Last month, RMIT hosted an anti-sex trade conference called The World’s Oldest Oppression. The conference gained a spotlight of outrage online, sparking mass debate on social media amongst sex workers, feminists and activists who tirelessly work for the de-stigmatisation and decriminalisation of the industry. That the rebuke online spread so far, and possibly gained more attention than the actual conference, was comforting to see; support for sex workers has grown considerably in the last few years, shrinking the stigma surrounding the work.
The bulk of the conference focussed on advocating for the Swedish model of law reform around sex work, that is, criminalisation of the clients, rather than the sex workers. The model, in theory, works to minimise the male demand for sex and paid access to women’s bodies. It works on the idea that the sex industry and all its flaws would not be able to thrive in a society where men do not feel entitled to sexual contact with women; that the sex industry would not exist in a non-patriarchal society. But trying to dismantle a patriarchal system by interrogating only one of its tiny facets is not effective; it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a cut, but the real problem is a broken leg. Some have called the Swedish model a “feminist” model, but its advocates fail to see the downsides of the criminalisation of clients; sex workers working in Swedish model places have tried to draw attention to how this model makes their work even more dangerous than it should be for them. Activist Laura Lee, in an interview with the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman, argued that male clients under this law are hesitant to give their names and other such details required for security and screening. I once overheard a receptionist in my agency dealing with a client who refused to give any details for our security; full name, home address, phone number, and even credit card information is recorded before the agency will even consider sending an escort to a client. This client would give none, and our receptionist plainly stated that if he wouldn’t trust her with this information, she wouldn’t trust him with another human being.
The Swedish laws encourage a desire for client anonymity out of fear, making it nearly impossible for sex workers to know if a potential client has been blacklisted by other workers, if there are any warnings attached to him, or if he has a previous criminal record. It has increased police surveillance of sex workers’ homes and places of work, in the hope of detecting clients, making it difficult for workers to keep their work private (any sex worker knows how vital privacy is for their own safety and employability in other areas). There are numerous other flaws of the Swedish model, but these are the main ways in which they make sex work unsafe for workers; the opposite outcome to what it preaches. If the goal of anti-sex work advocates is to end the exploitation of vulnerable women, they need to acknowledge that any criminalisation of sex work makes workers even more vulnerable; a sex worker in a state of criminalisation has no legal protection or rights if a client harms her. The problem with the industry isn’t something that can be solved with its criminalisation, in any form; it needs to be solved with regulation, like any other workplace.
As a sex worker who (for the most part) enjoys my job, I am still highly critical of the industry I work in. I strongly advocate for decriminalisation, and extend support and love to everyone in sex work. But I still feel it is important to think of the industry in a critical way, because it cannot improve if it is not criticised. One of my main gripes with the industry is how little it is regulated, even in a state like Victoria where it is legal. There are establishments that take an unfair percentage of what a worker is paid, because there is little to no regulation. There are workers who are overworked, because there is no regulation or limit on how many hours at a time a worker can do (in other areas, it is a legal requirement to be given a half hour break every five hours of work; when escorting, I will work a 12 hour shift, with no distinct ‘break’ time to rest or eat), there is no workplace training, or emotional/mental/psychological care offered to new workers, or resources for those who want to leave the industry. These are perhaps small things, but if the industry were properly regulated like any other job, exploitation might lessen.
The World’s Oldest Oppression conference also notably did not include any speakers who chose to work in the industry themselves, or current sex workers; one Tweet in the barrage of #RMIT2016 Tweets concerning the conference pointed out that the conference does not draw a distinction between sex workers and victims of human trafficking. It’s so important to listen to the diversity of voices within the industry. The stories of self-identified sex-trade survivors are obviously incredibly important; they must be able to be heard, they must be able to voice their own trauma, and their narratives are vital in working towards how to make the industry safer and to ensure that workers are there by choice. Equally important are the voices and narratives of those who are working in the industry by choice, and who love the work they do. It seems to be incredibly difficult to find a nuanced argument that speaks to the breadth of experiences of the industry. The truth of the industry, or something close to the truth, is that every sex worker has a different experience. Some experiences are harrowing and traumatic, some experiences are empowering and happy, and some experiences are somewhere in between. All accounts need to be taken into consideration in any discussion of sex work; all accounts are important, and no singular experience makes another any more or less valid. The voices of the traumatised and manipulated must be heard for the sex industry to become a safer place to work; and the voices of those who love the work and feel empowered by it must be heard to work towards de-stigmatisation.
What the Oldest Oppression conference should be focussing on if its goal is to end the exploitation of “vulnerable women,” is not the existence of the sex industry, but why the sex industry is a last resort or attractive option. In this conversation, “vulnerable women” usually means women living in poverty, women who are affected by drug use, or domestic violence. There are obviously many more diverse narratives than these; sex workers are not a homogenous group. But these are the narratives anti-sex work activists tend to focus on, because these are the people who are there out of desperation, or who are too easily tricked or manipulated into the work. Anti-sex work activists don’t consider that these women are vulnerable before they go into the industry. The problem is much larger than the sex industry; it exists on a level of structural class and gender oppression that leaks across numerous levels of society. Factors that can lead to someone choosing sex work as a last resort include (but not limited to) a shortage of regular work, low wages for long hours, the amount of experience needed for other work, and the rising costs of rent and food. The very opposite makes sex work an attractive option; I can work for one night and be able to pay my rent for a month. The pay is high, the hours are flexible, and one needs very little experience to start; you can interview at an escort agency or brothel that morning and be working by night. The problem is not the existence of the sex industry, but the lack of opportunities for women in other workplaces to earn a liveable wage.
One of the most infuriating aspects of hearing anti-sex work arguments while being a sex worker is that anti-sex work advocates both ignore and talk over the voices of sex workers in favour of their own agenda, coming from a perspective of having never worked in the industry. Sex workers trying to speak up and voice their lived experiences are talked over, condescended to, told we don’t know our own minds, are victims whether or not we feel as though we are or not. Anti-sex work activists act as though they are ‘saving’ us (whether or not we have asked for that), while simultaneously ignoring and shaming a large percentage of us. A sex-work positive tag on Twitter proclaims, “rights, not rescue”, speaking to the misconception that all sex workers are victims of exploitation. We don’t need to be infantised in this way; it is more important that we are allowed to assert our autonomy, and are protected with legal rights. As with any discussion concerning minority and marginalised groups, the voices of individuals in those groups must be heard more than those outside: a straight-cisgender person has little right to monopolise a public conversation about LGBTI rights; that place should go to someone with lived experience of being queer. In the same vein, public discussion and criticism of the sex industry should go to someone with lived experience of the sex industry.
Vince Ruston is a writer, and Voiceworks editor based in Melbourne, studying at RMIT. When away from the desk they can be found in a library or crying over lingerie in David Jones. They have been published in Voiceworks, Scum Mag, Writers’ Bloc, Rabbit Poetry Journal, Zo Universal and Feminartsy. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram (poetxtrees).