Our Interview with Tilly Lawless

Tilly Lawless is a queer sex worker, activist, uni graduate and horse rider from NSW.  In 2015, Tilly rose to fame when she took a stand against an anti-sex work article published on Mamamia (a piece which originally hailed from the blog of a US Christian group). In response, Tilly posted an image of herself on instagram, stating that “there is no singular story or person to represent the varied & complex experiences of all sex workers, but here is one face of prostitution amongst a myriad” along with the hashtag #facesofprostitution. It went global, providing an opportunity for important dialogue about sex work with those who actually work in the industry.

We’re very fortunate to have Tilly joining us at Breakthrough 2016 — she recently spoke with Ally Oliver-Perham (Victorian Women’s Trust) about her work and more.

I was personally really moved by the quote you provided for Breakthrough:

“I would love for every trans woman, woman of colour, disabled woman, un-smiling woman, old woman, fat woman, happy woman, queer woman, every kind of woman in this world to be able to walk down a deserted street at night and never again fear the approach of others, never again be denied something because of their sex or gender presentation, never again be exposed to the violence that narrow and bigoted views of gender lead to. Have gender and sex as things with only positive results, no longer as a step back in the world and a reason to oppress. I want people to be released from the oppressions and connotations of gender.”

It’s immensely powerful. Who or what has been the biggest influence on your mindset?

There are so many who’s – I am constantly being educated by and having my feminism informed by both my friends, writers, activists, people long dead. A few I can say have really influenced me are Molly Crabapple, Janet Mock, Elizabeth Gaskell, Egon von Neindorff, John Rechy, Leslie Feinberg, Jean Genet. These are all people with vision beyond themselves, with integrity, that want or wanted to change or improve something of the time for others. When art combines with a political motive to invoke change that, to me, is the highest form of art. It is art that I can be both moved by and respect, an artist that I can be moved by and respect.

As much as I am grateful to a legion of people I do not know, it is my friends who I am most actively thankful for, who hold me accountable for things and tell me when I am in the wrong.

The what’s are my own life experiences. Things that have made me aware of my gender, and then also aware of my privilege. An example of this is when I went to Morocco with a female friend, who is Sri Lankan. We were harassed constantly; as a woman I was sexualised. But the street harassment of her was racialised too. It was such a stark contrast to be side by side and have ‘Shakira/Spice Girl come sit on my lap’ cooed to me, and ‘beautiful India’, ‘mama Africa’ follow her.

You are well known as an advocate for sex workers, especially since the viral #faceofprostitution hashtag. Has bringing such deep and important issues into the realm of social media been a positive or negative experience for you?

Overall perhaps positive, in that I think the fact that these issues are getting airtime and leading the average person to reconsider their view on sex work and sex workers is amazing, and trumps any personal consideration. But there have definitely been side effects I find exhausting.

I wrote about it a bit on my instagram recently, I’ll quote it here:

‘I read things about myself sometimes. Stub my toe against something meant for me – or not – online. I think people forget I was a person before the small swell of publicity in my wake, that I remain a person not an idea or a symbol to be bartered or battered, or a thing to abstractly find fault with. The fandom culture online makes me easy to idolise, & idolatry is its own unique form of dehumanising. I am asked ‘what is it like to be the spokesperson for sex workers?’; I say that I am not, & I shouldn’t be, because it is ridiculous to reduce an entire community into one personification, that it loses people in the process, that it highlights certain narratives at the expense of others. I am asked ‘what it is it like to be a role model to young girls?’; I say that I do not believe in role models & I hope no one is tailoring their life based on mine, that I am not infallible, that I believe in ‘possibility models’ as Laverne Cox calls it. I am asked ‘how can I dare to speak from a place of so much privilege?’; I say I have platform privilege — privilege that comes from my whiteness, my beauty privilege, my middle class status, my cis & able body — &, along with the fact that the media becomes fascinated by certain people I am given opportunities to instigate conversations that may not be instigated otherwise because the world is a place that values certain people over others, but would it be better for me to leave those things unspoken?

I do not want to be an activist, or a leader, or a megaphoned voice shouted over the crowds, & I have not sought those things. I write about my life & my feelings & things I see as wrong. I feel a great & exhausting responsibility to talk about sex worker rights when given the chance to an audience who may not usually think of them but it is just that – a grave responsibility. Yet people who hardly know me feel free to poke at me for being self serving, or attention seeking, or a smug cat lolling in praise – as if I am the clamour around me. I feel tired. Damned by others if I do use my privilege to speak about important things & damned by my conscience if I don’t. I am both more & less than what you read of me.’

How can those outside the sex work industry be better allies?

Listening to sex workers. Standing up for sex workers (with just little everyday things for example explaining to someone why saying something derogatory about sex workers is wrong, why their stereotypes are wrong, why it is not okay to use the word ‘prostitute’). Helping us in our fight for rights.

When you think about gender equality today, what are the areas still lagging behind?

Sex work is often left out of the feminist fight and the fight for queer rights, even though it is integral to both. Class is often left out of discussions about feminism; you see people happily admitting white privilege but very few admit class or wealth privilege, and you even sadly seeing those with an academic education berating those with less for their choice of words, without considering that class is another axis of oppression. Women of colour are often left unconsidered and spoken over, and the same goes for trans women or GNC people. As feminism becomes more mainstream the more marginalised get left behind in the slipstream.

What makes you hopeful about the movement? 

I am hopeful because I see the swell around me, the passion of those who won’t give up fighting for change. I am hopeful because of events like these. I am hopeful because to give up hope is to be resigned, and then nothing will change.

Join us at Breakthrough 2016 and stand alongside change makers like Tilly Lawless, Tara Moss, Rosie Batty and over 100 more movers and shakers. Together we’ll build momentum as a group and plan our pathway forward.

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