On June 19, Adrian Bayley was only given thirty-five years imprisonment, far from the maximum sentence of fifty years for the rape and murder of ABC journalist Jill Meagher in Melbourne’s CBD in September 2012. Bayley’s previous victims’ status as sex workers might have something to do with it. Jill’s husband Tom Meagher says Bayley’s treatment “sends a disturbing message”. Speaking after the decision on 27 June, Meagher warned of the ramifications for sex workers, who are traditionally vulnerable to sexual assault: “What it says to people like Bayley is not ‘don’t rape’, but ‘be careful who you rape’.”
Feminists pitch their tents on both sides of the fence in the sex work debate. On the one hand, it is argued, prostitution is an inherently degrading and exploitative trade that commodifies female bodies for male pleasure. But there are a growing number of feminists who champion sex work as empowering. As The Daily Spread re-examines the world’s oldest profession, it becomes clear that we need a fresh perspective.
Jill’s homeland, the Democratic Republic of Ireland, offers an interesting introduction to the sex worker debate. In Ireland, the selling of and paying for sexual favours between two consenting adults itself is legal. However, it is against the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 to solicit in a public place and to own, patronise or receive any proceeds from a brothel or “massage parlour”. In 2011, over fifty local and international organisations – including Irish Feminist Network, Freedom From Pornography, Barnados and Domestic Violence Advocacy Network – initiated the Turn Off The Red Light campaign, seeking the criminalisation of all prostitution and tougher sentencing on human trafficking. This campaign lobbied to implement the “Swedish Model of Prostitution”, one of Sweden’s most successful exports since Ikea. This model makes it illegal to buy sexual services of any kind. But this is not the only material Turn Off The Red Light appropriated from Scandinavia.
This video, created by Jori Sjoroos and Paula Vesala, spearheaded a 2012 anti-trafficking campaign by the Finland International Organisation for Migration, featured on Turn Off The Red Light’s homepage. The tagline reads “Human trafficking is not a myth.”
In response to this campaign, Ireland’s Association of Sex Workers created Turn Off The Blue Light, reminding Ireland that there is a class of legal, professional, consenting sex workers that would be adversely affected by the Swedish Model.
It is important to note that the criminalisation of sex work is not a debate between any prostitution and no prostitution. It is actually between unregulated sex work and a regulated sex industry. No legislation can eradicate the demand for sexual services for money. We should also understand that there are three types of sex workers.
- Migrant victims of human trafficking essentially held in sexual enslavement or debt bondage.
- Disadvantaged women or men (yes, there are male sex workers as well) who turn to prostitution out of desperation, often to support a drug addiction.
- Informed, consenting adults who freely choose sex work as a career path, as a means to supplement income whilst retaining a degree of independence.
There is consensus that those in the first and second categories are victims, who need to be protected from an unregulated industry of sexual enslavement. But when we look at the third category, the debate takes an unexpected turn.
Let’s return now to Victoria, one of the most liberal states in Australia and the first place in the world to offer government funding to the Sex Workers Association in 1987. In Victoria, the Sex Work Act 1994 allows for licensed brothels, but soliciting in a public place remains illegal. Conservative estimates put the number of unlicensed brothels in Victoria at four hundred. So the sex industry of Victoria, whilst out in the open, is far from perfect.
Elena Jeffreys, national president of the Australian Scarlet Alliance, which campaigns for the rights of sex workers, argues that criminalising prostitution is borne out of a well intentioned but fundamentally flawed mission to rescue women. Speaking at a 2011 Feminist Futures conference in Melbourne, Jeffreys polarised the audience with her candid discussion of the sex industry. She explained that not all sex workers should fall under the blanket status as victims. She also pointed out that the feminist movement largely censures sex workers who offer stories of empowerment and strength for “covering up the ‘truth’ about prostitution”.
Jeffreys refuses to “perform tragedy porn” to placate critics of sex workers. Instead, she attacks the “deep-seated stigma” faced by sex workers to offer a new image – that of the empowered “whore”*. To label all prostitutes as victims deprives consenting sex workers of legitimacy and agency, which they need to fight for “work conditions, dignity, health and access to services”. She further argues that feminists build a bipartisan platform for political agency on the back at sex workers’ expense. “Without the Damned Whores there was no need for God’s Police – feminists who have claimed to be rescuing sex workers… [who were] celebrated, influenced policy, and found themselves a voice in Australia.”
Writing after the Bayley decision, Christian Vega, active member of Vixen Collective, National Representative of Male Sex Workers and federal candidate for the Australian Sex Party, similarly tells critics to cut the heroics. “We’re not all women. We don’t need you to rescue us.” He concedes that there are sex workers subjected to violence and assault in the industry. However, Vega argues that the best way to tackle this inequity is to decriminalise all sex work, which allows for greater transparency and the protection of sex workers. Making prostitution a legitimate industry enables sex workers to seek legal recourse in instances of violence without fear of being prosecuted themselves. In short, “sex workers don’t need another hero.” What they need is recognition, legitimacy and agency.
Eva Sless, Melbourne freelance writer, mother and sex worker is not afraid to respond to a familiar challenge: would she want her daughter to be a prostitute? No one is comfortable going into their children’s sexuality, so it is unreasonable to expect that anyone can embrace the idea of their daughter one day making a career out of sex. But Sless does not live by a double standard; “I will encourage her to make her own well-informed choices and live her life in a way that makes her happy… Whether that future job is as a surgeon or a sex worker is entirely her choice.” Writing for Mamamia, Sless rejects the claim that all sex work is not a real choice. “I love sex… And as I started to do it… I realised I was really, really good at it. So, [how is] something I really enjoy, am good at and can be paid to do NOT my choice?… I have no pimp, no manager, no brothel.” Although she acknowledges the “horrible dark side” to the industry, she notes that, of two hundred sex workers she has spoken with, only three entered the job as a last resort and none of them were supporting a drug habit.
Sless also takes the unusual tack of humanising her clients, instead of telling her own empowering tale. She talks about real human beings, with “urges and needs and desires”. Her patrons include a shy, wheelchair-bound recluse, a lesbian whose demanding career makes a relationship impossible, a divorcé, a thirty-year-old virgin, a seventy-year-old widower, a sufferer of endometriosis. None of these clients have the hallmark characteristics of the sleazy, exploitative and violent misogynist we expect to be paying for sex. Sless argues “sex is a basic human need.”
Most feminists baulk at the idea of legalised prostitution, because on the surface it appears to be a step towards institutionalising the commoditisation of women. Whilst the idea that female bodies can be paid for is repulsive, it is important to note that not every client is a misogynistic male, nor is every worker a helpless woman. The stigma that surrounds sex work exists for three reasons:
- We cannot see ourselves being sex workers, or enjoying sex with someone who is not a significant other;
- We refuse to acknowledge that we might pay for the services of a sex worker, because it is better to think that we can achieve sexual and emotional satisfaction without needing to pay for it; and
- We see sex workers as essentially unskilled women who have failed to engage with other areas of the job market.
But it’s time to get real. Sex workers are real people, who utilise skills in intimacy, personal relations and marketing to earn an honest living. One day, you might need to call on one to reinvigorate your sex life and bolster a strained relationship.
The Swedes got a lot right; flat-pack furniture, same-sex marriage and a privatised energy market. But we will never going to eradicate the world’s oldest profession simply by implementing the Swedish Model.
At this point, it is clear that criminalising prostitution puts a large number of consenting adults at risk of losing their income, their dignity and rights. But what of the sex workers that haven’t joined the industry out of choice? Well. The real victims can benefit from increased regulation that comes with decriminalising sex work. But it is the trade’s illegality that makes it impossible to differential between those who have chosen to be sex workers and those who have been forced into the industry. Even if women have become sex workers against their will, we cannot protect them by driving the industry underground. This is the real clincher.
The only consensus across the fence is that we need to hear less from commentators and more from sex workers themselves. With that in mind, The Daily Spread encourages you to explore Scarlet Alliance, to follow Eva Sless, Elena Jeffreys and Christian Vega in the blogosphere. And finally, to shed light on the second type of sex workers, which we did not discuss in depth here, a thesis written by Danish anthropologist Jeanett Bjønness.
*A term reclaimed by sex workers of late, similarly to the LGBT community’s use of former insult “queer”.