Wish You Would Hear Part II: Postcards and Sex Worker Representation

By Alex Tigchelaar

Part I: Wish You Would Hear
Part III: The Virtual Stroll

Women in prostitution have made use of the substantiating quality of photography to promote their brothel-based services or simply model for pay for as long as photography has existed.

Fig. 1. From an Album used in a Paris Brothel, early 1900’s. From Fille de Joie.

Mailable versions of these photos featuring sex workers are known as French postcards, though because of their illicit nature, they were designed more to be collected and privately exchanged, serving, just like more common postcards, as a reminder of a worldly experience and the privileged ability to share that worldly experience with others. Clients and tourists visiting cities famous for legalized sex trade may purchase related postcards as evidence of an authentic experience with this city’s notorious feature.

In London, phone booths are known for the postcard sized “tart cards” tucked into every available frame and corner. In Tart Cards: London’s Illicit Advertising Art Caroline Archer writes that this specific incarnation of public advertising “began appearing in the early 1980s” but “notices for call girls began appearing publicly in 1956, when soliciting on the streets of Britain became illegal, and prostitutes had to find ways to publicize their services.” In 2001, “‘carding’ became a criminal offense, ostensibly because it contributed to public indecency,” with “anyone convicted of distributing tart cards in telephone boxes or elsewhere in public fac[ing] a six-month jail sentence or an $8000 fine.” Since the cards were distributed by “students or unemployed,” it would be they who would have shouldered the brunt of the fines. Again, we may see how those who assist sex workers are excessively punished as a means, I would argue, of further limiting sex worker visibility and mobility.

Figs. 2 “Window Shopping in Amsterdam.” 1974. Postcard purchased from eBay. The back of this postcard contains a cryptic message from one friend to another, wherein the traveling friend claims to be getting “blown away” in Amsterdam.

Fig 3. “Naughty School Miss.” Late 1990s. Tart card from the author’s collection. This card shows a cartoon illustration of a woman standing in front of a full-length mirror holding her reddened bum. It reads “strap, paddle or cane” and “to be disciplined”. It provides an address and a phone number. (Tigchelaar is not sharing this postcard here).

For decades, sex workers have also used postcards as a way of traveling their political messages when they themselves are geographically or financially constrained. My first experience with international sex worker advocacy postcards was at the AIDS conference in Toronto in 2006, where I received dozens from colleagues who were visiting from the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW). These postcards are, like the more common postcards people collect or send from their travels, such important mementos for me. They remind me of the all the brilliant sex workers I met at this conference, and the “journey” I made from local sex worker activist to global sex worker activist.

Tart cards are not as prevalent as they once were, not simply as a result of their criminalization, but because the Internet has provided a more serviceable and cost-effective platform for promotion, and cell phones have replaced telephone boxes (Archer, 2004). My series, Wish You Would Hear, explores the possibility of the return of these cards.

Fig. 4 (left). Postcard from the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers (mid 2000s). From the author’s collection.

Fig. 5 (right). Postcard from the APNSW (mid 2000s), that reads “Asian sex workers…on the march” and features South Asian sex workers marching and protesting for their rights with banners. (Tigchelaar is not sharing this postcard here).

Stella, l’amie de Maimie: Constellation

Fig. 6. “Constellation Spécial Prison” (2005). From the collection of Stella, l’amie de Maimie.

Since its inception in 1995, Montréal sex worker rights organization Stella, l’amie de Maimie has used postcards to convey actions, workshops and launches of their community projects such as their by and for sex worker magazine Constellation.

Stella continues to mail both postcards and its monthly bulletin to sex workers across Canada. For workers who do not have Internet access or do not wish to use it, these remain effective and important outreach tools for community building.

Wish You Were Here

Postcards are also effective tools to convey issues faced by migrant sex workers, who are often framed as victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation in sensational news stories, but behind the scenes are caught up in terrifying raids and deportations (Lam, 2014). Again, postcards may travel where certain sex workers cannot, spreading messages that challenge prevailing narratives around the intentions and results of anti-trafficking raids.

Fig. 7. “Wish You Were Here.” From The Viminal Space at the Art Gallery of Ontario. 2016. By Alex Tigchelaar and Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network. The back of this postcard reads, “This rice cooker belongs to an Asian sex worker who shared her food, care and love with others. Some clients brought her different kinds of food when she was working: fruit, nuts and meals. She was detained and forced to leave Canada before she even had a chance to say goodbye. The rice cooker was given to another sex worker who continues working in Canada. www.butterflysw.org.”


Read On:

Part I: Wish You Would Hear
Part III: The Virtual Stroll