Sex worker rights – an idea too dangerous for Festival of Dangerous Ideas


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”.

Lancet report: Support sex workers to prevent HIV



MPs commit to rights-based reform to tackle AIDS – AFPPD


And yet there is still more FODI has to throw at us:

Pussy Riot/Zona Prava in Conversation In Conversation With Masha Gessen

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:

“ 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,


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?

Festival of Dangerous Ideas is using #FODI on Twitter, include this as well as #rightsnotrescue in your tweets to hold FODI responsible for their actions

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.

12 thoughts on “Sex worker rights – an idea too dangerous for Festival of Dangerous Ideas

  1. My brother recommended I might like this blog. He was entirely right.
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  2. Pingback: The 76th Down Under Feminists Carnival. | The Scarlett Woman

  3. In response to Matthias Lehmann, I don’t know what part of Elizabeth Pasini’s work was viewed as problematic by international sex work communities. I’ve only read one book she has written, and found it to be excellent–and I am a sex worker. I didn’t find anything about how the book was written to be problematic. I don’t personally know of any sex workers who found the book problematic and your comments were the first I read about the mixed feelings toward her by international sex worker communities. Yet, I’m not claiming to speak for all sex workers–just speaking from my perspective and knowledge.

  4. Thank you for the update. I already had a lot of respect for Elizabeth Pisani, and now I have even more. She has shown herself to be a true ally of sex workers.

  5. In the opinion of co-curator Simon Longstaff, “what needed to be represented was a broad spectrum of opinion, which included the opinions of sex workers in Elizabeth Pisani, who was able to articulate the opinions that sex workers hold.”. His comments add insult to injury. First they rejected Jules Kim’s request to be included, then he says, ‘look, Elizabeth Pisani can speak for ya’…

    I admit I haven’t looked into her book in quite a while but I was previously unaware that her work was met “with mixed reception from the international sex worker community” (NSWP Could you enlighten me on which part of her work was seen as problematic?

  6. As you may have now seen from yesterdays events at Festival of Dangerous Ideas and today’s post Elizabeth Pisani gave up her seat on the ‘Women for Sale’ panel to allow sex worker Jules Kim, Acting CEO of Scarlet Alliance (Australian Sex Workers Association) to speak. It is appreciated that Elizabeth Pisani took this step in the face of FODI continuing to refuse sex workers access to speak on a panel where our lives were the topic but sex workers were not considered relevant as participants in the discussion.

  7. Pingback: Sex Workers speak out despite exclusion at Festival of Dangerous Ideas | sexliesducttape

  8. I just read this blog entry some more and was surprised to see Elizabeth Pasani listed as a panelist after having read one of her books: “The Wisdom of Whores”. This was one of my favorite books and challenges the conflation of all prostitution with trafficking and is very critical of policies criminalizing sex workers and end demand tactics. The book provided a very deep critique into the development of HIV/AIDS and trafficking policies, their implications on sex workers, and included insight from various sex workers. This did not come across as an anti-sex work book at all, which is why I’m surprised to see her on this panel which looks very anti-sex work based on the description.

  9. Great point about how sex workers sell our services, not our bodies. I find it very ignorant when people say sex workers sell our bodies and don’t notice people saying this about workers in any other industries or trades who also get paid for their work. I’m not saying they sell their bodies either, yet hopefully people get the point…

  10. It’s always tough. Representation/consultation can be seen or be used as having “consulted sex workers” even when they went directly against what sex workers wanted.

  11. Thank you for writing this!

    While I certainly agree that the panel should include a sex worker – one, at the very least – the fact that they invited Elizabeth Pisani means there will at least be one friendly voice up there. Only she herself can know why she accepted to be a panellist without insisting on also inviting a sex worker, but the set-up of the panel suggests that this was probably as far as they were prepared to go. The question is – and this is not meant as a rhetorical question – whether or not one should generally reject invitations to events if it becomes clear that the organisers do not – or even refuse – to invite sex workers. Or should one be able to pick and choose and sometimes accept those invitations to at least bring some counter-arguments to the discussions, if, like here, it seems quite obvious that the organisers are the ones with the dangerous ideas, and not in a good way. One could argue that as long as people keep accepting those invites without insisting on sex workers to be included, attitudes won’t change. Or one could argue that leaving the panels to the antis will leave their narratives unrefuted. What do you think?

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