The untapped wisdom of sex workers

CLEM BASTOW
Last updated 12:12 08/05/2013
Sex worker
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Leave it to the British tabloid The Sun, which in the past has brought us such considered coverage as "FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER", to approach the topics of sex work and relationship advice with all the subtlety of a neon-painted brick: last month they ran a piece with the screaming headline, "I had sex with 1,000 men as £700-a-time hooker ... now I'm an infidelity counsellor."

Take a moment to get the sighs out of your system and it turns out the piece contains fairly straightforward - and even considerate - advice from former sex worker Rebecca Dakin, such as, "I just want to help people stay in relationships. My knowledge comes from experience. When I was an escort about 60 per cent of my clients were married, and that gives me a pretty unique insight into how men work and what they want."

That didn't stop website Salon from weeping and wailing about the piece, with Tracy Clark Florey unloading on the topic, playing into the tired notion of "bad sex workers versus good sex workers" by saying, of another piece by Kitty Stryker, "Her advice boils down to this: talk with your partner. Rather than giving out grudging blow jobs like doggie treats, communicate openly, honestly and without judgment about your mutual needs and desires. What a concept."

But boiling the particular sort of relationship advice espoused by Dakin down to "have more sex with your husband", it is certainly not exclusive to "racy" editorial; Bettina Arndt has been doling out similar rhetoric for years. So why characterise it as specific to sex work?

What sets The Sun editorial and the Salon piece apart is that The Sun actually allowed a sex worker to speak for herself, and in an era where much of the dialogue about sex work is dominated by non-sex workers, that's becoming increasingly rare.

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If there's a titillative or click-baiting side to magazines and sites running "relationship advice from sex workers" pieces - and there's no doubt that in the never-ending quest for traffic, similar articles are commissioned from a rather mercenary stance rather than an egalitarian one - there may also be a positive spin.

"Articles, books and workshops that provide a greater understanding of the relationship between clients and sex workers reduce the power of many of the misconceptions about our work," says Janelle Fawkes, CEO of Scarlet Alliance, Australia's peak sex worker organisation.

"It's clear that much of the moral panic that frames sex workers as women exploited by clients who are men is based on misunderstanding the level of negotiation and boundary setting that takes place in many sex work interactions and how diverse our communities are."

It's a fair assumption to say that many people wouldn't consider talking with clients - a kind of casual counselling - as part and parcel of sex work, which is perhaps why articles such as Dakin's strike a raw nerve with some.

"There is a plethora of literature around the spiritual, healing and counselling aspects of sex work," says Scarlet Alliance policy officer Zahra Stardust.

"Sex work provides an opportunity to share unique intimacies with strangers - which sometimes also act as opportunities for political activism, social work and friendship. But sex work does not need 'counselling' or emotional connection to make it legitimate. This is just one aspect of a very diverse industry."

Indeed, as you might have noticed if you've been unfortunate to read the comments on any article about sex work or, especially, written by a sex worker, everybody has an opinion about the profession. Stardust's concern is that even well-intentioned editorial coverage can be injurious to sex workers.

"The danger can be that sex workers are expected to give up significant amounts of our personal time to convince non-sex workers that our work is legitimate," she says. "Social media forums and the speed of digital information sharing means that sex workers' lives are often seen as public property, open for dissection and discussion - by journalists, policymakers and organisations with specific agendas.

"Expecting sex workers to give our expertise for free for ill-informed, well-intending research projects, or a fascination with the 'titillating' parts of our work but disinterest in supporting our rights campaigns, is a consistent pattern. These patterns means that many sex workers feel exploited by media."

Perhaps, then, diverting the conversation away from tales of woe and exploitation (articles that are, in a bitter irony, exploitative themselves) to relationship and sex advice can be considered a more positive dialogue about sex work.

"It's important to support the general community to recognise that sex work is skilled work," Fawkes says. "One way of doing this is by sharing with non-sex workers the tips, tricks and skills that we use in our work as sex workers. There will be some who overlook the value of these opportunities [for] sharing skill and knowledge and who are blinded by their own 'whorephobia'. I think they miss out on a valuable insight."

Stardust agrees, adding, "As sex workers we also negotiate space, love, sex, family, friendships, communities and work commitments in our personal lives and in our own relationships - there are skills here to be shared as well."

While Dakin's relationship advice - for example - might not suit some, despite society's best efforts to cram all sex work into a narrow stereotype, there is a wealth of knowledge being shared by sex workers who engage in a diverse range of work.

Fawkes encourages casual readers to keep an open mind when reading pieces written by sex workers.

"I hope that what sex workers offer to the community - understandings of sexual expression and exploration, skills and strategies for negotiation and boundary setting, an insight into another person's life - will be recognised and accepted as the extremely valuable gift that it is. An offering to allow others to enrich their understandings of humanity, sexuality and diversity."

Crucially, both Fawkes and Stardust are adamant that if the mainstream media wants to call upon the wisdom and experience of sex workers, more needs to be done to support the very work that provides advice that fuels articles such as Dakin and Stryker's in the first place.

"This intrigue into the experiences by media must go further than curiosity, fascination or just acceptance... We need anti-discrimination protection. We need law reform and funding that supports our organising, advocacy, health promotion. These are urgent issues for sex workers," they say.

"If non-sex workers want access to our expertise, cultural histories and personal stories, they should support the recognition and protection of our human rights."

It's a fair swap, wouldn't you say?

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