The Brussels festival dismantling the stigma around sex work

The Brussels festival dismantling the stigma around sex work

Belgium became the first European country to decriminalise sex work, thanks in part to SNAP! – a sex worker-run festival fighting for visibility, rights and sexual freedom.

It’s Saturday night and an ecstatic crowd is packed into the theatre of the Beursschouwburg arts centre in downtown Brussels. People are standing in the corridor and sitting on the stairs to catch a glimpse of the main performance of SNAP! (Sex Worker Narratives and Politics) Festival. A woman wearing an ‘80s disco bodysuit and balaclava is dancing mournfully as a voice recites poetry. The crowd is in silent awe. When she finishes her performance, the whole room erupts.

This year SNAP! Festival came together with the Brussels Porn Film Festival for a rollercoaster of a four-day festival that seduced Brussels with storytelling, sex worker politics and a burning desire to destroy the stigma surrounding sex work once and for all. This year’s festival had a celebratory tone as it arrives after Belgium became the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work in June 2022. Many of those who organised and participated in SNAP! Festival also played important roles in the battle for decriminalisation.

The compere takes to the stage: a medieval court jester dressed in bright red with enormous curl-toed shoes. With his mirrored contact lenses and acerbic wit, he has the audience in the palm of his hands as he begins his introduction for the next person to come on stage. The moment he utters the name of Marianne Chargois, who founded SNAP! Festival in 2018, the audience drowns him out. The cacophony of banging, clapping and shrieking refuses to die down for minutes after Marianne appears, tears dripping from her eyes. Few have done more, culturally, for the sex worker community in Belgium than Marianne and the strength of appreciation felt by everybody in the room – many of them sex workers – is truly moving.

The next day, we drag Marianne away from the festival hub and her frenetic work organising SNAP! to talk about the long fight for decriminalisation and the festival’s role in dismantling the stigma that remains around sex work. “Before this new law, all of the services that sex workers needed to work were prohibited, everything from renting a space to hiring an accountant was considered pimping,” Marianne explains. “Sex work itself was not explicitly prohibited but everything we needed to live on a day-to-day basis was prohibited. Since decriminalisation, all these things are now legal and sex work is considered work. Decriminalisation makes it possible for us to negotiate our working conditions, social assistance and other support, pensions and training rights but this process is far from over. We must see this new law as a door that opens for us to fight for the human rights of sex workers to be fully recognised and respected.”

Marianne is a sex worker, activist and artist who creates feminist and sexual-political performances focussed on the body and sexual minorities. She develops cultural activities, sits on the executive team and advises on the post-decriminalisation political process for UTSOPI (Union of Sex workers Organised For Independence), which is governed by sex workers and organises with allies across Belgian civil society. UTSOPI was one of the key organisations in the slow and painstaking challenge of making the case that sex work is work; pushing for the decriminalisation of sex work, engaging with politicians, making policy proposals and building a coalition to pressure for change.

“We must continue to fight relentlessly against the stigma around sex workers.”

Marianne Chargois

New Zealand became the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work in 2003. In Belgium, the laws governing sex work dated back to the 19th century. The country’s principle of “tolerance” meant that the enforced reality was a confusing fudge of grey areas, contradictions and, ultimately, insecurity and exploitation for sex workers. Although activists had been doggedly making the case for years, the Coronavirus pandemic made the need for a legal framework impossible to ignore: sex workers had no legal recognition or safety net when, like many self-employed or precarious workers, they saw their incomes collapse.

“In terms of sex work, this is a historic reform,” Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said after the Justice Committee approved the proposal in February 2022. “It ensures that sex workers are no longer stigmatised, exploited and made dependent on others. Belgium is the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work. It confirms our nation’s ethically progressive reputation.”

When it came into effect on June 1 2022, the process could start to negotiate a labour law that gives sex workers employee status and the ability to build up social rights. “This is the end of the law of the jungle,” Daan Bauwens, UTSOPI’s director, said at the time. The labour law project also includes provisions to protect sex workers, such as prohibiting any obligation to perform sexual acts, the right to refuse clients and mandatory emergency buttons in every place of work. It’s also seen as an important step in combatting sex trafficking.

Marianne explains that the law has many shortcomings, such as insufficient protections for sex workers with insecure immigration status. And no law can wipe out widespread social stigma around sex work. But that’s why SNAP! exists. Built around the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us,’ the festival is a platform for sex workers to share their own narratives with each other and the wider public.

“Each edition, there are more and more sex workers who want to speak or perform publicly, and that’s really powerful,” Marianne reflects. “It’s really important to me that the festival can create these spaces for personal, political and collective emancipation. For me, the most important impact of SNAP! is that it allows more and more sex workers to abandon the shame, say publicly that they are sex workers – they are no longer ashamed and hiding what they do from the people around them, their friends, their family, their lovers.”

SNAP! encompasses a packed programme of screenings, workshops and panel discussions but the electric live performances really stand out, uniting audiences in joyous celebration. While these raucous events draw in the crowds, many of the performances express the pain and isolation that many sex workers experience. Belgium might like to brand itself as “ethically progressive,” but through creating their own platform to give sex workers visibility and a cultural voice, they can remind audiences that the reality still leaves much to be desired.

SNAP! is an opportunity to create and deepen alliances between sex workers and other activist groups, building a network of allies to break the silence and shatter the stigma around sex work that has persisted for centuries – millennia, even. “We must continue to fight relentlessly against the stigma around sex workers, the stigma around porn, the stigma around sexually explicit representations and the stigma around spaces of collective sexuality,” Marianne explains. “It’s really important to the fight that we’re ever more visible, we organise more events, occupy spaces and create collaborations with other festivals, artists, sex workers and people who are part of the same scene linked around sexualities as a whole.”

This year, SNAP! embarked on a collaborative festival with Brussels Porn Film Festival (BxlPFF). The two festivals came together to share the burden of organising an activist-run independent arts festival but also because there is much overlap between the two communities and their goals, including the drive to dismantle social stigma around sexuality.

BxlPFF co-founder Miguel Soll is a Brazilian photographer, porn filmmaker and co-director of Rubis Collective. Rubis Collective is a queer porn collective Miguel runs with Tomas, his husband, AKA Diamond Bitch and Sapphire Cocks. After touring their film RubiX around Europe, they settled on Brussels as the ideal location to launch a radical project reframing pornography. Forming a collective of likeminded friends, BxlPFF was born in 2020. “Brussels is the perfect city for this territory of sexual energy and the sexually explicit that we wanted to create because it’s so open-minded and so diverse,” Miguel explains. “Personally, I wanted to blur the lines between pornography and traditional cinema. It’s really important to acknowledge that pornography is part of cinema history – they were born at the same time.”

“Pornography plays such a huge role in queer representation, in the queer imaginary.”

Miguel Soll

Covid delayed the first festival until 2022 but BxlPFF has grown as a community to enjoy, celebrate and encourage the production of pornography from its queer, activist and artistic fringes, whose value is often overlooked. “Especially coming from a queer perspective, we can trace our own history though pornography and explicit work, which is very difficult to see in traditional cinema,” Miguel says. “What was queer life like in the Sixties and Seventies, for example? You won’t find the answer in mainstream cinema because everyone was so stereotypical. But if you look at porn, you’re going to see more natural ways of portraying our sexuality because it was made by and for queer people. Pornography plays such a huge role in queer representation, in the queer imaginary. Porn gave us a tool for feeling and for imagining ourselves.”

Nicky and Nour (centre and top right) with the Youpron crew

Nicky Lapierre and Nour Beetch are holding court inside the Hot & Badass HQ, a fictional magazine publisher they’ve recreated inside the festival hub with their friends Youpron. The dimly lit office-come-boudoir is decorated with candy-coloured sex toys and fictitious ads for illicit services. Nicky and Nour run queer studio P*rn Freaks together and helped organise the festival. On opening night, they premiere Old Stuff Never Dies, an experimental documentary about a dissident octogenarian couple whose sexual antics will make whatever you get up to in (or out of) the bedroom feel very vanilla indeed. Co-directed by Nicky and Nour, the work-in-progress film is a great example of how porn can be artistic, political and emancipatory – shattering stigma around older bodies and sexuality.

“It’s explicit but it’s not really porn, it’s a documentary about sexuality between two older people,” Nicky explains. “We met this couple a year ago and they are local legends. They found a way to express themselves together and have gone on a sexual journey of exploration for decades. Their sexuality is rich and beautiful and they really love each other after all these years. We wanted the film to say that old people are sexy too – and that’s not what most people want to hear. It’s certainly not commercially viable. We made a portrait of them which expresses their intimacy, their vulnerability, their love. It’s a tender film and I think it conveys the same message as if we had done it in a more militant and political way.”

Nour herself represents the intersection of porn, sex work and activism, as she funds her cultural and political activities through sex work. “Thanks to sex work, I can afford to work on unpaid projects,” Nour explains. “I can earn a living without having to work full-time, which means I have the time to work on this project, to volunteer with this festival and so much more. I need to create for my mental health. If I can’t create, I’m not me anymore. Sex work provides the majority of my income, my financial security and therefore the freedom that allows me to do everything else. So there is an important connection between sex work and creativity for me.”

The huge line stretching down the street outside the non-profit, collectively run Cinema Nova on opening night is testament to how SNAP! and BxlPFF have built a festival whose appeal transcends the city’s porn and sex work communities. Decriminalisation would not have happened if Belgium’s sex workers weren’t among the most organised in the world. But beyond organising, the impact of SNAP! and BxlPFF shows how vital creating and sharing culture can be to building bridges, alliances and wider understanding. Coming together, the festival makes a powerful call for solidarity, sex worker rights, sexual freedom and to dismantle stigma around sexuality.

“We’re pushing for a revaluation of pornography but our main goal is to really try and decrease the stigma surrounding sexually explicit activities, whether that’s porn, sex work or anything related,” Miguel explains. “It makes sense for BxlPFF and SNAP! to join force because porn only exists thanks to sex workers. It gave us the opportunity to say that porn performance is also sex work and highlight what’s at stake for sex workers within the porn industry. I work in the industry as a porn director and producer but I’m not a performer, I’m not a sex worker because it’s not my body, not my self on screen. The consequences are different for performers because they put their face in the public eye and their images are online forever. Sex workers are really the front line and they make everything possible, so this partnership is an opportunity to acknowledge that.”

SNAP! (Sex Worker Narratives and Politics) Festival and Brussels Porn Film Festival will return in 2024. BxlPFF’s open call for performances, talks and film submissions runs until January 16.

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