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Standing up for sex workers is standing up for pimps


Caroline Norma

Prostitutes are not sex workers, they are prostituted women.

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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  • Prohibition never works.
    Blind Freddy can see that criminalising prostitution (the oldest profession on the planet?) will not work either; making criminals of otherwise law abiding citizens.
    Me thinks that Dr Norma has some pretty hysterical views of the sex industry that are not a true insight into the workings of this huge, age-old industry.

    Date and time
    June 19, 2012, 8:34AM
    • The actual issue of this article is nothing to do with the sex industry, it is actually yet another article about women's rights and how women are oppressed.

      If the article was actually about the sex industry it would deal with male prostitutes as well as female prostitutes - yet it doesn't, it portrays prostitution as a women's only business (which is far from the truth!).

      Bottom line, this is just another "women are being oppressed, feel sorry for them" article.

      Date and time
      June 19, 2012, 9:39AM
    • After many years of having to read social researchers' work, I concluded that it is not very scientific and not very useful at all.

      The closer the research matter is to being about human behaviour, the less science is involved and the more ideological it becomes.

      Drugs, alcohol, gambling, obesity, and sex work research - all fields become dominated by vehement and aggressive people who just want a tidy and organised world.

      Long-Time Skeptic
      South Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 19, 2012, 11:09AM
    • rob1966 is spot on, the article is about women's rights written by someone who arrogantly believes herself to be an 'elite' academic. She speaks in generalities, and fails to acknowledge the many changes, from the stereotyped image of the key players in the industry, that have taken place around the world that have been endorsed by many governments and nations.

      She also fails to deal with some of the other facets of the sex industry such as the many forms of pornography. She assumes all sex workers are prostitutes or pimps.

      Its clever rhetoric, but naive and unrealistic. She reminds me of Mary Whitehouse in Britain in the 70' and 80's

      Date and time
      June 19, 2012, 11:31AM
    • All of her evidence about the sex industry might be right, but the solution is not criminalizing these activities. All that does is make the sex workers even more vulnerable and likely to be victimized - plus not only are they apparently victims, they'll also become criminals.

      Instead, why not improve the system so women who wish to work are better protected. And that starts with better acceptance of prostitution as legitimate work where the workers have the same rights as any other worker in our society.

      Date and time
      June 19, 2012, 1:08PM
  • Yes, Dr Norma - let's go with making more things illegal

    I mean it's worked with drugs, & prostitution has only been around a few years, so banning it will work

    All you will achieve is clogging the courts

    Fine to educate people but re-criminalising will just lead to the positive outcomes that occurred during prohibition in the US

    bring back Kev
    Date and time
    June 19, 2012, 8:44AM
    • We could also listen to what sex workers themselves say, their perspectives are missing entirely from the article. Scarlet Alliance ( is a good place to start to see how sex workers are working for their rights and improving workplace conditions. Also important to keep in mind that many sex workers don't want to see their clients criminalised. Punishing men for buying sex also hasn't been effective in reducing sex work or trafficking, but has furthered harms against sex workers:

      Date and time
      June 19, 2012, 8:45AM
      • You refuse to have sex with your husband and you've shown him no kindness or affirmation of any kind for the last eight months. Finally, in his cowed and miserable state, he purchases some physical warmth and intimacy. Poor men... first denied affection, then forced to buy a facsimile of desire. Hated by one woman, exploited by another. And now you want to ban men's last escape route.

        Date and time
        June 19, 2012, 8:49AM
        • Well said dude, well said.

          Date and time
          June 19, 2012, 12:49PM
        • @salivatorX Your statement has nothing to do with this article, instead it merely twists the situation to a way which shines more favorably upon what I assume is your situation - a 'poor' man, neglected by his wife. Ignoring the idiocy behind your statement, I should point out that no. That was not her statement at all - to 'spite men'. The argument was for the safety of women within the sex industry. While I do not agree with her point, or with the prohibition of the sex industry (being liberally minded myself), her concerns are valid. If you genuinely disagreed with her statement - that women do not have rights in the sex industry, then say that. But by turning this into a gender issue, you are trivializing her argument with a misogynistic argument that has no basis. If you have a real argument or statement that relates to her points - not to the rights of men when committing adultery or being unfaithful - then by all means, post it, for I am very interested to hear them. Until then, actually think about what she is saying. Otherwise Norma, more attention should have been paid to male sex workers too - they suffer just as much as women do, despite being in the minority.

          Date and time
          June 19, 2012, 1:08PM

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