Originally Published in Farrago Edition Five (2022)
Content Warning: violence against women, descriptions of sex
As I write this, I'm sitting at my grandfather's desk in Saugus, Massachusetts. Today, I cling closer to my Australian identity than ever. Not only for the lack of fear I feel purely from being in public, or the better-tasting orange juice, but the protection of human rights. Today, Roe v Wade was overturned- an appeal lacking support from the majority of the country1. To feel as though it's Us and Them is not an unreasonable reaction. Political polarisation is rife, and it's scary.
It's no secret that as a species, we love binaries: us/them, Left/Right, good/evil, woman/man. And there's a reason we've gravitated towards them throughout history, it's easier. However, it's also reductive and extremely dangerous. Nuance is important. The subtleties, the everyday details, that's what makes us human. That's what allows us to connect with one another.
Whilst in some contexts these binaries are starting to go out of fashion, there's still a long way to go. Tilly Lawless's debut novel Nothing But My Body (NBMB) helps in this fight. Lawless is a sex worker from Northern NSW who has become increasingly popular since her creation of #FacesofProstitution in 2015. NBMB tells a story heavily based on her life as a queer woman who grew up in the bush and had an addiction to romantic love.
Lawless's writing is bold, unflinchingly honest, and vulnerable in the purest sense of the word. Although at times she would have benefitted from a better editor, I personally found some of the moments that made me cringe to be among the novel's bravest. Lawless walks the realistic and familiar line of self-awareness and self-absorption.
What NBMB does so beautifully is it tells us the story of a sex worker's life, in a way that decentres her profession within her identity. Through recounting her own experiences, Lawless showcases the humanity and agency of a group so often denied these things. She is aware of the precarious financial situation that led her to her line of work and her privilege to make the decision to start doing sex work.
One of the most poignant points made by Lawless is the articulation of people's obsession with trying to understand what is real/unreal in her work. "as if it can be neatly categorised".
"People always ask if I enjoy the sex I have with clients or if I have to fake it, as if the two are mutually exclusive and the interplay between them isn't more complex. In actuality, it depends. And I'm not sure what people are threatened by more-that I don't always love it, or that I don't always hate it."
After delving into the literature and discussion of the sex work debate, it becomes clear that Lawless has hit the nail on the head. Nuance is something we are in dire need of, particularly in conversations about the sex industry. But this problem isn't new.
In her book Being and Being Bought Kajsa Ekis Ekman details the perception and understanding of sex workers through history. Central to the traditional narrative was the sex worker as "defective" or "inferior". Now, the understanding of the "Split Self" has become the norm. An understanding of sex as separate from the body and the self, a conception which views sex work as the selling of one's time and skills, not the 'selling of the self. Ekman decries this interpretation, claiming that it depicts sex work as freedom' because it defends sex workers' right to choose to work, something that is inherently oppressive. Thus, we see the binary upheld in this conversation yet again: she's brainless, or empowered. She's a victim, or a manipulator. She enjoys her work, or she hates it2.
As a result of this rigid (and false) dichotomy, feminists are typically forced into two different camps: those who support the decriminalisation of sex work and those in favour of criminalisation. It's important when examining these groupings to understand the motivations of either side, as there are often similarities in their goals that are overlooked in the polarised landscape of the debate.
Personally, I believe that if we lived in a utopian society, free of both patriarchal and capitalistic influence, that the sex industry would be a fraction of what it is now. Some studies show that up to 90% of women who are full-service sex workers would prefer to be in a different line of work3. The maiority of women who find themselves in sex work are there not by true free choice, but due to economic coercion4.
To contextualize this, during the COVID-19 pandemic, OnlyFans saw a 75 per cent increase in sign-ups5. This phenomenon coincided with the disproportionate job loss experienced by women during the pandemic. You can't try and tell me that this--or that the overrepresentation of marginalised groups (namely PoCs and migrants) in the sex industry6, groups who are statistically prone to economic precarity7--is a coincidence.
Whilst I do believe that sex work is work, I think it's naive to imply that it's "just like any other job". It's an occupation that entails an unparalleled risk of violence, disease, and psychological and bodily harm8. With this said, I feel it's ingenuous to imply that any reputable organisation or person who is pro-legalisation is denying this fact, as is argued by those on the other side of the fence9. To quote Lawless, the view of sex work as an empowering, lucrative business is "fucking bullshit"10, Viewing sex work as legitimate work and supporting the rights of sex workers is not promotion or glorification of the trade.11
Inside and outside of the pages of NBMB, Lawless acknowledges the precarity inherent to her work, thus creating a 'juxtaposition' of agency and precarity, proving that the two are not mutually exclusive--an extremely condescending belief held by feminists such as Ekman, which views sex workers as victims, unaware of the power structures which have informed their lifestyle decisions and as in need of 'consciousness-raising and saving. Additionally, what the anti-decriminalisation camp has terribly wrong is that, similarly to abortion bans, the criminalisation of sex work doesn't ban sex work, it bans safe sex work. This can be seen through the examination of a key model for criminalisation, the Nordic Model.
The Nordic Model is the go-to example for sex work criminalisation. It views "all sex work as violence"12 due to the belief that sex workers are incapable of choosing sex work willingly. It criminalises the buyers of sexual services, not those selling them. This attempt to protect sex workers from legal punishment implies a care for sex workers. However, under this model a whole host of issues impact sex workers: increased police violence, eviction, removal of children and 'outing', decreased (if not completely denied) access to health and community services, and information on safety and harm reduction13. Understandably, this model is not supported by sex workers14, How can it be justified to continue advocating for a solution deemed inadequate by those it claims to be trying to help? It leads me to believe that the Nordic Model's issue is with the concept of sex work itself, rather than the harm it inflicts on sex workers.
A point often used in advocacy of the Nordic Model is its success at fighting sex trafficking15, Whilst this feat is true, it does not mean that the Nordic Model is the best solution to solving issues surrounding sex work. Human trafficking is a human rights issue prevalent in a variety of sectors outside of the sex industry, such as domestic labour and agriculture However, the solution to trafficking in these industries is not to attempt to eradicate demand. To try and prevent sex-trafficking by criminalising sex work is not a solution to the problem, it's a misguided quick fix and can, evidently, be extremely dangerous for sex workers. Conflating the two also promotes the misconception that all sex workers are victims of sex trafficking. Thus, just like our conversations about sex work, our solutions also lack the necessary nuance
In times like these, when we're drugged and tied down within our echo chambers, unable to escape manipulation by algorithms and political parties, many of us allow the cognitive dissonance to take over and give into stockholm syndrome. The oversaturation of media and news (not to mention trying to decipher its validity) is overwhelming and exhausting.
So, it's easier to mindlessly listen to those we've trusted before. But while it's understandable and something We're all guilty of doing, it undoubtedly perpetuates polarisation NBMB functions as a potential example of how we can prevent this issue from worsening: a solution in the details (of people's lives). When nuance is stripped, people's stories are silenced. If our aim is to help people, we need to humanise them, to understand their stories in their own words, because this is the only language in which one's truth can truly be told It's only then that we can cross party lines and step into the middle ground that we've been blind to for so long, and that is where real change will take place.
- Hartig, H. (2022, June 13). About six-in-ten Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Pew Research Center
- 95 per cent of sex workers are female, hence the general discussion around women throughout the article. All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade. (2014, March). Shifting the Burden: APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade
- Shannon, G. (2017). The Implementation of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, Part IV - An Interim Review. High Level Working Group
- Melbourne Sexual Health Clinic (2011). Sex work & job satisfaction study.
- López, C. (2020). A wave of people turned to OnlyFans to earn money when they lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Insider.
- Fitzgerald, E., Patterson, S. E., & Hickey, D. (2015). Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade. Red Umbrella Project, Best-Practice Policy Project, and National Center for Transgender Equality.
Renshaw, L., Jules, K., Fawkes, J., & Elena, J. (2015). Migrant Sex Workers In Australia. Australian Institute of Criminology.
- Women's Bureau. (2020). Median annual earnings by sex, race and Hispanic ethnicity. U.S. Department of Labor
- Ekman, K. E., 2013. Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self. Melbourne : Spinifex
- Mofokeng, T. (2019, April 26). Why Sex Work Is Real Work. Teen Vogue.
- Sydney Opera House. (2022, January 3). Activist Tilly Lawless talks life experiences working in the sex industry | Ideas at the House
- Stepman, I. (2019, June 20). Hey, Teen Vogue. On career day, no young girl should say want to be a prostitute. USA Today.
- Global Network of Sex Work Projects. (2017). Challenging the introduction of the Nordic Model. Global Network of Sex Work Projects
- House of Commons (2016). Prostitution: Third Report of Session 2016-17. Home Affairs Committee
- Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Challenging the introduction of the Nordic Model.
- House of Commons (2016). Prostitution: Third Report of Session 2016-17.
Illustrated by Ashlea Banon