Law enforcement officers can be the biggest threat to many women.
Law enforcement officers can be the biggest threat to many women.

IWD: The vulnerable women law enforcement are failing

I was scrolling through Twitter the other day when a cartoon popped up on my timeline.

It was by Jacq the Stripper, one of my favourite sex worker artists, and it featured a woman in high heels standing facing a wall with a male police officer standing behind her.

"I'm here to save you from your suffering," he says, to which she replies, "You're gonna pay my rent?!".

"No," he says, "I'm going to put you in these handcuffs."

It captures the mood of being a sex worker in 2019.

With International Sex Worker Rights Day passing earlier this week with only a few peeps of support from those who don't work in lace and latex, yesterday's International Women's Day felt less like a celebration of everything that's great about being a woman and more a frustrating reminder of how sex workers continue to be excluded from women-centric discussions.

The one-year anniversary of the FOSTA-SESTA bills being signed in to law in the US is also approaching and it's a stark reminder of how much sex workers still have to fight to have their voices heard and how vital the support of our allies is, now as much as ever.

The FOSTA-SESTA bills were drafted with the intent to stop the very real problem of sex trafficking.

The bills changed US law to hold website owners, rather than just website users, responsible for the content of posts made on social media and message boards.

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Theoretically, if a sex trafficker advertised access to one of their victims on a popular forum, they wouldn't be the only one breaking the law: the owner of the website would be too, as they had provided the platform on which the trafficking occurred.

Almost immediately, sex workers voiced their concerns that posts made by genuine, consenting, adult workers would be conflated with posts made by traffickers, and that trafficking would only be driven further underground by removing a public platform on which it could occur.

Sex work and sex trafficking are frequently seen to be one and the same in the US, and workers worried that if FOSTA-SESTA became law, they could lose access to the advertising platforms they depended on to make a living.

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In the next weeks, the exact thing that sex workers said was going to happen, did happen: those workers who relied on websites like Backpage and Craigslist to advertise their services lost their primary source of income when the sites were either taken down, or took themselves down.

Many who needed money urgently turned to street work as their only other viable option and in the fourteen days immediately following the bills' passing, thirteen sex workers went missing, two were found dead and many more experienced rape and assault.

Peer-led sex worker organisations had to censor the language they used when offering advice to workers online, and even private Google documents containing "ugly mug" lists (information about dangerous clients) disappeared.

For what it's worth, there was no mass-arrest of human traffickers after FOSTA-SESTA, and even law enforcement officials would go on to say that it actually made traffickers harder to track and find, not easier.

Even in Australia, the effects of the bills were felt hard: many of our private workers relied on Backpage and Craigslist too and while brothel work was certainly an option here more so than the US, it's undeniable that sex work had suddenly become that much more dangerous.

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On Instagram, sex workers shared images of messages they had received from self-proclaimed pimps, offering their services - for a hefty fee, of course - in the new, advertising-lite landscape of sex work.

So it's difficult to be a part of a community that is stigmatised and deliberately misunderstood, often to the point of death, and also feel part of the proud sisterhood that looks at an event like International Women's Day and says, that's for me.

Conferences and talks with inspiring female leaders are the last thing I'm interested in when I know that at the same time, sex workers are rapidly and randomly having their accounts deleted from social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

Fun-runs and marches seem futile when paired with the knowledge that in some parts of Australia, women can be arrested on the street for intent to solicit if they're caught carrying condoms.

I'm not interested in pink-themed brunches or women's wine-tasting or breakfasts with woman entrepreneurs. The businesses I want to see succeed most urgently are sex worker businesses.

I don't care how much money a female CEO makes. I want to know that my friends can pay their rent.

Forget renaming Manly as Womanly, as was suggested last year by a group of businesswomen local to the area.

Want to do something really controversial for International Women's Day?

Support sex work decriminalisation.

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Anyone who grew up in the era of Girl Power, as I did, might be quick to think that women are each other's greatest allies, but that's only sometimes true. Unfortunately, sex workers are quite often left out of the sisterhood circle. While certainly not all women exclude us, it often feels like a huge majority do and frequently, those who turn their backs to us are the ones who would have the most power to include us if they chose to.

If sex workers aren't derided as dirty, disease-ridden tramps desperate for a quick buck at any expense, we're painted as victims of evil men who have us caught so tightly in their clutches that we can't even see how helpless we are.

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We're either so consumed with our own sexual power that we've been driven mad by it, or so lacking in power that we need to be rescued by all-knowing older sisters - moralising Aunt Lydias who can take the fallen women under their wing and usher them back in to the flock.

Perhaps it's the perceived complexity of sex worker issues that sees us so often skipped over on the International Women's Day event invite list.

While one worker might have decriminalisation of sex work as her most pressing concern, another might be advocating for better access to healthcare services, while another still could be encouraging fellow workers to unionise in an effort to do away with excessive shift fees at her local club.

They're all valid concerns, but there's no way that we can decide for ourselves which is most pressing - beyond listening to sex workers, of course.

At the end of the day, I don't think sex workers should be the focus of every single International Women's Day event. But a thought spared for us would be nice - a spot on the panel, even better. A place of one's own at the front of the room, a little 'hey sister' from the rest of the group.

Is it really so much to ask?

- Kate Iselin is a writer and sex worker. Continue the conversation on Twitter @kateiselin


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