The Faces of Sex Work

Tilly Lawless writes on what motivated her to start #facesofprostitution.

Pictured: The photo that accompanied the initial #facesofprostitution post, credit: Tilly Lawless

The article “The Reality of Pretty Woman” originally appeared on the website Exodus Cry and gained massive criticism when Mamamia republished it (they have since deleted it after the resulting backlash). It accuses the 1990 film of enticing women into the sex industry, and into a life of abuse and drug addiction that is unavoidable because prostitution is inherently harmful.

I have serious doubts about whether Leila Mickelwait has ever watched Pretty Woman. Considering Vivian’s job is shown to be dangerous—a fellow sex worker is found dead in a dumpster off camera, her best friend spends their rent money on coke, and the happy ending is her being rescued from that environment by a rich, white man—I would say that the film plays into the dominant discourse of sex workers needing to be ‘saved’ rather than encouraging girls to enter the profession.

Vivian does not end up on holiday sleeping on a bed of money at night and drinking Mojitos in the day, blissfully happy with where her earnings have taken her and banging whomever the fuck she wants. Instead she ends up in an emotional and monogamous relationship with a man who saw her as better than the industry she was in and swept her off her feet and away from that dingy pavement.

If there is the odd sex worker who has been enticed into entering a job that most of society deems as dirty and immoral in the off chance she will meet the man of her dreams, I would be surprised. Most sex workers enter the industry for money—as do all labourers with all jobs in this capitalist society. Sometimes there is a mix of other motivations. Curiosity drove me, as well as the fact that I had read such divisive views on sex work that I wanted to form my own, authoritative opinion.

I am very well aware that as a white, middle class, educated, cis woman this privilege has impacted my choice to enter the industry, though that is not said to undermine the autonomy of women who have entered the industry with less privileged backgrounds.

I am very aware that I cannot speak on behalf of all sex workers, and I also shouldn’t try.

The blatant demonisation in this article though needs to be corrected. Not only does it conflate two separate issues—sex work and sex trafficking—it also draws upon entirely uncited statistics and ridiculously shaming language in order to undermine our rights and choices. By casting us as victims of an inherently immoral industry, the focus is shifted from improving our working conditions, fighting society’s stigma and attacking society’s double standards that lead to this job being frowned upon in the first place, to forcibly removing passive women from the industry for their own good. This crusade to rescue all sex workers is not only insulting and unrealistic, but it oversimplifies the picture and paints all our experiences as homogenous, which leaves little room for issues within the industry to be addressed.

By focusing on rescuing women who don’t want to be rescued, things such as the racial discrimination within the industry, sex workers’ difficulty in accessing work cover, the fact that in states where our work is not legal it limits our access to legal action if we have been sexually assaulted and being forced to work twenty-two hour shifts under the threat of withheld pay, are overshadowed and overlooked. There are many people who are willing to support sex workers in leaving the industry, but few who are prepared to support our choice to be in it and improve our working conditions. It seems that if you appear to have no autonomy people think you don’t need rights but instead need to have decisions made on behalf of you, but if you appear to have chosen to be in your profession rather than accidentally ending up there after years of tragic abuse you have made the decision to be in such a disgusting industry and do not deserve rights. It’s a catch-22 and once again, like in the newspaper reports that tell of a ‘prostitute’ being murdered (as if that somehow justifies the murder), we are reduced entirely to our profession.

I am proud to be who I am, which amongst many other things is a sex worker. However it’s no more a part of me than my love of animals, my queerness, my political views, my friends and the homesickness that waxes in the centre of my being, yet this one aspect of me—my occupation—is used to weave a narrative that aims to further oppress us. The women I know through sex work are often more aware of their own value and more able to enforce their boundaries than other women I know. This does not mean that they value themselves entirely on their body. It is also a myth that if you are ‘selling your body’ you somehow whittle away at yourself till you are left as less of a person and with nothing to give others in your personal life. I am just as loving, caring, independent and open as I ever was. I am just as much a person as I ever was. I also ask, in this world where people exchange sex for photo shoots, entry into clubs, social status, self esteem boosts and a myriad of other things, why exchanging it for money is any dirtier? Arguments about morality though aren’t relevant; it has been argued back and forth for centuries and will continue to be so. What is relevant though is that we are workers and individuals deserving of respect and rights as is anyone else, and the fact that not all sex workers have the same needs.

Instead of blending the varied and immense experiences of sex work into some sort of Mary Magdalene type rhetoric where the girl is forsaken by society and then reformed, we need to recognise that there is not one single story. There is no ‘face’ of sex work. There are millions of us. We are similar in some ways and different in others. Like in all industries, we are made up of people of different backgrounds with different needs. I may not have the same struggles as a single mother, and she may not have the same struggles as an immigrant, who may not have the same struggles as a woman who is fetishised by clients because of her ethnicity, who many not have the same struggles as a drug user. The separate voices within sex work are forgotten and ignored when one story is brought to the fore, whether it is a glamorous or a horrendous depiction. That is why I began #facesofprostitution, to remind of this.​

UPDATE (From Tilly Lawless):

– Regarding sex worker rights, one of the most momentous events this year was Amnesty International voting to publicly support the decriminalisation of sex work. To have such a well respected and widely known human rights organisation recognise that decrim is the policy that best ensures the safety of sex workers was amazing. Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Lena Dunham, Anne Hathaway and a number of other famous actresses signed a highly publicised anti sex work petition in an attempt to sway Amnesty International’s decision, in spite of the fact they have no experience or stake in sex work.

– Closer to home, the NSW government financed an inquiry into the regulation of brothels. We are one of two places in the world with decrim (NZ is the other) and it was brought in in 1995 after the Royal Commission into police corruption showed that police were using the sex industry for their own ends and that they would have less influence on it if it was decriminalised and treated like any other work industry. Any step away from decrim will expose sex workers to police brutality, inadequacy and corruption and it is terrifying to think that these changes may be brought about. A handful of politicians have spoken out against these possible changes.

Mamamia did an about turn after this and published a number of articles either by sex workers or with a more nuanced approach to sex work. Whether this was from a genuine change of heart or just an attempt to garner traffic when they could see the mood of the internet readership was changing is debatable.