Australia: Is it OK to bash women if they are selling sex?

CHRIS MIDDENDORP
March 16, 2010

NO DOUBT there are some readers who don’t much care about the welfare of women who engage in street sex work in our cities. Street prostitution is a reality that middle Australia prefers to ignore, or just to condemn outright. And that’s where the trouble begins.

If the subject is raised at all, the debate tends to focus on how this highly visible form of prostitution lowers the tone of a neighbourhood (subtext: how it threatens the inexorable rise of property values).

Such is our disregard of the issue that in Melbourne, while the media has been strident and hysterical about rising levels of street violence, the continuing issue of violence towards street sex workers has been all but ignored. Yet violence – sexual and physical assault, verbal abuse and harassment – is a ceaseless, daily part of the lives of the women who work our streets. I suspect that many mean-spirited moralists out there actually believe that ”working girls” deserve no better.

The foundation point of this predicament is a widely held opinion that prostitutes are somehow less than human. In the community, such a view translates directly into action or, more accurately, into inaction. It’s convenient to overlook the human rights of people we don’t care to understand.

The Scarlet Alliance, a Sydney-based national peak body representing the rights of sex workers, prepared a detailed submission to last year’s National Human Rights Consultation. The alliance identified and explored many levels of discrimination and concluded that current Australian legislation “routinely violates sex workers’ basic human, civil and industrial rights”.

In St Kilda, where most of Melbourne’s street sex work takes place, scarcely a day goes by without a worker being robbed or seriously assaulted. Those of us employed in the community and welfare sectors witness at first hand how dangerous the life of a street sex worker is. The rapes, the bashings, the stabbings, the abductions, the endless violations are unimaginable. If any other occupation were subjected to this much brutality, an outraged public would demand action.

In Melbourne, the problem of men who harass, assault or abuse workers is so substantial that the specialist sex industry service RhED (Resourcing health and Education) publishes regular ”Ugly Mugs” reports alerting sex workers to some of the more dangerous individuals they may encounter. Some of these reports make for hair-raising reading.

Street sex work is unlike other forms of prostitution. It is thought to represent just 2 per cent of all sex work in the country, even if it is the most visible manifestation.

The women involved tend to be disadvantaged, are more likely to have a mental illness, drug and alcohol problems, and to be homeless. It would be difficult to envisage a more vulnerable group of people earning money in a more hazardous environment.

There’s a myth that street prostitution can be eliminated through assiduous policing. But nowhere on the planet has legislation been able to stamp out the street sex industry or prevent certain individuals from wanting to buy sexual services. The crucial factor is how we manage the inevitable. Having a police blitz on one hot spot simply pushes the problem into a new area.

While street sex workers often come from impoverished backgrounds, many of their customers are well-off men from the suburbs. The evidence can be seen on St Kilda’s Grey Street, where a procession of new Holdens, BMWs, Mercedes, tradies’ vans and utes, and taxis crawl the kerb to pick up women. Other cities are no different.

It’s hard to avoid the paradoxical conclusion that although prostitution often scandalises middle Australia, it is middle Australia that helps keep street sex work viable.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that it’s often the customers who abuse the women they pay for sex. Dysfunctional men who relish an opportunity to inflict pain and suffering on vulnerable women are clearly not in short supply.

Accurate assault statistics cannot be obtained since many women will not approach police. It’s easy to see why, given that street sex work is illegal and police are not a sex worker’s natural ally. One young woman I spoke to told me she had been bashed four times in the past 18 months. Most recently she was abducted and taken to a vacant lot where her ”customer” hit her so hard, he broke her collarbone. ”It’s just what happens to us,” she observed with calm resignation.

Our society rightly maintains that violence towards women is unacceptable; therefore it must be unacceptable in any situation. The unspeakable violence against street sex workers must be confronted. The first step towards prevention is for the community to recognise the problem.

We often prefer our victims to be blameless and our poor to be deserving. Many of us are happy to dispense compassion or charity as long as the receiver is living an approved lifestyle. That’s got to change.

If we are willing to allow sex workers to be exposed to horrendous violence while we pontificate about the morality of prostitution, then not only are we complicit, we are morally vacuous.

Chris Middendorp is a community worker and writer.

See original at The Age

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