Discourse, Damnation, Desire

This is the transcript of a paper that I recently presented at the 7th Annual Australian Women’s Health Conference in Sydney. It came under the category of Informing Government Policy to Improve the Health of Australian Women. It’s a long paper, but worth the read. As you may know, I am passionate about sex industry law reform and yes, I did deliver the paper in a straight jacket!

A narrative account:
I came to the sex industry late and early. As a young woman, I worked sporadically when the need arose and also spent great chunks of time with partners, friends and lovers who worked.
As an older woman, I returned, converted and determined to save. Gone were the drugs and paid sex, instead I had religion and a rescue model. This was my field of engagement and much of the younger me was forgotten. For many years, I worked a different sort of job, that of support and outreach to sex workers, mainly street based, but parlour, phone and internet also. What I did not expect so much in these encounters was the sheer bloody gutsiness, good cheer and deep human insight that I met in the women and men of the sex industry. No victims were these! Yet, it grieved me to see the violence, the hate, the way they were sometimes spat on in the street, the rapes and murders on occasion, the lack of self worth and social rejection, having to walk and live in shadow most of the time. The stigma is what got to me.
As I engaged with workers themselves, coming to know the rich details of their lives, present to their ups and downs, I gained a deep, sometimes traumatic and definitely insightful look at aspects of the sex industry – and there was nothing straightforward about it. A complex, multi-faceted beast of a thing, which ate some up, spat some out and others flourished. I also began to work in conjunction with different organisations who held quite a radical and positive perspective – sex work is work, sex work can be good, sex work has its benefits. I asked the question, what it is that connects us? And realised that it is a deep desire for the safety, well-being and dignity of sex workers that connects different sides of this discourse. I also reflected intellectually, analysing data, reading the key authors such as Jeffries, Perkins, Dworkin and Phetersen considering different ideologies and how they were presented.
Essentially during these years, I encountered the ‘Other’ – in fact many others, and in doing so, shifted a great deal in my understanding of sex industres and what it can mean to be human. This has been a life altering journey, a full spiral of adventure, alongside sex industry workers who are passionate and powerful. It has given me the ability to hear, to write and think into spaces of contradiction and complexity, without resolution. It has given me the chance to find my own material voice in the milieu and so stand with workers in their diversity, their pain and joy. It’s an honour to share some of that journey with you today.

Why do we objectify sex workers – or anyone for that matter?
Firstly because of sex. We see the ‘sex’ in sex worker before we see the human, the employee, the student, the business owner, the hockey player, the artist, the mother, the friend. Our moral precepts, fears and desires begin to kick in. We unconsciously associate the physical act of sex with messiness and decay, and we still have a lingering sense that it is bad, especially when it’s good!

What does it mean to be a sex worker, we ask? We imagine the role for ourselves and are intrigued or maybe alarmed and as we do so, we often lack awareness of the daily reality, which is complex, mundane, enjoyable and frustrating all at the same time! We are inclined to think with absolutes, which become a shorthand for communication and understanding. Sometimes we are angry with how the system works and try to frame this in big picture terms.

Women are oppressed!
Sex workers are victims!
Men abuse power!

And in so doing, we have made living, breathing human beings into objects. We then add them to our discourses. Intellectualism overtakes human stories and unconventional lived experience. Theories are substituted, which must be ‘objective’ if they are to be taken seriously. We make a decision, and in most Western discourse, it is a binary decision – yes or no, black or white, whore or victim.
We are now in a corner, at the limit of our thinking and at the limit of the law. Creative connections take a back-seat, as nuanced understandings are unable to be imagined or constructively held. We call upon statistics to shore up our position. We drag out an occasional story, edited and streamlined, which reflects exactly our belief. We are secure in this belief and we can argue it until the other side falls down. And in this process we have missed an opportunity to get real. To get real about what sex industries actually are. To get real about people who work and about legislation that minimises stigma and harm. Vital engagement is lacking. When we say that all sex work is violence, “we ignore the fact that the sex industry exhibits a great mixture of structures and job content, and demands a variety of skills of the woman or man who expects to make it successful career.”1 We ignore the fact that those who buy sex are, on the whole, respectable and ordinary blokes. Maybe this scares us too much. And we dismiss the democratic fact of self-determination and individual agency.

There are five major problems with this type of politicised identity discourse, manifest in the debate about sex work. The social group is essentialized, individual workers are understood superficially, there is a failure to recognise the power/knowledge dynamic at work, different voices are marginalised and the individual is totalized.2

It is when these factors coalesce that we begin to make statements like ‘prostitution is oppression’ or even ‘sex work equals empowerment.’ We consider every member of the group as having the same traits, which saves us the pain of dealing with them as individuals.3 We name the ‘Other’ and gain ethical power in doing so. We have constructed a hierarchy of classification as we come to believe that there is a single, exclusive and unchanging sex worker identity. Agency and the fabric of human diversity have disappeared and as a consequence, justice and true morality are denied. Self identification becomes irrelevant, and creates a way for industry opponents to label sex workers as having false consciousness. This is the ultimate, anti-human insult.

Yet, my purpose is not for one side to ‘win’ this debate, but rather to heighten our awareness of these assumptions when considering identity politics, seeking gender justice and participating in policy making. What I really want to encourage is ambiguity, with a recognition of sex workers as individuals (and groups) who have diverse needs, desires and wisdom. Respectful engagement is crucial here and as we do so, we have an opportunity to be present and open to manifold voices and ideas for laws that enhance safety and reduce stigma.

How should the law be formed?
Now you may be aware that after almost 20 years of decriminalisation of sex work in NSW, the Liberal state government is considering changes which will bring in a model of police oversight that is similar to what is currently in operation in Victoria and Queensland. This is a model heavily criticised by sex industry peak bodies and individuals and has failed in the past in NSW. What is driving this change? Is it political opportunism or pressure from decency activists?
In Tasmania, the laws around sex work were changed in 2005 after lobbying from family values conservatives and radical feminists. This is despite key evidence which suggests that a decriminalisation approach lessens stigma, increases health and safety and reflects human rights principles. It is now under review again and decrmininalisation is being favoured. Both states will make decisions this year. What is decriminalisation? It is a best practice model which integrates regulation of the sex industry within existing law, essentially treating sex work like other businesses. Sex work and sex workers are not criminialised and neither are clients. The rights of workers are safeguarded, including the right to work free from exploitation. Occupational Health and Safety and the welfare of workers on the job is of primary concern. As well, decrmininalisation is conducive to public health and the social inclusion of sex workers. As NSW and New Zealand have demonstrated, decriminalisation helps to design out vulnerability and build in respect.4 And it is what workers want.

My point is that the laws regarding sex work should not be driven by restrictive ideological perspectives. Church groups and feminists are stakeholders in this debate but because this is a conflict of fundamental values, those who are not industry workers should not guide law reform towards a morally correct stance. If radical feminists, concerned individuals and conservatives are genuinely interested in promoting safety and well-being, they would be advancing the political empowerment of sex workers, who have traditionally been silenced in policy debate. Preferring ideology over best practice sends a damning message to sex workers and to all ‘Others.’

Are there societal problems around sex work? Yes there are – stigma, racism, violence and exclusion to name a few. And is this a politically sensitive topic? Yes it is – very few policy makers are willing to call themselves pro-sex work and advocate for the full and equal rights of sex industry workers.

That is why the concerns and insights of sex workers must take centre stage. When asked, the priorities that workers highlight include safety, stress, stigma, dealing with difficult clients and changing community attitudes.5 From a legal perspective, this means decriminalisation, this means making sex businesses measure up to Occupational Health and Safety Laws, this means opening up clear avenues to report violence and that crimes against sex workers are not treated any differently by police and other agencies. Ultimately, this also means that attitudes are challenged and sex workers treated with full respect – socially and structurally.

Which brings me to this straitjacket. This is not an article of respect or inclusion and for me it symbolises the historical precedence of abuse – not so long ago, sex workers were considered mentally ill and subject to psychological intervention for the sheer fact of their existence. Lock hospitals, medical treatments such as mercury injections and missionary re-education programs were the norm.6 The ultimate deviants, in Foucauldian terms.7 Have we really left this attitude behind, or just changed the language when we support measures of political, social and legal exclusion?

This binding also reflects my own struggle to come to a determined position here, wrestling with conflicting perspectives and trying to find a way out of entrenched oppositional discourse, which labels workers as either victims of patriarchy or outlaw whores.

Finally, the sheath speaks of what we can often do to sex workers in this debate about the law – straitjacket and strangle their voices that are multiple, powerful, knowledgeable and direct. I say it is time to loosen the bonds, to allow the law to be determined by best practice, by the embodied knowledge of sex workers themselves and by an overarching desire for dignity and for life.

1. Joanna Brewis and Stephen Linstead. “The Worst Thing is the Screwing (2): Context and Career in Sex Work,” Gender, Work and Organisation. (July 2000, Volume 7, Number 3), 168.
2. William Gaudrelli. “Identity Discourse: Problems, Presuppositions and Educational Practice,” The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. (2001; 21, 3) 60.
3. Ibid., 62.
4. Teela Sanders and Rosie Campbell. “Designing Out Vulnerability and Building In Respect: Violence, Safety and Sex Work Policy,” The British Journal of Sociology. (2007, Volume 58, Issue 1), 1.
5. Priscilla M. Pyett, Benjamin R. Haste and Jocelyn D. Snow. “Who Works in the Sex Industry? A Profile of Female Prostitutes in Victoria,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. (1996, vol. 20, no. 4), 432.
6. Kay Daniels. So Much Hard Work: Women and Prostitution in Australian History. Sydney: Fontana/Collins, 1984.
7. Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1. (Camberwell: Penguin, 2008), 38 – 39.

2 thoughts on “Discourse, Damnation, Desire

  1. One of the things that you are doing is highlighting the fact that sexwork is not a ‘flat’ subject. It is not a one dimensional ‘sexworkers are always abused and must be saved’ society attitude. This attitude has always been presented as the only way of thinking.
    You articulate a kaleidoscope of human experience that brings a deeper, wider and intelligent dialogue for people to take away and think about.
    However I would ask two questions 1. How many people in the sex industry have been abused, either sexually or physically, as children? and
    2. Has this abuse locked them into the sex industry because they have no self esteem (because of the abuse) or because they have no other pathways available to them?
    For me the core question is ‘are sexworkers in the industry because they have chosen this work?’ That articulates as they had other choices but they freely chose the work. Or are they in the industry because they had no other choice? It boils down to ‘who has the power’
    People who have felt they had no choice but to be in the sexwork industry should be helped by having pathways out if they want to leave AND
    people who freely chose to be in the industry should be respected for their choice and supported in it.

  2. That question ‘are sexworkers in the industry because they have chosen this work’ has spurned an entire subset of feminist thinking and publishing over the last thirty years. It seems it is not a question easily answered! There’s some great reading out there, if you are interested and I can refer you to some to begin. It basically comes down to the ongoing dynamic between structural oppressive forces and individual agency, which are both at work in our lives.
    Also your comment about how many women are in the industry because of CSA, is again, commonly asked. I would refer you to this blog post to begin thinking about / maybe even deconstructing that question and a number of others.
    http://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/resources/frequently-told-lies/

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