Siege Mentality vs. Engagement With the Enemy

From the Panel – Sexuality & Gender in the Landscape of Electoral Politics

Camp Betty, Sydney, 2011

I should start today by making a declaration – I am both a sadist and a masochist.  Equally and absolutely.  Now while I wouldn’t necessarily want to imply that these qualities of character are required for electoral politics – I think they help…

This is mainly because I believe there can be, in life & in politics, a natural tendency to stay within our own circles of influence, our “comfort zone”, to develop a siege mentality, only engaging with the “enemy” rarely, in numbers, and on matters of perceived great importance.  But I believe what can be better, braver (and perhaps more masochistic), is to engage more often, even persistently.  To view the landscape of electoral politics as a series of opportunities to engage and effect change.  That change may be as magical, as when recently debating safe speech & whorephobia with someone in Victoria I saw the light-bulb just “switch-on” and their mind literally changed in front of me, or the process may be as slow as erosion.  And sometimes you’re not making progress at all, sometimes you’re just stopping things from getting worse.

Lobbying in the ACT recently, stopping things from getting worse was certainly on the agenda.  In September 2008 a 17 year old young woman was found dead from a heroin overdose in a Fyshwick sex industry business.  Attorney-General Simon Corbell insisted at the time that the regulation of the ACT’s licensed brothels was working well, police advice was that there was “not a significant level of criminal activity in the industry”.  Despite this, having died from a combination of pneumonia and heroin overdose, the young woman’s death was taken up and used as a political tool by the religious right to push for an Inquiry into the Operation of the Prostitution Act 1992, by the Standing Committee on Justice & Community Safety.

Not surprisingly, one of the political operators pushing for the Inquiry, ended up chairing the Inquiry – an inquiry that sex workers had not asked for, did not want or need.  Lets get this straight this wasn’t a terrific opportunity for sex worker to get improved rights, this was going to be a battle to defend the few existing rights we had in the ACT.

Media as usual weighed in with the sort of unbiased and balanced reporting we have come to expect:

Death of Innocence (Canberra Times, 01 Nov 2008)

Sex Trade Eyes the Suburbs (Canberra Times, 06 March 2011)

Church in Push to Make Prostitution Illegal in ACT Again (Canberra Times, 19 March 2011)

Capital’s Child Sex Workers All Alone (Canberra Times, 24 March 2011)

But even if our enemies had headway in the media circus, in informing the public, surely our voice would be heard in submission to the Inquiry in terms of informing the ‘powers that be’?

But what other voices were being heard?  While we wrote a submission based both on the ‘terms of reference’ for the Inquiry but also on mitigating the worst of the usual arguments that are thrown at us, what new problems and pitfalls might the process entail?

Having co-ordinated with allies we discovered an odd phenomenon where submissions that were sex worker positive (and particularly those openly submitted by sex workers) seemed to disappear into the bureaucratic process, taking weeks to be approved and published to the website, some not appearing at all – although the Committee when contacted would admit the submissions had been received and were ‘in progress’.

Oddly there seemed to be no shortage of submissions against us, although having subjected these to a linguistic/statistical analysis it did appear as if 14 of these had been produced by the same person/group of people (which is a bit like cheating really).  Unfortunately when looking at submissions, they tend to be assessed at face value – so the fact that we hadn’t stacked our numbers and the anti-sex work side had probably counted against us.  The danger of being honest in politics I guess and maybe I can learn from that.  I actually kept an excerpt from one of the anti sex work submissions to the ACT Inquiry, as it contained the most incredibly motivating rhetoric – the sort of thing I like to keep around so I can re-read it when I’m lacking the enthusiasm for activism, it was supplied by the Ginninderra Christian Church:

             “Do not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a whore; because if you do the land will fall into whoredom, and the land will be full of wickedness.”

            Leviticus 19 v 29

EXCELLENT, I can revel in my wickedness, especially when my morals compared to theirs (I think) look pretty shiny.

Waiting for some of the first hearings on the ACT Inquiry to start back in March I had a choice between staying outside smoking until the last minute or going inside to mingle with the various political animals and flunkies assembled and waiting.  I decided to engage.  I managed to get all the way down the corridor, stand there for approximately 30 seconds, and ask someone the time, before people started working out who or what I was.  The large badge on my chest announcing “Sex work is work” probably helped.  And like the red sea before Moses, they parted and created a gap of two metres or so around me – it’s nice to feel wanted.  So when the doors to the hearing opened and I noticed the small number of available seats, I waited, and waited, until everyone else had filed in.  And then when it was obvious that people weren’t going to be able to move without risking not getting a prime seat again – I sat down next to the most conservative person I could see, and introduced myself.

I got to spend ten minutes talking to the rep. for the Australian Christian Lobby.  While they may not have been ten of the most productive minutes of my life, they counted and I was willing to make the effort.  If he got some inkling of the fact that I am a person as well as a sex worker, not just some instrument of sin that they bang on about in their submission then it was worth it.  Hell, it was worth it for the look on his face when I told him I am an ex-Methodist Sunday School Teacher, who now works as a Dominatrix (among other things).

Back as part of a delegation testifying to the Inquiry in April, we were balancing a need to stay on message with a desire to defend against the attacks we expected to face from a hostile environment.  And facing that a significant proportion of time goes into preparing answers for difficult questions that may or may not be asked, almost to the post of overcompensation.  It reminds me of the nuclear defence strategy M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction), in that so much time can be spent basing strategy around the enemy and their tactics that it can be easy to forget that anything else exists!  And yet the hope is occasionally, & eventually you’re not just stopping things from getting worse – you’re effecting real change – you only have to look at the history of activism in this country and almost any country to see that.  But sometimes in the trenches you can forget.  And that makes it hard to keep making an effort.

But for me that’s what it’s about.  Making the effort.  Doing what I know I can do – as someone in a position of privilege, because I am able to be out in terms of my sexuality, my sex worker status and my activism.  Although interacting with politicians and bureaucrats may not always be the most technically pleasant experience, I find it an interesting challenge, and besides as I said:

I am a masochist.

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