Elena Jeffreys of Scarlet Alliance explains why feminists should listen to sex workers

This is an edited version of a talk given by Elena Jeffreys, national president of Scarlet Alliance, at the Feminist Futures conference in Melbourne, Australia 28-29 May 2011 on the panel Why Feminism Matters. It was published in The Scavenger.

Scarlet Alliance is a national peak body of Australian sex workers and sex worker organisations, with membership open to all sex workers, past and present. Scarlet Alliance embodies over two decades’ history of formal sex worker peer organising in Australia by the funded and unfunded sex worker groups across the country.

Those groups do outreach, community development, health promotion, STI and HIV prevention, support for people affected by anti-trafficking policies, industrial relations advocacy, financial and economic justice advocacy, housing, welfare, legal and police referrals, health and human rights policy, over 20,000 occasions of direct hands on service delivery to sex workers in Australia in any given year, and participate in their national peak body to ensure that all of this information is turned into strong messages of representation at a national level. Such as here.

We take our sex worker peer education, sex worker organising, activism and politics very seriously. This is not a joke. This is not an academic indulgence. Sex worker activism is not a career path. It’s a Saturday: no one is paying us to be here. We are not here to further our careers and we are not trying to salvage the whore stigma in our lives and professionalise our CV by doing sex worker activism.

Activism is not a cop out from the day-to-day discrimination we face as sex workers. Our sex worker activism could also be called labour organising, and without it we wouldn’t have any rights.

Everything that sex workers have won in terms of work conditions, dignity, health and access to services, we have won because we have fought for it ourselves.

Do you believe me?

I have the responsibility, as the national president of the Australian Sex Workers Association, to be able to tell you what the advocacy message of sex workers is.

Some within feminist movement have labelled those of us who do the advocacy in the sex worker rights movement as “privileged” and “happy hookers” who are unable to understand the hardships that sex workers who are not “us” face. ‘

Do not assume anything about the sex workers you are meeting at the Scarlet Alliance conference this weekend. Do not assume anything about the sex workers you meet on Facebook, who you see in the media, who you see doing advocacy.

Do not assume we have not been victims of assault, discrimination, family breakdown, abuse, violence, bad work conditions, domestic violence, poverty, police corruption or crime. We are people, just like you, who have faced everything in a life that any human being faces.

But as sex workers we also face deep-seated stigmas which mean that if we don’t disclose to you our stories of tragedy and the demeaning experiences we have faced we run the risk of not being believed by you.

This is what we call “tragedy porn”: A desire in the feminist movement to hear tragic stories of hardship from sex workers, and when we don’t tell them, we face the accusation that we are covering up the “truth” about sex work.

For example when we speak about the lack of incidents of trafficking in the sex industry, we are accused of being in denial about migrant sex workers' lives.

Or when we present actual statistics about drug use in the sex industry, we are told that we are ignoring or lying about drug use in sex work.

We are expected to ‘perform’ stereotypical tragedy porn for feminist audiences and when we don’t we are disbelieved.

Well I am going to tell you something that you may not have considered.

We don’t want to perform for you.

We shouldn’t have to use arenas such as this as a public counselling or debrief space for the difficulties of our lives just so that you will believe us when we say we want human rights.

And we don’t want the feminist community to expect, reward, or clap a person when they break down describing all the negative experiences they have had in their lives.

People who need counselling and support to work through trauma in their lives shouldn’t have to perform their grief for you in order to access basic human rights, assistance or justice.

If you don’t believe us because we don’t perform our tragedies for you then YOU are participating in a sick circus, with sex workers as the non-consensual entertainment.

Sex workers aren’t here for that. We are here to advocate, and those who can’t handle that have gone next door because they don’t want to see us living our lives with strength. [NB the Feminist Futures conference split: Sheila Jeffreys and other radical feminists rented a space to have what they called the “real” feminist conference in protest to the pro-sex work and pro-trans and gender-diverse speakers who were invited at the last minute].

Now why would a group of feminists be so threatened by sex workers living our lives with strength?

Well the simple answer is that the “helpers” gain status by positioning us as victims and them as saviours. This is nothing new and has been a phenomenon since the mid 19th century and was how many middle-class white women managed to get themselves out of the house and into the realm of public life in western democracies, including Australia.

Without the Damned Whores there was no need for God’s Police – feminists who have claimed to be rescuing sex workers were given platforms, celebrated, influenced policy, and found themselves a voice in Australia during the last two centuries.

At our expense.

Those of you who work in the “helping industries” need to recognise that by “helping” you gain privilege. By positioning yourself as assisting others you gain a role in society that would not be there except for the needy “other”.

This is why Scarlet Alliance supports sex worker peer education. A critical approach that sees sex workers supporting ourselves. This is why we support sex workers organisations. Critically organising for ourselves.

This is why we won’t perform our tragedy for you. Because to live our lives with strength, you need to accept us at our best.

We want the feminist movement to stop punishing  us for our strengths, stop rewarding us for our pain, stop gaining privilege on the back of our needs, and to listen when we speak.

We will continue to speak out about our rights and you need to hear us. If you deny our experience, you deny our existence.

We are already fighting bad laws; we don’t need to be fighting half of the Australian feminist community as well.

Elena Jeffreys is the President of Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association which you can follow on Twitter. A Youtube video is available to watch here.