Sex, drugs and common sense: Fiona Patten opens up
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Sex, drugs and common sense: Fiona Patten opens up

She may be a Melbourne fixture, but Fiona Patten is a Canberra legend.

When she first stood up in the Victorian Parliament and gave her maiden speech, the room was astonished to hear her proudly declare her status as "the first former sex worker to be elected to a parliament anywhere in Australia".

But up here in Canberra, the story was old hat, part of the well-known narrative that saw Patten, a local girl from a respectable family, falling quite by accident into sex work at a brothel in - where else? - Fyshwick.

That particular career was short-lived - just two years in the early 1990s - but it led to a high-profile career as a prominent campaigner for the adult industry, both supporting its existence and ensuring it remained safe.

It's also an industry that she has been associated with ever since, due in no small part to her founding of the Sex Party - she likes to be direct - in 2009. Today, she is best known as a Victorian politician, a social reformer and adult industry lobbyist. And "former sex worker" is another thing she's happy to add to the list.

When someone first suggested to Patten that she write her life story, she was at a pub having a drink, and heartily agreed. It turns out that her drinking buddy worked at a major publishing house, and within weeks, Patten - had a contract.

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Actually finding the time to sit down and write the thing was another matter. As the leader of a political party - formerly the Sex Party, now the Reason Party - long stretches of quiet contemplation and nostalgia have rarely been on the cards in recent times.

“The book has been a long time in the making. It's probably a year over deadline,” she says, over the phone from Melbourne, where she sits on the Victorian Legislative Council.

Fiona Patten

Fiona PattenCredit:Eddie Jim

“It has been a busy time, and an interesting time to try and do this project on top of learning how to be an effective politician.”

As it happened, she wrote the book in bits and pieces, almost via stream of consciousness, whenever she had the time, and rarely contemplating the end result and who might one day read it.

For many readers, this may explain a lot, especially those who aren’t familiar with Patten’s background. Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll is no ordinary political memoir, and the title is no pithy pun. It really is full of sex and drugs, with almost every page containing a new, titillating anecdote, all told in the same throwaway tone as the more serious passages about the very serious political reforms she has been a part of.

There're anecdotes about driving around the south coast looking for magic mushrooms, having sex in bathrooms in nightclubs, and living in a menage-a-trois, for several years, with her long-time partner Robbie Swan and another man ("I would recommend a dose of polyamory to anyone who is curious about it," she concludes).

But for those who do know her, especially from the old days, the memoir delivers exactly what one would expect: 360 pages of anecdotes packed with Canberra references - a handsome Manuka restauranter, a shop in Garema Place, summers at the south coast.

Fiona Patten and Robbie Swan from EROS Association at home in Canberra in 2007.

Fiona Patten and Robbie Swan from EROS Association at home in Canberra in 2007.Credit:Glen McCurtayne

She was born and spent much of her early life in Canberra, and still considers herself a local, although she spent much of her childhood travelling to wherever her public-servant father was posted.

But no matter where she is, or where she’s headed, she says she’ll always be a Canberra girl.

“I was born at Canberra Hospital, I'm one of that elite group. Lake Burley Griffin was filling as I was born,” she says.

It’s here that she studied industrial design at the University of Canberra (she didn’t quite graduate because she found one of the final exams belittling), and started her own fashion label, Body Politics, in Garema Place. When the shop was battling to stay open, she took a job at Country Road in the Canberra Centre to finance her own business.

I think common sense is radical because it's so rare, particularly in the political sphere.

Fiona Patten

As luck - or fate - would have it, her designs were much coveted by women who worked in the sex industry, an association that led to a job managing Workers in Sex Employment, part of an HIV/AIDS harm reduction program. It was a job that involved spending time in and around Canberra’s several brothels, delivering condoms, lube and sex education material.

It was while doing this that she embarked on her own forway into the industry at the age of 26. At a brothel called Tiffany’s to be precise, where she found herself agreeing to cover for someone who couldn’t service a client, and found that she enjoyed it.

Fiona Patten, as CEO of Eros, campaigning against the sale of unregulated porn in Canberra in 2006.

Fiona Patten, as CEO of Eros, campaigning against the sale of unregulated porn in Canberra in 2006. Credit:Chris Lane

“It's probably one of the more interesting things that I did...probably more unusual in the fact that I'm able to talk about it, where many people who work in the adult industry or who are clients of it will never speak about it to a soul,” she says.

“It was great fun and I learned a lot and it was a great experience and it was another one of those sliding door moments where I could have said no, and I just said yes.”

She spent two years in the industry, which led to a lifelong mission to defend and lobby for the adult industry. This involved not only defending the right for pornography and sex work to exist - and establishing the Eros Foundation in 1992 - but also to eliminate violence and acknowledge the longtime existence of child sexual abuse.

Paradoxically, she credits her own mother and a wholesome Canberra upbringing for giving her the can-do, up-for-anything spirit that has defined her life and wafts from the very pages of her book.

“We were always doing things - sport, part-time jobs, education, craft, whatever - we were always doing something, and I think that that was instilled in us,” she says.

“And probably that gave me an ability to say yes easily, and not to second-guess it, which fortunately has not turned out too bad. But I wonder if it is that that kind of upbringing does teach you to say yes and to sometimes take those risks in a different way.”

The book has been out since last month, and she says she’s been mildly surprised at how fixated people seem to be on all the stuff about sex. She has, after all, done an awful lot of things in her life.

I don't think we talk about sex and drugs enough, and I think that's why we are so frightened and fearful of those two subjects in particular, and very much when it comes to young people.

Fiona Patten

As a politician, she was one of the first to call for a royal commission into child sex abuse in religious institutions, and has pushed through reforms on a supervised drug injecting room, the nation's first laws on voluntary assisted dying and a legal framework around Uber and ride-sharing.

But it’s the sex and drugs - but mainly the sex - that people keep coming back to. She finds it curious; she’s hardly the first politician to be shining her light on her private life. But of course, she’s not apologising for it, or delivering some hypocritical plea for forgiveness. She is celebrating the decisions she’s made along the way.

“I don't think we talk about sex and drugs enough, and I think that's why we are so frightened and fearful of those two subjects in particular, and very much when it comes to young people,” she says.

“And if we talked more about it, we'd find much better solutions on how we can ensure people are safer as they experiment.”

Her story may have many different facets, but it’s comments like this that highlight the thread that has been running through most of her life’s trajectory - common sense, almost as radical and out there as the orgies and the threesomes and the drug-taking and the rash, life-changing decisions.

“I think common sense is radical because it's so rare, particularly in the political sphere,” she says.

“So many decisions are made not because they're sensible, not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's politically expedient, and it's about scoring over the other team.

And that type of competition, that type of combat, doesn't lend itself to common sense. It lends itself to doing rash and thoughtless things.”

Weirdly throughout that time of writing, the concept of someone actually reading it had never actually really entered my mind, so there's possibly some things in there that if I had fully considered that I might not have put in.

Fiona Patten

She hopes that, aside from making people laugh, her book might inspire those who otherwise wouldn’t to stand up for their beliefs, and maybe even enter politics, especially women.

“You can't be what you can't see, and if people can see that people from different backgrounds can go into politics, and can make a difference, and you don't need to be afraid or don't need to think 'that's not for me' - if I encourage more people, and especially more women to take a step into politics, would be a very good thing,” she says.

“We lament the lack of women in politics, and very often we blame the men for that, and very often they are to blame, but we've got have women standing up as well. Women have got to take that step forward. I know a lot of women who say, ‘I'd never do that, why would I put myself into that bear pit, why would I do that?’”

She agrees that it’s hardly a career for the faint-hearted, but it’s helped that she’s never been a member of a major political party. And she believes, in this sense, that she is once again blazing a bit of a trail for those who come after her.

“As politics changes, as it will in Australia, I believe there will be less and less people in the major parties,” she says.

Speaking about the process of writing the book, she often lapses into the first-person plural; by ‘we’, she’s referring to her life partnership with Robbie Swan. A controversial figure himself, he was once also a lobbyist for X-rated videos and co-founder of the satirical magazine Matilda. The couple have an open relationship, but share a property in the Brindabellas an hour out of Canberra.

She says writing the book was largely a collaborative effort, as Swan featured so prominently in so many of her escapades. The result is a wild and nostalgic ride through Canberra in the 80s and 90s, and fringe politics that seem both scandalous and sensible, all at once.

As politics changes, as it will in Australia, I believe there will be less and less people in the major parties.

Fiona Patten

But Patten says even she has had cause for second thoughts as she’s observed people’s reactions to her story.

“Weirdly throughout that time of writing, the concept of someone actually reading it had never actually really entered my mind, so there's possibly some things in there that if I had fully considered that I might not have put in,” she says.

“But maybe it was good thing.”

Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll, by Fiona Patten, is published by Allen & Unwin

Fiona Patten will be talking about her book at Muse on October 21 at 3.00pm. Visit musecanberra.com.au for details.