A systematic pattern of violence against sex workers, perpetrated by men, has led to women working in the sex industry experiencing statistically higher levels of violence than women in any other industry. Violence against sex workers includes physical assault, sexual assault, and psychological trauma – all of which are experienced both inside and outside of work situations at extremely high levels compared to women who do not engage in sex work. There is a myriad of reasons for this exacerbated level of targeted violence, including: a misunderstanding or disregard of what payment entitles clients to, anti-sex worker sentiment, and broader beliefs about gender, sex, race and male entitlement.
On August 13, 2019, 24-year old Michaela Dunn became a victim of this systematic violence, after she was killed tragically in Sydney after meeting up with a 20-year old male for what police described as a “business” deal (read: sex work). The Australian media’s response to the crime was mixed, but often favoured reports on the male ‘heroes’ who held the attacker down with milk crates above the discussion regarding the victim. This conjured up countless questions as to how the media should or should not report on sex work, and the incompetencies of the current media landscape in creating a purposeful and restorative discussion concerning sex work and the safety of sex workers.
An important distinction to be made before entering into this discourse is that sex work and sex trafficking are entirely different. Sex work is defined as activities engaged in voluntarily, and free from coercion in exchange for payment or reward. Trafficking on the other hand is exploitation involving force, intimidation and/ or deception. The two, despite their innate difference, are often confused and misrepresented (i.e. sex work being deemed as forced). As such, this mispresentation has created a culture surrounding sex work that not only encourages it to be a subject shrouded in shame and perceived illegality, but an industry that women need to be ‘saved’ or rescued from. In New South Wales (where the crime cited above took place) sex work, running a sex industry business (i.e. a brothel) and being a sex worker are all legal, as long as engaged in as per state regulations. Admittedly, in Australia, NSW is the most liberal state in terms of sex work legislation, with many other states still criminalising certain aspects of the industry. However, this case exemplifies the negative discourses surrounding the sex work industry as a result of social and cultural stereotypes, rather than blatant illegality. As such, the Australian media’s bias against sex work, is mostly a reflection on our nation’s stigma surrounding the topic.
It was made clear in the wake of Michaela Dunn’s murder that the Australian media fosters a visible disregard of victims of assault, or crime more broadly, due to their status as both women, and as sex workers. In the case of Michaela, this meant a majority of media coverage focused on the men who restrained the perpetrator, rather than the victim herself. She was often, in fact, redacted from the narrative completely or mentioned merely as a footnote. For instance, most of the news stories cite the male perpetrator, or the men who assisted, instead of the victim(s). This point is by no means intended to undermine the heroism of these men, but it is the refusal to acknowledge a sex worker as a murder victim which exemplifies the prejudice and bigotry of the media and community against this topic. It is decades of learned stigma that has led to this point. The aforementioned discourses surrounding sex trafficking, as well as the taboo nature of sex itself and widespread beliefs around gender and female subordination, have all led to a culture – specifically a media culture – that does not work to effectively recognise these women as (1) victims and (2) humans.
In the instances when a victim is acknowledged in the media, there is potential for the label of ‘sex worker’ to be overused in reporting, especially by conservative sources, to dehumanise the subject and attach the stigma concerning their line of work. This potentially places these individuals in a position of lesser-respect from the public, as ‘whores’, or ‘sluts’, who undertake a job that is not only ‘immoral’, but actively dangerous. This focused media coverage allows audiences who maintain these views to justify to themselves the abuse or murder of sex workers, because they were, or should have been, aware that their profession was ‘dangerous.’ Rose Harper, a sex worker herself, explains, “When sex workers experience violence or sexual assault, there’s still a widely spread view that by being a sex worker we’ve somehow offered ourselves up to be the punching bag of men who are sexually or physically violent.” Harper describes how Australians believe that the violence within the industry is merely an unfortunate side effect. But this danger associated with the industry is not, or should not be, innate to the acts involved with the job – rather it a culture of misogynistic and violent men who have the potential to instil violence into the industry. This can be through anti-sex worker sentiments, misogyny, generally aggressive behaviour, social isolation, disregard of consent etc. Violence can be particularly apparent for POC and LGBTQ+ sex workers. As intersections between male violence against women, racial violence and fetishization, and anti-queer sentiments become apparent.
Although a stigmatised focus on sex work induces prejudice, failure to recognise sex work within the media at all also feeds into a larger problem becoming more obvious in Australia. We don’t like talking about sex work or the dangers that stem from the profession. Media reports that redact women like Michaela from their narrative, or critiques that call on sources to not mention the role of sex work in crimes/assaults both work to limit an understanding of the dangers violent men can bring to the industry, and subsequently make it more difficult for processes of increased safety for workers to be implemented. As such, we must actively engage in conversation around sex work, not to bring ‘shame,’ but to educate audiences on the fact that sex work itself should not be dangerous. It is the gendered culture surrounding the job, and the clientele, which make it a potentially dangerous industry. As we continue to see dialogue proposing that sex workers are offered to violent/incel/misogynistic men to ‘control their urges’ and ensure they don’t commit crimes against ‘regular’ women, it is extremely necessary to publicise the role of sex workers and the need for them to be ensured safety in their job. It is important to publicly discuss the role of constant and renegotiated consent in circumstances of sex work – to protect both clients and the (often neglected) worker. Additionally, we must not ignore the high levels of violence sex workers experience outside of their work environment due, in part, to the continued stigma and anti-sex worker sentiment that exists within our society. We must also confront instances of racial fetishization and subsequent violence that women of colour (WoC) experience in the industry – both physically and through online forums which house disgusting threats and affirmations of violence against WoC sex workers.
Michaela Dunn was killed by a violent man specifically because she was a sex worker. That is a fact that cannot continually be ignored by the media, or Australia more broadly. If so, it will continue to harm the industry and construct a culture by which sex workers are never able to be guaranteed safety from misogynists, racists, homophobes, violent and anti-sex worker men, in their job.
Everyone wants to be safe at their place of work, and if the Australian media publicise conversations like this, we may be able to ensure sex workers can be too.
In memory of Michaela Dunn,
Wom*n’s Honi offers our respect and condolences to her family, friends, and fellow members of the SW community.
USYD WOCO offers both support and solidarity.