International Sex Workers’ Week is celebrated throughout Australasia

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International Sex Workers’ Day (International Whore's Day), 2 June, is a day which many sex worker activists celebrate, respect, honour and commemorate as the first internationally recognised sex worker instigated and organized direct action and civil rights action. On June 2, 1975, over 100 sex workers in Lyon, France, engaged in a civil disobedience action that involved a week-long occupation of St. Nizer Church. The aim of the action was to generate a high-profile campaign which would highlight the State sanctioned police harassment of street based sex workers, the disgraceful in-action of police in responding to violence perpetrated against the Lyon sex worker community by a serial sexual assault offender, and the refusal of the French Minister for Women to engage in dialogue with French sex workers.

Sex workers occupying the church hung a banner proclaiming “Our Children Don’t Want Their Mothers in Jail”, from the steeples of the gothic style church. This action was highly successful in attracting the support of both the national press and broad public sympathy. In an attempt to intimidate the sex workers to end their protest, the State announced that sex worker’s children would be removed and placed in State care. This tactic backfired and a spate of furious non-sex working women, who were horrified by the threats of the State, marched to St Nizer Church and joined the protest in solidarity, with the intention of confusing the authorities as to whom was and was not a sex worker. In response to the spirit of joie de viethe occupation of St Nizer Church inspired across the nation, spontaneous sex worker strikes and protests were organised in solidarity with the sex workers of Lyon. However, on 10 June, 1975, police deceived the priest of St Nizer and beguiled him to inadvertently unlock the church doors. Subsequently, sex workers and their supporters were violently evicted from the premises by police clad in riot-gear.

Since 1976, International Sex Workers’ Day has been annually acknowledged and celebrated by sex worker networks and activists across the globe, who undertake a diverse range of actions, yet are united in our continuing fight for sex worker rights. In 2014, across the Australasian region, International Sex Workers’ Day was marked by a number of different activities over a week-long period.

On June 5, 2014, the South Australian Sex Industry Network held a protest at the entrance to the South Australian House of Parliament. The protest was a call to amend South Australia’s outdated sex work laws, which criminalise many aspects of sex work. Over the past two years, sex worker activists have been relentlessly advocating for a change to South Australia’s outdated sex industry legislation, with the aim of replicating a model of decriminalisation, similar to that implemented in New Zealand. Following the Parliament House rally, South Australian sex workers held a circus themed International Sex Workers’ Day celebration on 6 June, 2014.

On 2 June, 2014, the Sex Worker's Outreach Project, New South Wales (SWOP NSW), held their annual Hookers and Strippers Ball as an International Sex Workers’ Day party at one of Sydney’s most historically queer friendly venues, the Imperial Hotel. SWOP’s Sex Workers’ Day ball was themed “sex worker autonomy”, in lieu of the recognition of over 20 years of advocacy NSW sex workers have undertaken to secede from SWOP being a “project” of the AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON), and a sex worker-led organisation in its own right: on 1 July, 2014, SWOP NSW will become an autonomous sex worker organisation.

A SWOP NSW board member opened the ceremonies by paying homage to the sex worker community of Lyon who have continued to inspire sex workers across the globe to self- organise and to continue to challenge the issues the women of Lyon began the struggle for almost 40 years previously. Although sex worker activists have achieved much, we are still fighting to challenge oppressive State policies which criminalise our work; mandatory testing and other violations of our human rights; stigma and discrimination; a lack of access to universal health care and services, designed and delivered by our community; and worst, those who believe they are our allies: anti-trafficking feminists and the Big Pharma industry.

A variety of performances, show casing the diversity of the NSW sex industry, followed the well received opening speech. Acts included: local sex worker luminaries, WhoreCore, an all-sex worker band whose song lyrics exclusively reflect sex worker politics; customary dancing from three Thai sex workers who performed in traditional garb; and examples of stripping, pole and burlesque dancing. Following the acts, 150 sex workers and our allies, in a variety of outrageous costumes reflecting the diversity of the sex industry, danced, mingled and revelled in sex workers’ pride until the celebration finished at midnight.

To coincide with International Sex Workers’ s Day activities across the Australasian region, on 6 June, 2014, the Singaporean sex worker network, Project X, showcased an exhibition, “Yet Still We Dance”, which featured a wide variety of art projects created by sex workers from within the South Asian region. The pieces, which interpreted the experiences of being a sex worker within the region, explored themes such as mandatory detention, police corruption, migration, access to universal health care, HIV, community building, gender bias, the criminalization of sex work, and the myriad of cultural and social norms which impact on sex workers through stigma and discrimination.

South Asian sex worker networks who participated in the exhibition were from countries including Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar/ Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia, Timor Leste, the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos. Such is the popularity of the exhibition, this is the third time the program has been displayed; it was initially launched in Bangkok in 2013, followed by a second showing as part of the ASEAN People’s Forum in Yangon, Myanmar, March, 2014.