“Because at the end of the day, whether I’m trading my body for sex, or my mind for like a university degree, or I’m trading my ability to play soccer to be a professional soccer player, I’m still just trading what I can do, and what I can do well for the world. But the issues are with a therapist being like ‘what’s wrong with you?’ or not having laws in place to support, protect, and defend those choices that I make with my body. The issue isn’t trading sex— it’s how people don’t want to respect it.” — Evan*, Service provider
This quote from a service provider encapsulates the spirit and potential in engaging audiences with participatory visual work. In this case, a 17-minute film that documented young women’s experiences trading sex, was shared to challenge the dominant and stigmatizing narratives that surround sexual work and reimagine possibilities of solidarity. For her MES research, Caterina Kendrick was interested in assessing how the products of participatory visual methodologies (PVM) can be used— how do audiences respond? Are they able to challenge dominant narratives and be an educative tool? Can they be a source of relationship building? Caterina explored these questions through her work supporting the Celling Sex community-based research project with Sarah Flicker and Katie MacEntee.
Using cellphilming—short videos made on a cellphone— Celling Sex sought to learn from young women who trade sex about their harm reduction practices and access to health and social services. Fifteen straight and queer women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds made cellphilms around the prompt, “what do you want other people to know about trading?” The individual films were rich in their messages— ranging from definitions, motivations, challenges, and strategies for harm reduction. A film stitching together the young women’s experiences and perspectives was made with the aim of sharing the work with wider communities. The goal? To share advice for other young people who might trade or be thinking of trading, recommendations for service providers, and generally, challenging the stigma that surrounds sexual work.
The film was screened at community organizations, health clinics, drop-in groups, classrooms, a sex shop, and a grassroots art gallery, to share the film with health care providers, students, youth volunteers, sex workers, and the general public. The venues were intentionally chosen— approaching people and places who assisted with Celling Sex recruitment three years prior. The Celling Sex team (Caterina, Katie, Sarah, and the filmmakers) wanted to ensure we were returning to our community partners to share what blossomed from the original call. No matter the venue, screenings followed the same ‘formula’— the team introduced themselves, the Celling Sex project, and led an interactive activity. There were brochures with key themes and handouts with discussion questions distributed. The film was then screened. Following the film there were semi-structured group discussions that were audio-recorded were transcribed and thematically analysed by Caterina.
Four key themes emerged from the post-screening discussions: consciousness raising, commitments to practice and organizational change, effectiveness of the approach, and limitations. Audience members critically engaged with their own preconceived ideas about what trading sex is and identified transferability in the relationships they have in their own lives and harm reduction practices. Service providers who attended the screenings reflected that the film was a good reminder for them to assess how they are meeting people in their practice. Some shared strategies to create safer, non-judgemental spaces for young people who trade. Many audience members described how they appreciated how the Celling Sex film was rooted and told by the women in the ways that they wanted their stories told. They felt that as a whole— the brochures, the film, and discussion— were an effective way to begin to unpack stigma and better represent the complexity that accompanies people and their stories. The screenings and discussions also pointed to challenges in representing and narrating experiences.
The Celling Sex filmmakers responded to dominant stereotypes and challenged many audiences to reassess their preconceived ideas about trading sex. The findings that were drawn show the potential of leveraging products of participatory visual methods, through curated events like screenings, to facilitate critical community conversations about social change. To read more about the Celling Sex project and the audiencing work, you can read the following articles that Caterina, Katie, and Sarah published together.
Kendrick, C., MacEntee, K., & Flicker, S. (2021). Exploring audience engagement and critical narrative intervention with the Celling Sex film. Health Promotion Practice. https://doi.org/10.1177/15248399211040492
Kendrick, C., MacEntee K., Wilson, C.L., & Flicker, S. (2021) Staying safe: how young women who trade sex in Toronto navigate risk and harm reduction. Culture, Health & Sexuality, DOI: 10.1080/13691058.2021.1900603
MacEntee, K., Kendrick, C., & Flicker, S. (2021). Quilted cellphilm method: A participatory visual health research method for working with marginalised and stigmatised communities. Global Public Health, 1–13. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/17441692.2021.1928262
Resources, including the brochures for youth and service providers, can be found on the Celling Sex website.
*A pseudonym to protect anonymity Caterina graduated from the Faculty of Environmental Studies in October 2020 and holds an undergraduate degree in Equity studies from the University of Toronto. She is interested in community-based research and relationship building and is honored to have supported research projects concerning sexual health, wellbeing, harm reduction for and with Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth alongside Sarah Flicker. She currently is coordinating research at the Communities, Alliances, & Networks, formally the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN).