Sex workers operate in a seedy and anonymous environment where the majority of both prostitutes and clients alike take every step to remain hidden. With this secretive nature, it becomes far too easy for those of us living outside the sex industry to make basic assumptions about the type of women who take up this job.
This has been made apparent in a recent anti-prostitution campaign launched in Ireland called ‘Prostitution – We Don’t Buy It’. Headed by the husband of murdered Melbourne women Jill Meagher , ‘We Don’t Buy It’ aims to raise awareness among men about the exploitative aspects of the sex industry. Yet for all its good intentions, ‘We Don’t Buy It’ draws upon several inaccurate myths.
So we decided to ask Janelle Fawkes, a sex worker and CEO of Scarlet Alliance, about some of these myths and how accurate they really are.
Myth 1: There is no such thing as a ‘happy hooker’
In the press conference that launched the ‘We Don’t Buy It Campaign’ in Dublin, campaign partner and former sex worker Sarah Benson said, “the myth of the happy hooker is, sadly, just that”. No doubt Ms Benson is speaking from direct experience and that in itself is an admirable step to take, however for Janelle Fawkes, the myth of the happy hooker cannot possibly account for the wide variety of experiences each woman has within the industry.
“I don’t think anyone is trying to portray the fact that everybody who is a sex worker has a positive experience with every booking they do, but what sex workers are saying very clearly on the We Don’t Buy It hashtag is that rights for sex workers and legal frameworks that support sex workers being safe… shouldn’t rely on whether or not you like or whether or not you enjoy your work.”
“Not all of us enjoy our work, but that shouldn’t mean we have less rights.”
Myth 2: Men who pay for sex are not buying consent. They are paying for the temporary suspension of the woman’s right not to consent.
The basic thrust of this argument is the idea that ‘I’d paid for her so I can do whatever I want with her’. It was this attitude that Jill Meagher’s murderer recited to police when he was convicted of raping five sex workers in 2000, and that obviously didn’t hold up in court. Despite the fact that the right of a sex worker to refuse consent is enshrined in the various legislations that cover sex work in Australia, Janelle Fawkes says this myth misses some basic practicalities.
“At any point during a booking, I as a sex worker can decide that for, whatever reason, I’m not going to continue with the booking and end the booking. In Australia and many parts of the world, legislation that covers consent states very clearly that you can withdraw that consent at any time.”
“It also misses the reality that for most sex workers and most sex worker bookings, a sex worker has set out what services they will and won’t provide, under what conditions and at what price,” she says.
“It’s a heavily negotiated service.”
Myth 3: Decriminalising prostitution means more women will become sex workers and expose themselves to the dangers that come with sex work.
This argument is at the heart of the We Don’t Buy It campaign. It implies that if prostitution is decriminalised then more women will be compelled to enter the industry. It seems like a totally logical argument, but studies conducted by both the United Nations and New Zealand’s Ministry of Justice in 2008 found no evidence that decriminalisation increases the number of sex workers. That being said, the anonymous nature of the sex industry makes an accurate estimate difficult to attain but for Janelle Fawkes, any argument over the numbers of sex workers is largely irrelevant.
What matters for her is the increased level of safety and accountability that sex workers enjoy under decriminalisation. In the days before decriminalisation in Australia, Janelle says it was commonplace for sex workers to bribe police in order to avoid arrest.
“Police would require you to provide sexual services in exchange for not being charged as a sex worker,” she says.
“Decriminalisation is the model Scarlet Alliance supports because it does remove police as the regulators.”
Myth 4: All sex workers must be drug addicts or victims of abuse
This is perhaps one of the most common myths around the sex industry, with the assumption being that for a woman to sell herself for sex, she must have experienced some past trauma or have issues with drug abuse.
“We’re not a homogenous group of people. Some of us do use drugs, some of us have experienced sexual assault, some of us have experienced child sexual abuse, but we come from all different backgrounds and actually the laws that we have in Australia – decriminalisation being the best option – provide us with support,” says Janelle Fawkes.
“What’s behind campaigns like ‘We Don’t Buy It’ is the premise that as sex workers we don’t have agency, that we’re not contributing to the community and that we’re not members or parts of society that should be valued.”
“If people listened to sex workers, I guess they’d get a much better picture that we’re just like everybody else.”
As anonymous tools like social media make the sex industry more visible, sex workers are taking it upon themselves to confront the stigma associated with their job. Nonetheless these myths, which are often based on half-truths and assumption, will continue to revolve around the sex industry. So with this in mind, it’s probably best to end this article with some of the best reactions to #wedontbuyit.
Words by Dominic Cansdale. Photo by Jim Delcid.