“Processes involving liberation arts are not engaged primarily for entertainment or experimentation, though they provide spaces for both. The goal of liberation arts projects is to resurrect resources to transform oppressive structures of language and society, and to de-ideologize understandings. They make space for resymbolizing and resignifying the world, enlarging possibilities for restructuring economic, social and personal realities. Where oppression has succeeded in impeding this process, liberation arts seek to nurture it by restoring capacities for meaning-making.” (p. 234, Mary Watkins and Helene Shuman, Towards Psychologies of Liberation, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)
Since 2012, the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) has been holding weekly arts workshops for participants who have been commercially sexually exploited. Although not Art Therapy, per se, there is no denying the therapeutic and liberating benefits of art making for this population. For many survivors of prostitution, the trauma that they experienced while in “the life” and previous to entering it, taught them to dissociate as a survival strategy. A common occurrence after a person has experienced any significant trauma is difficulty in discussing the incident verbally. The judgment and stigma that survivors of prostitution experience compound this difficulty. Art making, like talk therapy, is an associative process. In the art making process, however, words are not always necessary. Indeed, much can be achieved without them.
The healing and liberating power of survivor’s expression through art is not limited to their individual lives, however. It has the capacity to reach many. Prostitution is a social practice and a social problem. To solve it requires social change that is accountable to those who are most harmed by it. The silencing nature of the harm of prostitution has allowed the objectification, exploitation, criminalization and victim blaming of prostituted people to persist over time. Even when the harm is recognized, the tendency to objectify often remains. People who have been sexually exploited are often reduced to their stories of victimization in the minds of others. When confronted with the art object, however, viewers are faced with the subjectivity of the artist who cannot be so easily objectified, whether as “prostitute”, “sex worker” or “victim”.
OPS artists are working to create an art show that will bring the liberating power of art to the community through the Buyer Beware project. Buyer Beware is a collaborative initiative to reduce Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in King County by addressing the demand for commercial sex. Led by OPS, in partnership with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (KCPAO), Buyer Beware is fundamentally shifting the way prostitution is understood and treated by the criminal justice system. Although, historically, participation in prostitution has been viewed as an issue of individual moral failure on the part of the prostituted person or as the “free choice” of a sex worker, increasingly, the prostituted person is viewed as having experienced commercial sexual exploitation. This reframing shifts the focus away from the issue of individual choice and towards the systematic forms of oppression and men’s entitlement at the root of prostitution.
OPS is an agent for social change. We are committed to shifting the norms that support the practice of sex buying. The law can be an important way to help shift those norms. Buyer Beware has brought together law enforcement and the courts in municipalities throughout King County to commit to shift their focus away from arresting prostituted people and towards the arrest and conviction of sex buyers. It is essential that these efforts remain accountable to those who have been exploited. It is imperative that their voices remain front and center. As part of this effort, OPS is creating an exhibit of survivor art that will travel to and be installed temporarily in public buildings (city halls, court houses. etc.) throughout the participating municipalities of Buyer Beware to bear witness to the lives and experiences at the heart of the “prostitution problem”. The exhibit will begin touring in the spring of 2015. Look for updates here as this amazing project progresses!