ANZ lit blog interview with Caroline Norma and MTR
I was a bit taken aback by the publicity email about this book; and it seems I am not alone. The authors and publisher are not finding it easy to get media and public recognition of the significance of the book.
Legislative reforms intended to decriminalise ‘victimless crimes’ and movies like Pretty Woman have changed the narrative around ‘the oldest profession.’ But what if it’s not just another kind of work? What if it involves horrific damage to women? I interviewed the editors to find out more about their purposes in bringing these stories to publication:
Tell us a bit about yourselves:
Caroline Norma PhD is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, and a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA). She is also the author of The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars (Bloomsbury Academic, London and New York, 2016).
Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is the co-founder of Collective Shout: For a world free of sexploitation. Melinda’s books include Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (2009) and Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry (2011 with Abigail Bray).
How did you come to be interested in this issue?
Both of us have been involved in feminist anti-violence against women, campaigning for two decades or more. We see prostitution as a form of violence against women, and so our campaigning forms a part of broader efforts. MTR is a founder of Collective Shout, and this organisation campaigns in particular against sexploitation, so anti-prostitution campaigning fits well into that agenda. CN does research and activism on prostitution, and has done for 20 years since completing an internship with a women’s organisation in the Philippines at age 19.
How long did it take to write the book? Was that what you expected when you set out to do it?
The book was put together over a year, which was quicker than expected because survivors submitted their pieces quickly and to a high quality, which we also didn’t necessarily expect. In many cases, survivors come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, and the task of writing about their experiences in prostitution is extremely difficult and re-traumatising. But, to their credit, all of the contributors were extremely easy to work with, and that’s why the book came out very quickly.
How did you negotiate processes for research? (I’m thinking here of trust and confidentiality in interviews about intimate issues; perhaps about defensiveness).
Yes, we gave this a lot of thought before commencing the project. We offered contributors the option to have their pieces written from oral interviews or ghost-written, but no-one took up this option. Around half did, however, take the option of using pseudonyms. We had a number of survivors tell us how difficult it was for them to write their pieces, and one contributor said she had to dissociate in order to write it. We suspect this might have been the case for others too. We’ve put efforts into organising launch and conference events where survivors can come along (they don’t have to declare themselves contributors) and perhaps meet other survivors, or at least see that their book is having an impact, and being received sympathetically. We’ve found that political organising in favour of survivors goes a long way to assisting them in overcoming the hardship of PTSD and dissociation. Around one third of contributors were already active politically in the struggle against prostitution, so their involvement was perhaps less traumatic.
What hurdles did you face?
Actually, the compilation of the book was relatively problem free. Instead we are facing hurdles in terms of media and public recognition of the significance of the book, given its unprecedented collation of the experiences of women who have been prostituted and have criticisms of the sex industry, and especially because many of these women are Australian. The political situation in Australia mostly sees prostitution as ‘work’, and therefore a book about prostitution as a form of violence against women is difficult for the public to understand. For many years the public has been led to believe that women in the sex industry enjoy their situation.
Was it difficult to find a publisher?
No, in fact, the publisher (Spinifex Press) was fully involved in the initial idea of the book and its organisation from start to finish. Spinifex has a long history of facilitating projects like this one.
Who do you expect your audience to be?
We’re hoping the book will be passed onto politicians and policymakers so it has the effect of changing laws in Australia toward the Nordic Model (i.e., a model of legislation that criminalises the customers of the sex industry), but in the meantime we expect that survivors of prostitution will be a readership, plus feminists and others concerned with violence-against-women issues. We hope women’s sector organisations, like Domestic Violence services, might read the book and understand the role of prostitution in relation to other forms of violence against women.
What do you hope (realistically) your book will achieve? What do you say to people who say that it’s impossible to stamp out “the oldest profession” and that it’s better to legalise it than to move the industry underground?
The book has two outcomes in terms of real-world action. Firstly, it forms a basis for survivors to meet each other and join in political organisation against prostitution. Survivor groups are beginning to form in Australia, and the book plays a part in that. Secondly, the book can be used by activists, women’s organisations and political lobbyists to show politicians and policymakers that all is not fine in the Australian sex industry, and prostitution is not necessarily experienced as a form of work by women in the industry. We don’t expect the book to change Australian legislation straight away, but we do think it’s a step in the history of abolitionism in Australia that will eventually bring about policy change. To those who say criminalising the industry and its customers will push prostitution ‘underground’, we say that the hand of women in the sex industry is strengthened when these people are at risk of criminal penalty. When prostituted women are free of any legal sanction, but their pimps and customers are not, this puts them in a better position in terms of police assistance, and coming forward to receive public service help if they wish. While prostitution is viewed as work, these kinds of public services aren’t established, because there is seen as no need for them.
What about your own personal journey? What impact did it have on you personally to listen to these stories?
Reading and hearing the stories is a privilege, we feel grateful the contributors trusted us with their words. Everyone was very open and honest about their experiences, it was a very unique experience to be able to read them. Of course the details of prostitution are horrific, but we feel it’s important to hear about these details to break away from the ‘happy hooker’ stereotype of prostitution.
This is a courageous book. It exposes the suffering, degradation and physical torture of women in a way that most of us don’t want to think about. It could be a game-changer.
Editors: Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist
Title: Prostitution Narratives, Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2016
‘These pages are chiselled from the pain of your lives.’ MTR speech at Prostitution Narratives book launch. MTR