Nadia Cavelle: 'Breaking free from the way we’ve been conditioned to perceive women won’t happen quickly'

Franco-Swiss writer Nadia Cavelle’s debut play, Bruises, plays at the Tabard Theatre, London, from 11th to 29th August 2015. Bruises is an exploration of female friendship, sexuality and identity, set against the backdrop of sex work. Here, Nadia Cavelle discusses her experience of putting sex work on the page and the responsibility she feels to write honestly and compassionately about the subject.

“If woman is other, whore is the other’s other.” – Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore

A woman speaking her mind is a woman running the risk of losing her status as such, of being deprived of her very essence. The same goes for her sexuality. If she is too argumentative, she is likely to be called a bitch. If she wears too short a skirt or enjoys one-night-stands, she is likely to be called a slut. If she is too much of one thing and not enough of another, she will be called names – names that pertain not so much to her sexuality as to its corruption.

In Playing the Whore, Melissa Gira Grant talks about ‘virtue’, specifically the mandate to be and to appear virtuous as an ever-present patriarchal imposition on women. She warns of the tyrannical power it still holds on our process of self-definition along with or against other women. She highlights the persistent social paranoia according to which as soon as “a woman is sexualized, it obliterates her as a real woman”. To her, this is nothing but violence – a violence by which she is rendered “a lesser woman, a whore”. Maggie McNeill echoes her when she states that where sex is concerned, the choices women make remain “automatically suspect”. By addressing whore stigma, both remind us that femaleness is still defined according to that destructive binary of legitimate/licit versus illegitimate/illicit. In opposition to anti-prostitution feminists, Grant and McNeill, both former sex workers, identify as ‘sex worker feminists’ and ask that difference be valued over virtue and for solidarity to develop between women no matter what their trade.

To be perfectly honest, I started writing Bruises pretty randomly. One day, too many years ago, I was having coffee with a friend and happened to tell her about the play I wrote when I was 11. It was about cherries in chocolate cakes causing a revolution in an imaginary small town, inhabited by various Europeans. I played the judge, my twin the Europeans. “Why don’t you write another?” my friend said. I brushed the question off with a laugh, but as I left the café I thought “Why not?”

When established writers write about writing, one thing tends to come up a lot: plan ahead. Those two words always make it a little harder for me to breathe as they’re the thing I really didn’t do for a long time: I just wrote. One day, as I was writing without planning ahead, I wrote Jackie. And it turns out that this Jackie that I wrote was a sex worker - though I called her a whore at the time.

At the time I had just heard an urban legend circulating at the University of Zürich, where I am originally from. Apparently, some rich daddy’s girls studying law or economics, subjects where future rich husbands dwell, had come up with an ingenious way to top up their Vuittons with more Vuittons, without daddy’s credit card. Go to a club, hit on a guy you fancy, go home with him, get him worked up to the max and then get him to pay before you go any further. Whether this tale was true I still don’t know – what I know for a fact is that I was a horribly judgmental person.

Writing Jackie and the two other sex worker characters that followed turned me into a sex worker feminist. Eager to represent the experience as truthfully as possible, I read up – sociological studies, articles, essays – and watched documentaries and films. I learnt to differentiate between human trafficking and sex work. I learnt the difference between legalizing and decriminalizing sex work - between the trappings of the Swedish model and the merit of the New Zealand one. I learnt to say ‘sex worker’ rather than ‘whore’ or ‘prostitute’. I learnt to value the work in sex work. I learnt that like every other professional, the sex worker is more, much more, than just his/her work. I learnt that I still have a lot to learn and that I have to be patient. Because breaking free from the way we’ve been conditioned to perceive women won’t happen quickly.

I have never been a sex worker and Bruises isn’t about sex work per se, although it largely deals with it. I am aware of the risk I am taking giving voice to something I haven’t experienced myself. In the many rewrites that have led to the current draft I have endeavored to resist victimizing or empowering the sex worker characters that my inexperienced imagination has created. What I hope I have done instead is to paint a picture of plurality - one that obscures neither the ugliness nor the beauty this trade brings with it.

© Nadia Cavelle, 2015


Bruises is playing at the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick, West London, from the 11th to the 29th of August. You can find out more about the production here or purchase tickets directly from the box office here.

About the author: Nadia is a Franco-Swiss actor and writer, trained at The Drama Centre London. She has written and co-produced a short film entitled Talking Traffic, directed by Nathaniel Martello-White and Will Thorne for Break Em Films and featuring  Alistair McGowan.  It has been screened in London and Cape Town and has been selected at the Short Film Corner at Cannes as well as the Women’s International Film and Arts Festival in Miami. Bruises is her debut play.


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