Barreto also created the annual cultural political event Puta Dei which takes place in various cities of Brazil since 2012. It is organised along with the International Sex Workers’ Day, celebrated by the global sex worker community every 2nd of June.
2 Barreto, L. (2016). Prostituição: a história recontada: transas sociais e institucionais em Belém (Prostitution, a retold story: social and institutional intercourses in Belém)(Specialization in Education in Human Rights and Diversity). Universidade Federal do Pará.
3 Juliano, D. (2002). La prostitución: el espejo oscuro. Barcelona: Icaria.
4 Juliano, D. (2017). Tomar la palabra: mujeres, discursos y silencios (To take over the word: women, discourses and silences). Barcelona: Edicions Bellaterra.