Don’t talk to us about sewing machines: Talk to us about worker’s rights

Sex workers ran a number of exciting and challenging sessions during the AWID Forum in Istanbul. In their interactions with delegates they have been stressing the importance of listening to sex workers and acknowledging sex work as work. There has also been a plea for the silent majority of feminists who support sex workers rights to raise their voices to condemn interventions like anti-trafficking raid and rescues which are often carried out in the name of feminism.

AWID in Istanbul: Linking sex worker rights with feminism and development

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development  Forum will take place in Istanbul in April. It will be an opportunity for women working in international development to come together to  strategize, network, celebrate, and learn from each other. A mix of activists, academics and people from programmes for women will hear presentations and engage in dialogues around this year’s theme which is the impact of economic power on women.

Sex Work and Feminism

By Kate Holden

Public Ledger: A prostitute, because like that paper, she is open to all parties. (eighteenth-century slang)

In April 2010 the Mercury newspaper in Hobart contained a small but historic notice. In a brief paid advertisement a conservative group in Tasmania called the Family Protection Society expressed regret for having published ads proclaiming that sex work was damaging to families and harmful to women. Scarlet Alliance, the peak body representing Australia sex workers, had taken the comment to the Anti-Discrimination Commission on the grounds that the society’s attitude was discriminatory against sex workers. Although Scarlet Alliance had received a voluntary apology of a similar nature from the Salvation Army in 2009, this was the first time such social attitudes had been formally determined as unfair. In the ferocious debate about the ethics of paid sex, the ground is shifting.

Sex work is a major Australian industry, historically ineradicable and, in many states, decriminalised and regulated. Famously ‘the oldest profession’, it is also one of the most trenchantly disputed. In the broader society it is seen as either a normal part of life or a vile, sorrowful trade. For feminism, it is associated with the fracture in ideology that splits ‘victim feminism’ from ‘power feminism’ in complicated but increasingly onerous ways. So, what is sex work? What are the problems people have with it? Why do sex workers themselves feel frustrated with traditional feminism? What are the peculiar aspects of this trade that raise such heated reactions?

‘Doxies’, ‘blowens’, ‘biters’ or ‘strumpets’ as they might have been called by the marines and convicts of the eighteenth century were among the very first white women to step onto the continent of Australia when they arrived at Sydney Cove on the Lady Penrhyn in 1788. One in five of the women had practised the trade before transportation, and, with females outnumbered five to one on the first ships, more had joined the ranks. ‘Good God what a Seen of Whordome,’ exclaimed the aghast naval lieutenant Ralph Clark on the arrival of the women convicts. Every 2 June, more than two hundred years later and only metres from where Australia’s first prostitutes disembarked, their descendents in profession gather on Circular Quay to celebrate International Whores Day and proclaim their pride, their rights and their status as loud, ‘out’, feminist whores. Among the crowd are women in wigs and platform heels working the Betty Page look, transgender persons in trousers or skirts, shyly smiling girls in jeans and jackets, dykes, queers, a few grinning men; every shape and size, various ethnicities. They come from the enormous range of sex work across the country. ‘Poor unhappy women of the town’ no more, the sex workers of Australia are mobilised, articulate and ready to claim enfranchisement.

I am among them, an out and proud former prostitute, beaming as genuinely and self-consciously as the rest as curious tourists turn our way. Twirling the emblematic red paper umbrella someone has thrust into my hand, I wonder if it’s to ward off the glare of exposure or the brisk quayside breeze, or if it symbolises a kindly cupping of community above my head. To be a sex worker in modern Australia is to inhabit a strange zone, caught between infamy and legend, decriminalisation and social censure, pity and pride.

Sex Work and Feminism

This is a clear article that outlines debates around feminism and sex work by Australian activist Kate Holden.


Nongovernmental organisations and sex work in Cambodia: Development perspectives and feminist agendas

This project focuses on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia that deal, either directly or indirectly, with sex work and sex workers. The NGOs outlined in this study have goals ranging from preventing Cambodian women from entering the commercial sex industry to empowering Cambodian sex workers through the formation of sex worker unions.

Sex Work and Feminism

An article in Meanjin, Vol. 70, No. 1, Autumn 2011: 46-54.

The history of sex work and sex workers in Australia is discussed, highlighting that they exhibit a specific brand of feminism in choosing to adopt the profession. The professionally structured procedures of services rendered at several licensed sex parlours in Australia are listed, acknowledging sex workers' desire for their profession to be treated as any other.

Ain't I a Woman? A Global Dialogue between the Sex Workers’ Rights movement and the Stop Violence Against Women Movement

This is a resource written by Bishakha Datta and sponsored by CASAM and CREA. The report documents a meeting entitled "Ain't I A Woman? A Global Dialogue between the Sex Workers Rights Movement and the Stop Violence against Women Movement" from 12-14 March 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand. 

The report features the presentations from many great speakers including , Ruth Morgan Thomas, Anna-Louise Crago, Kaythi Win, Hua Sittipham Boonyapisomparn, Swapna Gayen and Meenakshi Kamble,Cheryl Overs and  Meena Seshu

Demystifying Sex Work and Sex Workers

Wagadu, an open access online feminist journal, has released a special issue 'Demystifying sex work and sex workers.' With articles from activist scholars the special issue, focuses on the everyday lives of sex workers.

Susan Dewey of the University of Wyoming who edited the issue explains, "While recent years have witnessed a dramatic outpouring of feminist scholarship that situates sex work within its broader socioeconomic and political contexts cross-culturally, there remains a tendency for academic scholarship to unconsciously reinforce the social stigmatization of sex workers by depicting them solely through their income-earning activities. This burgeoning research has convincingly demonstrated that sex work is embedded in a complex social matrix that often centers upon sex workers’ perceptions of their individual choices and responsibilities...Public policy on sex work is often shown to be seriously lacking when contextualized within the broader realities of many sex workers’ everyday life experiences throughout the world. As such, contributors to this special issue offer sound ethnographic evidence that clearly demonstrates the global need for policy and legal reform with respect to sex work."

Work, sex, and sex-work: Competing feminist discourses on the international sex trade

An article in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Vol 42, No 1. The focus is on analysing the competing discourses of radical feminism and sex radicalism.
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