“There’s massive stigma for women booking sex workers, whereas for men it’s often totally culturally acceptable. They’ll come into the brothel after a night out in groups. Often women aren’t seen as sexual creatures in the same way, so there’s not the same acceptance and they often don’t have as much expendable income.”
By
Stephen A. Russell

25 May 2017 - 5:35 PM  UPDATED 25 May 2017 - 5:35 PM

When Tilly Lawless outed herself as a sex worker it caused a stir in her extended family. “They are quite religious and they already didn’t like me because I’m a lesbian, so it was just another thing,” she chuckles.

An insightful and prolific philosopher who shares her innermost musings on Instagram, Lawless was irked by an article posted on Mamamia. It hinged on the 25th anniversary of much-loved Julia Roberts and Richard Gere movie Pretty Woman, conflating sex work with sexual slavery. In response, Lawless sparked the movement #facesofprostitution to set the record straight.

“The problem with the Mamamia article wasn’t that they were talking about sex work in a negative light, it’s that they were denying there’s any other narrative to sex work,” she says. “We have very real issues, but when people dehumanise us through stereotypes, that doesn’t allow us to speak to what we actually need.”

Speaking out has never been a problem for Lawless. That’s what attracted prominent feminist Karen Pickering, who asked Lawless to contribute a chapter to her anthology on female intimacy, Doing It: Women Tell the Truth about Great Sex. “I love Tilly's voice,” Pickering says. “Her chapter is heart-stopping in its honesty, poetry and intensity.”

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Lawless and Pickering will appear alongside pop culture commentator Maria Lewis and author Krissy Kneen at the Sydney Writers Festival event Doing It! billed as a confessional discussion of female sexuality and societal expectations.

Sex work and feminism have sometimes proven uneasy bedfellows. “Unfortunately sex workers have to expend a lot of their energy defending themselves against feminists who really should be supporting us,” Lawless says. “They have belittled us, spoken over us, made assumptions about us, all for a theoretical point, really, rather than recognising that sex workers are humans who live in a capitalist system where people are going to utilise whatever they can for financial survival. People are always going to go into sex work and really we should be focusing on how to make people within that industry as safe as possible, rather than arguing about whether or not it should exist.”

Lawless argues this theoretical head butting arises from a very specific view of second wave feminism. “It was all about overturning the patriarchy and women succeeding in a certain kind of way, which leaves little room and understanding for women who have come from other backgrounds. It doesn’t take into account that a lot of people who are in sex work are working class, or migrant women, or women of colour, or trans women. Women who don’t necessarily have the same access to jobs as a white middle class woman might have.”

Lawless moved from the rural town of Bellingen with her horse to study a Bachelor of Arts degree at Sydney University. Her single parent father was unemployed at the time and couldn’t help support her. “I was like, ‘how the fuck am I gonna pay for me and the horse in Sydney?’ The two things that came to mind as financially lucrative were drug dealing or sex work.”

Scoring an interview at an escort agency, Lawless started immediately. She’s now an impassioned activist for sex worker, women’s and LGBTIQ rights. “I am a young white woman who works in a state where sex work is decriminalised,” she says. “I knew that I was in a position to be listened to and I felt a responsibility to utilise that.”

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“One of the things I’m seeking out right now is places to have uncomfortable conversations. Not all liberation is going to be won civilly. We have to make space in the dialogue for rage and frustration sometimes, and for impatience.”

Lawless has no problem separating her private life from her job. As she puts it in her Doing It chapter, “There is nothing like sex with someone you love, and no amount of orgasming with a client ever makes them feel less like a client, or lessens the orgasms with my girlfriend.”

Most of Lawless’ clients are men, or explorative heterosexual couples. “There’s massive stigma for women booking sex workers, whereas for men it’s often totally culturally acceptable. They’ll come into the brothel after a night out in groups. Often women aren’t seen as sexual creatures in the same way, so there’s not the same acceptance and they often don’t have as much expendable income.”

Those lines have been blurred when Lawless has dated other female sex workers. “Clients have booked us for a threesome and there’s a very interesting and complex relationship there in terms of fetishizing lesbians but also at the same time just being paid for an interaction with the person that you’re sleeping with anyway.”

Lawless rates emotional monogamy over sexual. “I’ve never understood the fact that you’re meant to prove fidelity to someone by sewing up your genitals. For me the idea of love is about having absolute trust and divulging all your truths and completely respecting someone, knowing they respect you back, trusting them not to belittle you. I find the idea of sexual monogamy quite outdated and a lot of the time impractical, which is evidenced by the fact that so many people cheat.”

Lawless believes part of the reason some people find her line of work so threatening is the idea that not only is a woman using her sexuality in a very public way, but she’s also using it to financially capitalise and can then climb class ranks. “There are gay male sex workers and people aren’t freaking out about them in the same way. It’s tied up in the treatment of women and there’s a lot of important dialogue about consent that sex work can be a vehicle for.”

Often fielding suggestions should write a book, Lawless says Instagram is the perfect vehicle for her. “I write exactly what I want and there’s nothing in between and that’s something that I really appreciate and think is important. Social media has given people from more marginalised communities the ability to speak about their lives in a way that comes straight from the horse's mouth, if I can use that naff expression?”

Doing it! is at the Sydney Writers Festival on Saturday May 27. Book tickets hereDoing It: Women Tell the Truth about Great Sex is out now, published by University of Queensland Press. Purchase a copy here