“Why do newspaper articles about the sex industry almost always feature a picture of a woman as if prostitution were a buyerless transaction?”
This question was posed by The Economist’s Simon Hedlin in 2015. Hedlin’s comment points to just how effective attempts by the sex industry to obscure the realities of prostitution have been. In an industry fuelled by male demand, the sex buyers have all but disappeared from the equation.
The pro-sex lobby goes to great lengths to reframe the purchase of female flesh by men not as exploitation and abuse, but as an exercise in women’s choice and autonomy. It doesn’t ask why men purchase economically disadvantaged women and girls for sexual exploitation, or examine why male buyers do what they wish with women’s bodies. Instead, we often see clients painted as respectful and simply seeking female companionship.
Radical feminist activist and writer Samantha Berg points out that, “People quibble over what percentage of prostitutes ‘choose’ it while ignoring that 100 per cent of johns choose prostitution.”
It is primarily men buying mainly women and children. According to Detective Inspector Simon Haggstrom of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit, in the 15 years since buying sex has been criminalised in Sweden, in 1999, police have not detected a single woman paying for sex.
While the media tends to depict lonely and often disabled men as looking for companionship through prostitution, or even just someone to talk to, a major international study – “Comparing Sex Buyers with Men Who Don’t Buy Sex” – debunks these myths and finds that over half of the buyers are already married or in de facto relationships. One exited woman in Canada shared her insights on why men in committed intimate relationships purchase sex. Speaking to Sun News Network, she said:
“I spent 15 years servicing men and allowing them to use me any way they saw fit. I’ve had clients confess that the things they paid me to do were things they would never ask their wives, whom they respected, or their ‘child’s mother’ to do.”
The “Comparing Sex Buyers” study reveals that men who pay to sexually exploit women are aware of the harms they do. It found that, “Two thirds of both the sex buyers and the non-sex buyers observed that a majority of women are lured, tricked, or trafficked into prostitution,” and that, “41% … of the sex buyers used women who they knew were controlled by pimps at the time they used her.” This awareness, however, did not stop them: “The knowledge that women have been exploited, coerced, pimped or trafficked failed to deter sex buyers from buying sex.”
While knowledge of harm done to women in prostitution was not a sufficient deterrent for the men surveyed, they did agree that the most effective deterrent to buying sex would be being placed on a sex offender registry, being exposed in public, or having to pay significant fines and go to jail.
Sex buyers tend to regard the women they buy as less than human, and as solely existing for their sexual use and enjoyment. Men who purchase sex are quite open about their belief that their entitlement to sex should take precedence over the wellbeing of the women they buy. Sex buyers express contempt for the prostituted women they use, both in research studies and on customer review websites, where they detail and rank the “services” of the women they buy. Common themes emerge among these candid reviews.
One theme is that sex buyers regard the women they buy as mere objects for sexual gratification. The online Canadian Invisible Men Project, which collates postings made by sex buyers on prostitution review websites, records buyers as making comments about individual women such as, “She’s a sad waste of good girl flesh,” and, “If you want an attractive receptacle for your semen she will do.”
At the same time that buyers appear to despise the women they buy, they require of these women absolute compliance and submission to sex acts demanded of them. Sex buyers have been recorded in The Guardian newspaper as expressing opinions such as, “I don’t want them to get any pleasure. I am paying for it and it is her job to give me pleasure. If she enjoys it I would feel cheated.” In her 2007 book Making Sex Work, Mary Lucille Sullivan writes that:
“The [sex] buyer’s economic power means he determines how the sexual act will be played out. Buyers believe their purchasing power entitles them to demand any type of sex they want.”
The “Comparing Sex Buyers” study crucially finds that, in the system of prostitution, sex buyers are motivated by the opportunity to control and dominate a woman so that they can perform degrading sex acts against her that female partners would refuse. Farley and colleagues recorded statements from buyers such as, “If my fiancee won’t give me anal, I know someone who will,” and, “You get to treat a ho like a ho … you can find a ho for any type of need – slapping, choking, aggressive sex beyond what your girlfriend will do – you won’t do stuff to your girlfriend that will make her lose her self esteem.”
This sense of entitlement to treat prostituted women worse than girlfriends does not change even when buyers realise the women they are buying are unwilling participants. The Invisible Men Project documents sex buyers as expressing opinions such as: “I wish she had loosened up or pretended to be into it more. She grimaced as I came on her which was a turn off … Would recommend for those interested in ethnic girls, big boobs … just wish she’d lighten up a bit.” And: “She had the gagging expression on her face … again she just lay there and complained about it hurting.”
Perhaps worse still, sex buyers are able to recognise signs of trafficking among the women they use, but this awareness appears to be no impediment to their behaviour. The Australian prostitution review website Punter Planet features a posting by a buyer expressing the sentiment that: “the sex … was the best part as Hana was tight and able to take instuctions [sic] well. Her English is non existant [sic] in April but may be better now. Lucky for me i was able to converse in some Korean with her.”
Psychologist Melissa Farley and her colleagues have conducted years of research into men who buy women for prostitution and their motivations. The factors driving men to become “customers” of the sex industry aren’t too different from those leading them to become rapists. Just like rapists, prostitution buyers are disproportionately pornography users, they resent women’s refusal to do things they want them to do (such as sex acts), and they see their sexual behaviour as not particularly harmful of others.
This self-interested, self-centred approach to others and society manifests itself in the worst behaviours of male sexual entitlement, but it is an entitlement shared by most men, even if each individual man doesn’t buy a woman for prostitution or target a woman for rape.
Pornography users might be understood as coming a step closer to this extreme model of male sexual entitlement, which is concerning if we think about the currently high rates of pornography consumption by men all over the world. The expectation that women will comply with men’s desire to re-enact sex acts they’ve seen in pornography, and some men’s willingness to buy women in prostitution if their girlfriends refuse to submit to pornographic sex acts, shows an escalation in the power of male sexual entitlement which is being fuelled by the global sex industry.
More than any group, prostituted women know about the sexual violence against women and girls that is escalating as a result of the global sex industry.
It is a difficult fact to confront that sex buyers are more concerned with the quality of the “sexual service” they receive than the fact that women they pay to exploit are not there by choice and are gravely harmed by being prostituted. As long as men prioritise their perceived right to the bodies of impoverished women and girls over women’s basic human rights in this way, the prostitution industry will continue to thrive. It is only when men are held accountable for their abuse of women in the sex trade that we will see meaningful progress.
Reprinted with permission.
Caitlin Roper is an activist and campaigns manager for grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout: For a world free of sexploitation. This article is adapted from her chapter in Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist.
Life & Faith: Prostitution Narratives
Simon Smart, Melinda Tankard Reist, Natasha Moore SEPTEMBER 1, 2016
Prostitution is a global industry that generates more than $186 billion worldwide and has more than 13 million “employees”. But these numbers tell you nothing about the people involved in the sex industry – the circumstances that led them to a life of prostitution, the experiences they have in the industry, and the struggle to leave.
A new book changes this. Prostitution Narratives shines a light on the reality of the sex industry through the true stories of women who escaped a life of prostitution.
But it’s done more than raise awareness of the issues and trauma faced by these women. As survivors of the sex industry, the book’s contributors have come to realise that they are part of a global movement of women against prostitution.
“The personal has become political,” Melinda Tankard Reist, one of the editors of the book and a long-time advocate for women and girls, says. “They’ve found strength in turning something devastating into something powerful.”
In this episode of Life & Faith, Melinda talks about how vital it is to hear the voices of women from within the sex industry, to understand that truth and reality of the work they do.
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).
And here’s the Canberra Writers Festival session – MTR on sex trade violence
PODCAST: Survivors speak out in new book about the sex industry
MTR, along with Prostitution Narratives contributors Simone and Charlotte, were interviewed by the inimitable Meghan Murphy at Feminist Current about our new book.
As prostitution and the legislation that surrounds it has become an increasingly heated debate, the voices of women who survived the industry have grown louder and stronger.
This year, a new book containing testimonies written by survivors was published by Spinifex Press. Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, bust myths, reveals the trauma experienced by those who are used and abused by johns, and raises hope, as we hear from women who turned the personal into the political, and are fighting back. This week, I spoke with co-editor, Melinda Tankard Reist, and two survivors who shared their stories in the book, Simone Watson and Charlotte, over Skype. Listen to the podcast:
Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade was edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard-Reist and is now available in Canada, the US, and Mexico from IPG Books.
Simone Watson shared her story in our new book Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the sex trade. Here she challenges the dominant narrative on ‘sex work’ in a powerful piece on Feminist Current.
In the spirit of the popular “sex workers are underrepresented” stance, repeated by liberal media and prostitution advocates, ad nauseum, Daily Life has published yet another article repeating the myth. The author, Kate Iselin, aside from being a self-described “sex worker” and published writer, is also “furious.”
This time, the article targets the Melbourne Writers Festival for not having a “sex worker” on the panel, “Invisible Women” — a panel about prostitution featuring Melinda Tankard Reist, Meagan Tyler, and Ruth Wykes.
Pro-sex trade voices are so ubiquitous that even calling prostituted children “sex workers” has become entrenched in the media and public psyche.
“Sex workers” are so far from being ignored that when writers who expose the dark side of the sex trade appear on a panel to talk about their work and research, a “sex worker voice” is published in Daily Life opposing it.
The pro-sex trade are so far from being ignored that Amnesty International is pressuring their membership of some four million people (and just about every so-called leftist I come in contact with) to support the full decriminalization of the sex trade.
Prostitution survivors constantly hear “Prostitution is just ‘sex work’ — a job like any other? Anyone who says different is just a pearl-clutcher,” from both the media and the public.
What Iselin really means is not that “sex workers” are being ignored, but that her particular voice and the voices of those who unequivocally support the full decriminalization of prostitution are not on this particular panel.
But why must every discussion of prostitution include the voices of those who support the trade? Would a panel of socialists arguing against capitalism be expected to include a billionaire to represent pro-corporation voices? Would a panel of environmentalists arguing against fracking need to invite an oil worker on stage to discuss the fact that they personally support the industry?
Scarlet Alliance, a pro-decriminalization lobby group, were, in fact, offered an entire session at the Melbourne Writers Festival but they declined. I guess unless there is an opportunity to attempt to discredit feminist authors, “sex worker voices” aren’t really worth their time. By comparison, as a prostitution survivor featured in the book, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, the festival declined to have me on the “Invisible Women” panel and I wanted to be there.
Arguing this is not the first time a festival has ignored “sex workers,” Iselin points to the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, which didn’t have a self-identified “sex worker” on its panel, “Women for Sale.” In order to remedy this, pro-prostitution journalist Elizabeth Pisani invited a “sex worker” to take her place on stage during the panel. This orchestrated stunt provided the audience with the voice of Scarlet Alliance’s then-“Migrant Project Manager,” Jules Kim. (According to Scarlet Alliance’s website, “The Migration Project” is focused on “migrant sex workers” –also known as trafficked women…) Kim is now the CEO of the organization, replacing Janelle Fawkes who, like Kim, calls herself a “sex worker,” despite the fact there is no evidence that either, in fact, sell sex. (I don’t doubt that some members of the government-funded group, Scarlet Alliance, sell sex, or used to, but the media and the public need to be wise to the fact that many members do not and never have, despite the fact that the organization claims to be “run by sex workers, for sex workers.”) In other words, the push for “sex worker voices” is not about accurately representing marginalized voices — it’s about political maneuvering and creating a scene wherein the audience is made to accept arguments made in favour of decriminalization, unchallenged, because a so-called “sex worker” says so.
Iselin is not “furious” about there not being a “sex worker” on the “Invisible Women” panel, she is merely furious that feminists, Tankard Reist and Tyler are, and will be speaking to the harms of prostitution, rather than working to neutralize and normalize it.
Iselin is clever enough to pay some politically correct lip-service to the survivor testimonies in Prostitution Narratives, going so far as to say she thinks our stories should be “believed, trusted and amplified.” But I wonder if Iselin would have a go at the festival because they declined to include me on the panel?
You see it is, in fact, the voices of prostituted and formerly prostituted women who are speaking out against Iselin and Scarlet Alliance’s agenda to expand the sex-trade that are actually “excluded, stigmatized, and marginalized.” Voices like Iselin’s and the Scarlet Alliance are not. In the U.S., for example, a lengthy article published in New York Times Magazine purported to ask the question, “Should prostitution be a crime,” but featured almost solely self-described “sex workers” from the organization, Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), yet another pro-decriminalization lobby group.
Iselin is “furious” that our survivor voices were included in a book and that a feminist publisher and two editors were brave enough to publish our testimonies. And believe me, in this pro-sex trade climate it is incredibly brave — those who don’t support the rights of men to buy women to use as their personal sex toys are repeatedly vilified and discredited by pro-sex trade voices who want to push their agenda at any cost.
Iselin’s piece is manipulative and disingenuous. She says she doesn’t doubt the veracity of our testimonies, but dismisses us, taking aim instead at the women who actually did listen to survivors and amplify our voices, claiming they are just headline grabbers. By reducing Tankard Reist and Tyler’s exhaustive research, intelligence, and courage to “tragedy porn” or some evil “anti-sex worker” agenda, she erases the realities and voices of survivors as well.
The actual stories of prostituted women are not “tragedy porn.” It is truly callous to claim to support a group of people who have suffered torture, abuse, and degradation, then imply we are just a few who happened to have been dealt a rough hand and don’t represent the majority, when, in fact, we do. Research shows that prostituted women suffer from PTSD at the same rates as combat veterans, and most have suffered ongoing sexual, verbal, physical, and psychological abuse.
Iselin may have paid survivor testimonies lip service, but because she goes on to paint us as sad but nonetheless unreliable dimwits who simply fell under the spell of dodgy anti-sex worker advocates, her efforts at displaying empathy fail.
The message Iselin sends is that voices of survivors and advocates who oppose the system of prostitution shouldn’t be “believed, trusted and amplified” after all. In fact, unless we highlight and include pro-industry voices, we are, apparently, unreliable narrators and our work is illegitimate. While certainly everyone has a right to an opinion, it doesn’t mean that all opinions must be heard at all times. The promotion of prostitution gets more than enough air time throughout the world, through media, pop culture, and in leftist and liberal discourse. The idea that Iselin’s perspective is “ignored” is nothing more than a tactical lie. Like so many liberal media outlets, Daily Life fell for this too. Quelle surprise.
Simone Watson is an Indigenous woman living in Western Australia, and the Director of NorMAC (Nordic Model in Australia Coalition). She is a prostitution survivor and a contributor to the book Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist. (Reprinted with permission).
It’s in the Ignorance: Paying for Sex
…The prostitute is dependent, for her trade, on this very performance. Even if the punter actually knows that she is unlikely to be enjoying it, he nonetheless wishes her to perform the enjoyment all the same. Both, one imagines, because he is capable of a superficial postponing of reality in order to get his sexual fix, but also because the idea that she would perform for him out of need, gives him a feeling of self importance that he would not experience in mutual interaction.
The punters who are made the most out of by women who say they love the Game, however, are those who want her to pretend she is enjoying it, and want to pretend that to themselves too. Make no mistake, if they want to buy sex, they will, no question. However it suits some punter’s fragile and dissonant selves to recalibrate the interaction in their mind as intimacy. He will look out for superficial signals that the women he is renting will have the capacity to fancy and desire him, or at the very least, offer an all encompassing nurturing of his needs. Of course, anyone with half a shred of wisdom would understand that it is not possible to know what a prostitute really feels about him whilst he fucks her, as it is her job to keep this from him. To protect him from any uncomfortable truths lurking behind the red curtains…Full piece here
Manufacturing Consent: The Sex Industry Nobbles Australia’s Future Policy Makers
Caroline Norma lectures in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.
The Australian National University is the country’s only institution listed in the top twenty-ranked universities internationally, according to the QS World University Rankings. Its new vice chancellor is a Nobel laureate who publicly promotes the ANU as an “elite” Australian tertiary institution akin to Harvard.
ANU graduates, even more than graduates of Australia’s other G8 universities, have the world at their feet. Australia’s diplomatic and public services draw on them disproportionately, and Australia’s political and journalistic class is filled with their numbers.
While, even among the ANU cohort, there are students facing poverty and discrimination, it’s safe to say ANU students are likely victims of these hardships at lesser rates than other young people in Australia.
Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade (Spinifex Press) has been launched at packed-out events in Melbourne, Gold Coast and Toowoomba. Next up: Adelaide July 31. My co-editor Caroline Norma and I will address the event along with four sex industry survivors. We hope Adelaide friends can join us for this special event – especially to support the brave women who are speaking out about the realities of life in the industry they’ve now left.
Francine Sporenda, an independent journalist based in France, recently interviewed me about Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survivor in the Sex Trade, for her website Revolution Feministe. The interview is in French and appears here. (a little taster above). If you are like me, you didn’t give high school French the attention it deserved and as a result can’t read it. So here’s the English version.
Interview of MELINDA TANKARD REIST
By Francine Sporenda
Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. 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, co-edited with Abigail Bray).
F: Why did you decide to publish these testimonials of survivors of prostitution?
M: We felt the time had come – indeed that it was overdue – to hear the voices of women who had once been in the sex industry and were not glowing in their praise of it. We wanted to provide a space where survivors could bear witness by sharing the reality of commercial sexual exploitation and render visible the harm done to them.
In any discussion of the prostitution industry it is mostly those with vested interests in ‘business as usual’, that we hear from. This billion-dollar industry seeks to persuade everyone that prostitution is a service like any other that allows women to earn vast sums of money, and to travel and enjoy life’s luxuries. Women in sex businesses are presented as ‘escorts, hostesses, strippers, dancers, sex workers’. Prostitution is euphemistically described as ‘compensated dating’ and ‘assisted intercourse’ with women who are ‘erotic entrepreneurs’. There is almost no mention of the damage, violation, suffering, and torment of prostitution on the body and the mind, nor of the deaths, suicides and murders that are common. The reality of the harms of prostitution has to be denied because to know it would interfere with the business of sexual exploitation. So we wanted to re-dress this imbalance and provide a platform for other voices to be heard.
F: Considering the negative impact that being able to purchase women as commodities has on the way men view women, do you think one can be a feminist and be pro-prostitution?
M: No. Being a feminist means to advance the status of women and to address their differential position in the world. Prostitution is not pro-woman or consistent with the humanity and dignity of women. It is an industry built upon the backs of real women and girls. The fact that there are millions of women and girls being used in this industry globally is hardly a sign of feminist success or advancement. It demonstrates we have failed women. The 20 survivors, in very personal accounts in Prostitution Narratives, describe the lack of choices which led them into the industry, vulnerabilities including past and present sexual abuse, poverty, and economic disadvantage, marginalization. They were preyed upon by the industry which used predatory recruitment tactics. ‘Choice’ was so often compliance with the only option available.
As Annabelle wrote in our book:
To say that a woman enters the sex industry by ‘choice’ is a lie. To make a choice you need to have the facts about what you are choosing. I believe all prostituted women are held captive, not just physically as in the case of trafficked women, but by the lies of the sex industry. The industry knows once you’re lured in it’s hard to get out. I don’t believe any woman would choose to emotionally, physically and spiritually cause herself the amount of trauma that the industry left me with.
Jade was prostituted in New Zealand. She describes how she wanted to get out but was given no help.
After five years I wanted out of the sex industry. Twice I tried to go to school…I wanted to be a youth worker. But I couldn’t study due to drugs and sex work. None of the sex work advocacy agencies ever offered a contingency to get me out of the sex industry. They supplied lawyers, health checks, lube, condoms and dams but nothing to help me get out.
As another survivor has written:
Without exiting programmes, without long-term counselling, without a safe place to live, without a real job or route to a job, without knowing prostituted women can keep their children – we are just abandoning those inside the sex trade.
Anyone reading the accounts of brutal violence suffered by our contributors should hesitate to ever associate true feminism with the sex industry again. It is also hardly pro-woman when the sex industry has all the power and money and there is barely any public funding (certainly not here in Australia) to help women who actually want to get out of the industry. A woman who once worked for the peak sex industry body here in Australia was forced to tell the large numbers of women who called seeking assistance to get out of the industry that this was not what the organization was there for – they could help women stay in, not get out.
The goal of a ‘society without prostitution’ (as expressed by the French National Assembly) – a dismantling of the ‘system of prostitution’ – is the only authentic feminist position.
F: Tanja Rahm thinks that “if it had been a crime to buy women for sexual pleasure, then I would have known that what these men were doing was wrong”. Why is it so important for young girls that laws criminalizing prostitution are passed?
M: Tanja expresses it so well. We need to listen carefully. A society which has laws in place such as the Nordic Model (criminalizing the buyers of sex, not the prostituted person) sends a strong signal that this is not legitimate work, that men who think they should be able to buy women and girls will not be given societies stamp of approval. One of the big strengths of the Nordic Model is that it doesn’t just say ‘this is wrong’. It has provisions for financial and other support and reparations to help women make a new life out of the industry. This conveys a message to women and girls –it is wrong for you to be used like this: you are worth more and we will provide what you need for a new life.
The hand of women in the sex industry is strengthened when buyers 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.
The recently passed French law also requires programs to educate young people and raise public awareness that prostitution is linked to the commodification of the body as “a form of violence against women.” This works in concert with the other measures to send an even more powerful message – to the victims of prostitution, to those at risk of entering the industry, to the buyers and society as a whole, that prostitution is an intolerable human rights violation.
F: Jacqueline Lynne says that when she worked at a drop in center for prostituted women in Canada, most of the women in the room were of native ancestry. In Europe, most prostituted women come now from Nigeria and other African countries, from China, etc. Is there a fundamental link between racism and prostitution and how does racism plays out in pornography?
Here in Australia my co-editor Caroline Norma has written powerfully about the ‘asianisation’ of the sex industry and the expansion of ‘Asian-only’ brothels. Our newspapers are full of ads eroticizing Asian women as young, petite, fresh, compliant, willing to provide anything a man wants. They know their place (unlike white western women, being the inference). The eroticization of Asian women combined with the recycling of stereotypes about their desire to ‘please’ and their nymph–like qualities, illustrate how the industry exploits race for profit. Of course racist stereotypes abound in the marketing of women from other ethnicities. The racializing of bodies is particularly apparent in pornography, where we see a contempt for people of colour. Black women are insatiable ‘ghetto hos’, who gets what’s coming to them for being ‘mouthy’. They are popular in Gonzo genres where they are made to endure body punishing sex acts. Latino women are ‘sluts’, etc. At a time when racist epithets are more generally frowned on, they are alive and well in the sex industry.
F: “Any man that walks into a brothel has no respect for women” claims Jacqueline Gwynne in the book. Would you agree with this statement, and why?
Again, it is important to listen to those ‘on the ground’ who saw first-hand the behavior of men. I agree with it because I believe what the contributors have written and acknowledge their lived experience.
F: Caitlin Roper states that we are seeing now an increase in male sexual entitlement due to neo-liberalism and the global sex industry. Is it also your opinion?
M: Of course. Neo-liberalism has benefited the proliferation and globalization of prostitution and pornography because Governments generally support what is profitable – and from which it derives benefits from taxes and other charges – and have thus taken a ‘hands-off’ approach to the sex industry, allowing a free-market approach to reign.
Boys are being trained to think that women exist for their use and pleasure. They are learning early, from pop culture, media, advertising, music, violent hypersexualized video games and the sex industry, that they have a right to do what they want. The sex industry has moved into mainstream popular culture so boys imbibe its messages from the day they are born. Hardcore porn eroticizing violence against women is a click away, with boys as young as 9 and 10 absorbing a message that violence is sexy. In a piece that has become the most read ever published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website, I documented the sexual attitudes and behaviours girls are having to put up with. The sex industry – and its multiple manifestations in mainstream culture – endangers all women and girls everywhere.
‘A form of political gaslighting that pathologizes dissenters’: Sex trade survivor Rae Story
Rae Story worked in prostitution for a decade, primarily in the UK but also in other countries such as Australia and New Zealand. She exited prostitution last year and has subsequently written critically on the contemporary, libertarian push for full decriminalization and the concomitant project of sex industry sanitization and legitimization. Find more of her work at In Permanent Opposition. Rae tweets @raycstory.
When you read this extract from the interview I am sure you will want to read the whole thing.
FS: You’ve discussed the way in which the pro-prostitution lobby has strategically presented itself as progressive and the underdog, while defending regressive values and working to silence survivors. Can you tell us more about this behaviour and these strategies?
RS: Well as I described earlier, there is a tone to this debate that reframes those who engage in prostitution as having an “identity,” like an ethnicity or sexuality, so fighting for decriminalization becomes a human cause — an issue of civil rights — rather than being about the rights of commerce. It’s effective because those who disagree with them can then be labeled “bigots” or “SWERFS” (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists). Quite what self-identified “sex workers” imagine they are being excluded from, I don’t know… In fact, prostitution is a material reality that relates to circumstance and to gender and economic inequality not personal politics. The desire for full decriminalization is about the right of businesses to expand without state intervention or consideration for the collective.
The term “sex worker” is a political term, not a mere descriptor. It is used to legitimize the sex industry as a morally-neutral business and is akin to referring to those exploited by the sweatshop industry as “textile workers.” Added to which, it collapses the differences between different kinds of “sex trading.” So, those who run brothels can call themselves “sex workers” and put themselves on the same turf as those who actually have to deal with smelly old men’s dicks for a living. Even pornographers and glamour photographers can lay claim to the title.
The superficial usage of the language of civil rights and the use of the “sex worker” concept is a form of political engineering. Pro-decriminalization activists with even a vague relationship to the industry can be called a “sex worker” and ensure their opinion be considered of higher value on that basis. Someone else who has relationship with the sex industry who disagrees with them must be undermined in some fashion in order to discredit their opposition. This is where I think it gets sinister. Whenever I have been confronted by a pro-industry advocate, the veracity of my testimony has been rather nebulously questioned or I have been called an outright liar. Another tactic is to deploy the “I’m sorry you had a bad experience” method to imply that any negative feelings I have are isolated anomalies. The most insidious was the accusation that any mental health problems I suffer from are a result of personal failings or weakness and are not endemic to the industry.
This is a form of political gaslighting that pathologizes dissenters. The most grievous example of this was the method used to pathologize slaves who attempted to escape — their slavery was considered inherent to their personhood and trying to escape this personhood was considered an illness.
The people who employ these tactics are not progressives in theory, nor are they, generally, in practice.
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
‘Women enter the sex trade for money and the trade makes promises of loads of cash that it never delivers. The trade perpetuates the very poverty the woman is trying to escape’
At the World’s Oldest Oppression conference at RMIT last month – an Australia-first gathering of sex industry survivors and abolitionists – a number of woman who had left the industry shared their stories. Ally Marie, recruited into the industry as a vulnerable 21-year-old survivor of child sexual, was one of those speaking for the first time. (You can watch a recording of her speech here). Another was Sabrinna, who spent many years in the industry in New Zealand and Australia. She also volunteered off and on over more than two decades for the NZ Prostitutes Collective.
Now Sabrinna has joined forces with other survivors to expose its life-destructive realities. Here is an expanded version of the speech she delivered at the conference, in which she argues decriminalisation has not lived up to its promises, and that the only way forward lies in the adoption of the Nordic Model (recently legislated in France) which criminalises buyers but not prostituted people.
Sex industry survivors and activists at World’s Oldest Oppression conference
Hi, my name is Sabrinna. I’m originally from Melbourne but moved to New Zealand when I was 14, so most my talk will centre around NZ. I worked for too long, in too many ways; street, massage parlour, bars, hotels, escort agencies and brothels and in too many places; Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, parts of the West Coast of the South Island, Brisbane and Sydney.
I also volunteered for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) on and off over a 25 year span pre and post the Prostitution Reform Bill, passed into law becoming the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) in 2003.During my time at NZPC, I helped with the consultation process to write the PRA.
Under prohibition, ‘massage parlours’ rented rooms inclusive of a massage that the women were not paid for. Women negotiated their own money. Solicitation was the illegal part of that transaction and word games used to get around solicitation laws. These solicitation laws only applied to prostituted persons, not the Johns.
The streets rarely had pimps in NZ. Women negotiated their own money and used different word games to get around solicitation laws.
Escort agencies sold all-inclusives that only stated suitable attire for a date, company and the choice of a fantasy, e.g. ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Wife’s Sister’, ‘Daughter’ etc. No sexual services were overtly included. Women got paid a small fee and negotiated extras.
Police violence was rampant, using the threat of a criminal record. Women offered sex and money for a free pass.
There were clear boundaries on safe sex practices that were ‘policed’ by other workers. Kissing was an absolute no-no. No condom was considered absolutely gross and dental dams got used. Workers who broke with these practices were shunned from within the trade.
Did Decriminalisation Work?
Decriminalisation changed all this.
Massage Parlours became brothels and set the prices through ‘all-inclusives’. They left the girls to deal with the fallout of men expecting bareback, anal, passionate etc. ‘All-inclusive’ is not really all inclusive but of course, johns expect it to be. Where once men paid per/service, now they can have sex as many times as they can within the time frame booked.
I’ll note here that 20 years ago I was getting paid more than current prostituted people in NZ. Inflation has ballooned during this time, so a dollar then and a dollar now are not nearly similar. That is the result of giving power to the pimps. They’re usually men and they look after men’s interests.
The aforementioned expectations of ‘all-inclusives’ have become routine. Through doubles and bi-doubles I saw the difference first hand; unsafe sex for a price. The more one is prepared to do, the more jobs, and the more money; though still less in terms of buying power than when safe sex practices were an absolute.
Police brutality did cease, though helpfulness is very much at the discretion of individual police officers. As far as I am aware there has been no change in reporting violence since decriminalisation.
One place I worked for mysteriously had a bunch of Thai girls move in above the brothel, none of whom spoke English. None of whom ever exited the brothel for any reason, and all of whom had to ask for food, tampons, cigarettes and any other expenses. These were then purchased for them. I’m not blind enough to think they were on holiday. It looked like trafficking to me. [Jade, a NZ contributor to Prostitution Narratives, relates a similar account. Both worked for the same brothel owners – Ed.].
How Pimps Were Kept Safe
Originally the goal of decriminalisation was to firmly place the power into the hands of women. We wanted decriminalisation of all wanted parties, criminalisation of all unwanted parties. This proved too difficult because it isn’t clear what separates a brothel owner from a pimp, other than location. I’m now convinced that a brothel owner is a pimp.
Also, what are security staff doing, if not, ‘living off the earnings’. The avoidance of these words is what kept the pimps safe and decriminalised. The biggest difficulty is partners, whether married or not. A partner may be deemed to be living off the earnings by simply living with a woman working in prostitution. Yet, ‘the boyfriend grooming tactic’ is well known and in high use. How to differentiate a pimp grooming a woman and an actual partner is one that needs very careful and intense analysis in the writing of any Nordic Model legal structure.
When the PRA was passed, it was agreed that the law would not, under any circumstances be revisited for a period of ten years. At the end of the ten year period, it would be assessed to see if it did or did not work, with regular assessments and statistics being gathered during that decade. The pressure to ensure it worked was huge because to return to full criminalisation was the only alternative offered. In New Zealand there really wasn’t any great opposition to decriminalisation beyond those who wished to keep it under prohibition.
This meant that every problem encountered had to be dealt with by helping agencies using the new legal structure. It also meant that any huge unresolvable problems needed to be minimised and/or buried. So, the unsafe sex negotiations I had seen and been expected to undertake myself and thus fight off, were not recorded. We all knew it was happening but no-one spoke about it. For the right of it or wrong of it, this was a forced situation on those in the industry and on all helping agencies.
The Harm Minimisation model has been and remains the basis of NZPC policy. The first thing that must be noted is that the name itself automatically admits inherent harm in the industry. So, this is one area that all sides of the debate agree upon; there is unavoidable inherent harm within the industry that can at best, be minimised but not eliminated.
Under decriminalisation the power went to the pimps and johns despite that never being the goal. I respect the people I worked with at NZPC because I know they, like me, wanted everyone in the sex trade to have legal protections, power of conditions and negotiation, and a way to be as safe as possible. It’s been very hard to admit we failed but I feel morally obligated to do so. I still want the original goal and I believe the Nordic Model offers the best chance of making that happen.”
The Nordic Model is the only model that criminalises the John. I believe this is the pinnacle reason for opposition. Who does it criminalise? Men, average men, celebrity men, young men, old men, male politicians, husbands, sons, fathers, uncles, neighbours, men of good standing, men already criminals etc. Using women for sexual gratification under any circumstance is so normalised in society that many people have trouble seeing this as anything other than an attack on men and male sexuality.
What is rendered invisible is women. Prostituted persons, most of whom are women, are rarely, if ever, referred to as women. Usually called sex workers, prostitutes, whores, street walkers, escorts, ladies of the night, hookers and many other titles; all designed to ‘other’ the women in these industries. They’re not like you, your friends, your family, the people you know. But actually we are. In this way, women become invisible and replaced by ‘object’.
Harm Rendered Invisible
We know that abuse increases risk but we do not fully know why. We know that amount of sex makes no difference. The difference lies specifically in abuse. This is quite a recent area of psychology but it’s a significant one in looking at prostitution. Again, it’s not the amount of sex that needs to be looked at but the abuse within the industry. This is real harm. It is also invisible harm.
The long term problems rarely appear in the harm minimisation model because long-term harm often appears, or is noticed and diagnosed after a woman has left the industry. So, she no longer appears in the statistics. This is part of the industry’s abuse; to take years and years of her life, in return for money that has more hands dipping in to take a cut than any other job ever does, and to follow it up by dumping her on her ass, alone and impoverished with no support and more problems than she entered with. (Some of the physical and mental harms to women are documented by Melissa Farley here).
Women enter the sex trade for money and the trade makes promises of loads of cash that it never delivers. Ironically, the sex trade perpetuates the very poverty the woman is trying to escape.
For those of us who have exited, we face hidden discriminations. Huge gaps on the CV, outdated and unused qualifications with high student debts, vast experience with no way of demonstrating it on job applications, fear of being outed to family, friends and potential employers.
I have been too afraid to tell a counsellor for fear that the rapport we’d built would be destroyed in a single sentence. Our intimate relationships are compromised. Do we tell or remain silent? Does he or she have a right to know? If I do tell, will it become common knowledge? Will it be placed on a revenge porn site? Will they use it every time we disagree? Whore! This is stigma.
Stigma has not left under decriminalisation or under legalisation. It exists no less strongly now than it did in the bad old days of prohibition. It’s my personal belief that stigma cannot be legislated away. It exists because no one wants their baby girl to do that. No one wants their mum doing that. No one wants their partner doing that. No amount of legislation will change this instinctual response to abuse. We want to protect ‘me and mine’.
The services we need to exit
I’m fighting for the rights of people in prostitution to have more power while in it and more options when leaving it. I’m also fighting to protect the next generation from being lured into the sex trade by glamourised and false images.
Harm minimisation or harm reduction focuses only on the industry itself. We need to start focusing on the individuals in the sex trade. Irrespective of legislation I’d like to see non-religious, unbiased, non-judgemental exit services across Australia and New Zealand. A place where a woman can go and say,
‘This is where I’m at.’
‘This is where I want to be.’
‘These are the blocks in the way.’
The service will then provide options to help remove the obstacles. The woman makes her decisions. No decision is made for her, and no decision she makes is up for debate or judged; even the decision to return to prostitution or remain in prostitution. That is my definition of agency and empowerment.
Male sexual entitlement is the problem
I hate online debating with the people who defend all sex as positive irrespective of context. They tell me that the real harm is stigma.
I remember when a street walker was run over by an unhappy John, backed over, run over a second time, backed over a second time, and run over a final time. I remember the ambulance turned up, pronounced her dead and left her body on the road. I remember the press taking photos. A couple came into NZPC. They found out their daughter died by reading about a dead prostitute without a name in their local paper.
Stigma is the problem? Stigma does pose problems but it is not the real violence. When the ‘sex-pozzers’ say they’re being triggered by violent language, and stigma is the worst of the worst, I feel like screaming. That is not violence; not even close.
John smashes his wife’s head against the home wall and then storms out of the house. He jumps on a train and tells an 11 year old girl she looks sexy in her school uniform. He buys sex and bashes a woman’s head against the brothel wall. Society tells us he hurt his wife due to his poor childhood. Society tells us he was only complimenting that girl. Society tells us he harmed a prostitute because of stigma. Bullshit.
Male sexual entitlement taught him he owned his wife. Male sexual entitlement taught him public space is male space and females are his to comment upon. Male sexual entitlement taught him that sex, bought, given or taken is his right as a man. The problem is male sexual entitlement and male violence. The Nordic Model is the only model that recognises the actual problem.
Four sex industry survivors share their stories at Gold Coast Prostitution Narratives launch
Ally-Marie, Kat, Alice and Kim shared their stories of survival in the sex trade in Australia, New Zealand and the UK at our second launch of Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade. The Gold Coast launch, which saw a packed audience at the Surf City Café, followed on from the first launch in Melbourne earlier last month. Special thanks to emcee Erica Bartle (of Girl With a Satchell fame), City Women and everyone who supported the event, and especially the survivors who so bravely related their experiences. Stay tune for information on future launch events!
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