Sex work and gentrification

Sex worker spaces are dynamic, hectic environments. They are almost always temporary, as workers come and go, and non-peers, ‘muggles’, tramp through for whatever reason. From smoky green rooms in brothels and strip clubs, peeps booths, red light district parks and streets, to the offices of sex worker organisations, they are all rich and tumultuous. I love them. Whilst I may compete with my peers for clients, and this can be fierce competition, there is an organic camaraderie in many of these spaces bred by mutual understanding. For we are the downtrodden. We are the ‘deviants’.

Perhaps this feeling exists mostly in my head, for I must admit that I’m privileged. I’m a white cis-male born in Australia; I am reasonably educated and moderately good-looking, and usually work privately as an escort. I experience little systematic oppression for being what I am, besides whorephobia. For many others, though, the intersecting disadvantages become progressively worse, doubtless taking the romanticised shine off sex work and sex worker spaces. For many, these spaces are a means of survival. But sex work as a means of survival does not negate a sex worker’s right to consent. That old lie, a favourite of radical feminists, doesn’t wash. No wonder, then, that sex worker spaces can be a home and a refuge, which is so desperately needed to retreat from the outside world.

So there I was, for the fourth day in a row, sitting inside a tiny windowless-room in a Surry Hills brothel, wreathed in cigarette smoke, listening to the drone of Sex in the City from someone’s laptop. Carrie’s self-absorbed patter was inescapable, and after four days with little work, highly irritating. I cracked it, asking the viewer if they could cordially get fucked with their shitty television show. This was a major faux pas (theatrical homosexuals loudly arguing in an enclosed space, with people fucking in the next room ­– not highly regarded).

Part of the reason I’d thrown a na-na is that the episode being watched was SATC’s Season 3 ‘Cock a Doodle Do!’, a problematic tale wherein the peace in Samantha’s new Meatpacking District apartment is disturbed by trans sex workers on the streets below. Ho ho, women of colour, trans, and street-based sex workers? Bring on the stigma and heartless puns! Effectively, by the end of the episode we’re led to believe that gentrifiers like the SATC women and sex workers can live in harmony, in a friendly little rooftop party to soothe over those angry whores’ feelings.

To which I call bullshit. In 2000, and in reality, ‘Cock a Doodle Do!’ was a coup for artists, suits and developers as WASP women (and gay men) swarmed to New York’s Meatpacking District for seedy feel-good tourism. Here, finally, was a place that you could wear your leather and your lace. This was the revolution! And first to go were the most maligned, the trans women of colour who worked the streets, who occupied public space in a supposedly R-rated manner to scratch out a living.

A major source of the hostility between Meatpacking District street-based sex workers and locals was Alan Dell, owner of Hogs and Heifers, a Coyote Ugly style biker-bar that opened doors in 1992. Dell’s patrons would harass and attack workers, in escalating intimidation designed to establish them as the winners of a dirty and violent turf war. Dell, too, enjoyed warfare; he is quoted as taking great delight in spotlighting women who, terrified, would scatter in fear they were being done by police for ‘prostitution’.

Six years on, in 1998, the slow creep of gentrification was hastened by Rudy Giuliani’s quality of life directives, which were shuttering workplaces across New York. Almost everyone was falling afoul of police raids due to zoning strictures, with at least 23 workplaces closed between August and October 1998. Giuliani’s quality of life measures took a zero tolerance approach to adult shops, porn theatres, massage parlours, topless bars and brothels by requiring all venues within 500 feet of homes, places of worship, schools and each other to ‘clean up’ or terminate business. The legislation was based on the ‘broken windows’ theory, which posits that allowing broken windows and other signs of disorder – such as graffiti – to exist in a neighbourhood encourages serious crime by showing that the local community is not in control. Combined with zero tolerance measures, this meant that warnings or on-the-spot fines were dropped in favour of a hard-line approach. Police were given carte blanche, and they did not spare the individual.

Of the 164 known venues in 1998, authorities expected 144 to go PG-13, or close. Closures meant significant job losses, and forced New York’s sex workers into desperate circumstances, as competition for work increased, fees went down and clients dried up. To save money, workers were forced to move out of Manhattan, to do unsafe work, and to take on nastier clients that they would usually intuitively reject as dangerous.

And as usual in the aftermath of short-sighted, ignorant policies, people looked back and scratched their heads, wondering where the strippers, go-go dancers, masseurs and escorts might have gone, unaware that those who previously had their own spaces were forced underground. But land value went up, so the trade off was worth it, right? Landowners made money. Hallelujah!

In the words of Le Tigre, ‘Giuliani, he’s such a fuckin’ jerk …’

New York’s Audre Lorde Project, an organisation for queer people of colour, suggested:

[The] devaluing of certain communities paves the way for socially destructive and dangerous polices [sic] such as…the ‘Quality of Life’ campaign, [which] allows communities whose very existence is tenuous to be disenfranchised and brutalized at even greater levels. As a result, the presence and actions of women and trans people of color, and particularly youth, sex workers, and homeless people, are always likely to be deemed ‘disorderly,’ causing ‘quality of life policing’ to curb our freedom of movement and legitimize and even facilitate police violence towards us.

Looking over the last thirty years of legislation and policing of sex work in the US, there is a definite trend towards moving sex workers out of the public sphere. You either harass the shit out of them til they up and leave for elsewhere, encourage someone else to finish them off (Long Island Ripper, unsolved), or arrest sex workers and give money to private institutions to keep them imprisoned. In the end, what’s left is white picket fence high-rises and a placated muggle community.

There is no question that the schism between sex workers and gentrification is strongest in public space. As Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association so aptly puts it:

Street Based Sex Workers are the most visible sex workers in our community … In reality most sex worker organisations estimate only one to two percent of all sex workers work on the street… [Yet] street based workers around Australia are at the coal face when it comes to discrimination and harassment against the sex industry.

So while visibility increases accessibility to clientele and generates income, it runs parallel to whorephobic violence that is not only socially acceptable, but openly celebrated. The brutal murder of Tracy Connelly in July of this year (unsolved, and once again are we really surprised at the lack of action by police?) was a strong reminder for Australian sex workers. I, personally, was inconsolable as I left flowers in Greeves Street for a woman I had never met, and was wracked so hard by sobs as I returned to my car that I couldn’t get behind the wheel. Even now, recalling this memory is difficult; it makes me feel completely alone. And this is the intention. Violence is used to isolate sex workers from our peers and alienate us from our spaces, from the street, and from the public. Never has my skin crawled so eerily as it did on Greeves Street.

As in the US, Australia’s relationship with street-based sex workers is unquestionably ugly. Whilst laws regarding sex work vary from state to state (as in the US), only NSW enshrines sex workers’ rights with decriminalisation. This, however, did not stop residents of Newcastle’s Islington from forming the Islington Action Group in 2009. IAG is comprised of lobbyists and pervert vigilantes, united to ‘remove the scourge of illegal street prostitution and asscioated crimanal activity [sic]’. This, despite street-based sex work being legal in NSW (the law is grey on soliciting, and outright bans sex in public for everyone).

But looking through IAG’s materials, I get the feeling that the objection is not so much to soliciting or acts of sex, so much as the workers’ physical existence. Seedy photos taken from cars, of women – you can barely believe it! – walking in public litter their materials, as do grandiose claims such as ‘a doctor … identified over 80 different girls in a 16 month period … all have Hepatitis C or clymidea [sic] or both’. One wonders in what manner and where did this doctor examine these women, to reach such findings? It reads like the sex ed teacher from Mean Girls, and if it wasn’t so vile I’d laugh for days at the sheer, unadulterated idiocy.

Perth, too, has its share of unadulterated idiots. Alannah MacTiernan, former Mayor of Vincent, feathered her one-term mayoral career attempting to curb street-based sex work in Highgate. While her campaign won’t be commemorated for its successes, she gained the federal seat of Perth in the 2013 federal election, thus escaping petty local politics to get back again to the ‘real’ issues.

Last year I was particularly touched by one article in ‘in my community’ regarding MacTiernan’s campaign, in which reporter Lauren Peden described Highgate’s street-based sex workers as ‘sex walkers’. Because clearly, we are the sex that walks. Zombie analogies continued in the comments, with one particularly astute gentleman titled ‘Love Thigh Neighbour’ [sic – seriously, I couldn’t make this shit up] suggesting he would do marketing for local traders with signage stating ‘BRAIN DEAD FOR SALE HERE!!!! Willing to do destroying [sic] own bodies and families with disease for cash’.

He also blames workers and clients for the destruction of his marriage, though how they have done this remains unclear.

Perhaps the most intelligent and insightful comment on the article comes from, surprise, surprise, a sex worker, ‘Lydia’, who quips:

Local mayor using sex workers as a political football. Now that’s unusual for the City of Vincent – NOT! Those who have lived in the area more than a minute will know that the Police made street based sex workers move to Highgate when the newly gentrified Lake Street area residents started to complain.

One resident of Stirling Street in Highgate has offered a strange and rare admission:

This spot is like the Hay Street of Kalgoorlie. It has been going on for a long time, before I ever moved in here, ten or 15 years ago I was reading about it… It’s not dangerous – It’s all blown out of proportion … If we move it from here, the trade is just going to move somewhere else. I would honestly prefer for it to stay the way it is.

On this I feel conflicted, as the resident has moved to the area fully aware that it’s a red light district, yet he also offers a level-headed and realistic analysis of the situation. Perhaps this then is another example of the slower trend of gentrification, in which ‘do no harm’-ers pile one upon the other until sex workers are inevitably elbowed out into industrial areas/outer suburbs.

Regardless, MacTiernan has wielded the police like a shovel, hoping to scoop up sex workers but only succeeding in making us scatter. She and the police should be highly embarrassed; her myopic policy has perpetuated another endless game of red-light musical chairs. But then these are the actions of individuals that do not mind history repeating itself. After all, they’re not the ones affected. They move on to bigger and better money. That, in its essence, is what co-opting and gentrifying sex worker spaces is about. Money. The big D(ollar).

Sex workers are too often regarded as targets, and in the case of politicians, academics, developers and property owners, targeting us and our spaces is about making easy profit and turnover. Because sex workers are disgusting, right, but not so disgusting that voyeurism and titillation are removed from play. And that’s the way to make a real profit from the sex industry: do as much theatrical semaphore as needed (without doing sex work), do enough to attract attention to yourself and your cause, and then sit back and rake in the dollars. That’s how you make it rain.

Dan Bledwich

Dan Bledwich is a 28-year-old sex worker and writer who lives in Melbourne. Dan dropped out of University of Wollongong’s Creative Writing degree (does it show?), and now divides his time between writing his first novel, poetry, punk, and being an agitator for social change. As a caveat, Dan acknowledges that he has never done street-based sex work before, and thus when using the words we/our/us, is referring to his sex worker peers as a whole. Dan blogs at His twitter handle is @singult

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  1. You’d think the good doctor from Islington would know that hepatitis c is not sexually transmissible. One can only hope his treatment of the 80 girls was more competent than his attempts to stigmatise them.

  2. Thanks, Mr Bledwich, for this insightful article. It’s so good to read an alternative, well-reasoned perspective to the usual hysteria the politicians and media offer up, as well as the shallow, tokenistc representations of sex workers in shows that think they’re being edgy like SITC. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

  3. God I’d love to hear from a leftwing sex worker unionist who had something to say about fighting their own bosses rather than advocating for their industry like an employer. There must be some out there!

    1. Unionist, you’re unlikely to find much sympathy from sex worker activists with your divisive tactics.
      It’s possible to be a sex worker, to be interested in unionisation (of sorts, the industry is complex) AND to be an advocate for an industry which is highly stigmatized.
      Australian sex workers, by and large, are continually distancing themselves from sex industry business owners: our objectives are entirely different (the right to work in peace and generate our own incomes vs generating income), as are our voices.
      Mary-ann Kenworthy’s (a former brothel owner) distaste for sex worker activists was well known. The same can be said for the Victorian Brothel Association. In both cases, the feeling was mutual.

      Perhaps you would enjoy Tits and Sass more, though you’ll still find plenty of those pesky sex worker activist voices (heaven forbid that we should speak)!

      1. Sex work as “an industry which is highly stigmatized”?

        Doubtless, but highly corporatised too, which is part of Unionist’s argument, and part also of the psychopathy of the sexualised commodification of the human body as object of and for economic transaction, all the way down to encouraging very young children to model themselves on sex workers through such commodities as toys, clothing, and film etc, via native advertising and product placement.

        1. I’m not sure where your evidence is that children are modelled to look like sex workers, but I’d love to see it.
          Sex workers aren’t the only ones who wear skimpy clothing, nor are we the only ones engaging in sexualised behaviour. I think maybe you’re trying to fire off at celebrities, but missed your mark.

          Additionally, sex workers aren’t exactly selling off our organs to drooling clients, we sell our time and company for a fee. What happens during that time is under our control. Regardless of what others think.
          This is our lived experience.

          If you have issues with managers/operators/owners, take it up with them, because I am not the one.

          1. I have issues with contradictions to the movements of corporate capital, to which we are all imbricated, not your piece, which I enjoyed reading and learnt a lot. Thanks. I just don’t get the self-control bit, or the seeming denial of a need for sex workers to contest being stitched up to and by corporate management.

  4. Fabulous! A real pleasure to mentor such a gutsy, articulate writer. Good on Overland for taking you on, and great to read a polished article yet still hear your humour and ‘fucks’ (no pun intended) in the end product x. Wine meeting?

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