Bringing invisible women out from the shadows
On Saturday August 27 I’ll be part of a panel titled ‘Invisible Women’ at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I’ll be talking about the book I co-edited with Caroline Norma, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of survival in the sex trade (Spinifex Press, 2016). With me will be Melbourne academic and author Meagan Tyler as moderator, and Ruth Wykes, co author with Kylie Fox, of Invisible Women: Powerful and disturbing stories of murdered sex workers (Echo Publishing, 2016). The book is described on the back cover:
When news of a murdered woman hits the headlines in Australia, people sit up and take notice. Unless that woman happens to be a sex worker. Invisible Women tells the stories of 65 murdered sex workers – all of whom are somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister – whose identities have been erased. Why do we see some lives as less valuable than others, and what price do we all pay for this disgraceful lack of care? These amazing stories of incredible women are both deeply moving and shocking in their insight and clarity. And definitely way overdue.
I read Invisible Women on a flight to New Zealand a couple of weeks ago. (One advantage of spending a lot of time in the air is uninterrupted reading time). It was a grueling read. What first hit me was the table of contents – so many names of women whose lives – and their end – are acknowledged and recorded in this book. And an even longer list of names in the Index of Victims: Missing and Murdered Since 1970.
Invisible Women is a forensic work, giving names to the dead, situating them as women who had families, children, personalities, who laughed and struggled. The works lifts them out of and above the dismissing common responses that they were ‘just prostitutes who deserved what came to them’ (One Queensland journalist described dead women in his state as the ‘bottom feeders’ of the sex industry).
The authors unpack vulnerabilities, backgrounds of poverty, family breakdown, addiction, marginalization, sexual abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and mental health issues which contributed to the women ending up in the sex industry. The drivers that “keep street-based sex workers enslaved to a lifestyle they don’t want, but can’t find a way out of.”
This is a road for women who may have fallen through the cracks of our society, Women who, as children, found themselves in the confusing world of foster care; a world where, far too often, paedophiles are circling, ready to groom, persuade and abuse those least equipped to tell, or to fight back. Women who don’t remember the first time they were sexually assaulted. They were too young. And it happened so often, accompanies by words of love – or threats of punishment and pain. Those women know sex means nothing now; it’s a tool, a weapon, a way to get what they need to survive. Other women … made excuses the first time their partner hit them, when he controlled their money, when he isolated them from their friends, from their family. Women who, as children, lost a parent, a sibling, a friend and who stayed too quiet, bottling up their sadness until one day they were introduced to a drug that – for the first time in their young lives – took their pain away…Women with no money, no networks of family or friends, very poor job prospects…Sometimes it is about mental illness and the scarcity of support…It is these women: the homeless, mentally ill, abused, assaulted, drug-dependent members of society who are most at risk of having to become street-based sex workers. They are the women society has discarded, de-funded, disowned. It beggars belief that when they are injured or killed, people proclaim that it is their own fault, that they put themselves at risk.
Wykes and Fox point out that the average age of starting out as a street-based sex worker is 13. They cite studies showing that “80 percent of street-based sex workers have experienced some form of violence in the last six months of working…Sometimes the violence leaves a woman so badly injured she is unable to work for days or weeks. Women are abducted for days at a time and held as sex slaves before being released.” And of course crimes against women in prostitution are rarely reported. They are accessible, easy prey, that they have gone missing may not even be noticed. The authors note the case of ‘Jenny’ and ‘Susan, whose badly decomposing bodies were found in a bedroom in a Sydney apartment in 2008. Nobody seemed to know anything about them or their murders – despite the fact they died a brutal death in an apartment share with 11 others.
I’m with the authors in that we need funding of outreach programs and safe houses “to help deal with the complex, and incredibly difficult task of helping to affect change” in the lives of women in the industry.
(Tickets to our session have told out however you can add it to a ‘wish list’ in case tickets become available through cancellation).