Over my 15 years working with communities, families and at risk individuals, I’ve learnt a lot about conscious and unconscious bias and the impact of stigma. But the most meaningful and influential education has come from the conversations I’ve had with women working in the sex industry.
We make assumptions quickly of people, normally in the first few seconds of meeting or speaking with them. We put them in a box that it can be almost impossible to escape. Many people have negative assumptions of women who work in the sex industry and those assumptions have real tangible effects on women – most are terrified to disclose their work to other people because they are afraid they will be judged or treated differently. In a recent survey BaptistCare HopeStreet conducted with 100 migrant women working in Sydney’s lower-end brothels we found that only 5 percent felt comfortable disclosing their job to their loved ones, while 73 percent believed that Australian society still has a negative view of sex workers.
The sensationalised narratives we read in the headlines are often far from the reality of life as a sex worker and it’s important to recognise that every person has different reasons for being in the sex industry. Some of those decisions come from positions of privilege where being a sex worker is a way of exercising personal choice and empowerment; other times its barriers in someone’s life that lead to sex work becoming the most viable option. For some it may feel like the only option. Regardless of the reasons, it’s important to see every person as unique, make no assumptions and hear their story. Here are just a few things I’ve learned from sex workers who have shared their stories with me.
1. How to have open conversations about sex
As an industry, sex work can be seen as ‘taboo’ where what goes on is rarely spoken about. The reality is that as progressive as our society has become, sex is still a highly politicised subject and often conversations of a sexual nature can be attached to shame or guilt,
I’ve learnt to have healthier conversations about sex and sexual health because of the women I work with - it’s part of their everyday. They’ve taught me that the more we understand our bodies, sexual health and the act and implications of sex itself, the more empowered we can be to make decisions and learn how to take care of our bodies and emotions.
2. Resilient in times of crisis
Working with those in the industry helped me to understand just how misguided detrimental assumptions can be. I did not expect that some of the strongest people I have met would be those in the sex industry.
With brothels closing due to public health orders, the migrant women we are supporting have no income and are often not eligible for government support. This has resulted in significant poverty, homelessness, limited or no access to food or services. The pandemic has intensified traditional challenges for women we work with.
Regardless, those in the industry have shown strength and resilience. I have seen women share the limited food they have with others, so that no one goes without. I’ve seen women share accommodation with other women who have become homeless because they have lost their income. I’ve seen women band together, encouraging each other and finding solutions for alternative employment.
Each woman has displayed a tenacious spirit that continues to inspire and teach me. As one woman reflected, "It's ok to feel like the sky is dark, I just need to stand up and spark again".
3. Family is everything
A lot of the sex workers I have met, particularly those from migrant backgrounds, are in the sex industry as a means to create a better life for their families back home. The concept of family is so much bigger than our Western idea – it includes Aunties and Uncles, In-laws and Grandparents. For those we support, the financial independence provided by their line of work isn’t about them – it’s what that will mean for their wider family. They often spend months and years apart from their loved ones yet the way they speak about those they are working to provide for shows nothing but the strongest bonds and commitment.
4. Body confidence
When society imagines a sex worker many people make assumptions about the demographics of that person, especially when it comes to women. There is a certain mould that people think these workers should fit in and normally it aligns to what the western media considers attractive. All the women I work with are beautiful, but what makes them attractive is the confidence they have in their bodies. The women I meet are all different and unique, and reinforce the idea that all bodies are beautiful bodies.
5. Sometimes it has nothing to do with sex
Sex work is just one part of the lives of the women we work with. Often what I talk to these women about has nothing to do with their vocation. It’s about family, friendship, language barriers, visa issues, stress, navigating systems, and domestic violence. Our preconceived and socially-influenced ideas about sex work are non-inclusive and damaging.
There is more to you or I than where we work, and how we ended up in that career. This is the same for each woman we work with. Each is an individual, sex-work is one part of their life and story, but it’s not the whole picture.”