Violence against women… and sex workers. Hang on. Aren’t sex workers women too?

I just got sent a Vimeo link to a speech I made late last year as part of a debate, Can the Media Prevent Violence Against Women? It was held in Frankston under the auspices of WHISE as part of White Ribbon week, and featured wonderful speakers such as Susan Carland, Mahar Sukkar, Sushi Das and Sally Warhaft. My five minutes was unfortunately curtailed as my son appeared weeping in his grandfather’s arms halfway through and I had to dash from the stage — the gallant Leslie Cannold stepped in to read the remainder. I would love to think I’ll have time to write these notes up properly as an essay, but in the meantime: me speaking on media representation of violence against sex workers.

(In the meantime I see that a book is about to be released on this very subject: INVISIBLE WOMEN. Described thus: “Invisible Women tells the stories of several murdered sex workers – all of whom are somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister – whose identities have been erased. Why do we see some lives as less valuable than others, and what price do we all pay for this shocking lack of care? These amazing stories of incredible women are both deeply moving and shocking in their insight and clarity. And definitely way overdue.”)

Here is the footage, and hopefully it will lead to links of the other speakers. I will paste in my speaking notes below…

Can the media prevent violence? They probably can, because they can sure support it.

Violence against sex workers. A fair subject but too often reported snidely, irresponsibly, dismissively or not at all.

Common problems with media reporting:

  • It doesn’t happen. The reports don’t get written. Sex work violence is just part of ‘that world’ and the ‘girls’ know what they’re getting into.
  • Doesn’t happen. Sex workers are sad dysfunctional drug-addicted criminals, if they get into trouble that’s because they’re disgusting skanks. There’s no story here, just grot.
  • Doesn’t happen. Sex workers live in a total social vacuum, utterly apart from the rest of us, and no one in our community is related to them or notices when they get hurt or go missing or are raped. Who cares?
  • Speaking of rape, I should say ‘rape’, because obviously, you can’t rape someone who’s ‘selling her body’.
  • Doesn’t happen. Sex workers never complain about anything anyway. They’re too fucked up.

Or else:

The victim is a ‘prostitute’ and that’s pretty much all you need to know. Eg. “Police are investigating the brutal daylight killing of a prostitute in St Kilda’s red light district.” “A Melbourne man who raped a prostitute after holding her at knifepoint and threatening to kill her has been jailed for nine and a half years.”
“Dead prostitute had alarming levels of cocaine”

Or else we need to be given many salacious details about the woman’s sex work history, services, and reputation. In the case of murdered Johanna Martin, “A Melbourne escort agency describes Jazzy O as the “star of the iconic movie Aussie Good Girls Gone Bad”, and her performance as the “Most XXXXXX Rated Show in Melbourne!””

Or else there’s a sad feature or op-ed story about women ‘falling’ into ‘prostitution’ where they are inevitably assaulted and violated, it’s terribly sad, yes, tsk, what can you do? If only they could be rescued and saved from the life of vice! Because surely all sex workers hate and resent their work but are too feeble to make any choices or find exit strategies. Really, they’re so selfish or deluded, if they get into trouble it’s practically their own fault.

(In any case, in a sense it’s too late, because they are already no longer ‘women’ or ‘people’, they are ‘prostitutes’ and really that’s all you need to know about them.)

Or else there are more-in-sorrow-than-anger mentions of society’s sterner attempts to get her to see the error of her ways… which alas she did not take, and now look, she’s dead. For example, this lovely non sequitur, which follows at least a quote from a friend mentioning that the dead woman had actually been a nice person: “Ms Connelly had been charged several times for street sex work.”

This last quote is from an Age report on the murder of Tracy Connelly. She was killed in 2013 by a man in St Kilda in the van she lived in with her partner. Some commentators, such as Wendy Squires, commendably made pointed and lengthy note on the contrast between public reaction to Connelly’s death and that of Jill Meagher. Public reaction was duly ignited, and there was a candelight vigil for Connelly, and another a year later. It was good to see that after some hesitation and bamboozlement, the media were able to recognise that even a sex worker can be mourned. At least a kindly, attractive and noticed sex worker with a grieving partner can be. Too bad if you’re Asian or Islander, don’t have all your teeth, are overweight or old or don’t work in the neighbourhood of a prominent columnist.

But the problem I’d point out is not that sex worker violence isn’t sad. It’s that it’s either unrated or sensationalised. When it’s reported it’s done dismissively, in a brutal shorthand that reduces a whole complex person to a largely despised figure – strips out any particulars, shoves the story back into a tired old narrative silhouette (ie, she got what was coming), and commits a secondary assault, on her privacy and her dignity. (At this point I could quote from the detailed and pitiless reports of exactly how Johanna Martin’s body and clothing was positioned when she was found, but I’d rather not).

Reporting on violence against sex workers also has a tendency to helpfully assume that victims were hurt because they were sex workers. She was a whore? Obviously she was whoring at the time. Apparently it’s almost inevitable that sex workers get hurt, because it’s a dirty dark illicit world (actually, much of it’s a decriminalised and regulated world complete with invasive health monitoring and GST bureaucracy). It’s almost inevitable that sex workers get hurt because they’re different to normal women and it’s no surprise, really, is it? It’s almost inevitable that sex workers get hurt because they choose to make themselves vulnerable and to ignore those who want to help and rescue them, and because they go into rooms alone, and because, well, you only need to say ‘prostitute’ and possibly, ‘drugs?’ with a question mark if necessary, and attach it only to an incident featuring scandal, squalor or crime, and the story writes itself!

What if the problem, though, actually isn’t the women working in sex work… but the men who choose to hurt them?

I think it’s clear the media can help prevent violence against women. Once they stop supporting the idea that sex workers matter less than other women. That violence against sex workers isn’t really quite as bad as violence against other women. That it’s reasonable that the men who commit violence are mere shadows in the story, while the victim is splayed in the press for all to see. And that violence is just what happens to sex workers. Because if they stopped encouraging that idea… maybe it wouldn’t be.


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