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30 March 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 5:53am

“The sex industry is f***ing diabolical“: Artist Sam Roddick on the modern politics of sex

The sex workers’ rights activist and artist calls on the government to protect the sex industry, as her new exhibition on objectification explores society's sexual failings.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Photo: Sam Roddick

In 1962, Carlo Mollino, the enigmatic Italian architect, bought a secluded villa in the hills over Turin. He worked hard on redesigning the house. But he didn’t live there. He never even slept there. Instead, he used it for over a decade as a place to invite prostitutes to pose for thousands of Polaroid photos. Each shot was meticulously directed by Mollino, who styled the models in obsessively repetitive – and sexual – poses.

But the enormous collection never saw the light of day in his lifetime. He kept the photos private and they were only discovered after his death.

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Photo: Sam Roddick

Mollino’s photos have since been published and displayed. And now the sex workers’ rights activist, sex shop mogul and artist, Sam Roddick, has created her own artwork based on his controlled production line of delicately retouched, painstakingly posed images.

“When you research Mollino, he did these privately,” she tells me, cradling a crumbling book of his original pictures. “So he wasn’t making a statement, he was creating something for himself. He kept them in a vault, only lived with his parents his whole life, never had any children, never really had any relationships.

“To me, hiding something in the manner that he did, while being obsessive, shows that there was some degree of sexual shame attached to it. And that is a huge aspect of our cultural relationship to sex. So for me he was the perfect archetype.

She adds: “When you research him, all the women and all the people that I met did say that he was an incredibly lonely man. They emphasised his physical ugliness, his insecurity about approaching women, which makes sense that he would feel more comfortable dealing with prostitutes.

“That to me is one of the most important factors, because unless we deal with him with some degree of compassion, we don’t really understand where the root of this comes from.”

Photo: Sam Roddick

This is at the heart of what Roddick finds so fascinating. Mollino’s shame and private preoccupation chimes with what she views as “our cultural perception of sex”. A subject on which she’s an expert, as founder of the upmarket “erotic lifestyle” emporium, Coco de Mer, where she worked from 2001 until she sold it four years ago to the sex shop, Lovehoney.

When clients came into her shop, she witnessed symptoms of what she calls society’s “slow decline” into a “2D perspective” of sex, and a world of “cultural lies about sex”.

Photo: Sam Roddick

“They were questioning their relationship to sex and feeling like they had to live up to very prescriptive standards,” she says of her customers.

“I had a sex shop, and I wanted to create something that basically opened its door to being able to have a conversation. I wanted it to be a place where it was unashamed but beautiful. Most of the stuff was made in London by people I knew, so it was all safe. It has an ethical element to it. But at the same time, I wanted to have this conversation and people weren’t up for it.”

It is partly this tight-lipped attitude and warped perception that drives Roddick’s work campaigning for sex workers’ rights. She works with all types of women – from “sex slaves who have been emancipated” to prostitutes to dominatrixes ­– who want to be able to affect their own industry, to make it safe and respectful.

Photo: Sam Roddick

“Right now we’re in a period of sexual conservatism,” she says, “where we have reduced sex to being something that has been commodified so much that we’ve lost the true essence of it. We’ve lost the emotional humanity attached to it . . .

“The guys who are going to prostitutes don’t even want a sex act – that’s a minimal part of it! So what does that say about our society? They’re going there to talk!” she reels back, appalled. “And you’re like, fucking hell, Jesus Christ. It’s pretty fucking desperate! It’s symptomatic.”

Her view of the industry as well as how people use it is gloomy. “If you go into the sex industry, it’s pretty fucking diabolical. The content is shit. It’s badly crafted, there’s hardly any talent attached to it.”

Photo: Sam Roddick

Although Roddick emphasises that artists, writers and other creatives should do more to bring about a “healthier dialogue” about sex, she calls on politicians to listen to sex workers’ concerns.

“The government needs to engage with the industry to make it safer for the consumer 100 per cent,” she asserts. “Because I don’t want to watch anything, see anything, which I don’t think is safe, being created now today . . . the government needs to be able to talk to these people who occupy the industry and to figure out how to restrict it and create guidelines that protect the consumer and protect the people who work within it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that mainstream porn is very misogynistic, and there’s a huge amount to question about how safe it is. I don’t know how conservative I come across, but I believe that. Objectification is everywhere; it’s fashion. The default cultural perspective of women.”

Photo: Sam Roddick

Sam Roddick’s exhibition, Hidden Within, is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery from 20 March to 1 May 2015

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