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


  1. Well said, well written and very well balanced. I hope people read and finally take the time to understand. If those with no understanding continue to call for the Banning of the Live Export trade then what they are really calling for is a man made disaster on the the scale that Australia has never before witnessed. Far more animals will die horrible deaths when the market crashes and the farmers ( the people who care for them on a daily basis) have no where to send them, and no money left in which to feed and water them all. The welfare line is bad now, but if they stop the live export trade then it will be endless. I am still trying to work out why the Animal Activists keep saying how bad the animals are treated without even taking in to consideration the fact that they may have been fooled by four corners into believing something that is not the actual truth. Hidden agendas abound.

    1. Thanks! Yes, there's a whole bundle of evidence to show that keeping Australia involved is actually GOOD for animal welfare. Australia is the only country trying to improve conditions in other countries. Pull us out and not only will our animals suffer at home, but the animals who replace ours in the international market will, as well.

  2. Really well said. Can't thank you enough for this piece. Australia needs more minds like this to speak clearly and dispense with 'outrage'. Bravo.

  3. An amazing piece of writing and so very very true. Congratulations for your open mind.

  4. I love this blog! I had the same thing happen to me, but I have always maintained my impartiality. I hope to make a radio doco on the LE trade, to see for myself what it's like, and tell concerned people. Unfortunately, some of those "concerned people" have completely victimised me on Twitter, even making attacks on me personally, and on my work. That really shocked me, so it was great to read someone else's blog who had the same sort of thing happen.

    I also lost thousands of twitter followers in about 48 hours, just by talking about the things I had learned at LiveCorp's Accredited Stockperson training course. So much of what we read is just not true, and in the course of researching my doco it was important I figured out a bit of what's true and what isn't for myself. Well, try telling people. They don't want to know. They lost their minds and went totally berserk. It was totally illogical.

    I have always had a sneaking suspicion that some of those people just hate living. They say "animals, I'd rather you were never born - I'd rather you never had the experience of existence, if it means you have to die in this way."

    To me that is someone who hates their own life. It's got nothing to do with animals. They probably have a list of things they HATE with a VENGEANCE.

    Here is a quote from

    “I am not a morose person, but I would rather not be here. I don’t have any reverence for life, only for the entities themselves. I would rather see a blank space where I am. This will sound like fruitcake stuff again but at least I wouldn’t be harming anything.”
    — Ingrid Newkirk, The Washington Post, Nov 1983

    I got a message from Animals Australia about one of the people who were attacking me on Twitter and listing the AA website as if it was her own personal project: "I can confirm that this person has no link to Animals Australia, and doesn't represent us. People sometimes choose to include our URL in their profiles to show their support of our organisation and unfortunately don't always act respectfully beyond that."...which made me feel a lot better.

    I had to do a bit of blocking. :)

    Thanks for your super writing.

    1. Thank you! I think you summed it up when you said people just don't want to know. There are certain issues that people are convinced are 'bad' and nothing you say will ever change that. It doesn't help that much of the information available to them is biased (or blatant fabrication), but they're probably not reading it anyway, unless it conforms to their version of the 'truth'.

      I accept that people have opposing views and opinions. What I will NOT accept is people flatly refusing to properly inform those opinions, because they think they know better.

      Kudos to you for wanting to see the situation first-hand and form your own opinions, rather than relying on second-hand information. Looking forward to your doco! x

  5. Del, thank you. When you first got retweeted into my timeline, over something I can't remember was about, it was your ability to take an issue, any issue, and in 140 characters, turn it into the bleeding obvious, an obvious I wouldn't have seen without you. My own mind is more open thanks to you. I owe you.

    1. Yep, that's my Superhero Power... stating the bleeding obvious. :p

      Love ya, mate. Keep up the awesome work.

  6. Because moral are only an excuse for your position. Morals are cheap.

    Be against rape, but support julian assange.

    Be against opression, targeting civilians, terrorism, pro seperation of church and state. But support hamas.

    Give to world vision, but snub a homeless guy in the street.

    support pay rise for nurses, teachers, police. but be against farmers making money tp support country towns, education, infrastructure.

    Morals are just a cheap excuse for an argument.

    1. "Morals are just a cheap excuse for an argument". Well said! Couldn't agree more.