Open letter to Australian feminists concerned about sex worker exploitation

Dear feminists,

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 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 stigma. 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. Before you get active on our behalf, talk to the very sex workers you claim to support. (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 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.

  1. 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. (http://www.acsa.org.au/linked/resources/media_releases/MR-WhoresDay09.pdf)
  2. In Queensland  you have two choices, work for one of the 25 licensed brothels or you must work completely alone. 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/)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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.

Sincerely

Because I’m a whore.

www.becauseimawhore.wordpress.com

Don’t forget to find feminaust on Facebook and twitter 

This entry was posted in Original comment/article by MsElouise. Bookmark the permalink.

About MsElouise

MsElouise is a community programs worker and feminist from Melbourne Australia. She likes to travel, write, rant and make people feel uncomfortable about their assumptions. She hopes to one day be remembered for changing the world just a little bit. Right now she does this by proving that teenage girls are a higher order of beings.

18 thoughts on “Open letter to Australian feminists concerned about sex worker exploitation

  1. Have heard this before, a presentation at uni, in a feminism topic. Was enlightening, intriguing and gobsmackingly confronting to realise the extent of the outdated and continued perversions of criminalisation. Am very aware of different branches of feminism having a penchance for claiming other people’s stories/voices .. and of many disciplines doing the same … of social work also … but fair cop … if you do not want your voice to be thwarted, misappropriated, generalised, silenced or stigmatised, please do not participate in stigmatising mine … a social worker … I work daily, trying to balance and reconcile the many contradictions and contentions of my work, as you may well appreciate in your own work. There are traps of paternalism to be sure, but I hope that as much as progressions in education have lifted the veil on silenced and co-opted voices within and without disciplines of feminism, there have been similar inroads made with the social work discipline. Many blessings and good luck … I support decriminalisation on all counts.

    • Fair comment, I did ask for some understanding if I came across as bitter. To clarify, I think Social work is a noble profession, I just object to the state using social workers in their institutions as tools to encourage their special brand of social control.

  2. Every thing you say is true becauseImawhore. You are right on the money. As sex workers we are already fighting for dignity within social and criminal justice frameworks. Isn’t it time feminists stood along side sex workers instead of against us.

    I count myself as a feminist, but I believe there are some anti-sex work feminists who would begrudge me that title.

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  4. I guess the ideologies might cause division between folks who who believe that sex should not be a commodity to sell and those who think it can. I don’t think I’m informed enough to take a stance either way.

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  6. PR,

    I get that ideologies may conflict, and i am not going to waste my time trying to convince people to change their values, that would be silly. But what I am saying, is if you want to help sex workers, these are the way to help us. If you want to lobby against the sex industry, or against our clients or against our employers, if you want to lobby to involve the police more in our lives, then I can’t stop you, but do not do it under the guise of trying to help us, because you are only making our lives and our work worse.

    FW,
    Thanks :)

  7. Interesting piece. I am surprised to hear that being a sex worker means you cannot claim to be a feminist – my understanding of feminism is that it is the politics of being female within a world run by men – and that surely includes every woman?

    • I think the problem is that plenty of feminists claim right to dictate what actions are and are not “feminist” and that many feminists claim that any woman working in the sex industry is not acting in a “feminist” way. If you look through the site you’ll see some more debate on sex work which indicates there is no clear consensus among feminists about the industry and a lot of anger and mistrust associated. Also check out the post on “bad feminism” under Don’t Leave the House for some discussion on other areas of ostensibly feminist discussion that gets peoples hackles up!

  8. This is brilliant! I’ll share it as widely as a I can. As a feminist ally (I guess that would be the best term, right?) your piece will save me so much breath when trying to explain to others why sex work is a feminist issue that calls for solidarity, curiosity and most of all respect, rather than the same tired old automatic condemnation and, frankly, rank arrogance that we see too often. I know you guys get an insane amount of crap from a lot of feminists but I am seeing the tiniest signs of a sea change in attitude too, especially among younger feminists. Keep up the good work!

  9. What kind of poor feminist would blame the sex worker insead of abusive participants? The problem with sex work is that it’s dangerous and shouldn’t be. The problem is that sex work is often degrading when it should be a respectful transaction between equals. The problem is that societies across the globe have failed to instill in people the belief that all individuals deserve and are intrisically entitled to respect and safety.

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  12. I do think it’s a shame that the ‘open letter’ repeated misleading stereotypes about anti-prostitution feminists in a way that doesn’t help anyone. So although it’s written in an ingenuous, serious tone, it doesn’t seem that willing to abandon ‘assumptions’ and so on.

    For one thing, it’s easily verifiable that some feminists who find prostitution/sex work oppressive do get on board campaigns against repressive state legislation. And it’s also the case that many anti-prostitution feminists are not wide-eyed religious conservatives, but former workers from the industry who are not making ‘assumptions’ at all, or confusing prostitution with sex slavery, but have had their views shaped by their own experiences.

    I understand that not everyone draws identical conclusions from the same experiences, but denying the experience, and denying that feminists with a range of views about prostitution have all fought against state repression of women in the industry, seems unnecessarily divisive.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughts Virginia. You are probably one of the only commenters to try to bring the two letters together in a positive way. Very thoughtful response, well worth exploring further.

  13. i havent denyed anyones experiences. and i am not writing this letter to feminists who actively support sex workers self organising regardless of their views (infact i have avoided the politics of feminist critiques of sex work). And when i talk about sex work or sex workers i am not talking about sex work of yester-year when these past sex workers that you speak of gained their experiences, left and now are not effected by the laws and policies they advocate. I want feminists to listen to CURRENT sex workers, since it is the context of today (and the specific location) that you need to respect before you rush in to save people. And it the sex workers of TODAY who must live and work under such laws and policies.

    • I think the whole problem stems from the aim of feminism, which is to raise awareness of the oppression of women in society, to free women from limiting, traditional gender roles, and for women to achieve equality in society. So obviously, from many feminists point of view, the main argument would be that 1. prostitutes are suffering from oppression, 2. prostitutes are conforming to the limiting, gender role of ‘the whore,’ and need to be liberated from this role, and 3. that equality for women in society cannot be achieved when the overwhelming majority of prostitutes are women, thus women are more likely to be seen as sex objects, whose sole existence is for the pleasure of men. So, liberation politics vs traditional gender role politics simply do not mix. There is also self-interest on both sides – many feminists would like to be seen as equals to men, and not as the traditional role of ‘whore,’ and would like to see a sex industry that is less aggressive, particularly involving trafficking, abuse and exploitation of women. Of course, many sex workers would like to continue working, and are quite comfortable with their role in society. I’ll be honest, the last time there was a deep chasm between the ‘tradional gender role’ and the feminist was when ‘proud housewives’ would write into women’s magazines, lambasting feminists such as Germaine Greer, saying things like,’How dare you speak on my behalf! I’m happy who I am, and I don’t need to be liberated from anything.’ Maybe ‘the proud sex worker’ and many feminists won’t see eye to eye on many things, but I think they can learn to understand and accept the others’ point of view and respect each others’ decisions.

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