By MIA FREEDMAN
Internet? You never cease to surprise me. This last couple of weeks, the surprise has come in the form of attacks and criticism over my recent comments about sex workers on Q&A.
Specifically, the bit where I said I didn’t want my daughter to grow up to be a sex worker.
My daughter who is 7.
Some context: I was appearing for the first time on Q&A in a women’s panel and one of the other guests was former sex worker, Brooke Magnanti, who did sex work while she was studying for a science degree and wrote a popular blog under the pseudonym Belle du Jour.
Quite a lot of the program seemed to be taken up with Brooke discussing sex work (or did it just feel that way from the side of the desk I was on?) and mostly I sat there listening with interest to the discussion.
Brooke is now an advocate for the right of sex workers and speaks very positively of her 18 months working as one. Like this (from the Q&A transcript which you can find in full, here):
DECIMA WRAXALL (audience member): Brooke, you said that working as a sex worker was as much a spiritual experience for you as a biological one. Did this also apply to your male partners, do you think?
BROOKE MAGNANTI: To the people who were my clients?
DECIMA WRAXALL: Yes, to your clients?
BROOKE MAGNANTI: I have no idea. I mean work becomes so many things and really I agree and on a very base level with Germaine in terms it exists within the system of capitalism and so we have to analyse it and think about it that way. For me it was very much an eye-opener about a certain way of living. I was very much a country mouse living in the city for the first time. London was the biggest place that I’ve ever lived. I was born in a village of 300 people. So it was as much discovering things about myself through the work that I was doing. Could I have done that working behind a bar? I probably could have done. Was I eligible to work behind a bar? I wasn’t.
TONY JONES: What’s the spiritual element though, if you could just explain that part of the question because I think a lot of people would be puzzled to hear that and I must say weren’t there times when you came across a client and thought, when you looked at them you thought, ‘Well, I just can’t do this’?
BROOKE MAGNANTI: No, actually there weren’t because part of the job was finding inside of each person to connect with. It isn’t just putting the plate down on the table, ‘Enjoy your meal. Here it is. Let’s go.’ It is – you know, you are contributing to somebody else’s physical experience in some way and there are a lot of sex workers, for example, that work with disabled clients, who work with clients who have a lot of social awkwardness, who don’t find it easy to have sexual relationships with other people. I mean obviously this is something very much covered in the recent Helen Hunt film and there is …
TONY JONES: Do you see yourself in the same light as providing some sort of social service to damaged men or needy men, let’s say?
BROOKE MAGNANTI: I wouldn’t go so far as to say – I would say to categorise them as damaged and needy is a very broad and very unfair brush stroke. But I would say that …
TONY JONES: I think we could say needy. That would certainly apply.
BROOKE MAGNANTI: I’m not going to comment on that one but I would say that in a lot of ways and a lot of sex workers have said similar things, it almost feels like nursing, you know. There is a job you are doing and then there is also a level of connection and communication that you are having with a person that you are just thrown together with because of the circumstances of the work that you do.
OK, that’s all very positive and – in terms of her own experience – I’m sure that’s true. But it’s not true for all women who are sex workers. Brooke used the euphemism “women with chaotic lives”, presumably to describe those sex workers addicted to drugs or alcohol, for those who are desperate, abused, exploited, mentally ill, trafficked…..not every woman ‘chooses‘ sex work as a spiritual experience. And that needs to be loudly acknowledged.
The conversation then moved on how sex work fitted in with feminism.
TONY JONES: Deborah, what are your thoughts listening to this and reflecting on the earlier question which was really about whether sex work is compatible with feminism?
DEBORAH CHEETHAM: I think it is a woman’s right to choose. I think there is a really big issue that I always think about in the sex industry and that is demand and supply. All of the focus tends to be on the sex worker, mostly – well, many women. Of course there are men who also work in the sex worker industry. I think it is a right to choose and I think that it is compatible with feminism., if you have that right to choose, and many women don’t in non-western countries.
TONY JONES: Mia, you have been so – I’m just going to hear from the last panellist who hasn’t spoken on the subject. Just hear your thoughts listening to this conversation?
MIA FREEDMAN: It’s interesting, you know, whenever we occasionally will do or publish a piece in Mamamia where a prostitute – a sex worker – will write her story and will talk about her choice to be a sex worker and commentators and readers will be very, very passionate about the fact that this isn’t the full story of sex work and there is the full spectrum from sex slavery and sex trafficking to, as you say, the sex workers that work with disabled people. I think that there is an absolute full spectrum and I think that – I’m sad that people said that you couldn’t be a feminist. I think that that’s really, really unhelpful.
TONY JONES: Well, in fact, you were heavily attacked by feminists and others, weren’t you?
BROOKE MAGNANTI: Well, I mean, I do think there is probably a rather different feminist landscape in the UK, a very sort of second wave, blue stockingy trans-denial sex worker, denial and incredibly privileged elite writing for the papers and I won’t deny that there is quite a lot of privilege that came with my life as well. You know, in spite of having the disadvantage of being a migrant and very restricted in the work that I do, I’m white. I usually pass for English and, of course, am extremely well educated, but really it is the workers within the industry when you talk to them who are best placed to understand and undertake the outreach to the less privileged members of the industry, because they have that first-hand experience, because they know what the labour issues are, because they know how the industry works.
And here is where I interrupted for the first and only point in the evening:
MIA FREEDMAN: But let’s be clear that no little girl grows up wanting to be a sex worker, thank heavens.
BROOKE MAGNANTI: I know ones who did. I mean that’s a pat line but I actually…
MIA FREEDMAN: Well, that’s disturbing.
BROOKE MAGNANTI: … know ones who did. I’m sorry that it bothers you.
MIA FREEDMAN: So this idea that…
BROOKE MAGNANTI: I’m sorry that your feelings make you think that you can judge somebody else’s choices.
MIA FREEDMAN: I would be disturbed if my daughter wanted to grow up to be a sex worker.
BROOKE MAGNANTI: But you would still support her because you love her unconditionally.
MIA FREEDMAN: Of course I would. Yeah, but I think that this idea that every woman does it freely out of choice. In some ways you say you had no choice.
BROOKE MAGNANTI: Absolutely. But we all have no choice in some ways. Could you have been a physicist?
MIA FREEDMAN: No.
BROOKE MAGNANTI: Could you have been an astronaut?
MIA FREEDMAN: Maybe.
BROOKE MAGNANTI: So you don’t really have free choice. It could still happen. It could still happen.
Afterwards, I was a bit confused. In a follow up post about the show (which you can read here), I wrote: Did I accidentally say I’d be fine if my daughter chose to be a
prostitute sex worker? No! I meant I would kidnap her and hold her captive in an Amish community.
I crossed out the word prostitute because Tony Jones had used it on the show and Brooke had pointedly corrected him. I didn’t realise that sex workers shunned that word – and I corrected myself when it slipped out at another point in the show.
And I wasn’t kidding about the Amish community although I would also consider a yurt in Mongolia.
Afterwards, some people were very vocal about how offended they were by this.
Some of the comments on Twitter included:
Look. This is ironic really because we have published several posts on Mamamia written by sex workers themselves (here and here) and were slammed in the comments by many women who felt that by publishing those pieces, we were glorifying the sex industry and not depicting the reality for the majority of sex workers whose circumstances were vastly, tragically different.
I think Brooke would call their lives ‘chaotic’. Or you could also use the word ‘appalling’.
To the sex workers and others who were agitating on social media and loudly demanding an apology from me, I’m going to disappoint you.
Let me lay out my position very clearly.
If you are an adult woman who is not suffering from a mental illness, addiction or sexual, physical or emotional abuse, who has not been trafficked or exploited or co-erced into sexual slavery and who is CHOOSING of her own free will to sell sex?
I respect that. I’m cool with that. I recently listened to a fascinating podcast with a sex worker whose clients have disabilities. We’ll be publishing a story about her soon. I’m certainly not interested in demonising sex workers – I’d never do that.
But no, that doesn’t mean I see your career choice as something I’d want my daughter to aspire to. Or my sons. And I’m not going to apologise for that.
Accepting the free choices made by other women does not mean you have to aspire to them or advocate them.
Editor’s note: Any comments overly personal in nature towards Mia Freedman or Brooke Magnanti will be deleted. If you are commenting more than once, please use the same name for each comment.