top of page

Decriminalised Futures

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

By Melis Dumlu


Installation view of London's Institute of Contemporary Art exhibition 'Decriminalised Futures'. Photography by Anne Tetzlaff,

Imagine a legal system where calling your hairdresser for a fresh trim could incriminate you or the stylist. Okay, so maybe hairdressers aren’t suffering from this fear in their workplace, but many sex workers have been struggling within their legal systems. Year after year, sex workers are criminalised and bigoted for their line of work and face intersectional forms of discrimination that can have an impact on their rights for justice.

The sex workers’ rights movement has continued to grow since the 1970s, yet to this day, sex workers are still subjected to abuse, harassment, injustice, racism and sexism.

They are silenced by legal systems through fear of bringing attention to such abuse, as admitting their line of work could immediately criminate them. The label of ‘prostitute’ became a scapegoat for legal system failures and forces workers into the vicious cycle of avoiding the prosecution of their attacker. Until sex work is widely recognised as work, most within the industry feel forced to work discreetly, which can lead to putting themselves into dangerous situations or environments, risking their well-being and safety.

The origin of the word ‘prostitute’ is Latin, ‘pro’ and ‘statuere’, with a literal meaning of ‘exposed publicly, offered for sale’. German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed prostitutes to be victims of the capitalist system and expressed prostitution to be any type of work that requires one’s body, energy or skills in exchange for money. Marx offered two definitions for the word ‘prostitute’. One being the intent of sexual intercourse for hire, and the second being one person selling an action to another. This can refer to a person’s honour, talent, skills, resources or other aspects they possess. Personally, I believe labels have traditionally gained value within a society from the level of respectability such job titles or roles receive within the current functioning culture. We put so much weight on job titles, as if our personality, life experiences, ambitions and integrity can be defined by the line of work we are involved in. Sex workers are an example of this, as they seem to be labelled solely on their line of work instead of their humanity and qualities, and are denied basic human and workers’ rights.

Installation view of London's Institute of Contemporary Art exhibition 'Decriminalised Futures'. Photography by Anne Tetzlaff,

Sex work is a subject that is often presented in popular culture as one-dimensional, even though it is intertwined with a myriad of issues. As there is little to no workplace protection, both legally and socially, experiences with human and labour rights, sexism, racism or trans and queerphobia cannot be ignored.

London's Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) aims to raise awareness and spark a conversation about the multidimensional perspective of sex workers’ experiences. The exhibition is one node within a great project titled ‘Decriminalised Futures’. Alongside the exhibition, there is a full programme of panel discussions, lectures, talk shows, poetry readings, screenings, artist workshops and a platform for sex workers to network and fight injustice as a union.

ICA’s current exhibition takes on the same title as the project and showcases thirteen international artists working in eclectic mediums. The works exhibited include linocut prints, zines, embroidery, drawings, sculpture and video installations. The exhibition is curated to set a strong tone from the beginning, it is bold, empowering and confrontational. ‘Decriminalised Futures’ invites you to engage with the works and to understand the multifaceted aspects of the issues faced.

The audience is welcomed with an installation featuring pink fluffy rugs, sex toys, zines and chokers, which are followed by a zine reflecting on the porn industry. ‘Decriminalised Futures’ has interactive aspects, with an installation video game which portrays the fictional experience of a future sex worker. The exhibition takes an interdisciplinary approach, as the viewer is encouraged to engage with the issues presented and encounter a fresh perspective. It is confrontational and makes you question certain issues within legal systems, becoming incredibly political and powerful. It is not an exhibition where you stroll around pretty images, but one that lights a fire in your belly and makes you question how human rights are currently practised. A perfect balance between art and activism, with an urgent call to action as the focus.

‘Decriminalised Futures’ is hosted in partnership with the political art organisation Arika, as a part of an ongoing project led by the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM). The exhibition is open at London's Institution of Contemporary Art until 22nd May, and if you cannot make the trip to visit, check out project’s website ( where they provide useful information and resources on the issues involved.



bottom of page