“Pieces of meat” & balance in journalism

On Friday the 1st of April, last week, Vixen Collective (Victoria’s peer only sex worker organisation) issued an invitation to sex workers and supporters to join in raising concerns over the “World’s Oldest Oppression” Conference.  The conference, an event at which proponents of the partial/full criminalisation of sex work will be gathering, runs over the 9th and 10th of April (today and tomorrow).

Sex workers and supporters participating in the protest on social media since then, have been experiencing significant levels of abuse from anti sex work individuals.  This has included being called “pimps”, being told that we are “happy hookers”, that we are “meat for buyers”, “fucktoys”, that we are “commodities to be bought, sold and used”, referred to as “female flesh”, “pieces of meat”, and told that sex workers are the “pimp lobby”.

Vixen Collective itself, a sex worker only collective, made up of current and former sex workers, has been referred to as a “pro sex trade group” and “sex trade apologists” by event speaker Simone Watson.

 

Those involved in the conference have made claims of being “silenced” by sex workers, a proposition that seems ludicrous when examined – that a few sex workers on twitter could silence people who are having a conference to show case their ideas – a conference at which many of the speakers are published authors/journalists, some academics, many with significant social capital and power.

In confirmation of this fact there has been extensive coverage in the media on the conference outlining the anti sex work position, without any balance or effort to give voice to sex workers concerns.  Of the four “articles” carried in major periodicals, which could for the most piece also be characterized as opinion editorials, Vixen Collective has been contacted by none, nor has the national sex worker organisation Scarlet Alliance.

The headlines of the four pieces are as follows (they are deliberately not linked due to the offensive and triggering content):
‘Pro sex trade group Vixen Collective ramps up campaign’ (Simone Watson, Tasmanian Times, 5th April)
‘Van Badham’s freedom of speech for some? (Isla MacGregor, Tasmanian Times, 8th April)
‘I clutched the cash while he used me’: Former prostitutes on why they want the industry banned’ (Emma Reynolds, News.com, 8th April)
‘Sex Trade survivors deserve the chance to speak’ (Meagan Tyler, The Conversation, 8th April)

The first, is by Simone Watson, the current Director of pro-Swedish Model (sometimes referred to as the Nordic Model) group NorMAC, there is more information on the problems with this piece here.

The second, is by Isla MacGregor, close friend and writing partner of Simone Watson – this is an attack on feminist and Guardian columnist Van Badham for having the audacity to support sex worker rights.

The third, by Emma Reynolds, is what could kindly be referred to as an advertorial for the book ‘Prostitution Narratives’ that is being launched at the conference this weekend.  Now, let me be clear – everyone has the right to tell their story.  Being able to be heard when speaking about our lives is a critical part of what we are protesting for, but the fact that News.com ran a story without talking to anyone who wasn’t pro-criminalisation and didn’t contact a single peer sex worker organisation is a critical failure.  This is a failure not just in recognising  sex workers’ voices, but a failure in journalism.

The fourth, one is in The Conversation written by RMIT academic Meagan Tyler, colleague of Dr Caroline Norma, and also known for her work with organisation CATWA (an organisation that holds a pro-criminalisation of sex work view).  Ms Tyler includes quotes from my blog (where the original protest was posted), including that sex workers and supporters should:

“write to RMIT to express concerns about the Conference to the University Chancellor”

But then goes on to suggest that this amounts to:

“.. online tactics used to bully, intimidate and deny people a platform to speak..”

This is purposefully omitting the fact that at no time was there a call by Vixen Collective for the conference to be shut down, simply that we wished for sex workers concerns to be heard.

So what’s the up-side in a week of sex workers being called “pieces of meat” and shut out of the mainstream media?

Well, late yesterday RMIT Catalyst – the student newspaper at RMIT published an article where they spoke to both the conference organisers and Vixen Collective.  It was a moment of, for sex workers, what hopefully will be increasingly common in the future of journalism – being heard.

What traction sex workers do have in being listened to on their own lives and work in the media, shouldn’t be exceptional, it should be the standard.  It should not be an enduring battle to gain space to publish op ed’s of our own – but it is and so we express our thoughts and stories on blogs and twitter.  We’re not silencing anyone because these are so often the only places we have in which to speak.

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RMIT Slammed for Facilitating Sex Work Abolition Conference

We can only hope to see more balanced journalism in the main-stream press in the future.  Given that the above was from student journalists maybe it’s a good sign that we will.

Carrying on the tradition of making our voices heard in the spaces that are available to us, we are having a protest onsite at RMIT today, please see details below:

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Protesting the “World’s Oldest Oppression” Conference – Protest Notice

*Sex Workers & Supporters*

Time: 1pm until 3pm, Saturday 9th April 2016

Location: Outside the Emily McPherson Building (Building 13, 405 Russell St, Melbourne, on the Victoria St side of the building)

**Please be aware of and prioritise your safety, anti sex work individuals/groups have been known to approach & take photographs of people at protests, so if this is problematic or distressing for you then consider if it is safe for you to be in the protest space**

Please Note – we are planning and advocating for a non-violent, non-intrusive protest.

Vixen Collective does not advocate for anyone to enter the conference space or approach conference attendees.

On social media anti sex work individuals have raised concerns about silencing, which, given that the conference contains speakers who are published authors/academics etc. is wildly out of place and unrealistic compared to sex workers raising concerns on twitter.

However, just as sex workers do not wish to be silenced, we do not wish to be perceived as silencing anyone and therefore we ask people participating in the protest to try not to become involved in verbal altercations.

We will have Vixen Collective support people there and please take the opportunity to step back and de-brief.

We have permission to be present on RMIT property and RMIT security is aware that we are having a protest and can be called on if necessary.

If the space becomes hostile due to the presence or actions of anti sex work individuals or groups we plan to exit the space and de-brief off site.

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Vixen Collective

MJ from Vixen Collective speaks at Reclaim the Night

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On Saturday October 18th Reclaim the Night once more took over the streets of Brunswick,

Reclaim the Night has not always been a safe space for sex workers – sex workers and their workplaces have been targeted by marchers previously (strip clubs have been protested both here in Melbourne and overseas).

But in recent years there has been a concerted effort by organisers to make Reclaim the Night an inclusive space, for both sex workers and trans* people, as emphasized here by organizer Natalie Pestana in an interview with City Journal –

Reclaim the Night: stop blaming the victim

Gathering with sex workers just prior to the event we found it off-putting to see Kathleen Maltzahn among the crowd, local candidate for The Greens and well known for her anti sex work views.  However, organizers had just taped up a sign stating:
NO WHOREPHOBIA WILL BE TOLERATED IN THIS PLACE!!!
to the truck from which the speeches were being made.  We felt reasonably confident our speaker, MJ and other sex workers present would be okay (to put this in context last year I spoke and was heckled).

MJ’s speech (see below) and the other speeches were great and well received.

Then we marched.  The march is a difficult time for me – I don’t like crowds and the police are unsettling.  The police don’t mean safety to many in sex worker community.  In Victoria the police are the arm of the state that regulates sex industry workplaces, to many workers (particularly those whose work is criminalized, including street sex workers) their presence means harassment and violence.  So marching along with police lining the route wasn’t comforting.

About halfway along a mobile billboard for one of the local strip clubs drove by on the other side.  A group of men next to me started yelling abuse.  I went up to them and explained that shouting abuse about women’s workplaces or the women who worked in them wasn’t okay (& also not in keeping with the idea of the event).  They tried to argue with me, obviously upset that I had seen fit to interrupt their god given right to hurl abuse.  I didn’t notice anyone else joining in but apparently it also happened earlier in the march.

Why is it that it’s so hard to get the message across in these settings that whorephobia is not okay?

With many feminist spaces having histories of exclusion and abuse towards sex workers and trans* people, it is necessary moving forward to have inclusive spaces, there must be clear policies of zero tolerance towards whorephobia and transphobia, but it is also critical to listen to those with lived experience – I invite you to do so now:

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My name is MJ, I am a Victorian sex worker.
Sex work is often portrayed as violent; sex workers as victims, exploited, or otherwise coerced, but I am none of those things.  I am immensely proud not only of my occupation, but of the strength, resilience and willingness to stand up against stigma that sex workers display globally.
Victorian Sex workers do not operate in the same night as the rest of you, as my fellow worker Jane Green told us last year.
In the state of Victoria we have forced STI testing – despite STI rates being lower for sex workers and condom use being well above that of the non sex working population.
We have special police units set up for us, to control and surveil our industry, our workplaces and our lives but who do not take violence against us seriously.  Indeed, many sex workers in Victoria and other parts of the country report that the biggest perpetrators of violence are indeed the police. This is particularly so for migrant sex workers, who have often come from other countries with the express purpose of entering the sex industry.  And also for those who are working in highly criminalized areas of the industry, such as street sex work.
Police harassment remains a key barrier to our safety and security.
It is extremely difficult to negotiate safety when police avoidance must be your key priority.  In fact, many sex workers never come forward with experiences of violence, because they fear being victim blamed, shamed, being told that they some how invited the violence because of their occupation, or the fear of having their private experiences of violence made public.
Let me make this clear.  Violence against sex workers happens not just because of individuals who choose to perpetrate violence, but because the laws governing sex work, and the way sex workers are viewed in our society ALLOWS IT TO.

Unfortunately violence towards sex workers can continue after a sex worker has died.
Just recently Brisbane sex worker Mayang Prasetyo was murdered by her partner. The Murdoch media, particularly the Courier Mail, and other various news outlets seized upon Mayang’s profession, and her identity as a trans woman.  Mayang is one of an increasing number of women who are murdered by their intimate partners in this country, but this was overshadowed by the media’s desire to dehumanize Mayang and sensationalize her death by drawing on her gender identity and occupation.
Be under no illusion that this too is an act of violence.
To quote from an article in the guardian by local writer Amy Gray “it was not Mayang’s gender identity or occupation that killed her, but a man who felt entitled to murder her”.
Just as with Tracy Connelly before her, whose death was also heavily sensationalized, Sex workers should never be used as fodder for salacious headlines.
We are human beings who in life and death demand dignity, respect, and human rights.
Whether oppression comes from individuals, the media, the medical and legal professions, or certain elements of the artistic communities.  It is oppression that sex workers demand an end to.  It is oppression that non sex workers can support us in ending, by listening to our voices, and by walking beside us as allies on our journeys.
Only then will we walk in the same night as you do.

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Visit Reclaim the Night’s website – Reclaim the Night

Reclaim the Night Melbourne Facebook – RTN Melbourne

Reclaim the Night Melbourne Twitter – @RTNmelb

Why we should all get to choose when/if we get an HIV test, yes even me.

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So this week I went to hospital.  Let’s be clear – I hate hospital.  I don’t like being stuck in one place, following often pointless (no smoking) rules, or answering to people who treat me like an object rather than a person.  If I’m really sick I’ll go.  But I have to be really sick.

So this week I get a migraine.  Not unusual.  I have had migraines regularly since I was a teenager.  Never been hospitalised for one.  But this one just kept getting worse, beyond anything I have ever had.  Until I am lying on the floor unable to move and a friend called an ambulance.  So I go to hospital.  The hospital pumps me full of medication (including largactil) that while it did not eliminate, helped the pain.  The medication also rendered me inarticulate, easily confused and clumsy – basically it made me ‘high’.  This will become important later.  Because it means I lost the ability to conceal certain facts about myself.

I am a sex worker.  Often I cannot conceal this fact in medical settings.  As a Victorian sex worker I am subject to mandatory sexual health testing once every three months – regardless of the fact that over twenty years of medical research in Australia (click here to download latest research findings) shows that sex workers have lower rates of STI’s than the general public and higher compliance in prophylaxis use (condoms!).  Because I have had interactions with police (no kidding my job used to be illegal) and medical staff, it is written into some of my medical records that I am a sex worker.  If I am in a setting where these records are accessed then I have no choice about my status as a sex worker being part of any conversation.  It is usually a big part of the conversation.

But I did not expect my status as a sex worker to be part of the conversation when I was in hospital this week.  No prior hospital records or medical records had been accessed.  No other doctors had been called.  I was simply a patient presenting with a migraine.

Then the hospital got me ‘high’, legally high of course, and one of the neurology staff asked “so what do you do?”.  And that was it.  All my usual answers went unused; that I work for a NGO (also true), that I am self employed (just leaving out the “as a sex worker” part), that I work as a lobbyist (I talk to enough politicians that it feels like it).

Because if someone asks “what do you do?” when you’re high the natural reply is to tell the truth.  So I said – “I’m a sex worker” and proceeded to chat about it with them for 15 minutes.  Including when they asked “are people prejudice about it?”, I said “hell yes, all the time”.  But I probably wasn’t expecting them to give me a specific example of prejudice right then.  Which they did.

After our little chat the doctor wandered off for a few minutes then came back to say – “so now we’ve realised that we need to do an HIV test on you” and I asked “this is because I told you I’m a sex worker isn’t it?” and they replied (looking embarrassed) “uh, yeah”.  I then stated “well I suppose what I want doesn’t really matter at this point?” and at that the doctor looked away.

Problems with this:

1) I was not in a state to make or be able to give informed consent to being STI/HIV tested

2) That (1) being the case this constitutes a forced STI/HIV test

3) Given that there is HIV criminalisation for sex workers in Victoria this puts me or any other sex worker treated in this manner in a position of potential instant criminalisation.

This is yet another example of the stigma and discrimination that sex workers live with daily.  But it is not just another example.  Medical professionals have power in society generally – over individual patients lives, through professional associations, through their status as a doctor – but in Victoria the State gives immense power to medical professionals over the lives of sex workers.  Power to test sex workers for STI’s/HIV – despite knowing we have demonstrably lower rates than the general population.  Power to prevent sex workers from working if we test positive – despite knowing condom compliance rates in the sex industry exceed 99% and that not all sex work involves “sex”.  Finally, power to cause sex workers to be jailed for testing positive to HIV as a sex worker (a strategy which demonstrably discourages STI/HIV testing).

This is not okay.

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Want to join me in telling the Victorian Government it’s not okay?

Email the Victorian Health Minister – David Davis – david.davis@parliament.vic.gov.au

Feel free to include a link to this Blog (or not) and make sure to note that sex workers should have the same rights, human rights, labour rights and access to health care and right to refuse health care and testing as other members of the community.

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

Listen to sex workers: support decriminalisation and anti-discrimination protections

Listen to sex workers: support decriminalisation and anti-discrimination protections

Published in Interface, a journal for and about social movements  Volume 3(2): 271-287 (November 2011)

“…The challenges facing the sex worker rights movement are the same as the challenges any marginalised population struggling for social and political acceptance faces. We are struggling to be heard in a landscape that not only marginalises our bodies, but also marginalises our voices…”

Feminism Within Sex Work Using ‘I Statements’

From the ‘Sex workers self determined analysis of our work’ workshop at the Feminist Futures Conference, my section of the presentation, on ‘Feminism within sex work’ … using “I statements” (as per the Participants Agreement).
Melbourne, May 28th 2011 – Jane Green
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I have control within my work.
I do not sell my body.
I sell my attention span for finite units of time.
There are boundaries within that exchange.
I set all of the boundaries.
I decide on the how, when and where of my work.
I decide on the content, context and nature of my work.
The major impacts that constrain this, that interfere with my right to self determine my working environment (which is essentially my right to sexual expression within a transactional setting) is,
i) state intervention, in the form of police and regulatory authorities, with the harrassment & corruption I have come to expect of them, and
ii) whorephobia, the bigotry which when engaged with, especially en masse, makes those who deal in it feel validated in silencing sex worker voices & perpetrating/continuing bigotry and oppression.
I am financially independant and self directed in my life.
My sex work has allowed me to live my life, the way I have wanted to live it, on my own terms,
– to pursue higher education
– to value and spend time my logical family
– to live out the substance and texture of my dreams
– to be politically active and advocate for sex workers
– to listen to and raise the voices of my peers to government, & to you here today
The power gained through defending my rights and defining my boundaries as a sex worker, inform me in other work & life decisions.
The skills I have around negotiation, assertiveness & boundary setting have been beyond valuable during my life, that I learned them in a setting where they were essential to both my safety and my income has only made them sharper & more useful.
My body is my business.
Sex workers are making their own decisions about their own bodies.
Every sex act I choose to engage in is consensual.
In fact I have thought about it so far in advance that to think otherwise would be absurd.
This is work.
It may not fit into 9-5 or any other neat box but this is work.
This is my work.
Let me make this clear – I LIKE MY JOB
Any negative impacts from my sex work, any abuse that I suffer, comes from the stigmatization & vilification informed by people who believe that I do not have the basic human right to,
a) have that job, or
b) enjoy that right
THAT IS CALLED WHOREPHOBIA