The answer is complicated, explains Sydney-based sex worker Tilly Lawless, who took to the stage at TEDxYouth@Sydney on Wednesday, addressing the negative attitudes towards her profession. Though her sex work is decriminalised within New South Wales, it’s still overshadowed by stigma, which is something Lawless hopes the next generation can redress.
“I can’t donate blood, I can’t get WorkCover, I can’t travel to the US, and I’ll very likely come up against stigma when looking for a job or a rental property – but I am incredibly lucky,” she says on stage at Sydney Town Hall. “I can work safely, I can seek legal aid if something happens to me, and I can – as a white woman – speak about my job without it being held up as an example of my race.”
Sex work is still criminalised in South Australia; street sex work and brothel keeping are illegal in Western Australia; and in the other Australian states and territories there are specific restrictions on sex work of all kinds. So is Sydney a good place for a sex worker?
“Any metropolitan city is easier to work in in terms of anonymity,” says Lawless in an interview following her talk. “Working in a small town would be a lot more difficult in terms of being outed or recognised by a client, so working in a metropolis is much safer. There are many options for different kinds of sex work in a city this big. There’s also a big flow of international clientele. It’s a good city to work in.”
If you follow 24-year-old Lawless on Instagram (as 26,000 others do), you’d know that she is a keen horse-rider, a queer woman and that she’s become a relatively reluctant activist for sex worker rights – she feels she has an obligation to speak up when others can’t.
“My story falls in between [the stereotypes of sex workers] because I don’t come from a financially stable background, I come from a rural area, I’m a drug user – I’m quite openly a drug user. I don’t think I should be deserving of the accolades that I’m given for what I have to say, but at the same time I think I should ride the platform I’m given.”
Lawless used her TEDxYouth talk to call out the derogatory names she’s been called by so-called feminists – or SWERFs (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists). She mentions actors like Lena Dunham and Meryl Streep petitioning against Amnesty International’s call to decriminalise sex work; she quotes Empower Foundation, the sex worker action group that supports hundreds of women in Thailand; and she asks how renting out her vagina is any different to a laborer renting out their arms to stack shelves.
“The knee-jerk reaction people have with sex work is tied up with ideas of how women should behave; we’re not meant to financially capitalise on our sexuality but instead give it freely and within the bonds of a relationship. This is why men sex workers are not scrutinised in nearly the same way as women sex workers,” she says on stage, calling on the young audience to help remove stigma by watching their language, listening to sex workers, donating to sex worker rights organisations, and to remember that sex workers are human.
“I think there needs to be a bigger focus on stigma, because stigma still contributes to bad working conditions,” she says offstage. “Most people aren’t able to risk being out about their job [to seek aid or complain about abuse] because stigma still exists on such a wide scale.”
Lawless has been working in Sydney for over four years and she’s aware that it’ll take generations before attitudes to her job change, but she has “the support of my friends and the family that matters to me”. And, though being the face of sex worker rights in Sydney is problematic, she’s going to keep advocating because, “I’ve somehow been given a platform and people want to listen to me. I work in a state [where it] has been decriminalised, so I’m not going to be arrested for speaking about it. All those reasons mean I am in this position that not many other sex workers have, so I feel like I have to utilise that.”
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