I read Bridgid Delaney’s article in the Guardian yesterday with a deep sense of foreboding. Yet another article about “St Kilda prostitutes”, stereotyping sex workers and conflating the outward effects of homelessness, poverty, mental illness, drug addiction and threatening men with sex work. Another pity piece, ignorant of the damage such stereotypes inflict and the dangers they create.
I am not a sex worker, it is not my role or my right to speak on behalf of sex workers. But I like to believe I am an ally and I understand that as an ally to a marginalised group my role is to listen, to believe their truth as they tell it, and to understand that I should never think I know more about that truth than they do. A marginalised group, by definition, struggles to have a public voice in mainstream society; the role of allies is to assist in that struggle and speak against the ignorance and fear that is the source of their marginalisation.
The first time this happened for me was when Tracy Connelly was murdered and every news outlet in the country published an article under the headline “St Kilda Prostitute Killed”. Every article described Tracy not as a woman, not a person, but as a “prostitute”. It rendered her life irrelevant and her death meaningless. The outcry against this, however, was rapid and loud. St Kilda residents gathered in their hundreds for a candlelight vigil to reject the idea that the murder of another woman could be ignored because the media dismissed her as a “prostitute”. So much was written and said about problem with using this word to describe sex workers. Only two months ago, St Kilda Gatehouse held a memorial for Tracy and the other 66 women murdered in the year since her death. Lucy, one of the Gatehouse staff, stood up at the memorial to say (again) that she was so tired of hearing Tracy described as a “prostitute”, that Tracy was a complex, beloved, loving person and that no one’s life should ever be compressed into a single pejorative.
The Scarlet Alliance, an organisation run entirely by current and former sex workers, has been working against the stigmatisation of sex workers since 1989, with an ongoing program advocacy and education. And it’s a long, slow, terrible fight because the worth of a woman is still, too often, based on her perceived sexual purity. The idea that some women might choose and even enjoy sex work, that their clients are not dangerous and the workers are not damaged still jars with the stereotype of the prostituted victim in need of rescue.
Sex workers, over and over again, have said that they are not a rescue project for bleeding hearts. That there is a world of difference between offering choices where there are none, to assuming that sex work can never a choice. Because, frequently, it is. Sex work is a hugely complex and varied industry, there are undoubtedly some people who do sex work because they have no other choices, who wish they could “leave”. This is as true of sex workers as it is of shop assistants, accountants, street sweepers and doctors, but it does not mean that all sex workers are trapped and helpless. Articles like Delaney’s perpetuate the myth of sex workers as dehumanised victims and sex work itself as a dark, damaging world that nice women only glimpse with a voyeuristic shiver.
Every marginalised group talks about the pejoratives they know are used to perpetuate their stigmatisation. Every marginalised group has drooped with weariness trying to explain over and over again why words matter. Why “faggot” “abo” “slut” “retard” “whore” “ape” “poof” “trannie” and “prostitute” are so damaging. And every group has been told that they’re over-sensitive, too politically correct, these are just words, they don’t mean anything, they weren’t intended to be offensive. And every time the answer is the same: you, who are not inside this group, do not get to define the words that are damaging; we, who are inside this group know the damage, your responsibility is to listen and, if you genuinely care about this damage, refrain from using the words that perpetuate it.
Which is why it was so disheartening to see The Guardian publishing an article under a headline of “St Kilda Prostitution”, perpetuating the myth of sex workers as both victims and threats, responsible for all the perceived dangers of darkened streets but lacking any agency themselves. It’s disheartening because these myths still persist. It’s disheartening because the media still hasn’t learned the lesson so many people tried so hard to teach them in the aftermath of Tracy’s murder and it’s disheartening because this ignorance is still so pervasive in the media that, by now, should know better.