Sex Workers speak out despite exclusion at Festival of Dangerous Ideas

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The Festival of Dangerous Ideas’ scheduled line up of anti sex work speakers at the ‘Women for Sale’ panel yesterday was upstaged when a sex worker took the the place of one of the panelists, making it known that sex workers will not be silenced or excluded from discussions about their lives and work.

Panelist Elizabeth Pisani gave up her seat on the panel so that Jules Kim, sex worker and Acting CEO of Scarlet Allliance (Australian Sex Workers Association) could take to the stage and confront the whorephobic and abolitionist agenda of the discussion taking place.

Festival of Dangerous Ideas has this year provided a platform for anti sex work speakers (refer Sex Worker rights an idea too dangerous for Festival of Dangerous Ideas), people whose personal politics, desire to sell books and increase their social capital have lead to them promoting the Nordic or Swedish Model, a form of sex work abolition that would see sex workers right to work safely, access assistance in cases of violence & access justice greatly diminished.

Sex workers around the world call for Decriminalisation as the best practice regulatory model for sex workers health and safety, in June 2014 in Melbourne at the International Conference AIDS 2014, sex workers joined medical researchers and policy experts in calling for decriminalisation to combat both HIV and violence against sex workersLancet report: Support sex workers to prevent HIV.

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Zahra Stardust, sex worker, (pictured above), who came to protest had the following to say about #FODI (Festival of Dangerous Ideas) and their treatment of sex workers:

“The most disturbing aspect about the Women for Sale panel was the presentation of ideas that have been globally and scientifically proven as putting sex workers at real risk (indeed, danger) being positioned as polite, reasonable and interesting debate. The Festival of Dangerous Ideas exemplifies the total failure of ‘human rights’ and ‘progressive’ organisations to recognise oppression at its most obvious, and instead to engage in it frivolously and without accountability as something that is fashionable and will earn them ‘feminist’ credibility. This Festival of Dangerous Ideology uses sex work to sell out a session, then promotes the criminalisation of the people it seeks to protect.”

(Quoted with permission, Zahra Stardust, www.zahrastardust.com@ZahraStardust)

#FODI when approached back in June, had made their attitude of exclusion clear, refusing to allow sex workers access to speak about their own human rights, about their own lives.  This attitude of silencing a marginalised group became even worse on the day.

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Co-Founder and Co-Curator of the Festival Simon Longstaff remarked to the Guardian that “In my opinion 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..”.

#FODI defines a “broad spectrum” of opinion as not including any members of the marginalised group being spoken about, satisfied with selecting a non sex worker to “articulate” sex workers opinions.  #FODI were then upset when that person, Elizabeth Pisani, turned out to have better ethics than St James Ethics centre and #FODI, and gave their seat to a sex worker to speak out about sex workers own lives.

In the Guardian story Three sex workers stage protest at Festival of Dangerous Ideas Longstaff also goes on to say that “One of the conscious designs of the festival is that … there is opportunity for people to contribute in the Q&A..”, but although half an hour of Q&A had been advertised it was cut to approximately five minutes , two questions asked, a sex worker present being told she was not permitted to contribute a question because she knew a panelist.

As Zahra Stardust remarks:

“Guess what? Sex workers actually have expertise on these issues. We live them every day. But we are not being paid to speak at the Opera House. We are here because what is entertainment for you actually affects our lives. A seat at your table is the bare minimum sex workers deserve. If you came and sat on our table, you might recognise that police and NGOs are not our protectors. You might realise that no-one is standing up for our rights except us. At least this was not lost on the security guard who came up to me smiling after the panel to say my question was fantastic and he wished sex workers had more time to talk.

(Quoted with permission, Zahra Stardust, www.zahrastardust.com, @ZahraStardust)

The use of sex workers lives as a titillating topic to draw crowds and attention isn’t new – we see this frequently in media and the arts – what must always be challenged is any attempt to exclude sex workers from discussions about their own lives and human rights.  Discussions of sex workers as having “false consciousness” are simply another method of excluding the voices of marginalised people.  Attempts to identify sex workers as responsible for violence against all women as well as violence within sex work are simply methods of ‘victim blaming’.  Violence in sex work, like violence in society at large, will only be ended by addressing the perpetrators and systemic causes of that violence – such as criminalisation of sex work, stigma and discrimination against sex workers – not by eliminating sex workers right to work.

Sex work is work.  Most importantly, as always, listen to sex workers – sex workers are the experts on our lives.

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Still to come?  Panelists from ‘Women for Sale’ Lydia Cacho (author of ‘Slavery Inc’), Kajsa Ekis Ekman (author of ‘Being Bought and Being Sold’) and Alissa Nutting (author of ‘Unclean Jobs for Woman and Girls’) are on Q&A on the ABC tonight…

Guess what?  No sex worker has been asked or allowed to participate in the Q&A program.

Want to ask why Q&A doesn’t consider it relevant to have sex workers included, speaking about their own lives and rights, on a panel which includes speakers promoting an agenda that risks sex workers health and safety?  Submit a question here: Q&A ‘Ask A Question’

Hold @QandA accountable for not having a sex worker on their panel tonight:  Use twitter #QandA

Q&A are also promoting tonight’s show on Facebook at: Q&A on Facebook

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Sex workers protesting at #FODI – Jules Kim (Acting CEO of Scarlet Alliance), Zahra Stardust & Cam Cox

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

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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:

“..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.

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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.