It’s always really inspiring to come across something that deals with a tough topic in a beautiful and hopeful way. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and her words has released a series on sexual assault. Too often we see sexual assault presented in a dark and tortured way, removing the agency from the survivor and confining them to a hopeless future in the shadows of their experience. And usually we have to sit through moralising narrations before we actually hear what survivors want to say. Without removing any of the seriousness or gravity of sexual assault for the interviewees, her words literally and figuratively brings these women into the light. White walls, minimal but warm aesthetic and no interference from the interviewer allows these women and their stories speak for themselves.
her words is a female-driven sharing of stories and experiences of people who identify as women which exists to inspire courage through connection and drive greater empathy and awareness of women’s experiences so that we can make progress happen. her words will run all year, with a different theme each month. February’s theme was self-love, with something for all of us to grow and practice.
Sexual assault and rape culture continues to be one of the most confronting and difficult topics of feminist activism. One of the lesser talked about topics within this is sexual violence towards sex workers. We love how her words is amplifying the voices and lived experiences of women to increase understanding and move forward on the pathway to change. her words creator Domini Marshall, said on releasing this month’s her words series, “
Sexual assault is so common and yet we rarely hear or read about the diversity of experiences of sexual assault. No woman should feel like her story or experience isn’t important or valid, or that her existence isn’t worthy of respect or belonging.
One of the her words interviewees this month is Jane Green, a queer sex worker currently working in Victoria. While it is hard enough for most victim/survivors of sexual violence to be believed, respected and shown humanity by the public and institutions such as the legal system, sex workers are often routinely dismissed or shamed because of their job. Jane said in her interview,
I think victim-blaming’s a really complex thing for sex workers - the idea that we’re doing something dangerous so it’s our fault. And people almost treat sexual assault and sex work as some sort of occupational hazard that we should be expecting. Sexual assault’s not acceptable in any workplace - it’s certainly not acceptable in mine.
Jane also highlighted how difficult it is to report sexual violence because sex work is still criminalised in Victoria*: “Nobody should ever think, if they’re subject to a sexual assault, “is it safe for me to call the police? Are they going to charge me with a crime when I’m trying to report my rapist?”. That’s an appalling position to put someone in.” Tilly Lawless, a queer Sydney-based sex worker, echoed the issue of criminalisation at the Trust’s Breakthrough event late last year, “Regardless of your moral or theoretical problems with sex work, attempting to wipe it out does nothing to help the women in the industry.”
Jane believes progress is impeded because sex workers, especially sex workers of colour and trans sex workers, continue to be marginalised and silenced, “When people don’t hear our voices, they don’t hear about our stories and our lived experience, and they don’t see the reality of our lives, then the policy that the government makes isn’t based on fact, on evidence, on what’s actually happening in our community.”
So what can be done to move forward to make sure sex workers can safely report sexual assault? Jane talked about the importance of decriminalising sex work, “a necessary first step for us in recognising our human rights and our labour rights and in recognising sex work as work…sex workers have been asking for the full decriminalisation of our work for a very long time, and our representative organisations have been asking for the full decriminalisation of our work for a very long time.” Currently, only New Zealand and NSW have decriminalized sex work in 2003 and 1995 respectively.
At Breakthrough Tilly left us with actions individuals can take to incorporate sex workers into the general fight for women’s rights:
- Watch your language. Even a casual negative comments such as, “She’s dressed like a whore” dehumanises us
- Watch your assumptions. Just because a woman is a migrant does not mean that she has been trafficked
- Listen to sex workers, include them in your discussions about feminism
- Donate to sex workers rights organisations such as the Rose Alliance (Sweden) and SWOP (NSW)**
- Write to Government representatives in South Australia or make a submission to the Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill which is currently calling for submissions from the public
- Stand up for sex workers when they’re abused online
- Donate sanitary items, clothing and toiletries to SWOP (NSW) or Share The Dignity (Australia) who give them out to street-based sex workers
Last of all, it seems obvious but it’s important for us to see sex workers as people regardless of our personal opinion of the sex industry. No-one should be sexually assaulted. Everyone should feel safe and know that there is help available when it is needed. As Tilly says, ‘we are not deserving of rights because we are respectable. We are deserving of rights because we are human.’
*Clarification: Sex work is not criminalised in Victoria but is regulated through a licensing system. To find out more download this fact sheet created by the St Kilda Legal Service.
**This post originally invited readers to donate to Project Respect. This has since been removed.
Casimira Melican is the lead policy researcher at the Victorian Women’s Trust and a regular contributor to the VWT blog. She has co-written submissions to the Victorian and Federal Governments on diverse topics such as women’s superannuation, paid parental leave and women’s leadership. On weekends, she can be found baking treats for the VWT office or curled up with a feminist book.