The untapped wisdom of sex workers

A screengrab from The Sun website.

A screengrab from The Sun website.

Leave it to the British tabloid The Sun, which in the past has brought us such considered coverage as “FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER”, to approach the topics of sex work and relationship advice with all the subtlety of a neon-painted brick: last month they ran a piece with the screaming headline, “I had sex with 1,000 men as £700-a-time hooker ... now I'm an infidelity counsellor.”

Take a moment to get the sighs out of your system and it turns out the piece contains fairly straightforward – and even considerate – advice from former sex worker Rebecca Dakin, such as, “I just want to help people stay in relationships. My knowledge comes from experience. When I was an escort about 60 per cent of my clients were married, and that gives me a pretty unique insight into how men work and what they want.”

That didn't stop website Salon from weeping and wailing about the piece, with Tracy Clark Florey unloading on the topic, playing into the tired notion of "bad sex workers versus good sex workers" by saying, of another piece by Kitty Stryker, “Her advice boils down to this: talk with your partner. Rather than giving out grudging blow jobs like doggie treats, communicate openly, honestly and without judgment about your mutual needs and desires. What a concept.”

But boiling the particular sort of relationship advice espoused by Dakin down to “have more sex with your husband”, it is certainly not exclusive to "racy" editorial; Bettina Arndt has been doling out similar rhetoric for years. So why characterise it as specific to sex work?

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What sets The Sun editorial and the Salon piece apart is that The Sun actually allowed a sex worker to speak for herself, and in an era where much of the dialogue about sex work is dominated by non-sex workers, that's becoming increasingly rare.

If there's a titillative or click-baiting side to magazines and sites running “relationship advice from sex workers” pieces – and there's no doubt that in the never-ending quest for traffic, similar articles are commissioned from a rather mercenary stance rather than an egalitarian one – there may also be a positive spin.

“Articles, books and workshops that provide a greater understanding of the relationship between clients and sex workers reduce the power of many of the misconceptions about our work,” says Janelle Fawkes, CEO of Scarlet Alliance, Australia's peak sex worker organisation.

“It's clear that much of the moral panic that frames sex workers as women exploited by clients who are men is based on misunderstanding the level of negotiation and boundary setting that takes place in many sex work interactions and how diverse our communities are.”

It's a fair assumption to say that many people wouldn't consider talking with clients – a kind of casual counselling – as part and parcel of sex work, which is perhaps why articles such as Dakin's strike a raw nerve with some.

“There is a plethora of literature around the spiritual, healing and counselling aspects of sex work,” says Scarlet Alliance policy officer Zahra Stardust.

“Sex work provides an opportunity to share unique intimacies with strangers – which sometimes also act as opportunities for political activism, social work and friendship. But sex work does not need 'counselling' or emotional connection to make it legitimate. This is just one aspect of a very diverse industry.”

Indeed, as you might have noticed if you've been unfortunate to read the comments on any article about sex work or, especially, written by a sex worker, everybody has an opinion about the profession. Stardust's concern is that even well-intentioned editorial coverage can be injurious to sex workers.

“The danger can be that sex workers are expected to give up significant amounts of our personal time to convince non-sex workers that our work is legitimate,” she says. “Social media forums and the speed of digital information sharing means that sex workers' lives are often seen as public property, open for dissection and discussion – by journalists, policymakers and organisations with specific agendas.

"Expecting sex workers to give our expertise for free for ill-informed, well-intending research projects, or a fascination with the 'titillating' parts of our work but disinterest in supporting our rights campaigns, is a consistent pattern. These patterns means that many sex workers feel exploited by media.”

Perhaps, then, diverting the conversation away from tales of woe and exploitation (articles that are, in a bitter irony, exploitative themselves) to relationship and sex advice can be considered a more positive dialogue about sex work.

“It's important to support the general community to recognise that sex work is skilled work,” Fawkes says. “One way of doing this is by sharing with non-sex workers the tips, tricks and skills that we use in our work as sex workers. There will be some who overlook the value of these opportunities [for] sharing skill and knowledge and who are blinded by their own 'whorephobia'. I think they miss out on a valuable insight.”

Stardust agrees, adding, “As sex workers we also negotiate space, love, sex, family, friendships, communities and work commitments in our personal lives and in our own relationships – there are skills here to be shared as well.”

While Dakin's relationship advice – for example – might not suit some, despite society's best efforts to cram all sex work into a narrow stereotype, there is a wealth of knowledge being shared by sex workers who engage in a diverse range of work.

Fawkes encourages casual readers to keep an open mind when reading pieces written by sex workers.

“I hope that what sex workers offer to the community – understandings of sexual expression and exploration, skills and strategies for negotiation and boundary setting, an insight into another person's life – will be recognised and accepted as the extremely valuable gift that it is. An offering to allow others to enrich their understandings of humanity, sexuality and diversity.”

Crucially, both Fawkes and Stardust are adamant that if the mainstream media wants to call upon the wisdom and experience of sex workers, more needs to be done to support the very work that provides advice that fuels articles such as Dakin and Stryker's in the first place.

“This intrigue into the experiences by media must go further than curiosity, fascination or just acceptance – sex workers in Australia need decriminalisation. We need anti-discrimination protection. We need law reform and funding that supports our organising, advocacy, health promotion. These are urgent issues for sex workers," they say.

"If non-sex workers want access to our expertise, cultural histories and personal stories, they should support the recognition and protection of our human rights.”

It's a fair swap, wouldn't you say?

25 comments

  • I’m a 60 y.o. very happily married male and I have visited sex workers on many occasions. Let me promise you this… most of these ladies are really nice people. They each have their own life story, they have their own particular reasons for being in the industry and each brings their particular talents to the encounter.
    The sex industry suffers from the sexual cringe from those do-gooder, morally righteous people who do their utmost to live contrary to what’s natural.
    It’s time, not just to makes things legal, it’s time to pay honour to the industry, honour those in it, and say thanks.

    Commenter
    Kev
    Location
    WA
    Date and time
    May 08, 2013, 8:41AM
    • "Honour" and "thank" these people? Why? For what?

      Um... thanks for contributing to a situation where women's bodies are viewed as commodities to be bought and sold by men? Thanks for further undermining female equality by participating in this one-sided market? Thanks for contributing to the impression that it's okay to literally buy a person for disposable, sexual use? Thanks for selling sex to married men, further destabilizing their tenuous relationships? Thanks for charging higher rates than a professional, to engage in work that you see as "skilled" as most of us see... rather differently? Thanks for hijacking the conversation away from the many women who are trafficked, coerced and forced into sex work, and focusing on a rights-based discourse that only acknowledged the most privileged?

      No thanks.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 10:26AM
    • Kev, if you were happily married, you would not be visiting prostitutes.
      Lets' just stop the hypocrisy RIGHT THERE.

      Respect is earned, all these women earn is money.

      Commenter
      trite
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 10:35AM
    • Out of the horse's mouth. Men don't use sex workers because they're unhappy in their marriages or relationships. They do it because they have an attitude of entitlement to sex. We can stop blaming women for men's selfish, indulgent, exploitative choices now.

      Commenter
      Lyn
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 11:35AM
    • ""Um... thanks for contributing to a situation where women's bodies are viewed as commodities to be bought and sold by men?

      If you think that viewing people and relationships as commodities is either a sexist concept or unique to sex work, I have some news for you:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Exchange_Theory

      Just because you yourself view sex work as demeaning to women does not mean that everyone agrees with you. Part of the reason it is usually considered demeaning is precisely because of attitudes like the one your have propounded.

      I value a woman no more or less because she chooses to sell her body for the purpose of providing physical pleasure to others rather than (for example) selling her mind for the purposes of working in an accounting firm. The fact that her job involves sex has nothing to do with my attitude towards her as a person.

      If she has been forced into such work against her will, on the other hand, that's a different matter.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 12:13PM
    • @Red Pony - unless you think that every single sex worker is trafficked then there is a place for this conversation. There are plenty of articles which state pretty clearly that some women freely choose to have sex for money, and similarly plenty of comments on those articles from women who are doing it. If you choose not to acknowledge that then that should be your problem, not everyone else's. Oh and by the way given there was an article on SMH just the other day from a male "escort" the market pretty clearly isn't one sided.

      @trite - More than likely Kev has a marriage where he is very happy with all of the aspects of the relationship except for the sex (or lack thereof) as many others are. Obviously we can't tell but it is entirely possible that he has permission from his wife to have sex away from the marriage, it's certainly not unheard of.

      @lyn where has it been said that he feels entitled to sex? I certainly don't think that there is an entitlement to sex but at the same time I think most people would agree that it is part of a healthy marriage and if there isn't any sex happening then it would lead many people to become unhappy as a result. Why is it that people seem to think they can turn off what is often a pretty important part of the relationship and expect that the other person should just accept this?

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 1:24PM
    • Kev,
      You criticize those that don't agree with you as do-gooders who 'live contrary to what's natural'? What do you mean? It's natural is it, to be unfaithful on your wife, to develop memories and a past you'll largely regret and waste, to use another person as a commodity? What's really tiring are these 'new' people who come up with the 'enlightened' (not) arguments that a) people are economic commodities and are just supplying to a demand, or/and b) that sex-workers are like 'nurses' that soothe and nurse those are are ill and need their cure. Of course each sex worker has their own story, and their own points of view on what they're doing, but it doesn't detract from the fact that they're selling themselves way short and generally wasting their lives, whilst at the same time simply allowing someone with some money to take advantage of them. And as to those that decide to become a sex worker as a kick - they have a confused sense of lifting their ego.

      Sex workers, as individuals, deserve better respect than that, even if they don't see that themselves.

      Commenter
      JM
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 1:25PM
    • The comments highlight the futility of debate about gender issues on this forum.

      Although the article promotes a sympathetic perspective, one school of thought in the comments ignores the contents of the article, and instead uses this comment to further the 'women-are-victims-of-patriarchy' point of view. And men are "selfish, indulgent, exploitative" for good measure.

      I know that this comment is a waste of electrons, but I hope that readers in general approach issues like this with a mind which is open to change, rather than ignore any evidence which does not support their world view.

      Commenter
      Nogbad
      Location
      Polar extremes
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 1:54PM
    • @DM
      "I value a woman no more or less because she chooses to sell her body for the purpose of providing physical pleasure to others rather than (for example) selling her mind for the purposes of working in an accounting firm. The fact that her job involves sex has nothing to do with my attitude towards her as a person."

      Actually, admiration for a person stems (as far as most people are concerned) from what they have achieved in their life, how far they have come under their own steam from where they started out. It is hard to admire someone who takes the easy way out, in this case sells that which they have been born with. When the body is old and withered, what have they to fall back on? There is no achievement in "selling consent", to have someone use their body for 1 hour at a time.

      The fact that her (his) job involves sex makes me pity her (him), and wonder why they made the choices they made. The fact that people have a blind spot for those who benefit from the plight/bad choices these people have made, is what I find amazing. The apologists and promoters often have blood on their hands.

      Yes, I will look at someone like that differently to one who has cultivated their brain and will be benefiting from it long after their body has become unpalatable. There is always a choice.

      Commenter
      LM
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 2:29PM
  • I'm tired of ideologically driven articles that present a distorted account of prostitution and disregard the social, economic, gender and racial disadvantage that play such a significant role in it. The profound effects it can have physically, psychologically, economically and personally are not 'myths' or 'stereotypes' and it's not 'exploitative' to point them out. Prostitution is devastating to countless women, children and men. It can also be devastating to the partners and families of men who use 'sex workers'. These are facts, not 'woe is me tales'. How dismissive and offensive.

    Here's something out of the mouths of these men themselves that might give you a more honest insight into prostitution and what it's all about.

    http://the-invisible-men.tumblr.com/

    Commenter
    A Survivor
    Date and time
    May 08, 2013, 9:30AM

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