Why violence against sex workers is invisible


Tilly Lawless

"Violence perpetrated against sex workers falls in a grey space, not just legally but in people's conscience."

"Violence perpetrated against sex workers falls in a grey space, not just legally but in people's conscience." Photo: Tilly Lawless

As a woman, I am used to sexual violence being blamed on me. When a random man thrust his hand up my dress on the dance floor of a club one night, the guy I was dating at the time said, "Well Tilly, your dress is really short."

As a sex worker, people find it even easier to blame sexual violence on me, or ignore it completely.

Time and again, sex workers are told we are 'unrapeable'. What did we expect, when we reduce our bodies to something that can be bought and sold, something that is marketable? What did we expect, when we don't adhere to the codes of conduct set out for women?

An angry man on the internet once sent me a message saying, "You don't deserve rights. You exploit men for their basic instincts, you heartless bitch."


Sadly, the media echoes this view. When Mayang Prasetyo was murdered in Queensland last year, the Courier Mail repeatedly emphasised she was a 'prostitute', as if her profession somehow justified what had happened to her. The story also focused on the fact she was trans, in a typical attempt to dehumanise anyone who falls outside of the 'norm'.

Whenever any kind of violence is committed against sex workers, our job is inevitably brought up. To our dismay, people who deplore what happened to Jill Meagher and talk of Stephanie Scott as "a life cut off cruelly" aren't always so quick to defend us.

I am not a poster child for the innocent woman ideal. I did not only wear a short dress. I did not only make eyes at a few boys around the bar. I did not only laugh too loudly and too freely and all those other inane reasons to that are used to justify women's rapes.

We are not spotless women, so we're not so easy to support. For we go against the idea of how a woman should be. We have sexual knowledge and sexual appetite (feigned, at least), and we capitalise on what is meant to be given freely and within the bonds of relationships.

Women aren't supposed to make money off these things; emotional and sexual labour is not meant to be stringently metered out according to how many notes have been handed over. That shatters the illusion that sex only ever happens out of love for the man.

I sell sex. That makes it a lot harder for some people to like me, and a lot harder to fight battles alongside me.

But here's the catch: if you don't support the right of sex workers to be free from violence, you do not support the right of women to be free from violence at all. For if you believe we have somehow brought it upon ourselves, that we deserve punishment for our behaviour, then you believe – on a fundamental level – that women can somehow invite sexual violence.

But sexual violence is never invited and never deserved.

Author Yasmin Nair said sex work is integral to feminism and forgetting that has "devastated" the cause. I firmly believe that is true. So much time has been spent by well-meaning feminists infantilising, attacking, speaking over and for and 'saving' sex workers that an already marginalised group becomes even further marginalised.


When prohibitionists speak of us selling our body, not a service like any other job, and state that our job is by definition 'rape', it means that when we are actually assaulted, it is made void.

If you do not believe in my ability to give consent, then you do not believe in and support my ability to not consent, or to consent to this or not that, or consent with that much extra money.

It's also important to remember the concept of 'enthusiastic consent' is more complex for sex workers. Sometimes I definitely don't feel enthusiastic about sex. Sometimes, like everyone, I am not in the mood for work that day. Sometimes my skin crawls and I wish a client would stop touching me. But just because there is a money incentive and I wouldn't do it without being paid does not invalidate my consent.

As sex workers, our negative experiences are often used against us, to hack away at our autonomy and prevent us from earning money to survive. Photos of murdered sex workers are shared on the Internet to protest the sex industry. To me this is as offensive and illogical as sharing photos of murdered wives to protest marriage, seeing as the issue is the greater problem of male violence in society, not my job.

I am lucky in that I am 'out' as a sex worker, and I work in a state where sex work is decriminalised, so if something happens to me I have recourse to legal action, and can report it to the police. My heart aches for all the sex workers who have no safety from violence because they fear reporting any assault, lest their family or friends find out.

The stigma around sex work keeps many women enchained just as much as the illegality does in some places. I can't even begin to comprehend what it would be like to live in a place where sex work is still illegal, and you are at the mercy of law enforcements.

A few months ago In Ireland, a sex worker was raped by a Garda who was threatening to arrest her. I am not naïve enough to think things like that don't happen in Australia.

Violence against us is invisible because our job is invisible.

Violence perpetrated against sex workers falls in a grey space, not just legally but in people's conscience. We are the forgotten victims, yet our bodies appear again and again in television shows and murder mysteries as an easy example of the violence of men.

Are we as disposable as the books make us seem, joining the list of unnamed prostitute to meet our violent ends? Sex workers are somehow left behind in the discussions about violence against women, because we are not seen as 'normal' women.

If I am murdered I hope I am remembered by my name, as Jill Meagher and Stefanie Scott are, rather than as just another sex worker. I did not know I sacrificed my identity and human rights because I chose a job outside of what is deemed appropriate for women.


This is an edited extract of Tilly Lawless's speech for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Watch the full speech here.