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Why feminists should listen to sex workers

ElenaJeffreysSex workers face deep-seated stigmas which mean that if we don’t disclose our stories of tragedy and the demeaning experiences we have faced we run the risk of not being believed by many in the feminist movement. This has to stop, because we don’t want to perform our ‘tragedy porn’ for you, writes Elena Jeffreys.

11 June 2011

This is an edited version of a talk given by Elena Jeffreys, national president of Scarlet Alliance, at the Feminist Futures conference in Melbourne, Australia 28-29 May 2011 on the panel Why Feminism Matters.

Scarlet Alliance is a national peak body of Australian sex workers and sex worker organisations, with membership open to all sex workers, past and present. Scarlet Alliance embodies over two decades’ history of formal sex worker peer organising in Australia by the funded and unfunded sex worker groups across the country.

Those groups do outreach, community development, health promotion, STI and HIV prevention, support for people affected by anti-trafficking policies, industrial relations advocacy, financial and economic justice advocacy, housing, welfare, legal and police referrals, health and human rights policy, over 20,000 occasions of direct hands on service delivery to sex workers in Australia in any given year, and participate in their national peak body to ensure that all of this information is turned into strong messages of representation at a national level. Such as here.

We take our sex worker peer education, sex worker organising, activism and politics very seriously. This is not a joke. This is not an academic indulgence. Sex worker activism is not a career path. It’s a Saturday: no one is paying us to be here. We are not here to further our careers and we are not trying to salvage the whore stigma in our lives and professionalise our CV by doing sex worker activism.

Activism is not a cop out from the day-to-day discrimination we face as sex workers. Our sex worker activism could also be called labour organising, and without it we wouldn’t have any rights.

Everything that sex workers have won in terms of work conditions, dignity, health and access to services, we have won because we have fought for it ourselves.

Do you believe me?

I have the responsibility, as the national president of the Australian Sex Workers Association, to be able to tell you what the advocacy message of sex workers is.

Some within feminist movement have labelled those of us who do the advocacy in the sex worker rights movement as “privileged” and “happy hookers” who are unable to understand the hardships that sex workers who are not “us” face. ‘

Do not assume anything about the sex workers you are meeting at the Scarlet Alliance conference this weekend. Do not assume anything about the sex workers you meet on Facebook, who you see in the media, who you see doing advocacy.

Do not assume we have not been victims of assault, discrimination, family breakdown, abuse, violence, bad work conditions, domestic violence, poverty, police corruption or crime. We are people, just like you, who have faced everything in a life that any human being faces.

But as sex workers we also face deep-seated stigmas which mean that if we don’t disclose to you our stories of tragedy and the demeaning experiences we have faced we run the risk of not being believed by you.

This is what we call “tragedy porn”: A desire in the feminist movement to hear tragic stories of hardship from sex workers, and when we don’t tell them, we face the accusation that we are covering up the “truth” about sex work.

For example when we speak about the lack of incidents of trafficking in the sex industry, we are accused of being in denial about migrant sex workers' lives.

Or when we present actual statistics about drug use in the sex industry, we are told that we are ignoring or lying about drug use in sex work.

We are expected to ‘perform’ stereotypical tragedy porn for feminist audiences and when we don’t we are disbelieved.

Well I am going to tell you something that you may not have considered.

We don’t want to perform for you.

We shouldn’t have to use arenas such as this as a public counselling or debrief space for the difficulties of our lives just so that you will believe us when we say we want human rights.

And we don’t want the feminist community to expect, reward, or clap a person when they break down describing all the negative experiences they have had in their lives.

People who need counselling and support to work through trauma in their lives shouldn’t have to perform their grief for you in order to access basic human rights, assistance or justice.

If you don’t believe us because we don’t perform our tragedies for you then YOU are participating in a sick circus, with sex workers as the non-consensual entertainment.

Sex workers aren’t here for that. We are here to advocate, and those who can’t handle that have gone next door because they don’t want to see us living our lives with strength. [NB the Feminist Futures conference split: Sheila Jeffreys and other radical feminists rented a space to have what they called the “real” feminist conference in protest to the pro-sex work and pro-trans and gender-diverse speakers who were invited at the last minute].

Now why would a group of feminists be so threatened by sex workers living our lives with strength?

Well the simple answer is that the “helpers” gain status by positioning us as victims and them as saviours. This is nothing new and has been a phenomenon since the mid 19th century and was how many middle-class white women managed to get themselves out of the house and into the realm of public life in western democracies, including Australia.

Without the Damned Whores there was no need for God’s Police – feminists who have claimed to be rescuing sex workers were given platforms, celebrated, influenced policy, and found themselves a voice in Australia during the last two centuries.

At our expense.

Those of you who work in the “helping industries” need to recognise that by “helping” you gain privilege. By positioning yourself as assisting others you gain a role in society that would not be there except for the needy “other”.

This is why Scarlet Alliance supports sex worker peer education. A critical approach that sees sex workers supporting ourselves. This is why we support sex workers organisations. Critically organising for ourselves.

This is why we won’t perform our tragedy for you. Because to live our lives with strength, you need to accept us at our best.

We want the feminist movement to stop punishing  us for our strengths, stop rewarding us for our pain, stop gaining privilege on the back of our needs, and to listen when we speak.

We will continue to speak out about our rights and you need to hear us. If you deny our experience, you deny our existence.

We are already fighting bad laws; we don’t need to be fighting half of the Australian feminist community as well.

Elena Jeffreys is the President of Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association which you can follow on Twitter. A Youtube video is available to watch here.

Image: Elena Jeffreys presenting on the Why Feminism Matters panel at the Feminist Futures conference, Melbourne, 28 May 2011.


0 #15 Brooke 2012-01-12 16:50
Obviously feminists are just as bitchy as all other women. How can we further our cause if we can't even get along with each other?
+1 #14 kate 2011-07-25 07:29
no matter how or why a person works in the sex trade, it is legitimate work and people should be afforded the decency of workers rights, human rights and individual rights.
a great article and i hope people far and wide read it and learn a whole lot more about the world of sex work.
+1 #13 Wrenna Robertson 2011-06-26 03:25
Thanks so much for this perspective. I recently wrote on the Healing Power of Sex Work (, and while the response was mainly positive, there were a number of individuals who suggested that we must convince ourselves that we enjoy our work and are empowered women in order to look ourselves in the mirror each day. Others suggested that in our capitalistic and misogynistic society, we cannot claim that we actually have free choice. This despite the numerous university degrees, successful "straight" businesses, years spent examining our choice to work in the sex industry.
-1 #12 Holly hill 2011-06-21 18:16
We can’t steal things we rent!

Can you really imagine your husband risking his wife, his children, his mortgage and even his superannuation for someone who works in a brothel and gives good head?

If you’re ‘not in the mood’ for an extended period, denying blue balls exist is not going to prevent him cheating on you. Even if he does manage to stay monogamous, do you think he’s really happy? Would you deny him other biological needs like food and water?

Consider loosening the reins a bit. A monthly ‘treat’ with a sex worker might give you the upper hand (plus that expensive handbag you’ve been lusting after).

Every couple must determine their unique rules and discuss alternatives if one is ‘not in the mood’. Love is meeting needs –  not controlling urges.

Negotiating infidelity establishes a win–win set of boundaries designed to prevent cheating and/or attachments forming. Sex workers are all about paperwork and nothing about intimacy.

Is our esteem truly so low as to think he’s going to leave his soul mate for someone who charges extra for kissing?

Renting a sex worker will merely scratch an itch – risking an affair will stab your family.

Cheers Holly Hill
0 #11 A John 2011-06-21 11:11
Katherine Reed: No monopolist likes to have their monopoly busted. But why do you feel your value as a wife is tied to the sexual services you (no longer exclusively) provide?

As barbie doll says, prostitutes are saving your marriage by providing your husband with the kind of sex you are not willing to provide. Would you rather he had an affair or left you?

(I'm one of those married men by the way. Love my wife and kids but the sexual frustration was driving me crazy - and yes, I totally felt entitled to some sexual pleasure in my life...)

To all the prostitutes out reading: thanks! I get that it's work for you, but like any job, I hope there's some enjoyable parts to it and that some of the clients are nice people. I hope I've been one of them. Cheers.
+1 #10 SueM 2011-06-21 10:03
To Elena: An eloquent, passionate & focused piece of writing that provides a dignified and real insight into the world of sex work.
To Katherine Reed: Don't blame sex workers for your perceived oppression as 'wife'. I wonder if it is not more pertinent to question the institution of marriage with its idealised heterosexual monogamous coupling & the particular expectations of those who engage in it. Your diatribe seems to suggest that men have no agency in choosing to interact with sex workers & that their mere existence accounts for some men accessing their services. I don't think it is useful for women to engage in fights over whether the role of sex worker or wife is better. I would also argue that sex workers are not subservient to their clients' needs but interact with them in a more equal way in that the transaction between the parties is mething that is not always the case between the parties to a marriage.
0 #9 CL 2011-06-15 15:48
Katherine Reed wrote: "One thing that is resoundedly overlooked in the discussion of sex work or prostitution is the effect its existence has on heterosexual women who are not involved in it, but are simply attached to ordinaryt men, the vast majority of whom are potential patrons...."
@ Katherine Reed, I think you've raised some paradigms which may require a bit of a shift. Are you implying that prostitutes have an effect on married women? Or are you implying that married men's decisions to hire prostitutes have an effect on the women they are married to? I think we need to be clear where the responsibility lies, and as much as wives would love to blame prostitutes for hustling their men, the truth is actually pretty clear. It sounds like you're implying that married men are "ordinary". I hope psychologists will agree that a wedding ring doesn't make a man "ordinary", although I'm not sure what your version of ordinary may be. I've heard the majority of prostitutes' clients are married, but I don't have the stats, and who knows what the truth is....anyone?
But whether married men make up the majority of clients is irrelevant, because the real question you're asking is: Does it have an effect on your marriage? Are prostitutes oppressing your ability to communicate with your husband? Is there something which prostitutes are doing to oppress your relationship and prevent it from flourishing? Are they seeking him out? Are they forcing him to browse endless webpages of their services and tantalizing pictures? Afterward, do they coherce husbands into making appointments and force husbands' car keys into the ignitions as he drives to the prostitutes lair of seduction? Anyway, I think you get the idea, and I hope you now have the answer you were looking for. Tonight I'm headed out to force women to lie about their marital status to me and make out with me on the dance floor, thereby oppressing their husbands. See what I mean?
0 #8 barbie doll 2011-06-15 05:01
Excellent Elena.
Sex work is the oldest profession. It is portrayed as both glamorous at times and abusive at other times. Really it is neither. Each woman and man and transgendered individual's experience of sex work is different. It can be both glamorous and it can be abusive but usually its somewhere in between - its boring and sometimes good just like any other job - and the glamour comes from the magazines and the abuse usually come from those who don't believe that sex workers have the right to justice. I am sorry that the wife above Katherine Reed feels that sex workers are a threat to her status as a wife. They actually support you, sex workers are there to have sex with husbands when the wives are pregnant, to do the kinky things they desire but don't want to tell you about as you may take away their access to the children they so love and have helped to bring up and clients especially married ones often need counselling to recover from their divorces. Its unfortunate that wives like you consider sex workers a threat as sex workers just like women who breast fed the children of rich women in days gone by, are doing the work that others do not wish to do and so thank us for our time and our energy. We keep your husband happy and your marriage in tact, just as you do I am sure but in a different way.
Sex workers have the right to good working conditions safety and freedom from abuse just like all women who need safety and respect, at all ages, in and outside of marriage and the family, and in all countries.
Sex can be pleasure and it can also be work just like house work.
Women who have had bad experiences at work have the right to tell their story and also to demand better conditions.
Sex workers do many things other than sex, they provide solace and companionship, and give men and female client the right to a sexual expression they may not otherwise have.
Good on you Elena. We love you and Scarlet Alliance.
+2 #7 Katherine Reed 2011-06-14 14:40
One thing that is resoundedly overlooked in the discussion of sex work or prostitution is the effect its existence has on heterosexual women who are not involved in it, but are simply attached to ordinaryt men, the vast majority of whom are potential patrons. One of the things that drives ignorance about sex work and sex workers, and that squelches support by women like me for sex workers is that they and their industry are are a key factor in my oppression and my being devalued as a wife! The're out hustling business from my husband, and turning themselves inside out to make him feel his male priviledge! Sadly, it's working! Most men have an unbelievable sense of entitlement, and women in relationships with them take the pointy end of that stick. It can be like psychological warfare at times. I wish there were more analysis, as there was in the past of the negative effects of the sex trade on women like me, instead of only on its effects on people actually involved in the buying and selling.
+1 #6 Mistress Justine Cross - Los Angeles Dominatrix 2011-06-14 13:01
Great post. Everything I've wanted to say, what I've thought about or haven't reached in my consciousness yet. Thank you, thank you thank you.

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