ELITE academics in Australia love to profess their support for ''sex workers''. University of New South Wales academic Catharine Lumby in ''Sex is not dirty work'' on these pages pleaded for the media to treat sex workers with more respect, given that prostitution is a legal form of employment in Australia.

Lumby recalls telling her sons over the dinner table to not make jokes about women their friends call ''prosties'', and to remember that feminists and Christians could be condemned for failing to properly recognise prostitution as work.

This idea of prostitution conveyed to the two Lumby juniors is unmistakably a liberal one. In this framing, prostitution is embarked upon by individual women as something akin to a small-business enterprise (women in brothels in Australia are legally recognised as sub-contractors, not employees). While ''sex workers'' might be at the bottom rung of the social ladder in terms of education, prior victimisation, social networks, and personal asset bases, liberals see them as admirable for attempting to improve their circumstance, and possibly give their kids a better chance in life.

In conveying this idea of prostitution, Lumby teaches her sons to be nice to ''sex workers'', which is indubitably a charitable thing for an elite academic to do.

However, in framing prostitution as a benign form of ''work'', Lumby also disenables her sons taking social and political measures against the sex industry and its customers as perpetrators of serious and widespread harm against women in Australia.

There now exists a mountain of empirical research, not only from feminist social scientists, but also from psychologists, clinicians, nurses, anthropologists and economists, of the harms of prostitution for women. These harms include post-traumatic stress disorder, genital and other physical injuries, pregnancy, depression and anxiety, and social isolation.

It has been known since the late 1970s that a major precursor of women's entry into prostitution is childhood sexual abuse. There is also empirical evidence of the damage to women's social status, and the negative impact on women's connection to local community, of the sex industry.

Overwhelmingly, the social science and health literature condemns prostitution as a source of harm to women, as well as children.

For liberals to successfully frame prostitution as ''work'', rather than commercially mediated sexual abuse, they must close their eyes to this evidence. They must also avoid encountering most women in prostitution - even the most conservative demographic studies of this population find that half would leave the sex industry if they could. And they must overlook the good results that governments in Sweden, South Korea, Norway and Iceland have achieved in declaring prostitution a violation of gender equality, and criminalising the sex industry and its customers.

Most significantly, though, liberals must avoid mentioning pimps, traffickers, and sex industry customers in making their argument that prostitution is a legitimate form of work for poor women. Lumby doesn't breathe a word of the profit-making activities of pimps in Australia, nor the acts perpetrated by sex industry customers who buy women in half-hour blocks. She fails to tell her sons about the strategies of violence, debt and intimidation that pimps use to keep women in prostitution, and to make sure they service customers with a smile.

She also omits to mention the kinds of sex acts customers do to women in prostitution, and the misogynistic abuse and brutality that women face when they're dispatched to the hotel rooms and houses of prostitution buyers.

These inconvenient facts cause liberals great difficulty in selling the message that prostitution is work. In light of these facts, prostitution begins to look like a system of hush money paid to pimps to supply men with vulnerable women for sexual use and abuse.

When elite academics like Lumby publicly declare their allegiance to ''sex workers'' they concurrently reveal a loyalty to pimps and sex industry customers. They do this through framing prostitution as ''work'', and therefore sending the message that no policy or community action need be taken against the sex industry as an employer of women and legitimate business sector.

In this atmosphere, pimps and their customers are able to continue their harmful activities, and the sex industry in Australia is able to profitably expand and diversify.

On the other hand, when elite academics like me declare our support for ''prostituted women'', we declare a commitment to elimination of the sex industry. We work towards public recognition of prostitution as a social harm through public awareness campaigns highlighting the effects of the sex industry on individual women, and women's social status.

Just like the anti-smoking campaigns that began in the 1970s, we seek a reorientation of the public's thinking about prostitution towards a critique of the ''pretty woman'' and ''happy hooker'' stereotype. Australian policymakers and community leaders mobilised against the tobacco industry in the past three decades, and we seek similar government action against the sex industry as a driver of social harm.

The criminalisation of pimps and sex industry customers is a necessary first step towards this goal, but we also call for public education about the reality of prostitution, as well as policy planning for programs and initiatives to assist women to leave the sex industry and build lives that reflect their worth as full citizens.

Dr Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the school of Global Studies, Social Science & Planning at RMIT University.

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