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International Whores Day 2010

Hi, my name is Nicolette. I am a sex worker who injects drugs and I have worked in a variety of sex industry settings in a number of countries over the past 14 years.

Personally it is with a great sense of privilege that I have the opportunity to speak here today. By rallying here together to mark International Whores Day, we are honouring and acknowledging the sex workers of Lyon, France, who on June 2 1975, were the first sex workers to undertake direct action and civil disobedience to highlight the state sanctioned police harassment and violence perpetrated against the Lyon sex worker community, and the disgraceful refusal of the government to engage in dialogue with French sex workers. The actions of Lyon’s visionary and revolutionary sex workers is credited as being the birth of the international sex worker rights movement, which now encompasses the globe and is made up of hundreds of thousands of sex worker activists.

In speaking here today I want to acknowledge the indigenous inhabitants and rightful owners of the land we are standing on. I also want to acknowledge that colonial Australia (like every other country on the globe), has a rich history of sex work. However, like much which has been omitted from popular perceptions of Australia’s colonial history, the fact that many of the women stepping off the early settler fleets were sex workers, is rarely recognized or mentioned. Yet in lieu of the colonialist myths which permeate Australian populist history, it was almost on this exact spot that Australia’s first colonial sex workers stepped ashore.

Across the world this week, International Whores Day is being marked by sex workers undertaking different actions. Some of us are protesting, some of us are holding forums, some of us are holding parties; yet however we mark the occasion we are united in demanding an end to the discrimination, harassment and criminalization we are subject to from a plethora of actors, including policy makers, religious leaders, the broader community and the various tentacles of state.

International Whores Day commemorates the 150 street based sex workers who occupied for 1 week Lyon’s historic St Nizier Church (a towering gothic structure which is aptly dedicated to various historical saints, martyred for their beliefs) until being violently evicted by riot police. When news of the June 2 1975 Lyon sex worker’s occupation of the St Nizier Church was broadcast across France, sex workers in other provinces were inspired to undertake similar actions. Parisian sex workers sent a solidarity delegation to Lyon to support the Lyon sex workers occupation, sex workers in several other French provinces undertook similar church occupations, and a spontaneous ‘sex worker strike’ was organized across a number of French provinces.

Thus, it is in the memory of the Lyon sex workers who first dared to challenge the state’s policies and treatment of sex workers, that through celebrating and acknowledging the tradition of International Whores Day we continue the fight for recognition that sex work is work, and that sex workers demand the same level of respect and safe, equitable and just working conditions as workers in other industries have access to.

As sex workers, the discrimination we face takes many forms:

From discrimination which stems from a moral abhorrence of sex work, and arouses from our detractors, deliberate disinterest, embarrassment, shame, horror and pity.

To state policies and legislation which fails to recognize sex work as a legitimate occupation and sex workers as legitimate workers, yet demands we pay tax on our imagined six figure incomes, without affording us any of the same rights, such as sick pay, workers compensation, superannuation etc, which workers in other industries access as a minimum workers rights standard.

Institutionalized state policies criminalize the way we work, where we work, and how we choose to work. Despite sex work being decriminalized, legalized and tolerated in every State and Territory of Australia, we are routinely arrested, harassed and assaulted by police for choosing to work on the street; our work places are raided by police, immigration, and other state employed officials; our international sex worker friends are refused visas to work in Australia if they are merely suspected of being a sex worker; we are vilified as being unsuitable parents by government departments such as DOCS; and in some parts of Australia, we are forced to register with the police in order to legitimately work as a sex worker. This policy is justified as being necessary for the "protection of the client".

Broader society’s discriminatory attitudes toward sex workers is equally as blatant, yet more insidious in that whore phobic attitudes permeate popular culture and are seldom challenged by anyone other than sex workers. I could give infinite examples of the whore-phobic attitudes which infect our culture; however I will only raise one ‘everyday’ example of an anti-sex work attitude which particularly inspired ire and rage in me. Recently I read a murder mystery novel by a popular mainstream author which contained a supposedly hilarious anecdote in the first pages of the novel. The author had tributed the novel to her dearly beloved, wonderfully supportive sister. The tribute to the author’s sister contained details of a conversation between the sisters prior to the author embarking on writing the novel. The non- author sister had given her author sister permission to use her real life name as one of the characters in the novel on the proviso that her name wasn’t used as a character who was ‘a serial killer or whore’.

This may seem like a minor issue; however it is indicative of the way sex workers are viewed by broader society. Sex workers are not only objects of ridicule, we are seemingly equally as reviled as serial killers. Despite popular culture’s seemingly endless fascination with sex work, if we examine society’s dominant attitudes towards us, we are portrayed in extremely limited roles. Sex workers are portrayed as victims needing to be rescued; bad or immoral people (particularly women sex workers who dare to challenge the dominant gender roles we are expected to conform to); emotionally unstable; man hating; gold digging and money hungry; oppressed to the point of passivity in that we allow the clichéd, stereotype client (always imagined as a fat, sleazy, hairy man) do degrading things to our supine bodies; or the opposite extreme stereotype, the sex worker as a cock hungry nymphomaniac.

These perceptions of sex workers, along with other common, equally offensive stereotypes, indicate a blatant misunderstanding of sex work and sex workers.

That we are seldom admitted to influential forums in which we could challenge these stereotypes does little to change broader society’s understanding and perceptions of us. However in being here today, sex workers are illustrating that we are actively working to challenge the misconceptions and lies about us which permeate all level of society. Sex workers can and will continue to do what we can to end the discrimination we face: we will continue to sensitize and educate the media and broader public about the language we want you to use to describe us; we will continue to demand the ousting of laws which negatively impact upon our ability to work in the manner we choose; we will continue to meet with leaders from the community/ police/ religious institutions/ government departments/ political stage etc. We will continue our activist and advocacy efforts unabated to demand that our voices are heard and listened to, and that we are treated with the respect and dignity we deserve and that we are afforded full and equitable legal and work rights.

But it is not just up to us as sex workers to challenge society’s attitudes, laws and perceptions of us.. Ultimately it is up to you- non sex workers- to begin to listen to us, and to examine and challenge your own attitudes towards us..

In finishing, it seems apt to quote one of the Lyon sex workers who occupied St Nizier Church and inspired International Whores Day. “You are all talking about us- we want to change the way you talk about us”.

Thank you..


See photos and stories from the past International Whores Day pride walks at the Opera House in Sydney