An open letter to feminists concerned about exploitation and safety in the sex industry.
I am writing to discuss the issue of sex work and feminism.
I am a sex worker in South Australia, I speak for myself only, and I urge you to read and hear the words of other current sex workers on the issues I write about here.
If at any time you sense a bitter or hostile tone in anything I write, please try to understand that it is due to years of overt, systemic, structural, ongoing, accepted, supported, celebrated discrimination that I and people I love have faced from every institution including the legal system, religions, health, media, academia, from the wider community, both conservative and from progressive groups and even in feminist spaces. Discrimination and exclusion hurts the most when it comes from the people you care about and who you thought you could trust. I feel like that about feminism. As a young woman I got involved in feminist groups but I wasn’t out about my sex work so it took me a while to realise how feminism and feminists speak and think about me, and it still hurts.
We can agree to disagree on the politics of choice and on whether there is an inherent danger in sex or lots of it or whether sex work is worse or better than anything else in a patriarchal world. I am not going to address that here although I think they are interesting and thought provoking debates. Interesting, I mean, if I and people I care about were not being directly and daily affected by the negative outcomes of these debates. (http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/45278.html)
But I believe that if we can respect each other’s motives, then it is possible to have a respectful conversation about our actions. If we trust each other’s motives, there might still be hope that we can find some way forward. I completely respect that a feminists motives for engaging in any debate or action regarding sex work is because they are concerned for sex workers safety and they want to protect women from exploitation. I hope you can respect that a sex workers motives for engaging in any debate or political action regarding sex work are exactly the same. If you agree that that is our common goal then I hope that you will read on with an open mind, without judgment and take time to consider what I say.
You need to listen to sex workers. Current sex workers, those who are currently working in whatever country or location or brothel you are concerned about. You need to trust us. Believe that we want what is best for us and our co workers. Please understand that I have the best interests of sex workers at heart. All sex workers, even those who don’t want to do sex work. Especially those. I love sex workers, I love my community. Trust me to speak out about injustice, let me tell you about how we fight against it. Believe me when I tell you what’s really going on for us. There are so many sex workers voices out there, find them, listen to them. I know that if you don’t agree with me you could easily ignore me by citing 1000 dodgy ‘studies’ and applying patronising false consciousness theories (http://www.derailingfordummies.com/#false ) but if you can bring yourself to put that aside for a moment, and search out sex workers own voices, we might be able to challenge that. We need you to believe us so that we can trust you.
Please don’t presume anything about any of us. We are not any of the things that you have heard. And we are all of them. We are not one dimensional, we are diverse, we are not all women. The only universal characteristic that all sex workers share is the stigma we face. We are unethically researched (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/oct/03/research.women), abused by cops (http://swannet.org/en/node/896) , universally patholigised and suffer discrimination from all areas of our lives in very real and measurable ways. Please please do not add to that. Challenge the stereotypes. It is tiring having to give you my life story trying to break down all your preconceived ideas before I can even share anything real with you. We waste so much time and energy trying to challenge your beliefs about sex workers and sex work, that we exhaust ourselves for the real fight. And that is what we can both agree on which is promoting sex workers safety and protecting women from exploitation.
I beg you to please not get involved or promote or initiate any political, social or public action regarding sex work, based only on your preconceived ideas without first doing the above. It is not OK to pick a topic and start lobbying around it without first checking with the people you are supposed to be looking out for. I think that is called paternalism. Or social work. While you may think you have valid points or an important critical analysis that may well be true, you cannot fully be aware of the impact of your actions or the outcome of whatever you are lobbying for or against, on the real lives of real sex workers. Something may sound good on paper, but do you really know the social, political, cultural and economical context intimately. Have you considered how this idea could negatively impact on the people you want to help? Have you analysed how your idea might work when up against the historical and ongoing structural inequality that sex workers face?
For example: Please please never advocate for something that gives police more power in the sex industry. Even if it’s to protect sex workers. Historically and globally, police have been the source of continued abuse, rape, violence and harassment of sex workers. They are not our protectors.(http://www.flameblue.net/news/officer-rapes-%E2%80%9Crescued%E2%80%9D-raid-victim) (http://www.news.com.au/police-swoop-on-suspected-illegal-brothel/story-e6frf7kx-1225967261560?from=public_rss). Before you get active on our behalf, talk to the very sex workers you claim to support. Before you write an open letter to a bank asking them not to profit from the sex workers at a particular brothel (http://feminaust.org/2011/08/02/open-letter-to-gail-kelly-re-mega-sex-plex/), talk to the workers at that brothel.
Remember your words have power (http://www.smh.com.au/business/westpac-pulls-out-of-brothel-project-20110815-1iu75.html). While as a feminist or as a woman, you may not be used to being listened to by the dominant structures, but when you talk about sex work this often changes. Sex workers don’t get a voice in mainstream spaces, so when you talk on behalf of us, you are taking the small amount of space we get. So please don’t use it to make our lives harder. Remember that your words will suddenly become powerful when they are agreeing with or supporting the dominant discourse of sex workers as victims or as fallen women. Don’t sell us out to the Madonna and the Whore dichotomy. Let’s not be played off against each other like dammed whores and gods police.
If you really want to help us, pick your battles. Trust me there are loads to choose from. But none of them involve closing our workplaces or rescue and retraining programmes (http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/19208/hookers-rescued-%E2%80%98against-their-will%E2%80%99-in-angeles-city) (http://www.sexworkeurope.org/component/content/article/54-global-network-news/441-apnsw-video-bad-rehab) though they all involve less stigma and better choices. They do not involve criminalising our clients (der, that’s our income, that’s attacking sex workers) (http://www.hexpletive.com/2011/07/on-swedish-model-crossposted-from.html) but they all advocate for safer workplaces and more rights. I have compiled a list of some of the key issues impacting on sex workers ability to be safe and to minimise exploitation that feminists may want to consider.
- In South Australia sex work is still criminalised under laws that date back to the 1930’s. Police harass sex workers, arrest us, use our condoms and other safe sex products and information, against us evidence. Once convicted we are ‘known sex workers’ and it is illegal to ‘consort’ with us. The criminalisation creates barriers for us to report crimes against us or to call on police if we need them. We also have to hide our condoms, cant put up safe sex poster or messages, don’t have any OH&S protections and no legal rights as workers. We cannot discuss our do’s and don’ts openly with potential clients because it could be an undercover cop. Our convictions are grouped with all sex offences and they stay with us for life!! (http://www.acsa.org.au/linked/resources/media_releases/MR-WhoresDay09.pdf)
- In Queensland you have two choices, work for one of the 25 licensed brothels or you must work completely alone. If you want to work for yourself you can not employ a receptionist or work with another sex worker or have anyone else on premises. This is apparently to protect you from pimping. Obviously anyone who works alone has increased vulnerability and criminals know this. (http://www.pla.qld.gov.au/theLaw/)
- In Darwin, you have two choices, you can work for an escort agency but you will have to get registered with the local police and these records have been known to be used inappropriately, including giving full details during police clearances when sex workers apply for other jobs. Obviously this creates barriers for those who want to leave the industry. If you don’t want to do that you can work for youself, completely alone providing escort only services where you visit the client at their home or hotel. You cannot work from your own place and there are no legal brothels. Many sex workers feel safer working in their own space and brothels provide a good opportunity for peer support. Only allowing one type of work means sex workers are forced to work in ways they may not be comfortable doing (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/05/14/2899297.htm?site=darwin)
- In Victoria, sex workers are forced to undergo mandatory monthly STI checks, (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/monthly-sex-worker-tests-are-ridiculous-health-experts-say-20110530-1fctn.html) even though all statistics in Australia prove that sex workers have better sexual health than the general public, and even though there are many sex workers who only work a couple of shifts a month and many who do not provide a full sex service. But still sex workers are forced to attend the doctors and be probed and prodded by the state without dignity instilling ill informed stereotypes about sex workers as vectors of disease who must be controlled in order to protect the general public. We use condoms. They work, check the stats. This is not the 1900’s when sex workers with Chlamydia would be detained in hospitals in order to ensure a clean supply of whores to the US sailors. Give us good work conditions and we can protect our own health. (http://www.afao.org.au/view_articles.asp?pxa=ve&pxs=103&pxsc=127&pxsgc=138&id=671)
- In WA the Labor government is planning on introducing a new bill that covers sex work and includes the requirements that sex workers must be fingerprinted. It reverses the onus of proof if sex work is suspected and it requires sex workers to display their full real name in their workplace where clients can view it. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how revolting and problematic that is on so many levels. (http://www.scarletalliance.org.au/library/wa_2011/)
I’ll stop at five, because I could be here all night. I have only touched on the legislation, but there are many other issues that we need help with too, just ask us.
When you see us fighting back against the idea that we are all victims, it’s not because we are glossing over the problems with our industry. We acknowledge the problems. We live with them, we fight against them, we unite over them. And sometimes we make progress. It’s just that when you come in on your white steed ready to rescue us, you often miss the point. I know that rescuing sex slaves and helpless women is way more interesting than boring workers rights, OH&S, anti discrimination, law reform and industrial protections but it is exactly workers rights, OH&S, anti discrimination, law reform and industrial protections that is going stop exploitation and provide us with safe workplaces.
Please consider working with us, not against us.
Because I’m a whore.