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An open letter to Tom Meagher, from St Kilda street-based sex workers

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In September 2012, Jill Meagher was abducted and murdered as she walked home on the streets of Melbourne, Australia. It later emerged that her killer had been released on parole after attacking a number of other women, some of them street-based sex workers in the St Kilda area of Melbourne. Jill’s husband Tom has now joined a campaign in Ireland to criminalise sex workers’ clients. Here, St Kilda street workers share their views on his participation in that campaign.

Dear Tom Meagher,

As street based sex workers from St Kilda we have come together to urge you to reconsider your position endorsing the campaign “We Don’t Buy It” and to share with you some of the implications it has for us as sex workers.

All of us have different experiences in our lives including our experiences of work.

One commonality we share as street based sex workers in St Kilda is being subject to laws and policing operations that target us and our clients. And this really makes it harder for us to best look after our safety. One thing we thought we shared with you is an understanding of our justice system, and the way it discriminates against sex workers. For us it is more of an injustice system, and as you pointed out so well, this tragically not only affects us, but our whole society. To report crimes committed against us we risk being charged ourselves and being known to police for further profiling and harassment. Even if we take on this risk and report crimes we know it’s unlikely our cases will be treated fairly and with the same seriousness they would be if we were not a sex worker.

It was such a powerful and meaningful moment when you also recognised the injustice sex workers receive in our legal system, and what this means for our society. So in seeing your passion for justice and respect be given to all, including sex workers, co-opted into a campaign which does just the opposite of this is hugely disappointing and upsetting. We decided to write this letter to you because we want you to be able to support us and our safety. We aim to have you see things through our eyes. It’s imperative that everyone understands what we need and what we don’t need, because too often others talk for us and they get it wrong. We want to be safe in our work place and we want to stop violence against sex workers and to stop men’s violence against women. We have attended rallies representing women who we knew personally that have been verbally, physically or financially abused, hurt very badly or even killed while offering paid services in St Kilda Victoria.

Any campaign which calls to end sex work or stigmatises our clients ends up further stigmatising and dehumanising us as well, and ultimately serves to take away our agency and increases violence towards us. Sex work itself is not inherently violent or exploitative or dangerous. But the laws and social attitudes and stigma around sex work as a whole has an impact on our ability to look after our safety. Maybe it can seem confusing, feminists are often saying all kinds of things and it is important men listen to women when it comes to ending violence against women. But unfortunately not all women listen to sex workers, or some only listen to some of us, and only when we say what they want us to.

“We Don’t Buy It” has argued that paying a sex worker means paying for “temporary suspension of [her] desire not to consent and that’s coercion.” For this to be selectively applied to sex work and not other industries is problematic for us especially when sex workers already experience high levels of patronisation, including assumptions that we are not capable of making our own decisions. Arguing that paying someone equals coercion could be said about any worker under capitalism if you wish to term it that way. Would office workers really turn up 9 to 5, 5 days a week and do overtime if there was no incentive for it and no consequence if they instead spent their days with their family, their lover, or doing whatever they felt like? Probably not, yet the question is selectively and repeatedly asked of sex workers. The implication is that we are being specially exploited if we wouldn’t do our job for free.

Exploitation (for example being forced to do something we do not consent to) is very different, and it is not something that should be conflated with any work.

The problem with targeting clients in all of this is that clients are not the problem. By virtue of being a client, they must agree to paying the price mutually agreed upon for the services we wish to offer. No matter if its sex work or any other job, paying a person should never mean you have “bought” them or can do whatever you want with them, that would be violence and/exploitation, not work.

One big problem we face working in St Kilda is that our clients are targeted by police, and the conversations between sex workers and our clients are criminalised. This means it’s harder to negotiate, it’s harder for us to be upfront and check with each other if we are happy to do a business deal, or if it’s not actually a client, but rather someone who may be disrespectful or violent. This is not helped by campaigns which tell us that sex workers are “prostituted women” who don’t have any ability to properly consent anyway.

It also doesn’t help us to campaign for men to stop buying our services. Sex Work is our livelihood, it’s how we make our money and support ourselves. Some feminists claim that shifting the focus on to stopping men buying sex is the way forward, but people need to consider how that pans out in reality. Our colleagues in Sweden have clearly explained to us what happens when the police focus “only” on stopping the client. As one sex worker explained to us “how do you think they find the client? the

police don’t follow a man around, waiting for that moment he might buy sex, no they follow the sex worker, camp outside the sex worker’s house, knock down the sex worker’s door.” Sex workers working in St Kilda already work under laws similar to the Swedish laws, our clients are already criminalised and harassed and we have been vocal about their negative effects for years. Bringing the “Swedish Model” to Victoria would only potentially serve to increase our chances of losing our homes and further isolate us from our peers and other support systems. In contrast, full decriminalisation would enable us to use the safety mechanisms which are criminalised and attract police harassment under our current laws and the Swedish model.

Decriminalisation is the only legal model that would also meaningfully reduce some of the barriers in reporting to police when we are victims of crime.

Whilst it is important for men to ally with feminists to achieve gender equality, it is important that the groups of women who are supposedly being campaigned for are consulted with about what we need to stay safe. In this case, as street based sex workers, we want to make it clear to you: this is not what anti-sex work groups such as the Reach Project in Ireland or Project Respect in Victoria are campaigning for. For street workers in St Kilda to be safe, we need to live free from stigma and criminalisation based on what we do for a living. This means recognising sex work as work, and it means full decriminalisation of sex work, our clients, our workplaces. We want to be seen as equal and not seen as an easy, stigmatised target that will not be taken seriously. For this to happen we need to be treated fairly and with respect, not only in the courts, but also when it comes to campaigns and policies that are about us.

Please stand with us for our right to health and safety.

Halo, current St Kilda street based sex worker

Rory, current St Kilda street based sex worker

Skout, current St Kilda street based sex worker

Holly, current St Kilda street based sex worker

Signed in support:

Ruby Soho, current sex worker/former St Kilda street based sex worker

Dee, former St Kilda street based sex worker

Veronica Hum, current sex worker/former St Kilda street based sex worker

Christian, current sex worker/former St Kilda street based sex worker

Pj, former St Kilda street based sex worker

Rahni Belle, current sex worker/former St Kilda street based sex worker

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