Sex workers have taken to documenting their lives online, with a social media subculture emerging from depictions of high-end hotels, designer labels and dimly-lit brothel rooms. The movement has captured the voice of sex workers and championed their rights – but there’s a fine line to tread between empowering one community and misleading another.
VIDEO ABOVE: SHUTTING DOWN WEBSITES TO CURB SEX TRAFFICKING HAS LIFE-THREATENING CONSEQUENCES FOR SEX WORKERS
This article contains references to sexual assault, and includes some censored adult imagery.
Alex* began sex work at 22-years-old. She had been working at a strip club in Kings Cross for six months and became close to two women in the sex industry – one of whom had a successful career as an escort.
"They were very open about it and it wasn't them influencing me – I had already thought about it – but they were very open and positive about it on Instagram and I thought, 'Oh it couldn't be too bad, I'll give it a go,'" she said.
During the eight months that Alex worked in the brothel, she began to experience what is known as 'burnout' in the industry – an immovable feeling of anxiety and exhaustion towards the job that forces sex workers to take breaks from work that can last months or even years.
One night, Alex was chosen from the lineup by a client and she proceeded with the usual routine – carrying the cash cut from management to her locker before she went up to the room to perform the service.
However, upon opening the door, she realised she couldn't go through with the work because she was so emotionally exhausted.
My whole body and my whole mind were just saying 'No' in that moment.
Alex told the client she would not be providing any service to him but offered him a refund – although she was even unsure of this policy because she had never been told how, or more importantly if, she could decline sex.
The client refused to listen as she attempted to negotiate the situation.
Instead, he grabbed Alex and raped her.
It wasn't violent, it was just forceful, it was scary. I didn't know the person, I didn't want to fight back...I was very resistant.
"I said 'No' the whole time, I said I didn't want it to happen...and that was really terrifying."
She never reported it to the police – she said she was too confused about how they would react and simply wanted to move past the incident.
Alex took her belongings out of her locker and left the brothel, never returning.
The trauma has left a bitter taste in her mouth about the sex work industry.
In particular, Alex is concerned about the influence of the growing online community of sex workers on social media platforms who often suppress the negative aspects of the industry.
While Alex supports the message of female sexual empowerment, the insistent positivity of sex workers' lives online irks her and she believes it's been monopolised by an obsession with political correctness – that is, women online do not want to be perceived as 'whorephobic' (prejudiced against sex workers), so they censor the demons of sex work.
"I think it's really problematic because everybody's jumping onto it as this 'woke' and PC thing without taking into account all the different levels of sex work and how it's affecting everyone – not everyone goes into it because they love their body."
"You don't see that on social media, so I think that's my biggest problem with it."
Tilly Lawless, a 26 year-old sex worker based in Sydney, has 30,000 followers on Instagram and makes a conscious effort to operate her account as a personal diary.
She openly discussing the successes, demands, and pitfalls of her work.
"One of the things I've always done with my account is speak about all of the negative things associated with it. I speak about sexual assault, I've spoken about the emotional burnout from sex work."
Despite some negative experiences, Lawless says that she still enjoys sex work above any other profession that she's experienced.
Lawless notes that there is a back and forth between depictions of sex work created by proud sex workers and those created by socially conservative critics of the industry but neither effectively capture the unique experiences of every sex worker.
With the rise of what I would call 'sex worker chic' online, which makes it all a little bit cool and that trend – maybe people don't realise the very real and exhausting emotional and physical labour that can go into it and that it is still in many ways, a job that can be quite dangerous.
Lawless wants to accurately depict the nuances of sex work and the multitude of women involved in it.
"There's actually not one face of sex work, there's a myriad of faces, I'm one of many and most people just fall between that dichotomy rather than on the very edges," said Lawless.
Zahra Stardust, a pornographic actor, director and PhD candidate from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), believes that the media is responsible for perpetuating a sinister image of the sex work profession.
She says the community of sex workers on Instagram are attempting to shift that identity.
"The constant barrage of negative and misleading media sometimes provokes a reactive narrative that disavows stereotypes and over-emphasises the positive aspects of sex work," said Stardust.
Alex still avidly supports women who work in the sex industry but she wants to see social media communities of sex workers effectively capture the diversity – and the dangers – of the sex worker experience.
I don't have a problem with the industry...it's more like I have a problem with people being unrealistic about it and foolish,
Everyone's too caught up in the black and the white, the positive and the negative, and right and wrong.
"Nobody's looking at it like, 'Yeah, you can make tonnes of money and you can buy designer clothes and pay off your uni debt and you can also be raped at the same time – nobody's ever talking about it like that."
*Name changed to protect privacy