Friday 5 October 2012

Chasing Tales- Without Listening to Sex Workers, You’re Going Nowhere

In a recent article in the Age all sorts of outlandish claims were made including-

St Kilda Street Sex Workers Are Migrating to Footscray and Dandenong!!!

Street Sex Workers Are Using Grindr!!!

 Social Media Is Putting Sex Workers At Risk!!!

Police Operations Are Having Unwanted Consequences!!!

As I read through, the stench of bovine excrement almost made my eyes water.  The lay person may have little option but to accept these statements as news but anyone familiar with any of these issues would ask a few questions.

Firstly, street sex work doesn’t relocate itself to another suburb on the other side of town.  Sex Workers don’t have a closing down sale and put up signs telling their customers they’re moving shop; it’s not how street sex work works.  If there is street based soliciting for the purposes of transactional sex in a particular area, it is because individuals in that community do street sex work, there is not an itinerant population of these workers who move en masse from one place to the next like migrating wildebeest across the African savannah.  Sure, there are common members of one community of street based sex work and the next but to claim that this is a single herd moving to a community near you is assuming the highly questionable.  I know this because after spending almost nine years working with street based sex workers in St Kilda, I’ve now worked with the marginalised of Footscray for a year and there is but a tiny intersection between the two.

So why the assumption? 

It’s more comfortable for people to think that sex work doesn’t happen in their community.  “Surely everyone in my neighbourhood is law-abiding and respectable.  None of them would ever be that desperate.  I’m offended by the mere thought of it…”

Sorry, but I have news for you: WE ARE SEX WORKERS AND WE ARE EVERYWHERE!

That’s right, we are there- in every neighbourhood, in every community, in every family. In all likelihood, you know a sex worker but they are so oppressed by social stigma that they have yet to tell you.

But back to street based sex work.  Individuals who make the choice to do street sex work exist in many communities.  They do so because they have to pay bills, feed children, make rent.  Some may have drug and alcohol issues.  Some may not.  Some may be experiencing homelessness.  Some may not.  The reality of the situation is that people are in need- sometimes dire need and for many, myself included, making the choice to do street sex work is a way of meeting those needs.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for many communities.  It’s much easier to assume that street sex workers must board a shuttle from planet Whore to our neighbourhoods under the cover of darkness before disappearing as the sun rises. (I have to credit Janelle Fawkes for that metaphor)  But the reality is sex workers are a part of your community.  Some of us go to brothels to work, some of us wait by the phone for people to respond to our advertising – and yes, some of us may work on the street.

Now I want to focus on the apparently innovative notion that sex workers may be using smart phone apps to do sex work. 

Well Duh.  Of course in any form of social media that people use to create opportunities to meet people for sex, the potential for sex work to happen is there.  It’s not rocket science.  But to imagine that there is an exodus of sex workers from the street into cyberspace is a tad fanciful (I'm imagining them boarding this magical shuttle again).  Of course, some resourceful sex workers may explore as many opportunities to do sex work as possible but apps as an alternative to the street? Really? I doubt it. 

For one, it’s hard to work on apps- believe me I have tried.  These apps are used for sex- their creators are hyper aware of the potential for these programs to be used for sex work- and because a number of them were created in the United States, where sex work is highly criminalised, it is always stated (or at the very least heavily implied) in the terms and conditions of use for these apps that you can’t use it to do sex work.  Further, these apps are internally moderated- if you are explicitly soliciting other app users for money, your profile’s going to get shut down pretty quickly.  Look, using apps to successfully do sex work is a painstakingly slow and tenuous process. I’m not going to say it’s impossible but as a viable alternative to street sex work, where sex workers have immediate and quick access to clients- I don’t think so. 

The other tell that gives away the cheese is the claim that apps “could be taking [sex workers] to more dangerous areas for work.” Clearly, the person claiming this hasn’t used these apps. There is absolutely no reason why using new technology to do sex work is going to present more or less risk than anyone else using apps to get laid.  Appeals to safety are clichéd but I guess that’s what you say when you’ve got nothing useful to contribute. 

So why the claim?

It’s a tasty little sound bite, isn’t it? You hadn’t thought of it, had you? Interesting? Perhaps. Titillating? Sure. But the ultimate function of this MacGuffin is to make its speaker seem like they know what they’re talking about.  But upon examination we can see what this claim is: utter rubbish. 

And what can we learn from this. 

When speaking about street sex work there are a number of stakeholders, the article is made up of quotes from a welfare worker, the police, a lawyer.  But where are the voices of street sex workers?

There is a fact that is almost always overlooked in the seemingly endless search for the answers to the questions of what to do about street sex work- there have been thousands of people who have experienced street sex work.  Some of these people have ceased sex work, some continue and have transitioned from the street to other ways of sex working.  This is a rich resource- perhaps the most effective in coming up with ways of responding to the issues associated with street sex work yet it is NEVER drawn upon.  Not a single person employed at RhED has this knowledge- not one.  Without this experience informing practice, any response is a mere shot in the dark.   

The police are quoted in this article as saying, “We might be creating things that we haven't thought of yet.” And yet the article pontificates on a couple of unlikely hypotheses.  If you want to read about some of these ACTUAL consequences, I discuss them in an article that appeared earlier in the week in the Port Phillip Leader. 

There are enough issues to resolve within street sex work before making up a bunch of rubbish to deal with.  Without listening to the voices of sex workers- particularly street sex workers- we’re just going to be asking the same questions over and over again. 

1 comment:

  1. From Julie Bates:
    "Spot on Christian. And some of us street based sex workers were instrumental in enabling sex worker responses that gave rise to the development and funding of peer based sex worker organisation. Pity others have co-opted our organisations since but I live in hope that we will one day reclaim the funding and our organisations to again provide peer based services that were at the heart of the successful Australian response to HIV. love your work big time."