The annual ‘Festival of Dangerous Ideas’ presented this year by Sydney Opera House and St James Ethics Centre opens on Saturday the 30th of August. FODI (Festival of Dangerous Ideas) is billed as:
“..leading thinkers and culture creators from around the world will take to the stage to bring contentious ideas to the fore and challenge mainstream thought and opinion..”
The St James Ethics Centre, which heavily promotes FODI on its website, identifies itself as an:
“.. independent not-for-profit organisation that provides an open forum for the promotion and exploration of ethical questions..”
So lets look at the coverage of sex workers in FODI and see how challenging and open it really is?
We’ll start with ‘Women for Sale’ a FODI panel on 31st August:
“Women, and their bodies, are for sale… Throughout the world, women and children are trafficked and traded as workers in the multi-billion-dollar sex industry, and their bodies are bought by ‘consumers’ everywhere. .. Pornography, IVF, surrogacy and prostitution are very different things, but all put women and their bodies on the market.” (quoted from ‘Women for Sale’, FODI website).
As a sex worker I sell my services and not my body – yes, just checked, it’s still here with me – so language like this is actually incredibly offensive.
The panelists for this include Lydia Cacho (author of ‘Slavery Inc’), Kajsa Ekis Ekman (author of ‘Being Bought and Being Sold’), Alissa Nutting (author of ‘Unclean Jobs for Woman and Girls) and Elizabeth Pisani (author of ‘Indonesia Etc’ and another book perhaps relevant but not listed on the website – ‘The Wisdom of Whores’).
The panel itself begins from a mainstream premise - that of sex worker as a victim without agency – the position that is carried prevalently by the media, that impacts heavily on the stigma and discrimination that sex workers live with daily. This is then being argued by people in a position of privilege – by academics and journalists – who make their living recycling and promoting this agenda, on the backs of sex workers, without allowing sex workers access to the discussion.
No sex workers are included on this panel, despite local organisations being available and the national sex worker organisation Scarlet Alliance having its base in Sydney.
But wait there’s more – ‘Slavery Is Big Business’ is a talk by Lydia Cacho (one of the panelists from FODI’s ‘Women for Sale’) on Sunday the 31st of August:
“..slavery is often seen as a dark part of the colonial past .. it remains alive and well—and is growing dramatically. Impervious to recession, it forms a thriving part of the globalised sex industry run by organised crime. International trafficking of women and children for sex is a multi-billion dollar business that won’t be anywhere near ‘abolition’ until those who make money from its operations and buy its services think again about what being complicit in slavery means..”
Conflating sex work and trafficking is a significant part of the abolitionist agenda. This is done as a way to silence sex workers and prevent them from leading discussions about our own lives and human rights – and sex workers should be leading these discussions – not in the back of the room watching while non sex workers discuss whether or not we should access our human rights, or whether sex workers should have a right to health and safety in their work.
But still there’s more – ‘Surrogacy is Child Trafficking’ a talk by Kajsa Ekis Ekman (another one of the panelists from FODI’s ‘Women for Sale’) on Saturday 30th August:
“..Surrogacy—or contract pregnancy—has become a global industry, growing at unprecedented speed.. Whereas the sex industry is increasingly targeted by legislators as exploitation, the surrogacy industry retains a rosy image. Helping an infertile couple to have a baby of their own is seen as a generous and compassionate gesture from a woman who can help: a sign of female empowerment and free will.. But is it? At a closer glance, the surrogacy industry has more to do with prostitution than we might think. Not only is it exploitation of women’s bodies—in fact surrogacy is nothing but baby trade..”
While there are parts of the world where “the sex industry is increasingly targeted by legislators as exploitation”, specifically countries enacting the Swedish or Nordic Model – this has had terrible outcomes for sex workers, as we see here by listening to Swedish sex worker, Pye Jacobson:
Sex workers regularly state that “sex work is work”, sex workers call for sex workers human rights and labour rights to be recognised. At AIDS 2014 sex workers and allies released many important statements calling on legislators to recognise decriminalisation as the key strategy for sex workers health and safety, and as an essential part of “eventual control of the pandemic”.
And yet there is still more FODI has to throw at us:
So what’s up with Pussy Riot? Aren’t they those cool punks with colourful balaclavas that held a concert in a church and pissed off Putin? Well yes. They’re also members of FEMEN and here’s FEMENs policy on sex work:
“..to ideologically undermine the fundamental institutes of patriarchy – dictatorship, sex-industry, and church – by putting these institutes through subversive trolling to force them to strategic surrender.. to promote new revolutionary female sexuality as opposed to the patriarchal erotic and pornography..” (quoted from FEMEN website, femen.org/about)
So this is what FODI has come up with in a festival that purports to challenge mainstream ideas and that is co-sponsored by St James Ethics Centre that prides itself as being an “open forum for the promotion and exploration of ethical questions“: four events run by and – excepting perhaps one* – composed entirely of anti-sex work speakers.
For FODI – Apparently allowing sex workers – the actual marginalised group in question – to speak on sex work, about their own lives and human rights – IS JUST TOO DANGEROUS AN IDEA.
Want to tell Festival of Dangerous Ideas and St James Ethics Centre what you think?
FODI are on Twitter at @IdeasattheHouse
FODI are on Facebook as Ideas at the House – Facebook
St James Ethics Centre are on Twitter at @stjamesethics
Updates provided when available, as usual…
*NB – Elizabeth Pisani’s position isn’t clear in this, although the fact that she’s participating in the panel without having asked why a representative for sex workers isn’t present is a concern.