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Beyond ‘exploitation’ and ‘empowerment’ in sex work

All About Women speaker Tilly Lawless on rejecting the common preconceptions of her work

Tilly Lawless

See Tilly Lawless alongside Jules Kim and Chantell Martin on the 'Sex Work and Feminism' panel from All About Women, available on Stream. You can also listen to (or watch) her candid episode of Ideas at the House where she discusses her new novel ‘Nothing But My Body’.

As a sex worker, one of the questions I’m asked the most about my work is if I am empowered by it. Usually I explain why I think the question is reductive and a distraction; people in other lines of work aren’t insistently asked that and given or denied support based on their answer, and empowerment shouldn’t be a prerequisite for human rights, human rights is a prerequisite for empowerment. In reality, my relationship to the concept is more complex. I am neither empowered nor disempowered by my work. I am empowered, though, by the financial stability it brings me, my refusal to be shamed for it and the community it surrounds me with.

Image: Tilly Lawless

But I understand people’s preoccupation with ‘empowerment’ and its intoxicating appeal as a term to rally around as stigmatised workers. In the same way that the ‘pride’ of the gay rights movement was a reaction to the socially enforced ‘shame’ and the ‘sex positive’ feminists were a reaction to the ‘sex negative’ feminists, so ‘empowerment’ is a direct response and rebuttal to the assumed ‘exploitation’ of sex workers. For so long sex workers have been seen as immoral, passive victims, vectors of disease, ‘fallen’ women, less valuable than others because of the service they use their bodies to ply.

These fears and prejudices are concentrated largely on women (cis or trans) full service (vaginally penetrative sex) sex workers, because it’s them who threaten the natural way of things. Women are not meant to be sexual, let alone financially profit off their sexuality, and their sexuality is meant to be owned and tied to a man in a monogamous relationship. The kind of women that generally populate sex work – working class women, queer women, women of colour, migrant women – not only subvert the status quo if they access wealth through it, they are also women who historically have been spoken over, been regarded as an ‘other’, had decisions made for them, seen as a problematic mass, rather than individuals with their own unique relationship to struggle and autonomy. This has made it particularly easy for women sex workers to be spoken for, to be people to be ‘saved’, an obsession that you never see carried over to gay men sex workers (where are all the white saviour organisations in Thailand funneling male sex workers into poorly paid garment factories for their own good?).

“...I can see why ‘empowerment’ has become such a focal point, if only to offer an alternative to the dominating depiction of sex workers as people unable to consent to the work that they do.”

With all this in mind, I can see why ‘empowerment’ has become such a focal point, if only to offer an alternative to the dominating depiction of sex workers as people unable to consent to the work that they do (as I’ve always said, if you don’t support my ability to consent you don’t support my ability to not consent, and you minimise and invisibilise the sexual assault of sex workers). However I am wary of this in the same way that as a queer woman I am wary of “pride”. My relationship with myself and my work fluctuates so much with my mental health, that it seems ridiculous to hinge the fight for workers’ rights or reproductive rights (e.g. lesbian couples are still classified as ‘socially infertile’ not ‘medically infertile’ so can’t have IVF subsidised like heterosexual couples) on something so flimsy.

Tilly Lawless on the cover of Archer Magazine

“I want sex workers to be viewed as other workers, to not have to jump through hoops of semantics and morality...”

‘Pride’ especially seems absurd to me – why would I be proud of something that I didn’t achieve, that I just am? People say it’s pride from refusing to be ashamed, and so it’s the antithesis to shame, but that still means it exists in reaction to and because of shame. I try to ignore the shame, and so I don’t feel the need for the pride. I also know when I do feel pride as a strong emotion it’s often a cover for insecurity. For example, in a room full of affluent people, I feel pride at being from a different class – but underneath that there’s a layer of inadequacy that’s pushing my pride to the surface as a protective mechanism. I know I was ashamed of my financial background when I first moved to Sydney and went to a university surrounded by private school kids, hiding the fact I was on welfare and an equity scholarship, whereas now, eight years later, I proclaim it with the pride of someone still having something to prove. Because I still feel lesser than rich people in some ways, because society has prescribed that hierarchy and I’ve absorbed it.

This is why I take issue with being asked if I’m ‘empowered’ as a sex worker – because I am only being asked that because people expect sex workers to be not empowered. I want to do away with these rankings, these preconceptions, these interrogations. I want sex workers to be viewed as other workers, to not have to jump through hoops of semantics and morality, to prove themselves worthy of respect. I want to eradicate the shame and allow them to just be. 

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