Maybe next time there could be an exhibition for survivors like me?
Last month a new exhibition – X-Rated; the sex industry in the ACT – opened at the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG).
The exhibition is funded by the ACT Government and the Interchange General Practice.
It is of particular interest to me as I spent some years exploited as a prostitute in Canberra in the 1990’s. I wanted to see how an industry that I have firsthand knowledge and experience of would be depicted within an art gallery.
I wondered if it would it be an honest and realistic insight into what actually happens.
I left the exhibition after 20 minutes, feeling sick and numb.
I went home and cried.
I cried because of the ignorance of those putting this exhibition together.
I cried because the exhibition was one sided – it clearly had an agenda to glamorise the sex industry.
I cried because there was no story of a survivor of the sex industry.
And I cried because some of the images caused disturbing memories to come flooding back – memories that I have spent 20 years healing from. In 20 minutes I went back to that horrible time in my life.
Anyone who has experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will understand my experience that day.
The exhibition includes photos of several brothels from across Canberra. I had done time in just about all the brothels on show.
Working in a brothel is not like any other job. It’s unbelievably stressful . You don’t generally have any other options for earning money, so poverty is a main driver. It’s hard on your body, hard on your mind and hard on your overall wellbeing.
You tend to not be able to stay more than a few months in one place.
I was 17 when I first started work in a Canberra brothel. The owner knew I was underage and was fine with it. He knew the younger I looked, the more desirable I would be to punters and the more money I would make for him. There was no duty of care toward me.
Seeing pictures of these brothels brought back to me the many violations that were done to me. The pressure to do anal sex, the extra money offered to go condom free, the drugs offered in lieu of money, group sex with a football team who treated me like a piece of meat, the call-outs to hotels where I had no idea who I would encounter and the guys who wanted to dominate me –happy to rough me up to get what they want.
There was also a very large photo of a peep show booth – which is the small black room where men sit alone. They insert coins to make a flap open for them to view a live strip show. The man is unseen by the woman – he leers at her while masturbating into a tissue and calling out vulgar instructions.
It is a pretty degrading experience. I know because I experienced it.
The exhibition shows a range of photos showing stills from porn movies. Many show women receiving oral sex from an attentive man, with the woman depicted with her back arched and her head thrown back in pleasure.
This is nothing more than glamorising the sex industry, where the man paying for the service has the power.
A woman is normally the one with a dick shoved in her mouth, while a john holds her head still, ‘encouraging’ her to deep throat.
The reality is that in prostitution your vagina is rubbed raw from all the johns you have serviced; often so painful after a particularly aggressive john that you have to use numbing gel to keep working. And all the while expected to like a porn star as though the overweight public servant on top of you is the greatest fuck you’ve ever had.
I was not surprised that the Interchange General Practice would fund this exhibition as it was always the place to get a script for drugs if you weren’t coping or to get an STD check signed off on the spot. But for the ACT Government to be funding the exhibition – with the people’s taxes – is appalling.
Is our government in the business of keeping vulnerable women supressed and making a buck from their hardship, happy to make money on the registration and taxation of these businesses? Do our elected representatives really have no problem supporting something that so degrading to women?
It seems that it has bought into the ridiculous lie that the selling of time share on you vagina is a really good thing for everyone.
The exhibition blatantly glamorises the sex industry.
There was nothing from survivors, nothing showing the sordid, abusive and damaging elements of this industry, it was just presented as an interesting look at the history of the industry.
In writing this piece, painful though it is, I want to give voice to all the survivors who were ignored and disappeared by this exhibition. Maybe next time there could be an exhibition for survivors like me.
*Name suppressed by request
Sex industry’s cultural celebration of female sexual exploitation in the ACT
Dr Caroline Norma
The Canberra Museum and Gallery obviously called in a range of favours to stage its latest exhibition. The ACT’s most successful pornography distributor, Robbie Swan, gave it access to his private collection of sex industry memorabilia; a local Canberra medical centre formerly undertaking STD checks on women in prostitution supplied corporate sponsorship, and the commonwealth Censorship Board conferred the exhibition with a ratings classification.
The resulting ‘X-rated: The Sex Industry in the ACT’ production pays homage to the business of prostitution and pornography in the Territory: the venues, products and operating environment of the sex industry are showcased in glass-boxed exhibits featuring brothel photos, pornographic video covers, industry magazines and government whitepapers.
The pimps and pornographers whose financial interests drive the sex industry, and the sexual interests of the customers who supply their income stream, are mostly the authors of the perspective that shapes the exhibition.
The industry’s hard-fought battles in throwing off government ‘repression’ and ‘censorship’ are narrated in great detail, as are its trials and tribulations in achieving brothel legalisation in the Territory. There are humorous anecdotes about a sex industry association running a brothel ‘open day’ fundraiser in 1992 for World AIDS Day, and a pornographer applying for a government export development grant.
Declines in the industry’s $34-million-dollar turnover in the 1990s are lamented; the internet, and the fact that police don’t raid illegal pornography sellers, are blamed. Stories about profit-making and industry deregulation are the threads that run through the sex industry’s exhibited history of its operations in the ACT.
Amidst the industry’s alternating self-congratulation and self-pity, exhibition goers are led to forget how pimps and pornographers actually make their money, and what cost Canberra residents continue to pay for their commercial activities. The exhibition mentions these costs only briefly: the rape and sexual enslavement of Thai woman ‘SK’ in a Braddon apartment in 2007, the death of 17-year-old Janine Cameron in a Fyshwick brothel in 2008, and the arson attacks on legal brothels in 2010 and 2012 are cited in a far-off corner of the room.
The fact that ACT Police failed to undertake checks of any sex industry venue in the Territory for a period of five years in the early 2000s, and reports that a Canberra pimp estimated 20 women were being brought into the ACT for prostitution each week in 2014, do not warrant a mention.
Public funding of the Canberra Museum and Gallery appears to have given no pause to the curator in compiling an exhibition that showcases the private business achievements of an industry that wreaks havoc on the lives of the citizens it exploits and the communities it infiltrates. Indeed, from the exhibition’s design, it’s not entirely clear Rowan Henderson brought with her any awareness of the human rights violations that fundamentally underpin the business of prostitution and pornography. Her glass boxes offer evidence of the sex industry’s abuses openly and unselfconsciously, and entirely uncritically. Exhibits are blithely presented as merely part of the industry’s spectacle, as if they couldn’t possibly pose any ethical challenge to visiting patrons.
One exhibit, for example, describes the sexual use of an Aboriginal woman, ‘Regina’, in the production of a pornographic film ‘The passion of the Canberra brickworks’ in the early 1990s. Another presents the first-hand testimony of a woman named Nikki Stern that poverty and pressure from her boyfriend caused her entry into prostitution and subsequent use in pornography. A few other exhibits narrate the fact pornographers from countries like the US and Germany flew into Canberra immediately after the industry was legalised and brought women with them for filming.
Patrons are confronted with no ethical challenges arising from the exhibition’s inclusion of women who have been used in Canberra’s sex industry. There is no mention of how their lives ended up after years of being pimped and made into pornography; in fact, the exhibition features close-range photographs inside brothels showing women’s faces clearly in colour.
For museum curators and others in the creative arts, making a public spectacle out of the sex industry and its activities might be a titillating and curiosity-satisfying endeavour performed in service of the leisure and entertainment needs of middle-class people who have never been homeless, exploited or destitute. They will never be held to account by the sex industry victims they put on show.
Victims don’t have a platform allocated at the Canberra Museum and Gallery from which to speak back to the sex industry’s six-month long, government-funded public assertion of its historical legitimacy in the ACT. Their suffering, humiliation, physical and psychological pain, and lost sense of self are nowhere explained in Henderson’s exhibition, and their murders, suicides and overdoses are almost wholly undescribed.
Museum curators, along with their patronising publics, are never confronted with the human toll the sex industry inflicts on society’s most vulnerable people. Exhibitions like that currently spruiked by the Canberra Museum and Gallery supplant this reality with a predictable stream of comforting propaganda about the sex industry’s flamboyant history, colourful characters and whimsical endeavours.
The sex industry exhibition runs till September this year, and so for a full six months the Canberra Museum and Gallery will be giving cultural endorsement to female sexual exploitation in the Territory. This endorsement will forever stand in the Museum’s own history as an act of betrayal of the ACT’s most vulnerable women and girls. I hope this history is one day narrated in an exhibition where the sex industry’s victims are finally able to respond to elite cultural celebration of their degradation; then we will see many curators, creative producers and artists ducking for cover.
Dr Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.
The ACT Government is holding an inquiry into prostitution in the Territory. Collective Shout has made a submission to the Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety. Here it is:
Collective Shout submission in response to the Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety review of the operation of the Prostitution Act 1992
(1) The form and operation of the Act;
During the 1990s sections of the sex industry were legalised in the Netherlands, Germany, and, in Australia, in the states of Victoria and Queensland. While a model of harm minimisation has been shown to be effective in some fields such as substance dependency, there is sufficient evidence now to demonstrate that a harm minimisation approach is inherently flawed when it comes to regulating the sex industry. This failure has been recognised by both academic studies and reports published by governments.
The inherent nature of sex work runs against the notion of a gender equal society. The idea that human bodies – mostly those of women and children – can be bought, sold, and rented in the flesh trade requires them to be treated as objects, in effect as sexual aids. Many prostituted women report having experienced childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, substance dependency, sexual assault, interrupted education, and/or mental health problems. The harm minimization model – or legalisation of prostitution services – essentially allows for the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable peoples. It is time to recognize that “the world’s oldest profession” is actually “the world’s oldest oppression.”
One of the key goals of the harm minimisation model was to reduce the number of sexually trafficked victims. In fact the reverse has occurred. Former mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, stated in 2007 at a press conference that “the legalization of prostitution did not bring about what many had hoped… we are still faced with distressing situations in which women are being exploited. It is high time for a thorough evaluation of the Prostitution Act… we have seen in the last years that trafficking in women is becoming more, so in this respect the legalizing of prostitution didn’t work out.” Where prostitution has been legalised, crime gangs have proliferated – leading to a significant increase in sexually trafficked victims and illegal brothels.
The failures of legalised prostitution in Victoria have been thoroughly documented by Mary Lucille Sullivan in Making Sex Work: A failed experiment with legalised prostitution (Spinifex Press 2007). All the claims made about how legalisation would solve so many problems connected with prostitution such as drugs, crime and violence against women, failed to materialise. What did materialise was millions of dollars in profits for the state and the Australian sex industry. The social normalisation of prostitution that has occurred through Victoria’s legalisation has benefited the sex industry business people to a great extent. The industry now runs yearly trade shows (‘Sexpo’) in most Australian states, it promotes itself through both outdoor and press advertising, and brothel owners are treated by government as if they were carrying out socially legitimate commerce. Collective Shout questions the social legitimacy of business activities that derive their profit from individual women being used for the sexual gratification of men with money.
The harm minimisation model contravenes international best practice on prostitution. The only sex industry regulatory model that is consistent with international law is the Nordic model. This model has been demonstrated to reduce violence against prostituted women and has been adopted in Sweden, Iceland, South Korea, and Norway. There are three key aspects to this model:
A. Criminalisation of buyers of prostituted people, and people who organise the prostitution of others.
B. Decriminalisation of prostituted people as victims of crime, and the establishment of services and facilities to assist them.
C. Public education as to prostitution as a human rights violation.
We urge the ACT government to re-evaluate its current legislation which legalises parts of the sex industry. The evidence is clear that legalisation and decriminalisation have failed in achieving the key aims they were set out to achieve. The prostitution of women is inherently at odds with a gender equal society. This inquiry presents a great opportunity for the ACT government to become a world leader in regards to best-practice policy on prostitution.
Recommendation 1: that the ACT government adopt the Nordic model of penalising the buyers and decriminalising prostituted women, moving towards a ‘harm elimination’ model.
‘Julie,’ who was prostituted into Canberra’s sex industry as an underage teen, spoke to ABC 7.30 ACT.
In the interview Julie says:
“When you’re involved in an industry when there’s lots of crime, lots of corruption, it’s about money, people don’t let you walk away from that.
“There’s peer pressure, pressure from owners, pressure from receptionists: ‘So and so’s coming in, they’ve requested you, can you just do one job?’
“When you’re 17 and earning a couple of thousand a day, it’s addictive, and that’s why people need genuine help to get out of the industry.
“You can’t have sex with 10 to 15 different men every day without it impacting you and how you value yourself, and how you value sex, and how you build intimacy with another human being. It was very difficult to go on and have a normal intimate relationship with one person.
“Being 17 having worked as a prostitute you don’t have many skills you can use in the workforce or can put on a CV. It took me about 12 months to then find a job and start to function.”
Canberra needs to follow the Swedish model and provide exit programs for prostituted women.
Caroline Norma, a valued contributor to the MTR blog, wrote this piece in response to an article in The Canberra Times March 6 (‘Sex trade eyes the suburbs’) about sex industry pressure for less regulation and more brothels to expand Canberra’s sex trade. The Canberra Times didn’t seem to think it worth publishing. Fortunately ABC Drum Unleashed did - I reprint here with permission. Caroline is a lecturer in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University in Melbourne and a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. She will also have a chapter in the forthcoming Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry (Spinifex Press), which I’m co-editing with Dr Abigail Bray.
Review into prostitution must benefit women not business
The ACT government is currently reviewing its 1992 Prostitution Act, and has called for public submissions. Not surprisingly, the sex industry has been quick to submit its wishlist on prostitution, and Phillip Thomson’s article in The Canberra Times nicely summarises the demands the industry is currently making of the ACT government. These include:
Normalise prostitution as a legitimate business activity by removing zoning restrictions on brothels that are currently relegated to industrialised areas
Open up more opportunities for organised escort prostitution networks by lifting the one-person ‘sole-operator’ restriction for prostitution businesses operating outside of industrial areas
Remove official registration requirements for one-person ‘sole-operator’ prostitution businesses
Through lobby organisations like the EROS Foundation and ACT SWOP in Canberra, the sex industry pursues its demands under the rhetoric of ‘safety for sex workers’. This rhetoric runs along the following lines:
Women risk danger if they must commute to brothels in industrial areas, because these areas are ‘dark’ and unpopulated at night
Women risk danger if they must operate prostitution businesses as one-person ‘sole-operators’ from home, because they can’t employ drivers to act as security guards
Women risk exposure and social discrimination if they must register with government as ‘sex workers’
While the sex industry pursues its business aims under the rhetorical guise of ‘safety for sex workers’, its profits are derived from the sexual degradation and exploitation of society’s most vulnerable people. Research shows overwhelmingly that people in prostitution suffer rates of post-traumatic stress disorder equal to that of war veterans. So, it’s unlikely the industry gives a damn about the personal security, integrity and individual growth of the women it sells as live sex dolls. Notably, the industry is not lobbying the ACT government to set up ‘exit’ programs to assist women to leave prostitution if they wish. The industry’s real agenda is obscured by its ‘safety for sex workers’ rhetoric, but understanding this agenda is important if any changes are going to be considered for the ACT’s Prostitution Act.
The business logic behind the sex industry’s first aim—to remove planning restrictions on brothels—is fairly obvious; the more prostitution is integrated into mainstream Australian society, the greater profits the industry will earn through customers who are no longer inhibited by the social condemnation of their peers. But the reasoning behind aims 2 and 3 might be less clear to the general observer.
To understand these two aims, one has to be aware that a big growth market for the Australian sex industry is escort prostitution. Escort or ‘outcall’ prostitution currently contributes over half of the industry’s earnings. This model of prostitution is profitable because it runs with few overheads, falls under the radar of most government regulation, and operates flexibly over large geographical areas and in response to movements in male populations (e.g., toward mining areas).
If the ban on one-person ‘sole-operators’ operating in conjunction with another party is lifted, Canberra’s sex industry will be able to tap into a large population of poor and vulnerable women (often living with small children) who are currently bought for prostitution through rented suburban flats. The head of the Adult Entertainment Industry in Victoria was quoted recently as saying that as many as 7000 ‘sole operators’ in that state are currently being organised into networks by criminal groups who, he speculates, might be drug dealers. They could be involved in abuse of the migration program, including the trafficking of women. They might be engaging in inducing under-age persons into the sex industry.
Canberra’s sex industry is lobbying to have restrictions on sole-operators lifted so that ‘legal’ prostitution businessmen, too, can start to profit from these women. Large-scale escort prostitution businesses aim to recruit these women into their networks by offering them ‘drivers’ (for the sake of their safety!) and free mobile phones. This will allow escort business operators to expand the number of women they have on their books, cater to a geographically expanded male population, and recoup overheads and licensing costs incurred in running legal and ‘legitimate’ brothel businesses. Lobbying for the lifting of restrictions on ‘sole operators’ is therefore an important task of the industry, and one tied to its future profitability.
The industry that seeks to profit from prostitution is a business that has devastating consequences for women used within it, as well as Australian society at large. It is an industry that preys on young women who have been made socially vulnerable through childhood sexual abuse, poverty, mental illness, drugs, and homelessness. It is an industry also renowned for prostituting underage girls. Janine Cameron was found dead in a Canberra brothel (‘Death of innocence’, 1 November 2008). She was 17. Women are trafficked from overseas to meet the demands of the domestic sex industry. The lives of so many women and girls are destroyed by this industry. Violence and abuse is just part of the job. And Fiona Patten, representing a voracious industry, only wants to expand it into Canberra’s suburban backyards.
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australian (CATWA) argues the sex industry needs to be properly understood as imposing on Australian society an unacceptably high level of harm. Like the approach taken toward the tobacco industry, we believe state and territory governments should begin to introduce legislative measures that have as their ultimate goal the industry’s demise. CATWA supports the “Swedish Model” of sex industry legislation which sees all forms of prostitution as violence against women. The purchaser of sex is penalised, and women are offered éxit’ programs to help get them out of the industry and find non-harmful ways of supporting themselves and their children.
We find it disturbing that the ACT’s sex industry is using the current Prostitution Act review to call for more brothels in the territory when there is not one exit program in place for prostituted women in Canberra. As the ACT government accepts submissions on its Prostitution Act, it should be aware that a profitable and highly sophisticated sex industry with its own lobby organisations is making demands that are wholly aimed at expanding the industry’s profits. If the government listens to these demands it abrogates its responsibility to its most vulnerable female constituents, and permits the sex industry even greater reign to damage the wellbeing and social status of women in Australia’s capital.
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