It’s time that the rights of sex workers are included in the mainstream feminist movement, says queer Sydney-based sex worker Tilly Lawless.
The writer and activist will be speaking at today's TEDx Youth event, ‘Shifting the Future’, discussing how the exclusion of sex workers from the conversation is not just dangerous—it’s a human rights issue.
Some of the fiercest opposition to the profession of sex work comes from people known as SWERFs—sex worker exclusionary radical feminists.
“It generally means feminists who follow more of a second-wave idea of feminism, who believe that anything in the sex industry is exploitation and catering to the patriarchy, and [who believe] that any kind of sex work needs to be stamped out,” explains Lawless.
“SWERFs profess to be saving sex workers as such, but their attempts to eradicate the sex industry generally come at the expense of actual sex workers.”
Lawless says that these attempts—which can include publicly exposing and shaming cars parked outside brothels—do not take into consideration the safety of sex workers.
Sex worker rights
In 2015, a group of high-profile celebrities including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Lena Dunham signed an open letter to Amnesty International—urging the organisation to reconsider publishing a policy that supports the decriminalisation of sex work.
The letter proclaimed that sex work “is a harmful practice steeped in gender and economic inequalities that leaves a devastating impact on those sold and exploited in the sex trade.”
Lawless says it's "really unfortunate that those actresses - especially Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham, who speak about being feminists, that they would think it is appropriate for them to say how other women can and cannot make money to survive."
“The issue with any high-profile person speaking out—especially people who wield so much power without perhaps realising the power they wield, when they enter a public arena and have an opinion about things they actually know very little about it does uncountable damage.”
A year later after the letter was sent, Amnesty published their policy on sex workers’ rights, recommending the decriminalisation of consensual sex work and laws that prohibit associated activities.
“Laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalise sex workers,” the report said.
Lawless says that while there’s still work to be done, there has been an improvement in how sex workers are portrayed by news outlets.
“I think that there has gradually been a change in how sex workers are pictured in the media, largely because of social media,” she says. “Things like Instagram and Twitter have allowed people to hear things straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“And have allowed people to access the lifestyles and views of marginalised people who may not have had that kind of platform in the past.”
Lawless hopes that her own efforts to speak up for the rights of sex workers will help to “slowly change the more general public view".
“I don’t know how much hope there is to change someone with a radical view,” she says.
For those who want to be supportive of sex workers, Lawless says that “there are little things, just in everyday” life that you can do, including being of the mindful of language use.
“Avoid words like 'whore' or saying things like, ‘Oh, she’s dressed like a whore’ because even just casual things like that feed into these ideas of what sex workers are and often dehumanise us.
“I think it's also important if you have the time and energy to defend sex workers online because often, like any marginalised group, sex workers are left feeling exhausted, like they can’t fight any more fights."
If you’ve accumulated a collection of hotel shampoos and soaps from your travels, you can donate them to SWOP who package them up for street-based sex workers—sanitary items are also welcomed.
“You can also join SWOP Behind Bars, they have a letter writing program for sex workers who are incarcerated in the US,” she adds.
And finally, says Lawless, “Include sex workers in feminist discussion!"
You can hear Tilly Lawless speak at the TEDxYouth@Sydney event on Wednesday, September 6 at Sydney Town Hall.