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