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Sex Work and Feminism

By Kate Holden

Public Ledger: A prostitute, because like that paper, she is open to all parties. (eighteenth-century slang)

In April 2010 the Mercury newspaper in Hobart contained a small but historic notice. In a brief paid advertisement a conservative group in Tasmania called the Family Protection Society expressed regret for having published ads proclaiming that sex work was damaging to families and harmful to women. Scarlet Alliance, the peak body representing Australia sex workers, had taken the comment to the Anti-Discrimination Commission on the grounds that the society’s attitude was discriminatory against sex workers. Although Scarlet Alliance had received a voluntary apology of a similar nature from the Salvation Army in 2009, this was the first time such social attitudes had been formally determined as unfair. In the ferocious debate about the ethics of paid sex, the ground is shifting.

Sex work is a major Australian industry, historically ineradicable and, in many states, decriminalised and regulated. Famously ‘the oldest profession’, it is also one of the most trenchantly disputed. In the broader society it is seen as either a normal part of life or a vile, sorrowful trade. For feminism, it is associated with the fracture in ideology that splits ‘victim feminism’ from ‘power feminism’ in complicated but increasingly onerous ways. So, what is sex work? What are the problems people have with it? Why do sex workers themselves feel frustrated with traditional feminism? What are the peculiar aspects of this trade that raise such heated reactions?

‘Doxies’, ‘blowens’, ‘biters’ or ‘strumpets’ as they might have been called by the marines and convicts of the eighteenth century were among the very first white women to step onto the continent of Australia when they arrived at Sydney Cove on the Lady Penrhyn in 1788. One in five of the women had practised the trade before transportation, and, with females outnumbered five to one on the first ships, more had joined the ranks. ‘Good God what a Seen of Whordome,’ exclaimed the aghast naval lieutenant Ralph Clark on the arrival of the women convicts. Every 2 June, more than two hundred years later and only metres from where Australia’s first prostitutes disembarked, their descendents in profession gather on Circular Quay to celebrate International Whores Day and proclaim their pride, their rights and their status as loud, ‘out’, feminist whores. Among the crowd are women in wigs and platform heels working the Betty Page look, transgender persons in trousers or skirts, shyly smiling girls in jeans and jackets, dykes, queers, a few grinning men; every shape and size, various ethnicities. They come from the enormous range of sex work across the country. ‘Poor unhappy women of the town’ no more, the sex workers of Australia are mobilised, articulate and ready to claim enfranchisement.

I am among them, an out and proud former prostitute, beaming as genuinely and self-consciously as the rest as curious tourists turn our way. Twirling the emblematic red paper umbrella someone has thrust into my hand, I wonder if it’s to ward off the glare of exposure or the brisk quayside breeze, or if it symbolises a kindly cupping of community above my head. To be a sex worker in modern Australia is to inhabit a strange zone, caught between infamy and legend, decriminalisation and social censure, pity and pride.

For centuries ‘falling’ into prostitution was a constant fear for women, the ultimate transgression—and penalty. Now, in a culture trashy with raunch yet clenched with righteousness, the sex worker persists and insists. She is lamented by some feminists, lauded by others, lectured by religious groups, legislated by governments; monitored by health services, spurned by mortgage brokers, envied or condemned by friends, invited to write memoirs by publishers, assisted by outreach services; must live under one name and work by another. The main part of this list is in passive voice, for this is how people often see the prostitute: a passive dupe. But since the 1970s a sex worker pride movement has challenged this, and the women marching to the Opera House steps appear active and aware.

A tourist gestures for one of them to pose for a photograph with him, his arm snug around her waist, a beaming smile on his face. She coos obligingly, but jokes, ‘That’ll be seventy bucks.’ Who’s a dupe?

Many feminists would applaud the claiming of pride from this group but some are less happy with what they see, as they do with raunch culture, as a misguided celebration of oppressive male norms. What, they say, is to be celebrated about a trade that systemically exploits women, perpetuates the idea of women as sexual commodities, jeopardises women’s health and ignores the thousands of women who claim to be damaged by having entered sex work?

Other feminists, and many women in general, see this view as a typical example of censorious, shrill, old-fashioned feminist righteousness, conducted safely from the towers of academe and preaching dogma at women who are simply doing a job. ‘Why should someone doing this job be treated any differently to someone doing any other?’ asks Eva Cox. ‘There’s quite a strong puritanical streak in various women’s organisations,’ she says, referring to what she calls ‘fundamentalist feminism’ and a Christian legacy of anti-sensualism. Thinkers such as Cox argue that sex work in ‘well-run legal, worker-controlled services’, far from being exploitative, is for many women a means to financial independence, personal autonomy and, incidentally, the building of personal skills and friendships, or even confidence in their sexuality. As Ally Daniels, vice-president of Scarlet Alliance and a sex worker, asks, ‘What other job can a woman walk into, with no recent references or work experience, get employed immediately, work flexible hours to suit her and her family, get a decent wage for a relatively short time at work and get paid cash in hand at the end of her shift so she can pay that very pressing bill the next day?’

In The Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy of the Global Sex Trade (2008), well-known critic of the sex industry, Professor Sheila Jeffreys of the University of Melbourne, calls prostitution ‘a harmful cultural practice. It is overwhelmingly a practice that is carried out through and in the bodies of women and for the benefit of men.’ Her nemesis, Elena Jeffreys (no relation), president of Scarlet Alliance, ripostes that her organisation is ‘at the cutting edge of feminist debate’ and that ‘sex work is feminist—being sexually active, putting a value on your sexual interactions, negotiating boundaries and making informed choices about your body. Sex workers aren’t subscribing to prescriptive morals about chastity, nuclear family and monogamy—this is the feminist project, is it not?’

Despite its long history, hundreds of licensed and unlicensed brothels scattered around the country, a workforce of perhaps 20,000 and a clientele many times that, a mystique still attaches to prostitution. It’s not a simple matter to describe it, for there is a huge range of services and ways workers organise: gathered in brothels, walking the streets, working independently from home, or as courtesans to the wealthy (the sex industry also encompasses stripping, pole-dancing, sensual massage, peep shows, sex shows, phone sex and, some would say, pornography). But the principle of sex work is a constant: a client (usually but not always a man) pays money to access the sexual service of a worker (usually but not always a woman) for a limited time. Here is how it should work.

A man walks into a licensed parlour somewhere in Australia. He is shown to a room and a succession of women enter to introduce themselves and detail their services: for a standard payment they provide a massage, oral sex and penetrative sex. Other services (‘fantasies’) are negotiated with the worker for an extra fee. All the women have had a monthly medical check for sexual health; all use false names, as does the client. He selects one of the women and pays the receptionist; she takes a fee for the use of the room and another on behalf of the worker. In the room the worker asks the client to wash himself, performs a visual and touch check on his sexual health, gets out the condoms and the lubricant, and the booking commences. At its end, they walk together to the door and she kisses him goodbye on the cheek before turning to the next introduction.

She is statistically no more likely to be a drug addict than a worker in any other industry; it’s unlikely she has been coerced into working by a pimp or a male partner; indeed, it is probable that very few people, even a partner, know her occupation. She is, on average, in her twenties or thirties, possibly tertiary educated and with other work experience; she may intend to leave the industry in a few years once she has made enough money. She will earn around $120 for an hour’s work.

He is a truck driver, a financial consultant, a plumber, a teacher or, increasingly, a worker in IT. He too may be tertiary educated and professional, he may or may not have an STI (sexually transmitted infection), may be married or single, will be between the ages of eighteen and eighty, and is more likely to be sympathetic to women in the industry than hostile.

This is the scene in countless brothels across the country, day and night, every day of the year. It may not be the way things always work: there are establishments where no condom is used for oral sex or sex itself (which is illegal), where women are pressured into bookings they don’t want to have, where they are injured, where they are poorly paid, where they don’t have the language skills to assert their needs. It is easy to judge those occasions as exploitative of women. But whether the case above, which is not uncommon, represents degradation of women or a celebration of women’s agency, cynicism by male oppressors or resistant deviant female stratagem, depends on whom you ask.

To read up on feminist thinking about prostitution is a heroic project. One veers from radical feminists who decry the invidious exploitation of women’s bodies and sexuality to the memoirs of sex-positive celebrity hookers; from temperance-style reformers of the nineteenth century for the well-being of ‘fallen women’ to advocacy bodies funded by anti-HIV campaigns and government; from legendary feminist Kate Millet calling prostitution ‘a living fossil’ and the ultimate reduction of ‘woman to cunt’ to ‘Cassandra’, a confident and successful worker in contemporary Melbourne saying: ‘Do I think about feminism? Not really. Depends what you describe as a feminist. I’m all up for supporting women and that type of stuff, but I also think that sometimes it’s pushed a little too far.’

Is there something inherently degrading in a woman offering her genitals to the access of a man and accessing his in turn? In the scene described above radical and Marxist feminists see the timeless disempowerment of women’s bodies for male pleasure, the explicit violation present in the bourgeois institution of marriage, and a means for men to profit financially and benefit sexually from the labour of women. It is a stern and distressing scenario.[1] Is that how sex workers feel about their trade?

In 2009 Consumer Affairs Victoria contracted Monash University to canvass experiences of the sex industry, both licensed and unlicensed, for a survey released the following year, Working in Victorian Brothels. Interviewing fifty-five workers from various strata of the industry and a range of genders, ethnicities and services, the survey results generally support the view that modern licensed sex work is not inherently damaging and some in the unlicensed sector is not necessarily so. Respondents without exception cited financial advantage as the main benefit of the work, combined with flexibility about work hours and employment in the industry. Indeed, as the survey notes, sex work provides training in transferable skills such as personal relations and organisation (though it is difficult to include sex work on a professional résumé). Meanwhile, increasing numbers of workers are educated and highly trained in other professions. Pride in a sense of autonomy comes through strongly in the survey: both in the work itself (workers in brothels are sub-contractors, not employees, though they must abide by house rules and laws) and in the potential to change their lives through earning good money.

To see if this was borne out, I went to a legal brothel in inner Melbourne where I had worked in the 1990s. Le Boudoir is a discreet, small establishment run for the past thirteen years by ‘Helen’, the owner-manager.

The first thing to notice about Le Boudoir during a day shift is how different it is to the outside world: there are no windows, every room is gently lamp-lit, and the women are in after-five dresses and high heels at lunchtime. The second thing is how normal it is. The women’s room, where they wait between bookings, is dominated by cast-off shoes, the television playing a soap, half-drunk cups of coffee and casual conversation, much of it unconcerned with work. If it weren’t for the ‘ladies’ disappearing periodically to go upstairs and have sex with someone they have just met, it could be any suburban living room.

‘Cassandra’, in her thirties, says she is nervous about being interviewed: she is concerned for her privacy. She had never intended to get into sex work, although her favourite movie as a child was Pretty Woman (‘I liked it when she dressed up’). But, she says, ‘one day I thought, you know what? I’m actually sleeping with enough people out of work—because I was still single—I may as well go to work. And I did.’ She says she likes the thrill of ‘stranger sex’ at work and points out that many of her friends who aren’t in the industry are ‘shagging left and right anyway, if they’re single. They may as well be getting paid for it.’ And, unlike women in legal brothels, they don’t guard their own health the way licensed sex workers must. ‘They get drunk and they go out and they party, they’ve got corporate jobs, they get a few drinks into them. And they’re not even using condoms. I’m disgusted by that. I’d prefer my husband or boyfriend to be here than out there having sex with someone else.’

Le Boudoir, it must be said, is at the nicer end of the legal sex-work spectrum, but perhaps approaches what the industry as a whole could aspire to. ‘The cleanliness of this place and the people that run it and the people I work with make it actually enjoyable to come to work, we have a laugh, and it’s good fun and we all, I mean most people, get along,’ Cassandra says. ‘I think 95 per cent of men who come here are just decent, nice men.’ The parlour enjoys a diverse clientele from students to millionaires and most of the women are in their late twenties or thirties. It may not be typical of all sex work but owner Helen estimates that of the ninety-five legal brothels in Melbourne, only about five follow practices that might bring the trade into disrepute.

The main disadvantages of the job, reported in the Consumer Affairs survey, are the social stigma and the times when clients seem to hold the worker in contempt. ‘Workers resented perceptions of sex workers as diseased, criminal, victims, drug addicts, promiscuous and without a moral code. They felt they were looked down upon by the broader community.’ Asked to what extent she is discreet about her work, Cassandra says that many of her friends know but her parents can never be told. And she has felt the whip of social stigma: ‘Some of my friends who have been cool about it, if we’d had fallings out, have spat it back in my face.’ She refuses to feel shame, however. ‘When I was younger I might have felt differently but I don’t see any shame in it. It’s my life, it’s just my prerogative to keep it to myself.’ Do your friends envy you? ‘I think a lot of them have said “Good on you” for having the guts to do it. But no, I don’t think it’s envy. They just accept that I do what I want to do.’ She makes good money, she says, and is generous with it.

Observes ‘Jerry’, a worker quoted in the survey, ‘there’s also something about being part of this amazing marginalised close-knit group of people that you have a shared experience with, and the one thing I love about it is that it’s such an amazing leveller’. This can be heard in the bawdy humour of parlour workers, street workers and those who move between them in outreach: sharing something between operating-theatre and gallows humour, in this business, it’s important to know how to laugh.

Sex workers are infuriated by criticism of their industry, whether by well-meaning social activists such as the Salvation Army, by negligent public opinion-makers or, especially, by feminists. The job is challenging enough, they say, without being constantly told that they are wrong to do it and must be damaged. As blogger Hexy puts it, ‘I’m fucking sick of sex workers being considered the least important voices in discussions about sex workers.’

Ally Daniels says that ‘old radical feminism perpetuates the stigma and discrimination, which in turn encourages violence against us’. Indeed, one of the associations commonly made with sex work, whether licensed or not, is with criminality, muck and violence. Owner-manager Helen acknowledges the correlation: ‘I always imagined it was all crooks, like Mafia types, and I was frightened of it. Until I came into it. And it’s actually nothing like that. I haven’t had the trouble here that a lot of people have in other businesses. I can choose who I let in, but if you’re in a shop, anyone can come in.’ She suggests that one reason sex work is seen as ‘shadowy’ is because its photographic images are often shot with silhouettes (for privacy), and it is an industry associated with night-time. Another of her sub-contractors, Jessica, says, ‘I think [the stigma against] a brothel is that it’s all lower-class. I think it comes from the women’s perception of it, because men have gone to brothels. I think a lot of the men have probably seen really fantastic establishments as well as really divey ones but I think women probably think there’s more of the lower class. I think a lot of women are sheltered from that type of world and just don’t know.’

‘On the one hand we need to respect a woman’s right to choose [sex work],’ says Monica Dux, co-author of The Great Feminist Denial (2008).

“On the other we must recognise that it is a last resort for many women, in a world where we are still routinely demeaned, controlled and exploited because of our bodies. For this reason I am discomforted by the contemporary tendency to depict it as empowering or glamorous, even if some women do experience it that way, as this tends to distract us from the very real potential for exploitation. Television shows such as Satisfaction peddle this version of the ‘happy hooker’ when the reality is so much more fraught.”

It is true that sex workers are exposed to violence of varying degrees. Women report being mauled, bitten or scratched, forced into acts against their will, sworn at or lectured on their sins, treated like mute insensate sex-dolls, forced to humour unwashed, clumsy and drunken men, exposed to diseases, robbed, cheated and made to feel disposable. Some of this is simple negligence on the part of the men, some of it is malignant. ‘We do need to recognise there is exploitation because of illegalities, marginalisation, prejudice and sometimes the actions of “feminists” who trash these jobs,’ notes Eva Cox. Scarlet Alliance and other advocates say that the more sex work is recognised as legitimate labour and falls under the protection and regulation available to other industries, the less stigma will be attached to it, the less contempt clients may have for workers and the less violence will occur. They also point out that the majority of licensed bookings pass without incident and conclude with a smile.

Rather than feel sexually passive, workers in safe establishments often mention sexual pleasure (‘don’t get me wrong,’ says Cassandra, ‘some of it is very good’), and say they feel in control of their bookings (panic buttons are provided). The client is on the woman’s territory and should act according to her rules. However, work in a place like Le Boudoir is about much more than raw physicality, agrees Jessica, another of Helen’s ladies. ‘Sometimes I go home from here and feel that I’ve done something nice for someone. I feel that I’ve made them feel good and settled. I know that sounds corny but I truly believe it’s not all about sex.’ We speak about handicapped clients, who may have no other access to female intimacy. They might be incapacitated or physically marred, like one of her ‘regulars’, badly afflicted with eczema. ‘I see past that,’ she says. ‘I find with my clients they will always say at the end, “Thank you. Thank you.” It’s an appreciation.’

‘They need it’, ‘they’re lonely’, ‘where else would they go?’ It is often remarked that women in the industry see themselves as custodians of male needs—not only sexual but also emotional. The sense of responsibility and rapport cannot be underestimated: many women see ‘regs’ for years. Does this put the women back in the role of carers, nurturers and accommodators, the Angel of the House? Tamers of rioting animal male libido? ‘All feminism ever did,’ writes Mirha Soleil-Ross in an online article, ‘is make the sweetest of my clients feel guilty and make me have to spend extra time playing political therapist, having to reassure them that no, they are not hurting my sense of self.’

This is an example of palpable fury at what is seen as the hypercritical attitude of some theorists who look down on the business (a bestseller at a recent national sex work conference was a bag stencilled Sheila ain’t my sister). Scarlet Alliance distributes sheets of quotations to demonstrate some of the views that contemporary sex workers hold. From the pages come articulate, cranky and vehement voices citing ‘legislation’, ‘rights’, ‘primary voice’ and the vocabulary of feminist dialectic even as they announce a frustration with what ‘feminism’ has done for sex work. ‘As a sex worker’, says one, ‘I defiantly embrace the role of “sexually deviant, morally bankrupt harlot” and in doing so disempower the patriarchal framework. By defining myself somewhat outside of the restrictions of patriarchy, as a sexually independent, financially autonomous and sexually self-determining agent, shouldn’t other feminists see the power of my chosen profession?’ Another complains, ‘I wasn’t prepared for the strength of the anti–sex work rhetoric in feminist spaces nor the disempowerment that comes from what I now many years later identify as an active exclusion of sex workers and their positive experiences from feminist debates and feminist spaces in Australia.’

Roberta Perkins, a prominent Australian researcher in the field, suggests that prostitution isn’t seen as ‘real’ work because it has to do with sex outside traditional contexts such as romance and marriage, and because it is overwhelmingly a female occupation. ‘The denial of prostitution as a form of work,’ she says, ‘is the deepest insult of all to most women working as prostitutes.’ Another writer, Kelsey G, goes further: ‘the fact is, every woman holds a right to her own body, and any move to take away this freedom is itself an act of politicised anti-feminism.’

This a crux of the matter: who speaks? Who knows? Is a sex worker herself the best arbiter of whether or not she is degraded, or is judgement better offered forensically from afar? Scarlet Alliance, peak body of allied sex-worker organisations through the country, consists of sex workers including, in the leadership stratum, many who are also academics in the field. They are serious, articulate and mobilised to defend their trade, as in the Family Protection Society matter, and in the shouted slogans at Circular Quay (‘No bad whores, just bad laws!’). When feminists discuss sex work, they must negotiate the making of one voice from many: a paradox that goes to the heart of feminism itself.

They must also negotiate some of the conundrums about women in the rocky terrain between past and present social landscapes. As ‘Katherine’, a street worker, summarises them, a sex worker is scorned, usually, for being (a) mercenary and (b) promiscuous. If a woman has lots of sex for free, she’s a slut; if she charges for it she’s venal—or oppressed. If a sex worker daydreams or dissociates during a job, she’s cold or traumatised; if she feels too much she has been beguiled; if she is hostile to her clients she is not doing her job; if she enjoys their company she must have low self-esteem. Is she, as Naomi Wolf asks of herself, a free agent or a robot of her erotic conditioning? It seems that prostitution simply makes explicit many of the anxieties society has about sexual women. And, Katherine says heatedly, though life is undoubtedly hard on the street, ‘we don’t all fucking want to be saved’.

Sex worker agencies now happily liaise with the law bodies and police: ‘One thing I’m big on,’ says Sergeant Kate Sommers, in charge of the sex-worker liaison portfolio at St Kilda police station in Melbourne, ‘is getting the [street] girls to report serious crimes, and getting the girls to be safe. I know there are certain parts of the community that say, “They put themselves there, they put themselves in danger.” But I also have a duty of care to make sure a girl walking down Greeves Street is safe.’ (Incidentally, she tells a story from her early career in the force, called to a suburban brothel after a robbery. Sommers and her colleagues were interviewing the clients and workers about the robbery when the doorbell chimed. Young, blonde, uniformed Sommers went to answer it. ‘Woah! I’ve never seen you before!’ exclaimed an impressed gentleman.)

One of the weirder aspects of the current debate is that, as previously ‘renegade’ sex workers now embrace the legitimising security of the law, radical feminism’s position on sex work starts to sound more and more like the attitudes of the Christian Right. In Selling Sex: A Hidden History of Prostitution (2008), Australian academic Rae Frances details the early nineteenth-century emphasis on respectability and how the expanding middle-class sought to draw into its purview both upper- and lower-class moralities, which were distinctly different. In the second half of that century Christian reformists established ‘homes’ for ‘Jezabels’ (usually perceived as lower class) where like Mary Magdalene they would be shamed into reshaping themselves as moral maidens and returned to ‘paths of virtue and usefulness’.

Now, influential academics such as Sheila Jeffreys lobby to increase penalties for sex work, seeking to criminalise not only the male owners and male clientele but also the workers. An inquiry into trafficking issues (which calls for punitive measures against clients in the so-called ‘Swedish model’) reported to the Victorian Parliament last year. The report’s recommendations, according to Scarlet Alliance, ‘will criminalise, marginalise and further hurt migrant and non- migrant sex workers in Victoria’. While Scarlet Alliance is closely involved in negotiations with legislators, pressure from social groups and prominent anti-prostitution feminists definitely mould these laws. Project Respect, a feminist support organisation which aims for ‘a world where there is no longer demand for prostitution and trafficking in persons’, welcomes the Victorian report and its suggestions.

‘My God, not more of those damned whores!’ Ralph Clark moaned on the arrival of the Second Fleet. But two hundred years and many social movements later, there are, indeed, more. ‘I hate the words “brothel” and “prostitute”,’ says Jessica at Le Boudoir. ‘I don’t know what I’d call myself. I never think about it.’ At what points do concern and criticism become oppression? ‘To prostitute’ comes from pro and statuere: to expose, to place up front. In that sense, sex work itself, ironically, is prostituting the paradoxes of feminism.

1.The ‘fantasy’ service of a golden shower perhaps exemplifies some of the contention around sex work itself. For an extra fee, a client may urinate on a worker (this usually takes place in a shower under running water). A clear example of male hostility to women? But much more frequent is the request for a worker to urinate on the client, for his pleasure. It is a harmless paid frivolity, part of human sexual experimentation. Not all will enjoy it. But it takes place between two consenting, anonymous adults, one of whom enjoys, the other of whom is paid. Who is to say it is wrong? 

This piece was first published on www.meanjin.com.au. Kate is the author of In My Skin: A memoir. She is known for her fortnightly column in the Saturday Age newspaper. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies including Readings and Writings (Readings), Some Girls Do (Allen & Unwin), Sleepers Almanac 2007, Thanks for the Mammaries (Penguin) and The Big Issue. Visit her on Facebook or at her website.