Culture | Running the red light – sex workers’ radio show breaks down stereotypes

When I first pulled up the Sex Worker’s Internet Radio Lounge (SWIRL) on my laptop, I was in Presse Café taking a break from the awe-inspiring pile of homework I’d racked up. Only once the web page was loading did I think twice about the fact that I was in a public place and unsure of what would pop up on the screen.

I wasn’t really sure what sex workers’ art would consist of. I was further discouraged by the “must be of legal age to enter this site” notice that appeared – I must be getting into something really taboo, I thought. I kept scanning the room to see if anyone was looking, and subtly lowered the screen on my laptop. Nothing to see here, people. The site finally loaded, and I thought I’d typed in an incorrect web address; it was all so unassuming.

SWIRL was born in January 2007 and put to rest in May 2008; the webcast was switched to audio archives as of August of this year due to economic and other problems. It was a project created – and still coordinated – by sound artist Judy Dunaway, as part of her graduate dissertation in music composition. She rallied current and retired sex workers and activists from around the globe to put together a mishmash of interviews, poetry, music, and radio plays. SWIRL is not-for-profit; its primary goal is to artistically promote positivity within sex worker communities.

As I perused the archives, I noted that the majority of the pieces were not at all what I’d anticipated. I had assumed that I’d be listening to emotional responses to objectification and terror. This conclusion most likely stemmed from the negative stigma associated with sex workers. Essentially, they are cast either as the oppressed and destitute, or as an oversexed community running an immoral night empire corrupting our community: neither portrayal is particularly jubilant or positive.

I began listening to L. Elise Bland’s narrative “Cheezy Boots” and started searching for my sunglasses and my kleenex – I was prepared for the heart-wrench. But a few minutes into the story, the strangest thing happened: I laughed. There’s something undeniably funny about a man who gets turned on by a woman squishing a McDonald’s cheeseburger with her knee-high boots. This whole experience had me very disoriented; I couldn’t have been more wrong about my preconceptions.

The SWIRL radio lounge has managed to create a strong backbone for sex workers worldwide. They’re depicted as social workers, proactive in promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, as well as human rights activists working against violence and discrimination of gay and transgendered people. And in some cases, the sex workers are depicted as patriotic citizens. Take, for example, Mike Jones, the sex worker who outed Ted Haggard, a politically influential evangelist preacher in the U.S. who publicly denounced homosexuality, all the while engaging in a same-sex relationship. SWIRL offers sex workers across the globe a voice to unite against the oppression and victimization they so often face, but also helps foster creativity and hope within the community. They are humanized here in a way that puts Pretty Woman to shame.

So if you’re interested in jumping into a life you’ve most likely never experienced, there’s a plethora of risqué aliases to click on that will provide you with comedic tales, intelligent panels and interviews, and melodic musical pieces that will potentially change your perception of the sex workers’ community from uneasiness to understanding.

Check out SWIRL online at

. jeweltone16.org/swirl.


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