The Woman Who Redefined What It Means to Be a Sex Worker

Grisélidis Réal was a writer, poet, activist, and sex worker who pioneered the idea that sex work could be an act of choice, not exploitation. We speak to the director of a new biopic into her life.

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Nov 22 2016, 2:15pm

All photos courtesy of Pink Screens

One image remains lodged in your memory after watching Belgian director Marie-Eve De Grave's biopic of Grisélidis Réal, the famed Swiss sex worker, activist, and writer. It's of Réal dancing in the living room of a bohemian-looking flat. She's holding a drink, her black eyeliner perfectly flicked and hair cropped short, dangling earrings swinging as she laughs lasciviously at the camera. Behind her, clearly adoring friends cheer her on. It's a reminder of Réal's exuberant, dominant personality.

Even now—over a decade on from her death of cancer, in 2005—Real's life polarizes opinion. She's a literary darling: an enfant terrible whose uncompromising diaries of her life as sex worker scandalized bourgeois Parisian society. She's a feminist icon: arguably the first to pioneer the idea that sex work could be an emancipatory act of choice, not exploitation. But she's also—rightly—criticized in the film for being a lousy mother, as her prolonged periods of absence and openness about her sex work made it difficult for her children growing up. And her fetishistic view of black male sexuality is equally troubling (more on this later).

De Grave's film Belle de Nuit traces Réal's life from her upbringing in middle-class, respectable Switzerland—the child of teachers—to her later years in Geneva and Paris. Real's decision to become a sex worker is depicted uncompromisingly: Desperate for money to feed her children (at this point she was living in Germany with her lover), she accepts a proposition from a passing car. For Réal, the decision to cross this line is absolute—from that point on she becomes a sex worker—initially to feed her four children, but later as an act of volition.

Réal's life would not have passed into obscurity, like those of so many other sex workers, were it not for her diaries. As the film makes clear, the impression she left on people was so absolute that she'd have lingered in the memories of those she met well after her death, books or no books. But with the publication of her first novel, Black is a Color, in 1974, Réal became known by a wider audience. In it she recounts the reality of sex work, with a humorous and humanistic eye.

Read more: The Insidious Myth of the 'Unrapeable' Sex Worker

More books followed, but despite her literary success Réal didn't give up sex work until shortly before her death. She became an activist and advocate for the rights and freedoms of sex workers—a self-styled "revolutionary whore." For her, sex work was a type of humanistic science, a way to understand human nature and exist autonomously of stultifying power structures, rather than being oppressed and exploited by pimps. She worked to create a support group for Parisian sex workers and an international data bank on sex work—probably the first in the world—in Geneva.

De Grave filmed Réal shortly before her death in 2005, and these scenes are profoundly moving: A clearly very ill Réal, life-force undiminished, reads her poem—Death of a Hooker—from a hospital bed, surrounded by wires and with monitors bleeping. Other parts of the film jar: Réal was vocal about her love and sexual passion for black men, and wrote about it extensively in her diaries. De Grave illustrates these scenes with topless footage of black men. It's a poor decision and one that fetishizes black male sexuality in a way that might have been culturally acceptable in the 1960s, but isn't now.

To find out about Réal's extraordinary life, we caught up with De Grave in Brussels, where Belle de Nuit was screening for the 15th edition of Pink Screens, the city's annual queer film festival. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

BROADLY: Hi Marie-Eve. How did you come to direct Belle de Nuit?
Marie-Eve De Grave: I read her first book, Black is a Color, and it gave me such a strong feeling. I thought, 'This is really something!' So I followed Réal in 2005, during her last journey to Paris, and filmed her. But she was sick, she was at the end of her life, and it left a strong impression on me. I felt—not like I loved this woman—but I was deeply touched by her.

What was it like filming her in the hospital, shortly before she died?
I didn't realize she was dying, to be honest. But I was able to film her last poem, Death of a Hooker, which was a marvellous gift. Then two or three weeks later she died, and I thought, 'what am I going to do with this gift?'

Why do you think Réal isn't as internationally famous as she could be?
When her book came out in 1974 it was edited a certain way, and the people who published the book didn't see the power of it. They just saw a hooker. But Grisélidis wasn't just that. It took time, and editor who was willing to take all of those old books and reread them and give them a second life.

Did the perception of her as a sex-worker-come-writer limit her artistic success?
The fact that she was a hooker follows her like a shadow. Yes, she was a hooker, but it's a shame to see her as defined by that. Grisélidis was also an artist.

What was she like in person?
When I met her, I had this feeling of familiarity, like I knew her. She was very sincere; she had a very big character. She looked at society with a lot of humanity. I was impressed by her intelligence.

Why do you think, all this time on, that people continue to view sex work as by definition exploitative?
I think we're in a really strange, regressive period. What our mothers struggled for—freedom, equality, sexual liberation—well, now we're back in the middle ages. Of course being a hooker is terrible if you're exploited or trafficked. But there are different types of sex work. All the sex workers I know have such intelligence and knowledge about humanity. They see it all.

What has the reaction to the film been like?
I've met women who strongly identify as feminist who hate it. They oppose the depiction of sex work. I feel like our society is not very good when it comes to sex. Sex is everywhere, but we're afraid of this. Grisélidis knew this, she understood this kind of alienation. But the reality is that sex work is much more complex, and complicated, and damning. That's what she's saying

Have you shown the film to any sex workers? What did they think?
Many people who knew Grisélidis have watched the film. They're deeply moved by the complexity the film gave her.

Réal contradicted two of society's biggest taboos—she was an unconventional (some would say bad) mother, and worked openly as a sex worker. Was it hard to represent this?
I can't say it was easy for her children, having a mother like Grisélidis. But they're free now, they're artists and social workers and painters. They do what they want, they don't care about conformism.

For me, Grisélidis was full of paradoxes—like all of us are. You're a mother but sometimes you don't want to see your child: A wife but sometimes you don't want to see your husband. I think if we were more honest with ourselves, we'd accept that being human is a hard job. It's god damn hard work!