Want to be a hero for sex workers? Try listening

Tilly Lawless

Tilly Lawless Photo: Supplied

On June the 2nd 1975, more than 100 sex workers occupied the Church of Saint-Nizier in France for over a week to protest the arrest of sex workers and the reluctance of police to chase up crimes perpetrated against, and reported by, sex workers.  

The commemoration of this event is known as International Whores' Day or International Sex Workers' Day, and the protest is recognised as a key catalysts for the sex workers' rights movement. Here we are, 40 years on, and the problems they were fighting to eradicate continue.

Much has been said on the criminilisation of sex work and how making it illegal simply forces the industry underground, making it more dangerous for the workers. In America, for example, street workers are forced to work in less populated areas to avoid arrest, which makes them more vulnerable to violence.  

Tilly Lawless

Tilly Lawless Photo: Supplied

Laws criminalising sex work expose the brutality of police, who target minorities within the sex industry who are already marginalised, such as transgender women and/or women of colour. Reports of sexual assault are pursued less seriously, and workers are often ridiculed, shamed or dismissed by the police.


Sex workers are seen to incite or deserve violence because of the nature of their work. When transgender Mayang Prasetyo was murdered in Queensland last year, the Courier-Mail not only dehumanised by using the incredibly offensive "she-male", it also repeatedly iterated she was a "prostitute", as if that somehow validated her death. When I posted online about a client attempting to assault me a week ago, a man commented "your fault dumb bitch" – as a sex worker, I suppose, I have forfeited any right to complain about sexual assault because sex workers are 'unrapeable'.

Sex workers are unrapeable for two reasons: firstly, because we are not people of virtue so that virtue can not be compromised; secondly, because, as anti-traffickers and the rescue industry argue, all our work is rape so there is no difference between what we have consented to and what we have not.

Those who are most vocal about eradicating the industry tell sex workers they are brainwashed by, and under the control of, the patriarchy and unable to think for themselves. They therefore see themselves as justified in shutting down any sex worker that does not agree with them as 'not representative' or part of the 'pimp lobby'. They also see themselves justified in 'saving' sex workers by placing them under further patriarchal control (prisons in America) or exploiting their stories to further their own agenda in television (the notorious reality show 8 minutes).

There are many people willing to expend energy to 'save' sex workers, but very few willing to expend the same energy on listening to us and helping us in our fights for rights. Homogenising sex workers' individual experiences  by painting them all as passive victims to fit into the tragedy porn peddled by supporters of the 'Nordic model' (making it illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them) and Christian groups distracts from the very real problems that sex workers face.

The laws that are supposed to 'protect' sex workers actually make our working conditions more difficult, make it harder for people to exit the industry, block access to help from authorities and increase the stigma around it. The lack of work cover and recourse to legal action leaves room for sex workers to be exploited by both clients and managers, and the stigma surrounding sex work leaves workers fearing to pursue injustice for fear of society's persecution and discrimination, either through the media or on a personal level.

What can you do to make progress over the next 40 years faster than the last?

Avoid assumptions and essentialism

Not all migrant workers are trafficked, not all sex work is penis-in-vagina penetrative sex, not all sex workers are abused and coerced. But, of course, neither are all sex workers living high-flying lives of luxury. Most fall somewhere in between and need the rights that most other workers are guaranteed.

Avoid reductive questions

Of course I am doing it for the money, it is a job after all and whether or not I am empowered by it is irrelevant, as being empowered is not a prerequisite for rights.

Fight poverty, the systematic oppression of minorities and poor education

It is these things that often lead to the abuse of people within the sex industry (and, by fighting for rights, sex workers are not denying these thngs exist, nor are they glamourising the industry) rather than the occupation itself.

Check your whorephobia

We come from all walks of life and know next time you casually use "prostitute" as a slur to denigrate and divide, not only may there be a past or present sex worker listening and cringeing inwardly, you are contributing to the system that will continue to oppress sex workers into the future.

Most of all, listen to current sex workers because they are the ones most affected by legislation and stigma.