This is the text of a keynote speech made by a People For Sex Worker Rights member at the NOWSA 2014 conference, Australia’s peak student feminist conference, in July 2014.
My name is [name redacted]. I am a university student and a feminist activist going back a decade or so – and I am a current sex worker.
I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to stand here and speak today and address NOWSA as our peak student feminist conference. This is important because non-sex worker feminists have enormous potential to be allies to sex workers in our struggles, to help us get heard rather than to talk over us, and to help us campaign for legislation that protects our rights and keeps us safe at work. I stand here in front of many people I consider allies in that fight, and many more I don’t know but hope will support us along the way. We are an incredibly stigmatized group of (mostly) women, and without help, our voices can sometimes be drowned out by those who would speak for us despite never having done a trick in their lives. And one unfortunate reality sex workers face is that many of those who crusade the hardest for laws that make our work more dangerous, and fight hard to silence our voices in the name of “saving” us also label themselves “feminist”.
I am not the first sex worker to speak at NOWSA conferences over the years, but historically most of those who have gone before me have received receptions ranging from divided to – going back a few more years – hostile to the point of brutality. When I told a prominent member of the community here a few days ago that I was speaking at NOWSA, she told me something to the effect of “you know you’re going to cop it, right?” But I told her that I thought that she was wrong.
I have seen a major shift in our community over the last few years, and I’ve seen a lot more willingness in student and young women’s feminist communities to listen to and stand with their sex worker peers, rather than trying to drown out our voices in the name of ideology. I stand here and I see a new dawn in our communities where feminists do not see the human rights of sex workers as up for debate. All of this said, if you are going to be allies to sex workers, you need information. The complexities of how the law affects sex workers is a difficult topic to understand if you’ve never done sex work, and many people just don’t have many opportunities to learn the things we most need them to understand to support us: what the various legal approaches to sex work are, how they impact upon sex workers, and what approach sex workers prefer. I want to take the time and the platform I’ve been given today to take you through all of these models, and hope that when I’m done you’ll have a better idea of how the law can impact upon sex workers’ lives and safety, and of what you can do to help us.
I want to start off by talking about the worst approach to sex work around: criminalisation or prohibition. This is the case across the entire sex industry in a number of countries (most notably the United States) and in South Australia, but which is also applied to street sex workers in most Australian states.
It is impossible to overstate how bad criminalisation is for sex workers forced to work under that system. Criminalisation forces sex workers to live in constant fear of arrest for simply going about their work. Sex workers’ safety is forced to take a back seat to the need to not be arrested, which can limit workers’ ability to screen their clients and encourage them to work alone, rather than with other workers, lest they attract police attention. Under criminalisation, predators know full well that sex workers cannot go to the police without confessing to a criminal act themselves, and that as such they can almost feel safe in preying on sex workers without consequence.
In many places, condoms can be used as evidence of prostitution, thus encouraging sex workers to have unsafe sex to limit the risk of arrest. There have been many cases in criminalised jurisdictions of police demanding sex from sex workers under threat of arrest, and in some it is even legal for police to procure a service from a sex worker, go through with the service, and then arrest her – to, in effect, legally rape a sex worker. In one recent example, Hawaiian police complained bitterly when their right to do this was removed in March this year. If, at any point, a sex worker is arrested and convicted, they’re tarred with criminal records, severely inhibiting their chances of gaining work outside the sex industry. This has devastating consequences for those workers’ lives. Criminalisation is an unbelievably brutal way of treating sex workers, yet it remains alarmingly common in too many places.
I mentioned before that there were two areas where criminalisation is still a big issue in Australia: in regard to street work, and in South Australia, and I’d like to quickly talk about both of those. The rights of street sex workers are often the first to get left behind when it comes to legal protections against sex work. Residents whingeing about having sex workers in their neighbourhood – sex workers that, in most cases, were there before the residents were – have far more political power than some of the most vulnerable workers in the industry, and it shows – and Perth is a key example. In our red light district in Highgate, police and the local City of Vincent council have spent the last few years cracking down on street sex workers with increasing brutality, forcing workers to become more and more geographically scattered every year, removing their abilities to work together with other workers, and have fewer opportunities to check clients before getting into cars – all at serious cost to their own safety. On occasion, the police and council have even gotten it wrong and targeted local residents: profiling and harassing women that they’ve mistaken for sex workers for being dressed too scantily.
And yet, when it comes to street sex workers, no one seems to give a damn. The then local mayor responsible for initiating this crackdown, now federal Labor MP and long-time darling of the WA Labor Party Alannah MacTiernan, proudly touted this crackdown as one of her major achievements in local office. That the rights of an incredibly vulnerable group of women had been systematically violated over a period of years didn’t rate a mention and still don’t. The same goes on in most cities in Australia, and apart from sex worker organisations, they’re a group of people whose rights few seem to give a damn no matter where on the political spectrum people stand. There is not and can never be any moral basis for arresting street sex workers because of residents buying into and then trying to gentrify a traditional area – and, as politically controversial as that may be in some quarters, criminalisation of street workers needs to end.
South Australia has been the bad egg jurisdiction in Australia for a while now, continuing to criminaliseworkers long after all the other states and territories had ditched this approach. I’ve already mentioned the sorts of things that this has meant for South Australian workers. And yet, the future there looks considerably different, as another senior Labor MP, Steph Key, has campaigned for the full decriminalisation of the industry, and is currently on her third attempt to push an amazing, far-reaching bill through parliament that would take South Australia overnight from having the worst laws on sex work to the best: fully decriminalising the industry, protecting workers from discrimination, and revoking decades worth of prostitution convictions. That fight is far from won, but it shows real promise of finally achieving a change that will benefit the lives of every worker in that state.
This is a great example of how views on sex work frequently don’t cut down regular political lines. There is no more inhumane legal approach to sex work than criminalisation, and yet these two well known, “feminist” Labor MPs took such drastically different paths on the issue. Steph Key holds a knife-edge marginal seat that she held against the odds at the election this year, and yet had the courage to take on this fight, at considerable political risk, because it was the right thing to do; Alannah MacTiernan had a safe seat as mayor and a relatively safe path back into higher office, and chose to initiate a brutal crackdown on vulnerable women because it was politically popular.
Ultimately, criminalization of the sex industry, including street work, is the worst of all worlds, and is a means of approaching this issue that needs to be expunged from this earth.
Quasi-Criminalisation (The Swedish Model)
I now want to move on to quasi-criminalisation, or what its proponents like to call “the Swedish model”. The Swedish model claims to be a “harmless” means of attempting to eradicate the sex industry, technically leaving sex work itself legal for the worker, but criminalising clients. The slogan abolitionists like to use for this approach is “end demand”. This is an easier model for abolitionists to sell than outright criminalisation, but it nonetheless has devastating consequences for sex workers. A few weeks ago, I was talking to a journalist who was particularly ignorant about sex work, and I started explaining the Swedish model to her. Her response summed it up better than I possibly could: she looked at me, confused, and said “but isn’t that effectively starving you?” It should be obvious that if there are less clients, sex workers are going to be more desperate, having to work for less, take more risks, or do things they might not want to do, because that’s what you’re going to do if your rent isn’t going to get paid or your kids aren’t going to get fed because there’s suddenly not enough clients that week.
Moreover, if there is a drop i n clients, it wouldn’t be the few clients who would treat sex workers’ badly who would stop seeing sex workers, but the many decent clients. Now, there is no evidence that the Swedish model has actually succeeded in reducing clients, but these are the should-be-obvious flaws that would hit home even if the laws worked as claimed on the box. The Swedish model interferes with the lives of sex workers in so many damaging ways that there are almost too many to list. It makes it illegal to work indoors, for sex workers to work with other workers, or to advertise. Negotiation with clients becomes more challenging, because workers have to accommodate clients’ fear of arrest instead of their own safety. It is illegal to be a driver or security guard for a sex worker. It actually compels landlords to evict sex workers lest they, too, face charges.
The laws even place family members who are supported by a sex worker at risk of arrest, something which is not hypothetical: in one well-known case, the son of a sex worker was charged because he was not paying rent to his mother. The working conditions of street workers have dropped particularly badly, as while rates of clients have not dropped over all, the visibility of street work has meant that street business has dropped, resulting in increased pressure for sex without condoms, lower prices, and less ability to refuse unpleasant or dangerous clients. Furthermore, trafficking has become extremely difficult to identify in Sweden, because the state refuses to distinguish it from sex work.
It should be becoming apparent by now that any claim that these laws are helping sex workers would be laughable if it wasn’t so abhorrent. But on 9 July 2013, the failure of this law was brought home in the most horrible way, when Petite Jasmine, one of the most prominent sex worker rights in Sweden and a board member of their peer organization the Rose Alliance, was murdered. Jasmine had been in a relationship where she was subject to domestic violence, but upon Social Services discovering that she was a sex worker, they seized her kids, placed them with their abusive father, and told her she was “lacking insight into the damage her sex work caused.” She fought through three trials, won shared custody (though the judge declared that it was a problem that she failed to realize her work was “a form of self harm”, lost it again, and was appealing to the High Court at the time of her death. Social Services eventually agreed to her seeing her children under supervision at an agreed place; at the first such meeting with her son, her partner took the opportunity to stab her to death. Despite Jasmine’s complaints of domestic violence, and the fact that her partner had put one caseworker in a chokehold and spat at another, the state denied protection to her and kept her kids with her abusive husband merely because she was an unashamed sex worker. This is the reality of the Swedish model in practice.
This is a system so obsessed with the fantasy that they might eradicate the world’s oldest profession that women like Jasmine become just collateral damage. Ten days after her death, sex workers in 36 cities across the globe, from Stockholm to as far away as Seoul and Sydney, came out in force and in outrage against Jasmine’s murder and the Swedish model’s complicity in it. The silence from abolitionists was glaring. Yet, in spite of all of this, the abolitionist movement continues to ignore the angry voices of sex workers, and to forcefully push for the introduction of the Swedish model around the world. Only last week, a group of “feminists” attempted to force Amnesty International Australia to back away from Amnesty International’s support for the decriminalization of sex work. Some screamed abuse at the sex workers present, tried to violently shout them down, and tried to prevent them from even speaking at all when they attempted to voice how the Swedish model would impact their lives. The workers I know who attended that day are a tough bunch of women, but most of them were traumatized as hell after a day trying to have their voices heard in front of these women who claimed to be feminists. The abolitionists thankfully failed on that occasion, with a motion in support of the Swedish model voted down at Amnesty’s AGM, but it bears repeating once more: this kind of behaviour is not “saving” women.
It needs to be mentioned at this point that it radical feminists are not working alone in advocating for the Swedish model; rather, sex workers find ourselves fighting a constant battle again an unholy alliance of radical feminists and religious conservatives who find common ground in trying to silence and “save” sex workers. This is a fight that is raging hard around the world. In February, sex workers took a major blow when a report advocating the Swedish model, pushed by UK Labour MEP Mary Honeyball, was backed by a majority of the EU Parliament – 343 MPs, and thus sending a devastating message to other countries who might be so inclined. In better news, only last week, sex workers won an unexpected victory in France when their Senate voted down an attempt at introducing the Swedish model there.
That bill, which had passed the lower house and was widely tipped to become law over the shouts of French sex workers, unexpectedly went down when the French Senate decided to actually listen to those who would be affected, saving French sex workers an incredible amount of grief. The outcome of this battle is very much still in the balance, and we need the help of non-workers more than ever. The Swedish model is merely dressed-up criminalization, and a human rights abuse in action. Calling for the introduction of the Swedish model is not, and should never be seen as a feminist act, and women who would claim a “feminist” label for it deserve to be fiercely shamed.
Once people grasp the consequences that criminalization – whether of clients or in full – has for sex workers, many people assume that legalization and regulation is an ideal way forward. This is understandable – and I thought so too for a while before I was a worker – but it would be wrong, because in practice, that regulation often plays out very badly for workers. And the best way I can illustrate this is to take a virtual trip around three of the legalized states of Australia.
One state in which I work from time to time is Victoria. There, to legally work outside of a brothel, I had to formally register as a sex worker, so that my name and sex worker status is now on a government database somewhere. The experience of walking into a staid government building in the Melbourne CBD to register as a whore was quite surreal, but also served no legitimate purpose whatsoever. If I want to advertise, I can’t show my body in my photos below my shoulders, and if I don’t show my face to preserve my privacy I have to take a ridiculous photo with my hair over my face or I’m breaking the law. No one knows the reason for that one. Worst of all, it is illegal in Victoria to do incalls – where the client comes to you – no matter where they take place (except in a brothel). If you are a private worker and you want to work legally, you are forced to only do outcalls (where you go to the client).
Many workers – myself included – like to work on our own turf because we feel safer, and hate doing outcalls; in Victoria, we have a choice of doing outcalls anyway, doing incalls illegally, or having to work in a brothel. If a worker is doing illegal incalls, some of the same problems I spoke to before around criminalization re-emerge: I know a worker who was assaulted in Melbourne by a client who knew full well that since she was doing incalls illegally she wouldn’t be able to report him. The Victorian system might be legalization, but it’s a terrible system nonetheless.
Then we get to Queensland. In Queensland, being a sex worker and having oral sex without a condom is illegal, and the Queensland Police regularly try to entrap workers for doing that. Whether a worker has decided that that is something they’re okay with doing with their body, is desperate that particular week, or felt coerced in the situation, they’re all liable to being entrapped into a criminal record. It is also illegal in Queensland to have two workers working from the same premises outside of a brothel, forcing workers to work alone and threatening workers who work together with arrest. Queensland even bans workers from describing – in almost any terms – what they do and don’t do in their services in their advertising. And then we get to the Northern Territory, where brothels are illegal – which makes life much more difficult for workers who like to work in a neutral space with people in earshot, and where they don’t have to find their own clients.
As these situations show, legalization and regulation starts to look a lot messier in practice than it is in theory. There are two other features that frequently pop up in legalization regimes that I also want to address, because they don’t do sex workers any favours. A number of states have brothel licensing systems, where stringent licensing conditions and expensive fees control who is able to run a brothel. This has the effect of creating a two-tiered industry, where the biggest and most profitable brothels can operate legally and with the law on their side, while smaller brothels, which includes most worker-run parlours, become unable to comply and are forced underground. This limits the options for workers to choose from, severely limits the ability for worker- run parlours to operate, and benefits the biggest brothels by inhibiting their competition. The main consequence of brothel licensing that the state winds up unwittingly helping the biggest brothels wipe out their competition, and that is no social service.
The second is mandatory testing of sex workers, which is the case in Victoria and Queensland. Thanks in part to a strong network of peer education services in each state and territory of Australia, sex workers are usually well educated about STIs and have lower rates than the general population. Mandatory testing stigmatizes workers, as it is based on assumptions rather than data, and ultimately wastes both sex worker and medical service time with unnecessary tests. This carries an added problem in Queensland, where Campbell Newman’s cuts to sexual health have made finding affordable and sex worker-friendly sexual health testing a challenge for some workers.
So, I’ve just talked for a long time about what doesn’t work in terms of laws about sex work. There is one model of regulation which is consistently supported by sex workers and sex worker organizations in Australia and around the world: decriminalization. It currently exists in New South Wales and in New Zealand, but the rest of Australia lags behind. What would this mean? Decriminalisation means that criminal laws relating to sex work are removed, and sex work is regulated just like any other business. Brothels are subject to local planning laws, just like any other business. It removes any special regulatory role for police in the sex industry, removing opportunities for police corruption and enhancing sex workers’ access to justice. It gives sex workers the same legal protections as other workers, and better access to health and government services. It stands against social stigma, and it eliminates the institutional stigma that exists in some of the examples I’ve already mentioned.
In short, decriminalization treats sex workers like workers in any other role. Violence against us is just as illegal, while we have better access to workplace rights, and don’t have to worry about crashing into the criminal law in the sorts of weird and not-so-wonderful cases I’ve talked about above. It allows us to make the right decisions for us, and allows us to prioritise working in the way that we feel is safest and most comfortable for us instead of having to work around whatever other law is in place in thatstate. I’ve worked under three different legal regimes: decriminalization in New South Wales, botched legalization in Victoria, and the Western Australian system, which can perhaps best be described as “it’s complicated” , and I can speak from personal experience that New South Wales was by far the place I felt safest and most comfortable working.
You might notice that I haven’t once mentioned workers’ subjective experience of sex work – or, indeed my subjective experience of sex work, and that I don’t buy into arguments about whether sex work is “empowering” or not – or anything remotely like it.
I say this because it’s not the point. We talk about labor rights in sex work because if you’re a current worker, the consequences of all of the above is going to hit you just as hard regardless of whether you’re enjoying the industry or not. Decriminalisation creates the safest legal regime possible while you’re working, and creates the least stigmatized environment if you want out with the least barriers to doing so, where laws that brutalise current workers brutalise women who want out just as much as the ones who want in.
I say this because sex workers need the help of non-sex working feminists if we’re to move forward. We need to stop any attempt to push for the Swedish model in Australia stone dead, we need to tear down the criminalization of sex workers in South Australia and the criminalization of street workers nationally, and we need to abolish the ridiculous regulations that rule the industry in Queensland and Victoria. These are fights that we need allies to win.
And we need things to change in feminist discourse. The voices of sex workers must be firmly front and centre in any discussion of sex work. The idea that well-paid tenured academics or NGOs can speak with authority on sex work better than sex workers themselves needs to be seen as laughable-if-it-weren’t- so-serious. I look around this room, and I see how much things have changed in even this forum from five or ten years ago, and that gives me hope. We need you to stand with us as we fight to have our voices heard, and fight for decriminalization nationally, because it is and will always be the only system that actually works for us. I really hope you all will.