Sex Workers Are Being Forgotten By The #metoo Movement
“It happens in every industry. Sex work is no different.” – Mary*
“I had a client that was very pushy, wanted to get my personal information, was saying things like ‘I want to take you out, wouldn’t that be nice. We could spend time together,’” Alice*, a sex worker said.
“I had to have him removed from the premises because he wouldn’t actually leave at the end of the booking. Me and another worker removed him, because the manager on site wasn’t willing to assist.
“The client loitered around outside and refused to leave. The manager, who was concerned that this man might make it more difficult for more clients to come in and mean we would lose their business, went out to this man and gave him my phone number and email address, as a way of getting him to leave.”
This is what Alice told me over the phone when I asked her if she had experienced workplace sexual harassment at the hands of a co-worker, colleague, client or boss in her industry.
In October last year, the hashtag #metoo swept the world. And then a short time later, #timesup followed, with the aim of bringing the global movement for safe workplaces to every industry – not just those dominated by the rich and famous.
In the months that have followed, we have had meaningful, robust discussions about people who work in some of the lowest paid industries. We have made note of the fact that people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people who are members of the LGBTQI+ community and people with a disability are more at risk of experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. We have looked at nearly every industry – white collar, blue collar and everywhere in between.
But we have yet to take a serious look at the sex work industry.
Sex work is contentious in Australia. Depending on the state or territory, it is decriminalised, criminalised, or under a licensing system. While the laws can be muddled, sex work is a largely legitimate industry, and regulations should ensure workers are safe.
In New Zealand in 2014, a sex worker won a sexual harassment case in court against her former employer, who had been harassing his employees in the workplace. In the ruling, the New Zealand judge said, “Sex workers are as much entitled to protection from sexual harassment as those working in other occupations.”
“The fact that a person is a sex worker is not a license for sexual harassment – especially by the manager or employer at the brothel.”
Sex work was decriminalised in New Zealand in 2003, meaning it is now regulated as other work and industries are. But given that the regulation in Australia is patchy and the industry is highly stigmatised, sex workers are less likely to be listened to. And this is exactly what is happening with the #metoo movement.
“As a woman, I liked the #metoo movement. As a sex worker, I feel that I am completely excluded from it. It is not a movement for me. I am not welcome,” Mary* said.
“The women and men who are included are, for lack of a better word, very respectable by society’s standards. They’re actresses. They’re corporate professionals. They’re well educated. It’s very difficult to victim blame these kinds of women… as a sex worker, I know if I were to speak up, that I would be dismissed, not believed, blamed... I am not treated with the same respect that most women are, and that has continued over to the #metoo movement.”
I asked Tracey Spicer, who is spearheading #metoo investigations in Australia, about the involvement of sex workers in the #metoo movement, and she confirmed she's been in touch with peer-run sex worker organisation Vixen Collective, and has invited them to be part of the movement in Australia.
But Jane, who works Vixen Collective, said it’s hard to address the issue of sexual harassment and workplace safety for sex workers without addressing the stigma that surrounds people who choose to work in the industry.
“We need to address the laws and regulations under which we work that don’t support our rights or safety, but also address the stigma attached to sex work. It’s a huge problem that it’s seen as acceptable to behave towards us in ways that people wouldn’t necessarily behave towards other workers.”
When she held jobs outside of sex work, sexual harassment was taken much more seriously, she said.
“It’s easier to address, and it’s definitely perceived as much more of a problem by other workers and by management. There is a barrier to that in sex work, and the barrier is stigma.”
Jane also said that in order for the #metoo movement to have any tangible effect on sexual harassment in the work place for sex workers, we must begin listening to them.
Sex workers have been speaking out about #metoo but no one is listening. When organisations and movements like #metoo happen, sex workers must be part of that.
“It’s not specific to sex work, it’s about supporting marginalized communities… It shouldn’t be our responsibility as sex workers to constantly be banging our heads on the door trying to get in, it should be recognised as the responsibility of the movement and of bodies trying to address issues faced by marginalised communities to make sure those people are sitting in the room.”
When I asked Jane what the #metoo movement could do to support sex workers in the fight against sexual harassment, she said, “support the decriminalization of sex work.”
Mary said, “It’s very hard to work independently [because of the regulations.] Workers are heavily reliant on brothels. Brothels know this, so they have a lot of power over us because we don’t work in a totally decriminalised environment. It’s hard to stand up to them. It’s hard to speak out against them. They have too much power over us.
“[Sexual harassment] happens in every industry. Sex work is not different,” she said.
If we are going to create a truly inclusive #metoo movement that will help people in all industries, then we need to start including sex workers and peer support groups in the conversation.
Since writing this article, the author has been made aware that Tracey Spicer, who is spearheading the movement, and NOW Australia, contacted Vixen Collective to become involved three months ago.