Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas slammed by activists for promoting anti-sex work themes

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Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas slammed by activists for promoting anti-sex work themes and excluding a sex worker perspective

The line-up at the 2014 Festival Of Dangerous Ideas has been heavily criticised by Australian sex worker activists for its anti-sex work themes and speakers. Presented by the Sydney Opera House and the St James Ethics Centre, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) is an annual event which bills itself as bringing together “leading thinkers and culture creators from around the world” to “bring contentious ideas to the fore and challenge mainstream thought and opinion.”

Slated to take place over the 30-31 August, 2014, the FODI programme includes a number of panel discussion sessions which feature speakers with an established prohibitionist perspective of sex work. The sold-out panel discussion session “Women For Sale”, is promoted as exploring the premise that “Women, and their bodies, are for sale. Throughout the world, women and children are trafficked and traded as workers in the multi-billion-dollar sex industry, and their bodies are bought by ‘consumers’ everywhere. Women are bought, sold and exploited everywhere.” Despite the focus on the sex industry, there are no sex workers included on the panel. Rather, the discussion will feature Lydia Cacho, the author of “Slavery Inc.:The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking”; Kajsa Ekis Ekman, the Swedish author of “Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, surrogacy and the split self” and Pink Cross supporter; Alissa Nutting, the American author of a short story collection entitled “Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls”; and Elizabeth Pisani, a journalist and epidemiologist whose previous work has focused on South East Asian sex workers, with mixed reception from the international sex worker community.

Each of the speakers from the “Women for Sale” panel discussion will also present individual sessions in which they will explore their individual area of “expertise”. Several of these speakers have indicated that they will explore sex work themes in their individual session. Lydia Cacho will present on “Slavery is Big Business” . The premise of this session is the prohibitionist belief that “Impervious to recession, it (sexual slavery) forms a thriving part of the globalised sex industry run by organised crime. International trafficking of women and children for sex is a multi-billion dollar business that won’t be anywhere near ‘abolition’ until those who make money from its operations and buy its services think again about what being complicit in slavery means.” Kajsa Ekis Ekman will facilitate a session, “Surrogacy Is Child Trafficking”, which is being promoted as drawing parallels between “prostitution and trafficking in babies”. 

Sex worker activists in Australia are concerned at the anti-sex work rhetoric FODI speakers are promoting, and are angry that discussions about sex work are not being led by sex workers and that FODI has not given equal space to sex workers to challenge the blatant abolitionist agenda of speakers on sex work issues. Jane Green, an Australian sex worker activist who encourages sex workers to critique the FODI for its lack of sex worker inclusion has stated, “So this is what FODI has come up with in a festival that purports to challenge mainstream ideas and that is co-sponsored by St James Ethics Centre that prides itself as being an “open forum for the promotion and exploration of ethical questions“: four events run by and – excepting perhaps one* – composed entirely of anti-sex work speakers..For FODI – Apparently allowing sex workers – the actual marginalised group in question – to speak on sex work, about their own lives and human rights – is just too dangerous an idea.”

Sex workers and our allies are encouraged to voice their concern at FODI’s lack of inclusion of sex workers in leading discussions and discourse around sex work issues and its support of anti-sex work academics and journalists on Twitter, using the hashtags #FODI and #Rightsnotrescue