Activist, writer, sex-positive feminist, single mother, sandgroper, grumpy old woman.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The sex work activist at the live export rally: an explanation (not an apology)

A few weeks ago, I attended this live export counter-rally.

I didn't just attend it. I promoted it online, hand-delivered flyers to local businesses, helped unload the utes and had beers before and after with the organiser and his family. I supported it, wholeheartedly.

And it was AWESOME. People just kept pouring in, individually and by the busload. They brought their kids, their dogs, their friends and extended families. Many travelled thousands of kilometres to be there. Those who couldn't attend, from all around Australia, sent us messages of solidarity and support. As a group, we chatted, we laughed, we ate BBQ sausages and played that uniquely country game of tell-me-your-grandfather's-surname-and-we'll-count-the-degrees-of-separation. But beneath the fun and frivolity, there was a more serious common goal: to speak up and have our voices heard.

Reaction to the rally by some in the mainstream media was predictable. While there was some great coverage, particularly by smaller and/or rural publications, others painted the country participants as thugs and the front page of The West featured a pic of the only (five-second) scuffle of the day involving farmers.  The WA Farmers Federation was interviewed repeatedly, though they had nothing to do with the organising, to draw the focus away from families and individuals and more towards 'corporations' and 'peak bodies'. Numbers on the Ban Live Export side were inflated and ours were grossly underestimated. Sadly, none of that was surprising.

What WAS surprising was the reaction I got from Twitter.

From the moment I started talking about the rally, I started losing followers. On the morning of the rally, I posted a warning that I would be live-tweeting it for the next couple of hours and uninterested people might want to mute the #hadagutful hashtag. I was careful to hashtag every tweet so none could accidentally slip past people's filters. That I felt the need to do that is telling in itself.

But instead of muting a couple of brief hours of photo-posting, people - some of whom had followed and chatted with me as friends for years - started BLOCKING me. In droves. It was hard to tell how many I was losing on the day, because the live-tweeting was also gaining me new followers, but once I got home and had the chance to check, I was genuinely upset to see some of the names in my 'recently unfollowed' list.

Upset, and to be honest, stunned. You see, the majority of people I have relationships with on Twitter are 'bleeding heart lefties', drawn together by our shared passion for social justice. Not all of them vote 'left', mind you. Many of them are conservative voters. But they mostly subscribe to small-L liberal social values, including compassion and understanding for marginalised communities like refugees, sex workers, Indigenous peoples, the queer community, people living with HIV, etc. They fight for the rights of these various groups to be heard, especially in the political arena, on the basis that EVERYONE deserves to be involved in policy that will ultimately affect their lives and/or livelihoods, no matter how 'unpopular' that group is with voters.

Everyone, it seems, except farmers.

The first comments I got about the rally photos were that most of the placards focused on profits. Farmers need to turn profits in order to stay in business. Rural businesses need farmers to turn profits so they continue to inject money into the local economy. Country towns need rural businesses to turn profits, OR THEY DIE. This is essentially why the rally was held in the first place - to keep our country communities alive - so yes, many of the signs focused on profits. The automatic response to this fact (by a complete stranger on Twitter) was that farmers are "greedy whiners" and all they care about is money.


Twitter (with support from me) has railed against public service retrenchments and fought for increased wages for police, nurses and teachers. Is that not about money? Is that not outrage at pulling people's incomes out from under them and/or supporting a profession's right to fight for better conditions? WHY DOES THE SAME NOT APPLY TO FARMERS? On the evening of the rally, a prominent WA union representative tweeted her opposition to the farmers' actions. What the hell? A group of workers from a specific industry get together to save their livelihoods and demand input into policy and the union condemns it?! It's this kind of double-standard that really shocked me - from the union, from social justice activists and from individuals who belong to other marginalised communities.

I am a country girl. I'm a farmer's daughter: born and raised, and currently living, in a wheat and sheep town. I'm passionate about rural health and education (or lack thereof), about govt spending on regional infrastructure (or lack thereof) and about rural representation in Parliament (you know the drill).

But people who know me will know that my primary passion is sex worker rights. It's hard to imagine two issues more completely unrelated than sex work and live export, but the politics of them are almost identical. In fact, I can give you two identical examples that were triggered by the very same TV show.

Last year, ABC's Four Corners did a sex trafficking piece on Australia's 'flesh trade'. It was a sensationalist piece of rubbish, with the creators refusing to interview primary stakeholders, preferring instead to rely on 'pity-porn' imagery, myths and stereotypes to incite 'moral outrage'. And incite moral outrage, it did. The public took one peek into a world they have NO understanding of, saw manipulated images of a worst case scenario, and immediately screamed BAN IT. Legislators responded to public demand, launching reviews and promising to 'crack down' on sex work. When sex workers and sex industry business owners attempted to speak out and say THESE CHANGES WILL ONLY MAKE THINGS WORSE, they were accused of bias (and dismissed) due to their 'personal agenda' and 'financial interest'.

A couple of months before, Four Corners had 'exposed' another industry: Australia's live exporters. It followed exactly the same formula - avoid facts and stakeholders, show emotive imagery of worst case scenario - and had exactly the same results. Moral outrage ensued. The public peeked into a world they have NO understanding of, found it distasteful and screamed BAN IT. Legislators jumped to it, imposed temporary bans and started developing policy to 'crack down' on the industry. Farmers and exporters who again tried to say THESE CHANGES WILL ONLY MAKE THINGS WORSE were again dismissed as having a personal agenda and financial interest.

On both issues, the voices of primary stakeholders are being actively silenced. On both issues, people with precisely ZERO knowledge of the respective industries are driving policy changes and 'moral outrage' is driving community support. And on both issues, people whose personal belief systems are offended by the subject matter are flatly refusing to even ACKNOWLEDGE the other side of the story, let alone listen to it.

I get that some people have an unshakeable position on sex work/live export. I get that some people find the act of selling sex/eating animals morally reprehensible. I get that some people want to 'help' sex workers/livestock that are 'trapped' in what they see as hideous situations. You believe what you believe for your own reasons and it's not my place to question that. But NONE of that negates a sex worker/farmer's right to speak out about their own experiences and influence policy that will otherwise have negative consequences for their lives and livelihoods. Argue with them all you like, but you have no right to silence them.

And yeah, I kind of see blocking tweets by someone politely presenting an alternative view as an act of silencing. They deliberately turned their backs on a group of people fighting for their own survival and demonstrated not only that they were unwilling to hear the other side of the story, but that they had made that decision based on stereotypes and misinformation. This became glaringly obvious in the number of times I've since been misrepresented as not caring about the welfare of animals. Just as supporters of sex workers are accused of being 'pro-pimp' and unsympathetic to victims of trafficking, supporters of farmers are accused of being pro-profits and unsympathetic to animals harmed in the process.

I support abortion rights. That doesn't mean I run around singing "Yay, abortion! Abortion is awesome!" Same goes for live export. I'm not shouting from the rooftops that live export is awesome. I don't 'like' the idea of long trips on ships or animals being slaughtered any more than I 'like' the idea of terminating a life before it even begins.  But I firmly believe that policy should be informed by FACTS and I know that in every case where legislation has been driven by moral panic and knee-jerk reactions, it has consistently proven to CAUSE more problems than it solves.

I will continue to support both these 'unpopular' causes, because there ARE problems that need to be addressed in sex work and in agriculture, but those problems will not be addressed with bans, nor by the active exclusion of primary stakeholders.

Both sex workers and farmers are in a position to change their industries from the inside. We should be empowering them to do that, not tying their hands.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Michael (follow @farmersway on Twitter and/or his blog) who has been FAR too modest in describing his involvement with the live export counter-rally and the fight for farmers' rights in general.

The rally was his baby. He sparked a passion in rural Western Australians that saw people driving thousands of kilometres to attend. He sparked a passion in ALL rural people that resulted in hundreds of messages of interstate and international support. He reminded us that we are a COMMUNITY, separated by distance but united by shared trials and tribulations. The passion, pride and connection that I felt amongst the people at the rally, and the supporters online, is something I will never forget. The video still gives me goosebumps.

Michael is just one farmer, trying to find common ground and ways to connect with the 'outside world', to tell them we're here, to share our experiences, to ask them to understand us. And that one farmer started a movement. I just want him to know that he is an inspiration and that I'm so very proud to be able to call him my friend. x

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Parenting choices are important

Today the Labor Govt committed to ending special arrangements for grandfathered Parenting Payment recipients and putting them on Newstart, bringing them into line with the rest of Australia’s single parents, who were forced onto the dole back in 2006. It was Howard policy that passed with comparatively little fanfare – probably because it happened pre-Twitter and who can even remember life pre-Twitter?

It was a low blow from Howard, using some of Australia’s most vulnerable families to make a point (WIMMINS SHOULD BE MARRIED, OK?) and win votes. I can’t help feeling that in endorsing Howard’s policy, it’s an even lower blow from Gillard. Them being the party of the Fair Go and all.

This sole parent smackdown caught Twitter’s attention today and my feed was full of comments about single mums – most supportive, some bordering on reprehensible. I didn't have the time or patience to argue about it on Twitter, but now my fury is threatening to boil over, so I’d better blurt it here before I make a mess of the curtains.

Before I do, just a little pre-emptive strike on the knobjockeys who try to belittle and shame me into silence whenever I raise this issue. Last time’s favourite was “This from a single mum with Foxtel and a PS3. I don’t have that and I WORK for a living”.

This idea that poor people don’t deserve to enjoy small luxuries is another rant for another day, as is the automatic assumption that anyone who identifies as a single parent must be on welfare.

I do, however, want to clarify up front that I am NOT ON THE PENSION and haven’t been for some time. I don’t even qualify for Rent Assistance. If I want to spend my wages on Foxtel and Playstation games (the console was a gift, if you must know), I will. And quite frankly, if I’d wanted to spend my welfare payments on Foxtel and Playstation games, I would have had every damn right to do so.

So yeah, this issue actually has no direct bearing on my life any more, so by all means go ahead and disagree or argue with me, but don’t bother with the “OMG YOU’RE SO ENTITLED, GET A JOB YOU LAZY SLAPPER” routine. Kthx.

That said, I've been a single parent for most of the past 20 years and spent a lot of time on the pension. Like many single parents, I was usually working and getting a part payment, or being cut off while things were good and falling back on it when money got tight. A few times when the shit really hit the fan, it was my only income for extended periods. I was one of the ‘grandfathered’ recipients they’re talking about at the moment, until a few months of short-term, high-paid work saw my pension cancelled and when the work ended and I tried to go back, I was put onto Newstart instead.

The changes had a pretty big impact on my family, most notably on the choices available to me. Or lack, thereof.  In the grand scheme of things, I didn't get that much money out of the pension. I've probably paid as much in tax and if not, I certainly will have covered my share by the time they cart me off in a box. The reduction in payments will really hurt single parents, but this isn't just about the money. The pension was a safety net that I had always relied on, empowering me to make the best decisions for my family. Single parents no longer have those options.

There are sooo many things I want to rant about right now, but I’ll try to focus on two comments that repeatedly appeared in my feed today. This will end up wordy enough, without going off on tangents.

“They can still sit at home until their child turns eight...”

I'm going to ignore the ‘parents of young children just sit on their arses and do nothing’ dog whistle and move straight on to the bigger problem with this statement: Not all single parents are single when they give birth.

Ok, so if I give birth to my first child while I'm single, I can go on the pension and have eight years to start planning for my future (actually, it’s six years, because Mutual Obligation kicks in when they start school). I can sign up for some study (if I can afford it), or maybe do a bit of volunteer work, to improve my chances of employment later. I can start or go back to paid work, safe in the knowledge that if I find I can’t juggle a job and small children, I have a safety net to fall back on and my family won’t starve. Or I can just focus on motherhood and enjoy taking my youngster to the park. ALL OF THESE OPTIONS ARE GOOD FOR KIDS.

Hey, you never know, I might even find myself a partner before then and not have to worry about this at all – six years is a long time.

But that’s not how it works for most single parents. For starters, the overwhelming majority of sole parents were married or defacto when their kids were born. Why is that important? Because they become single parents at later stages in their child’s development and under wildly diverse conditions.

Let’s say, for example, a woman with two children aged 12 and eight. She’s been married for fifteen years and a stay-at-home mum for nearly thirteen of them. She has no recent education or employment history. She doesn't qualify for the Parenting Payment. She has to go on the dole and start looking for work and/or studying.

After a fifteen year marriage, she’s going to be experiencing some serious heartache and her children will likely be acting out in ways that can be very difficult to manage. She may be escaping domestic abuse and dealing with stalking or threats of violence. She may be going through a messy divorce, which can also lead to a loss of friends or family support. She may be left struggling with ‘sexually transmitted debt’. She may be moving house, possibly to an entirely new and unfamiliar area. The family vehicle, furniture, etc may have belonged to her ex. If she’s renting, she WILL be battling massive discrimination in housing and likely can’t afford the bond, anyway…

In the past, the sole parent pension provided breathing space for people in these situations, right up until their kids were sixteen. Not any more. If their youngest child is over six, they are expected to gather their shit and become a functioning member of society immediately, with no time to reflect, plan, deal with trauma, or settle their new family unit into a new rhythm.

There are eleventy billion valid reasons why a newly single parent can’t, and shouldn't be expected to, immediately get a job. In these circumstances, even those who HAVE a job at separation might need to quit in order to deal with everything. Some might be able to arrange extended leave and go back later, but how many of us are lucky enough to have that sort of flexibility? And what if your field is not the sort of thing you can go back to as a sole parent, like jobs requiring long periods away from home? Suddenly your work history means nothing and you’re starting all over again like a highschool leaver.

Which brings me to the second comment…

“There’s no reason why someone with school age children can’t get a job”.

Aside from all the reasons listed above, there are a bunch of other reasons why single parents can’t just pop out and get a job, including:

- LACK OF JOBS. Kind of a fundamental problem, amirite? Most people these days are underemployed - it’s tough to find anything more than casual, part time, or short-term work. That might sound ideal for single parents, but it's not always the case, due to…

- THE WAY CENTRELINK PAYMENTS ARE STRUCTURED. You only have to earn a tiny bit of money p/fortnight before your benefits start getting docked. Pretty soon after starting your low-paying part time job, you’re losing your Parenting Payment – which allowed you to be with your children – and working every day away from home for exactly the same amount, minus miscellaneous work expenses and…

- CHILDCARE. It’s expensive. It’s particularly expensive during school holidays when, even with the full single parent rebate, I used to pay out MORE THAN I EARNED for 13 weeks of the year. I had to borrow money or get advances to cover the costs during school holidays, then work off the debts during the school term. I've quit three part time jobs over the years because it simply wasn't financially viable to continue, including one that I dearly loved. The worst part is that my kids weren't even there most school holidays, as they often went away to visit family, but you have to keep them enrolled (and paid for) to secure your place, thanks to the…

- LACK OF AVAILABLE CHILDCARE. People in the city are struggling to get their kids into a childcare centre. For most people in the country, such a thing doesn't even exist. You can’t force single parents into the workforce without providing adequate childcare options. *Note: The newly single mother with the 12 and 8 year old I described above? There is no childcare available for children over 12. One of the reasons I moved back to the country is that my oldest was about to turn 12 and I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with him after school. We were faced with moving to an unfamiliar (poor, high crime) suburb due to rent rises and, while I have no problem with kids coming home from school alone, it’s just not something I felt comfortable with under those circumstances.

And then there’s that other dirty word that nobody ever wants to talk about…

- DISCRIMINATION. I don’t know any single parents who haven’t experienced some form of discrimination in employment. I'm old enough to remember the Good Old Days, where employers could say “Sorry, I’d just prefer someone without kids” straight to my face. These days it’s usually more subtle, like interviewers asking what childcare arrangements you have in place for emergencies - a more polite version of “But when one of your kids get sick, you’ll go running”, which still gets said to me in less politically correct environments (*cough* the country *cough*). Sadly, it’s often true, because…

- SINGLE PARENTHOOD CAN MAKE YOU SOMEWHAT UNRELIABLE. The key word in ‘single parent’ is SINGLE – as in ALL BY YOURSELF. Many single parents are completely alone, with no family and friends close by and/or no other parent in the picture. If my kid got sick, the school would ring me to pick him up and the childcare centre wouldn't take him. If one kid is sick for a week and the second kid comes down with it over the weekend, it could mean two weeks off work. The average employer won’t tolerate that for too long. And every time you are fired or forced to quit, it only makes you look more unreliable in the eyes of future employers and that much harder to get the next job.

I'm not suggesting all these issues are unique to single parents. I'm well aware that many others face similar problems, especially those on Newstart. But many of the easier answers are unavailable once you have children.

You can’t just crash on a mate’s couch or live in a sharehouse with five other young adults. You can’t survive solely on 2-minute noodles and water crackers. You constantly have to buy clothes and shoes, because kids are always growing. School fees, uniforms and supplies can’t be avoided and their requests for additional cash are relentless. Childcare costs are a shocker. You need bigger houses, bigger cars, you use more electricity and water, pay more doctors bills, blah blah etc etc. They’re expensive, needy little critters.

And before anyone pulls the old “If you can’t afford kids, you shouldn't have them”….really? Is your life going exactly as you planned it 5, 10, 15 years ago? Shit happens. Many children of single parents were born into loving, financially secure relationships, which eventually ended up neither loving nor secure. ALL of us are only one accident or illness away from financial ruin - and many are only one affair, or gambling problem, or domestic violence incident away from single parenthood.

Which is why, of course, everyone should pay attention to what the government is doing to single parents. Because one day, it could be any one of you in the firing line.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dear internet, YOU ROCK. Love, a crazy person.

My last post was a long time ago, but I'm still getting responses to it on Twitter.

Some of the things I've learned from those responses:

* That people think I'm 'brave' for talking about my mental illness. This makes me sad, because it suggests the default is to maintain silence and, more importantly, that there's a huge risk involved with 'coming out' as a crazy person. And there totally is. And that's messed up. I feel like we should be able to talk about mental illness in the same way we talk about having a sore thumb, or the flu, or cancer. Why is it that when people tell you they have, say, diabetes, we're all sooo sympathetic, but if you say you're manic depressive, people shit themselves?

* People also think I'm 'brave' for admitting I use alcohol to deal with depression. Some pointed out how unhealthy it is for people 'with my condition'. Or that I should be careful. Or that I'm irresponsible. I find this quite interesting. Every afternoon, my twitter feed is chock full of non-crazy people saying "Fuck, today has been so stressful. Now relaxing with a well-earned beer" or "Hooray! It's the weekend! Off to the pub!" or "Argh, my kids are being total arseholes. Need a glass of wine". You know what? I use booze in exactly the same way. It makes me relax, it calms me down, it slows my brain - which generally barrels along like a fucking out-of-control freight train - and helps me think more clearly. Obviously I'm not (by any stretch) claiming that it's a good way to deal with mental illness. BUT I'M NOT A CHILD. My brain may work in mysterious ways, but it still works. I understand the difference between 'healthy' drinking and 'unhealthy' drinking - in fact, I think I made that quite clear in the original post. I know what works for me and what doesn't and I'd appreciate if you could trust me to make those decisions for myself. Kthx.

* People in the country really identified with my post. I don't know if that's because it was circulated more via country networks, or because it was written from a country perspective, or because country people experience more isolation than most. I suspect the latter. Lots of country people are online these days, but we're still lagging well behind the city. Get your country friends into social media! It will make a world of difference to their lives.

* Some people who know me IRL were surprised to learn I was a total nutbag. I get this a lot. Mental illness manifests itself in many different ways and, I admit, I'm lucky that mine (mostly) allows me to function in a way that keeps me off the radar. Mind you, friends have still said "Ah, yes. Some things make more sense now", so it's not like it was completely invisible. But my point is that you can't always tell when someone's mentally ill. People need to remember this when they're telling their 'sad' mates to pull themselves together or stop being pathetic and just get over it. They might be struggling more than you realise.

I want to thank everyone who commented on that post, here and on Twitter. I wrote it in a fit of gratitude, to let others know that support was out there - that the magic of social media means you can still feel connected, and loved, and cared about, even when you're totally alone. The response pretty much proved my point, because I've since received a whole pile of love and support via online networks and it's put me in a better position to offer the same to others.

Keep fighting the good fight... against your moods, against self-censorship, against shame, against stigma, and against non-internet folks who keep telling you to switch off your computer and meet 'real' people. We're real and we really do care.

In solidarity x

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

broken, but never alone

This will end up wordy. For the easily bored, here's the tl;dr version... I am a loony. I love the internet.

So those of you on Twitter will know that I went to the doctor today and, amongst other things, was diagnosed with depression and put on medication. I then came home and proceeded to lose my shit all over the internet.

This is not the first time I've had depression. It's something I've lived with all my life - well, half of my life. The other half was spent shagging and writing novels and scrubbing the bathroom at 3am, in joyous bursts of hypomania. Basically I'm a complete nutbag, but that's not what I wanted to write about.

What struck me today was how, for me, social media has completely changed what it means to live with a mental illness.

The last time I lost the battle with my brain was in 2003. I'd had a horrendous year, culminating in me dumping my boyfriend, quitting my job and moving back to the country. I had some immediate family close by, but zero friends. I had no internet, no landline and my mobile only did what every other mobile did back then - make very expensive phone calls. I was pretty much alone.

I didn't go to the doctor because I felt sad. I went for a Pap smear. While he was getting things ready, he asked me some stuff about life and my kids and the next thing I knew, I was sobbing my heart out.

That moment when the doctor asks the right question, says the right words, and the floodgates open? It's like a freakin' earthquake. The ground rumbles and splits beneath you and you start to free-fall. Until that point, you didn't realise just how hard you'd been fighting to maintain the balance, keep your shit together, pretend everything's ok. The weeks, months, even years of constant internal struggle. But in that moment, you admit defeat and realise you simply don't have the strength to do it any more. And that realisation is crippling.

Then, minutes after all this happens, your appointment is over and you find yourself back out in the corridor. Alone.

And this, my friends, is where social media changed my life.

In 2003, I had a two hour drive home from the doctor's surgery. I wailed and sobbed alone in my car until my eyes were so swollen I could barely see the road. On the way, I stopped and bought a bottle of vodka. It was late Friday arvo and Mum already had my kids at her place while I was away. I rang and asked if she could keep them for the night, went home, crawled into the corner behind my bed (paranoid that someone might see me through the window) and drank straight from the bottle, crying my heart out, until I passed out on the floor.

The meds kicked in a couple of weeks later, but things got much worse before they got better. I moved through each day like a zombie and cried myself to sleep every night. I started to fear leaving the house and having to speak to people. I've never felt so isolated in all my life. forward to today. Today, the earth opened up beneath me, just like it did last time. I sobbed my heart out in the surgery, then ended up in the corridor alone, just like last time. Only this time, I wasn't really alone. When I walked out of the hospital and turned my phone back on, I had messages from people asking if I was ok and cracking jokes and wishing me luck. When I got down the street and the shock started to set in, I stopped on the side of the road and pulled out my phone. Twitter made me laugh until I felt ok to drive.

And, yeah, I wailed and sobbed for most of the half hour drive back. Then I went to the chemist, discovered I couldn't afford to fill my prescription, went home and lost my shit. Like last time, I'm completely isolated in a town where I know nobody. And, yeah, like last time I headed straight for the booze, cracking open a bottle of Passion Pop. BUT HERE'S THE THING...this time, I wasn't drinking myself into oblivion. This time, I was having a few glasses of wine to calm myself down WHILE CHATTING TO FRIENDS. Rather than internalising all the fear and shame, I talked openly about it with people who had shared similar experiences. Rather than feeling like I had to pretend I was coping, I could say "I'm broken right now". And nobody judged me.

I was shown soooo much kindness on Twitter this afternoon. And I witness this kindness every day in my Twitter feed. Of course, that comes down to who you follow and how you interact on Twitter, but for me, it's a safe space filled with awesome people who genuinely care about each other. YMMV.

Isolation breeds depression and depression feeds off isolation. The last thing you need when you're depressed is to be alone. With social networking, you can carry your friends around in your pocket. When one timezone sleeps, another wakes up. You're NEVER alone.

Tonight, I'm not passed out on the floor next to an empty bottle. I haven't cried once since I calmed down on the verandah with a glass of sickly sweet bubbles. My son came home from school and I cooked dinner and we watched a couple of crappy comedies and when he noticed my puffy eyes and asked if I was ok, I said I'd be fine. And I will. Because I have you guys.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More sex slavery fuckwittery - migration agents

First paragraph...  "Licensed migration agents are helping bring women to Australia on student visas who end up working in conditions of sexual slavery or at illegal brothels".

Second last paragraph... However a [DIAC] spokesman said it has "no evidence to suggest any migration agents have been linked with people trafficking in the sex industry in the last five years".

Last paragraph... The Migration Agents Registration Authority [said] no agents in the past ten years had been sanctioned over allegations of sex slavery or trafficking.

No evidence to back up your claims, no experts in the field to support you, so just start the article with a clear statement of what YOU BELIEVE to be true and hope the reader doesn't read all the way to the disclaimer at the end? Is this what passes for 'investigative journalism' these days?

If we're going to talk about sex work and visas, lets look at what role migration agents actually play. And more importantly, WHY.

If you're an English 20-something barmaid who wants to come to Australia on a working holiday, you can apply for your own visa and sign up with one of a multitude of Australian employment agencies. On arrival, those agencies will ship you all around the countryside, from pub to pub, arranging your accommodation and transport, and (I would assume) negotiating your pay rate and working conditions.

You are only allowed to stay in the same place for a short time before you have to change employers - which country pubs are all in favour of because, and I quote, "We get a steady stream of pretty young things and it keeps the boys happy. Keeps them coming back to check out the new ones". So basically, backpacker barmaids are being used as the cheap and unskilled equivalent of skimpies, but I digress...

If you're a 20-something SE Asian or Eastern European sex worker who wants to come to Australia for a working holiday, there's a good chance you won't be able to apply for your own visa. Thanks to over-the-top anti-trafficking policies, some countries are actually denying visas to young single women who they 'suspect' might be intending to work as a sex worker.

Even if they do manage to get their own visa, sex workers don't have the luxury of employment agencies to assist them in finding employment and accommodation once they get here. In many Australian states, brothels are not allowed to sponsor or advertise for staff, and procuring (and anti-trafficking) laws make it difficult for third parties to help sex workers find work. So think about it... you're in a foreign nation, where you don't speak the language, trying to secure employment in an industry that is heavily regulated and often shrouded in secrecy. You don't know the local laws, you have no way of knowing which are the well-run brothels and which ones are dodgy and once you find a job, you have no idea what your rights are.

*Note: If the only information a migrant sex worker gets about Australian sex work is "Foreign sex workers are sex slaves, exploited, offering unprotected services, being raided and rescued", etc - from our sensationalist media - how do you think that affects their choices? What sort of working conditions will they accept if they think that's the norm? How do they stand up for their rights if they're led to believe they don't have any?

Taking all of this into consideration, is it really any wonder that sex workers from other countries choose to go through a migration agent and/or brothel syndicate? It may be their best option, or perhaps their only option. One thing's for sure, it will always be the most expensive option. Bringing someone into the country and circumventing (not necessarily breaking) laws costs a lot of money. That expense is then passed on to the sex worker. Having huge debts and being in a precarious legal position then leaves these sex workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Let me just say that again, to make it doubly clear - migrant sex workers are vulnerable to exploitation thanks to anti-trafficking laws and immigration policies. Unscrupulous operators might be taking advantage of it, but our laws and attitudes are CAUSING it.

Blanket bans and excessive controls lead to a violent, exploitative black market, dominated by organised crime. Did the world learn nothing from prohibition?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Exposing the Flesh Trade (aka Sensationalist Journalism 101)

There is no story in journalism that gets more clicks, fans and accolades than a sex slavery exposé. 

The readers lap it up. It tugs at the heart strings, gives us an 'insight' into a seedy underbelly that we've never experienced and will never understand, and plays on our xenophobia and inherent fear of anything sex-related. It gives us a damsel in distress to care about and a hero to worship - makes our stupid white selves feel proud that we have heroic white cops to protect naive Asian prostitutes from their scary Asian bosses.

For the 'investigative journalist', it's an easy story to write. Few people know the realities of sex work, so you can just write whatever stereotypical crap springs to mind. Few people know who the major players are, so you don't have to interview them if you think they won't toe the party line. Many people have preconceived ideas about Asian women (ie RACISM), so readers will believe you when you suggest they have no agency, or that every Asian woman lives in desperate poverty, or that Asian women make great sex toys, or that Asian women are too stupid to know when they're being scammed or exploited. (Let's just ignore the fact that most migrant sex workers in Australia come from the US, the UK and New Zealand. They're obviously big enough and white enough to look after themselves).

Not enough evidence of trafficked sex workers? No worries - that's because it's such a well-hidden activity. They're definitely out there. Honest. We just can't find them. Sure, that means we can't corroborate the excessive numbers we're quoting, but you can't refute them, either. So there. Checkmate. If all else fails, find any old case involving an Asian brothel and question why nobody has been convicted. If possible, make it look like a cover-up. That shit must happen all the time, because police are corrupt and Asian gangs are powerful, right? Yeah, why not. The readers will buy that.

Why are my knickers in a twist (again) about this topic? Well, The Age and Four Corners have partnered up to do an 'exposé on the flesh trade', which will screen on Four Corners on Monday night. The Age has posted a bit of pre-screening self-promotion here:

The article's language and imagery, and obvious bias, is appalling. Not to mention the graphic depiction of the discovery of the murdered man. Vile tragedy porn. What the hell is this story even about?

Let's look at the facts, without all the decorative detail. The dead man visited sex workers, used meth, and one night he stormed a brothel. The Age/Four Corners don't know exactly what happened that night, but they're convinced he was there with good intentions. Mind you, the police didn't press charges because they thought there might be a case for self-defence, which would suggest that after an extensive murder investigation, they believed the man was NOT there with good intentions. (Interestingly, the detective involved chose not to comment). 

But we all know there must be more to this story than meets the eye, because OMG THERE WAS BROTHELS AND ASIANS AND STUFF.

"...there were whispers of broken hearts - Papo had fallen for a Korean student before his death..."

So he was in love with a brothel girl, who obviously didn't feel the same way, or there wouldn't be any broken hearts.

"[Papo] told an officer he was gravely concerned for the welfare of a 20-something Korean woman he had dated named Kathy...who was being threatened and had had her passport taken from her."

Ok, so he actually dated the woman. In the past tense. This seems to confirm they had already broken up.

"Then there was the discovery that the quiet Asian girl who had lived with Abraham in the Papo house for a few months, often studying English books on his bedroom floor, worked in a brothel".

WAIT....WHAT? She lived with him??? Ok, now I'm all kinds of confused. Was she trafficked from Korea by a controlling evil syndicate, who then let her go off and live with her boyfriend for a few months? How long ago was this? Why did she move out?

"[Papo] told [David] he had called Kathy on her mobile ... Kathy had been taken to Sydney and forced to work against her will. ''He said she was being raped and beaten and [told me] that he had to help her,'' David's police statement says. 

It took me three times reading through this article before I noticed this bit... "she had been taken to Sydney". Maybe I just had a comprehension fail, or maybe it was all the flowery language and waffling about Papo wanting to 'help Kathy' that had me picturing him trying to storm the place and drag her out of there. She wasn't there. She was in Sydney. So maybe Papo stormed the brothel demanding to know Kathy's whereabouts?

''[Abraham] said that a male had then got on [Kathy's] phone and threatened him. The guy had said that he would chop him up if he came near her. He told me he then rang an Asian guy that runs a brothel in South Melbourne and had an argument on the phone about Kathy.''

Ok, maybe not. He had just spoken to Kathy on the phone. Did she not know where she was? If his aim was to rescue Kathy, would it not have made more sense to call the Sydney police? Or jump on a plane? He had the money his brother gave him (if that's true) to do it. Why did he (supposedly) borrow this money, if not to get to Sydney? At this point, it's starting to seem highly likely that he stormed the brothel with violent intentions.

The whole phone call thing is also interesting. Apparently this sex slave - the one who was allowed to go off and live with her boyfriend for a few months - also has a mobile phone. A man gets on her phone (the same man who was raping and beating her?) and threatens to chop Papo into little pieces if he comes near her. And then....

David also told police he had called Kathy on her phone and, in broken English, she had confirmed that she was with ''bad people'', was being hurt and was unable to talk.

...the man hands the phone back to Kathy, so she can be called at a later date by her boyfriend's brother. But she's not allowed to talk. She just has the phone for...I dunno...Angry Birds, or something.

Maybe the TV program will provide more information and help this story make some kind of sense, but as it stands, it has more than a few plot-holes. I reckon I could write a slightly more believable version, based on the 'evidence' presented thus far...

A guy starts seeing a sex worker and falls in love with her. She moves in with him and after a few months, things start to head south. Maybe he demands she stop working and she doesn't want to, maybe he treats her badly (my own experience with a meth-using boyfriend wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs), or maybe she just doesn't feel the same way about him any more. For whatever reason, she ends the relationship and moves back into the brothel.

Loverboy doesn't accept this decision and starts stalking and harassing her. He calls her, she tells him she's gone to Sydney, he starts yelling at her. Some bloke (her boss, new boyfriend) grabs the phone and tells him to leave her alone. Loverboy goes ballistic. He doesn't believe she's in Sydney. He knows she's still in Melbourne and just trying to avoid him. He calls the Melbourne brothel and the owner takes Kathy's side, telling Loverboy to just back off and forget about her.

He goes to the police and makes a sex slavery claim - not because he fears his ex-girlfriend is 'in trouble', but to set the wheels in motion for a trafficking raid, which will cause havoc for the owners and hopefully get Kathy detained and/or deported. The police don't take it seriously, or maybe he just can't be bothered waiting for them to act, so he takes matters into his own hands. He storms the brothel, assaults a guy, maybe steals some stuff, then pulls out a metal bar to finish the job.

Now I'm not, for one second, excusing the man who beat another man severely enough to kill him, self-defence or not. I'm only looking at the events leading up to that incident, which - when you take away all the sex slavery, Asian crime gangs and seedy brothel neighbourhood crap - looks very much like your garden-variety ex-boyfriend who wouldn't take no for an answer. Would we see this differently if Kathy had been white? Or if she'd worked at a florist? Or if Zheng had been a nightclub bouncer, not a brothel driver?

Then, towards the end of the article, we get to the really dangerous part of these kinds of stories - the calls to change the laws and crack down on licensing/trafficking/sex work. Anyone who actually knows anything about sex work laws, brothel licensing and anti-trafficking laws, knows it's the 'cracking down' that actually facilitates this sort of crime. Cracking down on visas forces migrant sex workers to seek assistance from agents/traffickers. Cracking down on brothels forces owners to cut corners, rip off workers, or operate outside the legal framework in order to remain profitable. Cracking down on brothel licenses sees rich, powerful 'cleanskins' with no brothel experience buying their way into the sex industry. These crackdowns are invariably introduced in the name of "protecting vulnerable sex workers", but they are always the people that end up being hurt the most.

In the days since The Age article and Four Corners promotion hit, there has been an avalanche of trafficking and sex slavery media in NSW and Victoria... name but a few.

By the you notice anything missing from all of these articles? All these calls to change laws, crack down on owners and "protect the prostitutes"? Sex worker voices, that's what's missing. The very people these politicians and noisy advocates claim to want to protect. So noisy that they can't hear sex worker groups screaming FOR FUCKS SAKE, YOU WANNA TALK ABOUT EXPLOITATION? HOW ABOUT WE START WITH YOU EXPLOITING US IN THE NAME OF POLITICAL POINT-SCORING?!

The voices of sex worker rights organisations will not be heard in the Four Corners piece. The Australian sex workers association, for example - who runs a federally-funded migration project, in partnership with sex worker organisations in SE Asia and staffed by multilingual migrant sex workers  - was actively refused an interview during production. In their attempts to redress this obvious bias, sex worker groups are now being refused interviews with the newspapers. If you want to hear that side of the story, you will need to go to their websites, follow them on Twitter and Facebook, read the Indy press. Because you ain't gonna hear it in the mainstream media.

Trafficking is real. Sex slavery is a heinous crime and anyone committing it should be hunted down like a dog and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We need to be aware that these situations exist and to know what to do if we come across it. But writing racist, hysterical nonsense and actively excluding the experts from the discussion is not the way to go about it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In defence of bogans...

This is a comment I made on another blog post that was defending the stereotyping of 'bogans'. Just posting it here to show someone else - and maybe to point to in future when the debate gets too much for me.

This suburban vs inner city thing seems to come up a lot in the ‘bogan’ discussion. I feel I should point out that that’s very much a Melbourne/Sydney thing. Other cities don’t recognise those issues to the same extent because they are, or have traditionally been, constructed differently – and the bush doesn’t recognise those issues at all. It’s no coincidence that the people most active against anti-bogan sentiment on Twitter have been from WA, SA, Qld and/or regional areas.

Interestingly, all those places are often judged as more ‘bogan’ than NSW or Victoria. The recent WA-bashing is a case in point, with West Aussies frequently described as inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, greedy and selfish. Why? Because it’s the home of the cashed up bogan? Again, I don’t think it’s coincidence that Australia’s primary mining and agricultural states, Qld and WA, are commonly stereotyped as insular bogan bigots.

You said in your post that “bogan was a Melbourne word for many decades …to [Sydney] the bogans of old were westies”.

Firstly, you guys (apparently) defined a bogan by the suburb they lived in. We didn’t. We have ‘bogan suburbs’, known as such because that’s where all the bogans live, ie. the ‘bogan’ is a pre-defined type of person that happens to congregate in that suburb. Those suburbs are almost exclusively welfare and state housing-dependent areas, so for many people, ‘bogan’ is intrinsically linked to low income.

Secondly, Melbourne isn’t the only place where the word ‘bogan’ existed. I was identifying as a bogan in highschool, 25 years ago. I also have friends from Adelaide who claim ‘boganhood’ in their teens and their definition is compatible with mine – someone in black jeans and a flanno who drives a ute, drinks beer and listens to Oz rock. It had nothing to do with bigotry, or ostentatious clothing and houses (the latter being the complete opposite of the traditional bogan).

Which brings us to the crux of my argument – I don’t appreciate my personal lifestyle or history (or state) being re-appropriated to mean something hideous and hated. And it’s really not appropriate for people who don’t inhabit that community or identify with the label to say it’s simply part of the “continuing defining process” and dismiss the concerns of people that do.

This cruel stereotype will cause actual harm to people. It’s already started. For example, Centrelink is trialling income management in select ‘bogan suburbs’ in Perth, because their inhabitants are automatically deemed to be irresponsible and lazy. Actually they’re just poor, but society supports these measures because they firmly believe that ‘bogans’ are a certain breed of people who don’t give a f*ck about their kids or their health or the taxpayer. Hey, that sounds familiar…NT intervention, anyone?

You are creating a new underclass that it’s totally PC to vilify. And it’s all very well to claim that the meaning of the word is changing, but the ORIGINAL meaning of the word is still firmly entrenched in our psyche. What this means is that, today, any person fitting the OLD definition of bogan (black jeans, wifebeater, feral ute, goatee) is immediately grouped together with the NEW definition of bogan (violent, racist, sexist, homophobe). I should add that this is particularly upsetting for country people, like me, who tend to present as the city idea of ‘bogan’, even if we don’t identify as such. Just last week I had an argument with someone about “arrogant country bogans in their 4WDs, who don’t give a f*ck about the environment”.

Apologies for the lengthy rant, but I don’t think people realise just how much this stereotyping is hurting people. I’m actually getting to the point where I’m scared to talk about certain things on Twitter, lest I be deemed bogan and shouted down for it. On the weekend, I tweeted a ‘bogan’ joke and a friend retweeted it – he suffered a full day of insults and accusations of bigotry because of it. (Both of us are left-leaning and known in the activist community AND also identify as bogans). In short, if someone is a bigot, call them a bigot. The word ‘bogan’ is already taken.