On changing my mind about sex work

I feel uneasy about sex work. I worry that it objectifies women and compounds our difficulties in carving a place for ourselves as cerebral and corporeal, as full persons. But here’s the thing:  it’s not about me.

However sincere my concerns, however fluently I may be able to quote Andrea Dworkin, such views tacitly align me with the slut-shamers and the conservatives who do such a good job of ‘othering’ sex workers, of making them a thing apart – alien and aberrant. This othering means that when a sex worker is murdered – as happened in St Kilda last week – our outrage is muted. Yes, we think it’s awful and we hope the assailant is caught, but she was putting herself at risk, but she knew the dangers, but she didn’t ‘keep herself safe’ –as if what Tracy Connelly experienced in the last moments of her life was any less horrifying for her than it would be for us. Or as if her family and friends grieve differently, or her partner is any less traumatised by finding her body, or her assailant will confine their violence to sex workers so the rest of us can live without fear (Adrian Ernest Bayley, anyone?).

I’m done with the buts. To (mis)quote EM Forster, in any contest between an ideology and a friend, I’m coming down on the side of the friend, on the real, flesh-and-blood reality of the person. My support and my energy must be at the service of the sex worker rather than a politics that, however well-intentioned, diminishes their personhood and allows Tracy Connelly to be reduced to a tawdry headline.

Feminism has always been conflicted on the question of sex and sexuality, inheriting as it did two such different traditions. One tradition is devoted to protecting women from the laws and customs that subjugate them to men and men’s bodies; and one argues for the reclamation of the female body and its pleasures. For various reasons, my own politics tended towards the former for a long while. The problem with this position is that it so easily falls prey to the model of men’s sexuality as rapacious and threatening. A former professor of mine, the late Patricia Crawford, referred to this as the ‘sex or burst theory’, whereby men’s sex drive is an unsophisticated hydraulic system requiring periodic release, or catastrophic consequences will ensue. Sex workers and porn are socially positioned as providing this ‘release valve’ that supposedly keep the rest of us (good) women safe.

The objections to this model are manifest, not least in that it sets up a dichotomy between men and women, where (gendered) desires are oppositional and women whose sexual experiences fall outside a fairly narrow, vanilla band are cast as aberrant. Even mad. It makes black and white what in reality is the complex, messy and contestable nature of desire. It means we agree to sacrifice ‘release valve’ women like some kind of human shield. It reinforces sexual double standards whereby sex amplifies men but diminishes women.  So the same act makes men studs or virile or magnetic, whilst rendering women sluts or needy or a bit pathetic, with sex workers the ultimate example. Throw in all our baggage around sexual competition and fears about fidelity and there’s a potent recipe for women’s hostility towards sex workers.

I’ve no claims to expertise on sex work. But I have been, and am, friends with women who are sex workers. For the most part they’re white and middle-class and well-educated, like me. And pretty well-versed in feminist theory, like me. Their choices and options look similar to mine, and they’ve chosen sex work.

Who am I to question that choice? To tell another woman what she can and cannot do with her body? To suggest, as some feminists do, that this ‘choice’ is in fact Stockholm syndrome whereby the sex worker is identifying with her oppressor. ‘But how would you feel if your daughter chose to be a sex worker?’ my girlfriends ask. The answer is, I would feel very uneasy. But if she made that choice my first concern is for her wellbeing and human rights, not my ideological purity. Her bodily integrity is inviolable regardless of the number of sexual partners she chooses to have (or not have) and in what shape or form.  I would want her to be part of, and not apart from, the greater community. Her choices respected. Her rights protected. I want that for Tracy Connelly, too. I want it for every woman.

SA Jones

SA Jones is a historian, writer and regulatory analyst. She is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking.

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  1. Thanks for articulating so well the message that there should be no ‘buts’ in our attitude towards violence against women.

  2. Thanks for reinforcing the importance of autonomy of women’s decision-making. It appears our press has as yet much to learn about this: compare and contrast the coverage of the Jill Meagher case with the case of Tracey Connelly, and I think there is a very clear message about which women are seen as ‘legitimate’ victims of male violence.

  3. Thanks for this piece, The problem, in my opinion, is that the argument for ‘sex workers autonomy’ is often backed up as pointed out in this article, by men who actually want to access sex workers or who argue that men deserve access to women’s bodies as a ‘right’. It is necessary to demand autonomy and safety of workers in the industry and respect the decision of those who work in that industry, however not at the expense of looking at societal constructs that limit women’s choices as well. Funnily enough I dont see too many leftist men looking for real solutions to the complex issues faced by women, or even listening to what women have to say in general to be honest, but I see a hell of a lot of leftist men supporting the ‘rights of sex workers’ in a very simplistic way.

  4. Wonderful piece. I reckon though your middle class, educated sex worker friends work in the relative safety and prosperity of brothels without the desperation of a drug habit or the benefit of being ‘marketable’ to ‘nice’ clientèle, factors that force other sex workers into the vastly greater dangers of street walking. The risk to reward ratio makes the notion of choice interesting when comparing the drivers and experiences across different sex workers. I just missed my stop due to rant. I too am angry.

    1. Kate Holden: Writer,”in My Skin” became a sex worker (prostitute, as she called it, not so very long ago) and she was from a middle class background, she was not middleclass at the time, in fact she was obviously quite poor, but she was indeed very well educated. Kate did not choose to be a sex worker, but like many others she needed not only to earn to survive, but to pay for the drugs. Again, she had no choice there-drugs chose her.She eventually did choose to get off drugs and out of sex work,perhaps as a result of her education, her desire to continue writing, the support from her loving family, and the dream of travelling.Sally Ann Huxtepth was another, a girl with an elite private school background: she did not make it, she was murdered. If I had a daughter who chose to be a sex worker, I would be seriously questioning what went wrong, as I’m sure any regular mother would.In the seventies, after the Vietnam War made all sorts of drugs available on the streets-drugs like cocaine and heroine which were previously only avaiable to the wealthy, I saw girls roped into sex work who from rural backgrounds, yes conned by men to work for them.Fortunate are those who choose what they want to be, but often delusional if they believe it has been their choice. It puts a whole new meaning on the words “conform” and “conventional”! More likely “conditioned into thinking they chose”. Well if we all lived so consciously by choosing everything we do, as if we always have options to do otherwise, would our lives be fulfilled’ would’nt life be emotionally and spiritually dead?

  5. Thanks SA Jones and to Cassie as well, for missing your stop.
    When it comes to ideology and the friend … Ideologically, I’ve long thought that prostitution is a more honest transaction than a traditional western marriage, that sex workers should be honoured for the role they play in society, that … that …
    That all changed when my daughter ‘chose’ sex work. I’ve accentuated that word because her habit made the move into sex work not about choice at all – but a continuation of trauma that began in her childhood.

    She told me once that a woman was raped in the brothel that she worked in. My internal reaction, to my shame, was one of utter bewilderment for a whole gamut of reasons. How could that happen? Don’t they have security? Did it mean that the client just didn’t pay? What IS rape in a brothel? Was she beaten?
    When she was street working, I used to urge her to find work in reputable brothels where she would be safe. Imagine that mother-daughter conversation for a moment, if you will. I even helped her contact madams.

    There are a few organisations around who help women and men extricate themselves from prostitution. They range from religious groups to ex-workers and they are utterly brilliant in my opinion. Thanks to a combination of these groups my daughter has gotten off the drugs, out of the ‘game’ (interesting term huh?) after a year of sex work – and has just had her first child with a man she loves and who loves her.
    I know she will never go back. But I also know how damaged she has been by the experience.

    Hearing about Tracey Connolly created a kind of internal pain in me that I find difficult to express. We need to keep our daughters safe, no matter their line of work. That is all.

    1. It’s interesting to me that many people who reply to these columns are often the ones with negative or biased views about sex work. All of us who have positive experiences of the industry must get burned out repeating our stories.

      I was in the industry for 25 years. I worked in many different areas i cluding Pro Domming. It was a great industry to be in and I miss it now I have chosen to do other work. I did not require rescuing, nor was I coerced by circumstance. At least no more than anybody else wanting to do a job that offered decent financial return and self employment. Those were the conditions I required.

      If my daughter chose sex work I would want her to be safe and healthy. Same as any otherjob she might choose.

      It’ll be a great day

      1. Thanks for that comment Felicity. I get the burnout of repeating the positive stories. One of my friends worked for years and she feels the same way.
        But when it comes being a mother of a ‘green’ daughter running off the rails, this was our own experience. Like I wrote, my feelings swing between my ideology and the friend. I will always want her to be safe, healthy and to have a choice. Unfortunately she didn’t have any of these things at the time. It was a terrifying period and I am glad she found her way out.

  6. My views on sex work have changed a lot over the years, partly I suspect as there have been some demographic changes in the sex work industry, and partly as I’ve learned more.
    Stuff I have worked out: There’s diversity in women’s experiences of sex work, and in the reasons that women choose it. The majority of sex workers don’t view their problems as being caused by sex work, and most see sex work as a solution to some of them. That’s why they do it. I have no reason to say,: “Actually, I know better. This is a better solution.” For starters, I am acutely aware that I actually know less about sex work than a sex worker does. And I don’t think that is an approach that offers solidarity.
    Solidarity to me means supporting the demands that sex worker groups make. Defending everyone’s right to make their own decisions about our bodies, and be respected in doing so. Fighting for a better deal for all women, so we all have access to better and more choices. Tackling some of the worst problems that some of those who don’t love the industry but stay cause it’s the best option might be trying to solve – homelessness, homophobia, transphobia, shitty wages, outrageous student loans, inadequate support for single and non-working parents; and punitive and ineffective drug laws, for starters. Whether or not it meant less women chose sex work, it would definitely mean we’re all living in a better world.
    So yeah, I also stand with the sex workers.

  7. While I agree that prostitution needs to be legal, I think it does cement unequal power between men and women. Sex should be about mutual desire, at the very least.

    You can believe that without thinking that the murder of a sex worker is somehow less tragic than that of a woman who works in a different field.

    1. But I don’t think ‘prostitution’ is about sex. It is sex work, and it is about work! (Work which women choose to do for one reason or another. Sexual desire is irrelevant here.)

      I do agree that you can hold opinions with grave reservations about sex work, and still recognise that the murder of a sex worker should be acknowledged as equally sinister as that of any other woman.

      1. Sexual desire does come into it: from the John.

        I’m all for empowering women to make their own choices in what they do with their lives. I’m thankful that I’m in a good enough position financially etc where I hopefully never have to make that ‘choice’.

        It just seems like such a bodily invasion if you don’t want to have sex with them, even if they’re nice and give you cash for the transaction. But maybe I’m not sophisticated enough to understand.

  8. There is a reason sex workers find it hard to come near the comments section of these pages – its not just a “campaign” for us, its our lives. That anyone (including mothers) feels that they can speak on our behalf is a personal insult that leaves my blood running cold every time.

    Thank you SA Jones for thinking through these issues. It should be sex workers voices that matter.

    I am choosing not to list my tragic history or positive stories here. I feel uncomfortable that these debates compel the sharing of tragedy porn in order for fellow feminists to check “credentials” about whether or not one is empowered/victimised enough to make comment.

    I am much happier spending my day engaging with clients who want to pay me for sex, rather than feminists who want to fleece my history for their own political gain for free. These debates leave me feeling used and exploited, far more so than any day in a brothel, on the street, on webcam or working privately has ever done. By being a sex worker I can live with myself and my choices in a capitalist society where making money relates directly to how much food is on my table. The feminist project is still yet to grapple with that material fact.

    1. This is a completely outrageous article and a betrayal of everything that humanism and the enlightenment stand for. To accept ‘sex work’ is to accept selling male orgasms and fake orgasms as work. It is not work it is slavery and a form of female perversion which enables a form of male perversion. To say that ‘sex work’ equates to working in a coffee shop or an office to earn a wage is to accept the global trade in women and children for sex. Sex trafficking reduces the poor wretches caught up in it to pieces of meat. As one criminal told the author of a book on trafficking, ‘If you sell drugs, you can only sell them once but a woman or a child can be sold over and over and there is much less heat from the law over sex trafficking than there is over drugs.’ Yes, I know many will say trafficking is a crime because they are kidnapped and coerced but in reality they are the fruit of the same poisonous tree. Without the acceptance of prostitution as a way of making money men would not also find going to a woman being held as a slave as acceptable and the criminals running it couldn’t make fortunes out of it. There are wealthy people in this country who profit from sex trafficking, just as there are many that profit from plain prostitution where the woman prostitutes herself. And it is more than strange that a prostitute would accuse feminists of not supporting prostitution. One of the main planks of feminism was that women had a right to hire out their genitals to men for money- one of the few planks I didn’t agree with. Many prostitutes have been molested as children and then ended up on the streets and on drugs and have turned to prostitution to pay for their drugs. It is foolish beyond belief to regard it as an uncomplicated financial transaction. It is not. And the women who sell themselves make every woman a lesser being. The reason Jill Meagher’s killer was out of jail was because he ‘only’ raped prostitutes. She was a victim of the disrespect and dysfunction that prostitution puts on all women. The link between the drug trade is also obvious in that many of the women who are kidnapped and forced into prostitution are also injected with heroin to make them addicted and completely dependent on those selling them for the drug. All in all prostitution is a waste of a human being and a life. To say otherwise is to ignore the facts, which are disturbing to the point of gruesomeness in many cases. One of the main arguments for prostitution was that it protected all women from rape. But rape is now endemic in western society and prostitution has made it more, not less, likely to occur. Prostitution is not about money it is about male power over women.

    1. Do you want to explain what’s so funny? I would think it was normal for men to not comment on threads on feminism.
      And really its a tiny minority of men “pushing the industry forward”.

    2. If it’s legitimate to provide the service I don’t see how we can say it’s illegitimate to use it. I think we often come at this from the wrong perspective – i.e. that the lust of sexually unsuccessful men is a fundamentally dangerous thing that should be managed and repressed to reduce harm. As the article touches on, It implies that men are essentially slaves to their hormones and will lurch into criminality if they aren’t given an outlet.

      From the female side as well, we seem intent on depriving women of their rationality. Many sex workers are indeed forced into it, and many get there through desperation, but there is a whole world of sex work (topless modelling, strip clubs, webcam chats on the internet and so on) where that doesn’t apply. When confronted with those examples we tend to fall back on blaming broad cultural forces – as if women only aspire to be topless models because our patriarchal culture has told them to aspire to it. If anything, that’s even worse.

      What this all boils down to is that we think our own personal morals should be placed above those of consenting adults. Men who turn to sex workers are slaves to their hormones, while women are slaves to men (or drugs) – if not literally, then psychologically. Put simply, it’s about us saying that we “know better” because our own personal moral code objects to their behaviour. They don’t really know what they’re doing and can’t be trusted to make their own decisions.

      I have never used a prostitute and have no intention of ever doing so, but to put that kind of ideological objection above personal safety, as we do in the case of prostitution, is an absolute scandal as far as I’m concerned. It’s not safe to have unlicensed prostitution, so instead of wrangling with our own internal moral reservations let’s do something tangible to make it safe – i.e. legalise it, license it and come down like a ten ton hammer on anyone engaged in human trafficking or violence against women.

      1. Well put, Bill.

        I’d like to also point out that there are a substantial amount of male sex workers as well, often suffering under the same conditions (or not), specifically in the gay/bi/transgender/other community. Where do they fall within this conversation? Theirs is a story often untold, at least insofar as I am aware.

        One way or another, it seems clear the industry needs an incredible amount of work to be made much safer for all involved.

  9. Thank you, S.A. Jones, for making a stand against violence, for championing our right to choice, and for giving voice and compassion to the life of Tracy Connelly.

  10. What a sick, sad world in which people are compelled to sell their labour – even their sexual labour – merely in order to feed, clothe and house themselves! How could anyone enjoy sex in such an unjust, corrupt society?

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