A few weeks ago both Dr Brooke Magnanti and Mia Freedman appeared on an all women panel on Q and A. Quite a few topics were discussed, one being sex work. After her Q and A appearence Mia Freedman blogged about it here, in a post that angered and upset many sex workers, myself included. Rather than engage with sex workers who used social media to express our problems with her post she published another piece and it is this that I am responding to here. I am not even going to enter in to the debate on whether someone would or should support their child if they want to be a sex worker, primarly because it is an old, overused tactic used to back sex workers or people who support our rights into a corner. Either you say you would support them and you risk having your parenting undermined and attacked or you say you wouldn’t want them to become a sex worker and you are accused of admitting that it is harmful to women. What I do want to do is respond to part of Mia Freedman’s post. Dr Brooke Magnanti wrote a great response to it here and I agree, I don’t want an apology from Mia Freedman because she is obviously not sorry but what I do want is for her to listen to what sex workers have to say.
Let me lay out my position very clearly.
If you are an adult woman who is not suffering from a mental illness, addiction or sexual, physical or emotional abuse, who has not been trafficked or exploited or co-erced into sexual slavery and who is CHOOSING of her own free will to sell sex?
I respect that. I’m cool with that. I recently listened to a fascinating podcast with a sex worker whose clients have disabilities. We’ll be publishing a story about her soon. I’m certainly not interested in demonising sex workers – I’d never do that.
I can only speak for myself here and so I am only going to write about sex work as someone who has a mental illness and has been abused, there are more than enough sex workers who have worked under the other conditions who can and do speak about their experiences.
As a sex worker who has both mental illness(es) and a history of abuse Mia Freedman’s post perpetuates stereotypes and stigmas that harm me. Should my mental illness prevent me from having any agency? Didn’t we do away with locking the mentally ill up and throwing away the key (although this still does happen) because we (as a society) started to recognise the mentally ill as humans with rights? Or do we only have some rights? Like the right to work in a low paying, menial job or the right to exist (not live because let’s face it, it isn’t a living wage) on the disability support pension and that is if you even qualify for it, if you don’t you can always try and get by on unemployment “benefits” while you are made to apply for jobs you will never get. Surely I still have the right to have sex don’t I? I can’t see Mia Freedman advocating for enforced chastity belts for the mentally ill. So, if I have the right to work and the right to have sex, what is wrong with me having sex as my work? Is it that as someone who has a mental illness and a history of abuse I could (and often am) at a higher risk of exploitation, degradation or further abuse? Because let me tell you something about all that.
I think it is safe to assume that Mia has never had to live off centrelink benefits, perhaps she doesn’t realise how degrading doing so is. If your mental illness limits your working capacity and you aren’t in the (rare) position of being in employment that is flexible around your illness then you are tasked with trying to get by on one form or another of centrelink payments. The disability support pension is a maximum of $733.70 a fortnight if you are over 21 and $522.90 if you are under 21. This isn’t much; it certainly isn’t enough to live comfortably on. It isn’t enough to pay a mortgage on, and if you tried to rent a home (as opposed to share accommodation) on it you would be in for constant struggle and that is if you can compete in a competitive rental market (there isn’t nearly enough subsided housing for people on low incomes, especially in regional areas). The disability support pension basically says to people “We don’t want you to starve to death because that would make us feel bad but we don’t think you are deserving of nice things that we take for granted like holidays and other luxuries.” Should someone’s inability to work or inability to find employment that is flexible enough for them to take on resign them to a life of relative poverty (or being close to it)? Living like this is degrading and dehumanising but people like Mia Freedman seem to think it is a better option for mentally ill sex workers than the option we have chosen for ourselves.
And what of the many mentally ill people who cannot find or hold down employment but do not qualify for the dsp? Then you are tasked with living off $497.00 a fortnight, or $537.80 if you have children over 8, or $407.50 if you are under 21. There are more payments, like if you are studying or have children under 8 etc but by now you should be getting my point which is no matter what form of payment you are on it is not much and is certainly not enough to live above the poverty line on, let alone live comfortably on. Not only this but the entire process of getting centrelink payments or trying to get emergency relief or even food vouchers is often made so complicated that the most mentally healthy of us could be driven to despair at the amount of forms to fill out and hoops to jump through, so think about what it is like if you have a mental illness that makes task like that even more daunting. I honestly would rather blow someone for cash than go through the crap you have to in order to prove you are poor enough to need food vouchers. Not everyone feels this way, nor should they but there is nothing wrong with feeling like this, it is called choice. Most of us do not have absolute choice and those who have more choices or more appealing ones often make the mistake of thinking that their choices are the only real ones and that any choices made in less pleasant circumstances don’t count. If you start discounting people’s choices to do things that you wouldn‘t do based on their socio-economic and health status then why recognise any of their choices? People are not all the same, if my choice to do sex work is not a “real” choice, then what choices of mine are real? Basically what Mia Freedman and others who hold the same view are saying is that the only real choices made by those in marginalised positions are those that fit with their own belief system and their own comfort levels. We make all our choices within the context of our lives, What choices of mine are real considering they were all made by me in the same circumstances in which I chose sex work? Is it because “No one would really choose to do sex work?” because we have already established that yes some people do choose to do sex work and Mia can even accept and respect that choice given the sex worker has lived a charmed life and never experienced mental illness, drug addiction, abuse, living in a country where they don’t speak the main language spoken and so on and so forth. Either accept my and others’ choice to do sex work in circumstances that are not charmed or come out and say that you don’t think marginalised people’s choices count at all because you can’t have it both ways and pick and choice which choices are real.
Likewise for with mental illness does my history of abuse render me incapable of consenting to sex? No. Yeah, I have issues because of it but who is better placed to understand and navigate these issues, me with the support of an understanding network or some stranger who has decided that abuse survivors are permanently victims? Does it render me incapable of working? No. My ptsd does make holding down a straight job more difficult but rather than assume abuse survivors in the sex industry are being victimised or preyed on by the industry why not criticize the many industries that exclude people who need flexibility in order to manage ptsd?
Does having been abused in the past (or even being in an abusive relationship) mean a sex worker will therefore be abused at work? No. Believe it or not but abuse survivors aren’t magic creatures who turn otherwise regular men into violent abusers and assuming otherwise is victim blaming. Abuse doesn’t happen because the abused has unclear boundaries or doesn’t stand up for themselves enough or whatever, it happens because some people are abusive. Does having been abused mean that someone might be triggered by a client who is abusive or might not be able to recognise abuse? Maybe (although this is far from certain) but again, who is better to judge this and deal with it, the abuse survivor and their support network or a stranger?
In an ideal world work would be a fulfilling occupation that was undertaken out of desire not necessity but most of us do not live in this world and for the majority of people any employment they take will be in order to get by and in many cases can cause harm. I know call centre workers who have been driven to depression and became suicidal, I know bouncers who encounter regular verbal and sometimes physical abuse, I know women in hospitality who are routinely harassed by both coworkers and customers. Most, if not all, of these people would not be in this employment if they had more options but work often is a limited choice and is primarily about getting by (it just seems to be when sex is involved that people get up in arms about this) and while this isn’t the most pleasant of realities further limiting people’s choices or refusing to acknowledge the ones they have made only marginalises people even more.
By only respecting the choices made by the most priveleged of us Mia Freedman has thrown many a sex worker under the bus by perpetuating the belief that many women are little more than children who need to be protected from our own choices. It wasn’t so long ago that those in power thought this of all women and it makes me sad to see women who have achieved social influence and power reinforce dangerous beliefs like this rather than challange them.