We Talked to the Woman Behind #facesofprostitution

Tilly Lawless gave us her take on "empowerment" and why being a sex worker doesn't make her an authority on sex trafficking.

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Apr 10 2015, 3:46pm

Image via Tilly Lawless

Last week Sydney sex worker Tilly Lawless posted a photo of herself smiling on Instagram with the hashtag #facesofprositution. The post was a response to an article on the Australia women's website Mamamia titled "Think the fantasy of prostitution in Pretty Women is harmless? Think again." The piece, originally posted on an anti-human-trafficking site in the US, presented images of bruised, emaciated, drug-addicted sex workers.

When she woke up the next day, Lawless discovered she'd inadvertently started a social media earthquake. In the days that followed sex workers from all over the world shared photos of themselves under the hashtag—in some cases outing themselves as sex workers for the first time—to protest against the stereotype that sex workers are intrinsically victims who need saving.

Since then, both Lawless and the hashtag have received mixed reactions; many have assumed that the 21-year-old history graduate is some sort of authority on Australian sex workers, something she says is an inaccurate presumption. I called her up to see how she's feeling in the wake of the post, and what she hopes the movement has us thinking about.

VICE: Before we get to the craziness of this past week, I wanted to ask you about the use of the word empowered. I always find it interesting how much it's used when talking about sex work. No one talks about other jobs needing to be empowering. Is that word relevant?
Tilly Lawless: It might mean something to another woman—and if it does, then wonderful—but I hate being asked all the time if I'm empowered. There are plenty of people who aren't empowered in their jobs—people working maybe as a bank clerk, or in a shoe shop—but for some reason as sex workers we're asked again and again if we are empowered. I mean, is that a prerequisite? Why should I have to thrash out an entire speech proving that I'm an empowered woman before anyone takes me seriously or considers my job a real job?

And you don't have to be empowered to be safe or satisfied with your job.
Exactly, it's a buzzword that's used all the time. People want you to say you're not empowered, they want you to say you hate your job because then they can say, "We knew it all along, it's not possible to like sex work." I'm just not sure why it's a necessary question.

I've never worked in the sex industry, but when people talk about the dangers and the risks I keep thinking—those issues aren't about sex work. They're related to women, and the way women are treated in the workplace and in general.
Oh my God—so there was a woman who came around to one of the parlors I work at. I didn't meet her, but she asked all the girls about their histories of sexual abuse and published a book about how all sex workers have been sexually abused. That really angered me because you could ask a room full of lawyers, or uni students, a woman on the bus, or any woman, and chances are she's been sexually abused or harassed.

The thing with sex workers is that because of the changing legality of sex work and the stigma around it we have less recourse for legal action when it happens to us. But in terms of sexual abuse in general, that's the reality of being a woman, not the reality of being a sex worker.

But we have to acknowledge that you are arguably more vulnerable than a girl making coffees—whether it's because your work is out of sight, or because you can't report abuse as easily. How do we talk about those vulnerabilities without demonizing the industry and suggesting all sex workers are victims?
The main way to address these issues is to allow sex workers to speak for themselves. I really think that's what it will come down to. Sex workers will only be humanized and seen as individuals if people are aware of us as individuals.

Which is probably a good way to get back to #facesofprostitution. One thing some people may have misunderstood was that although Mamamia took a lot of the heat for their article, it was originally posted by an anti-trafficking organization. Does context change the message?
I probably never would have seen it if it had only been published on that website. The reason it came to my attention was because Mamamia published it. But that angered me because Mamamia presents itself as a progressive feminist website, and it packaged that point of view to the mainstream as feminism.

If people just read that on the website exoduscry.com they would have seen it in the context of a religious website with moral motives. But by republishing it gave it legitimacy, that's what was so frustrating.

An argument that's come up repeatedly is that while there are many, many women like you who are in control of your work, there are also many who aren't. The article presented that point in a pretty crude way, but it is still a reality.
A lot of the response from anti-trafficker groups has been: Oh, women are coerced and abused. And that's entirely true, I'm not denying that and by no means trying to detract from the fact that there are people who are trafficked into the industry. But by giving sex workers rights, whether they're proud of their job or not, giving them labor rights is not going to adversely affect people who are trafficked into the industry.

Rights would hopefully work in favor of people who are trafficked because it would perhaps bring the sex industry into the open and allow more exit paths for people who didn't want to be in the industry.

How would it provide exit paths?
It would hopefully eliminate some of society's stigma so they would have more people to turn to and not have to feel ashamed. Also if it was more out in the open hopefully police would take reports more seriously. I know girls who have gone to police after being assaulted at work and basically had the police say they weren't going to do anything.

But I really don't think I can comment on trafficking because I'm not educated on it and a lot of what's written is about European trafficking. My experience is purely in Sydney. I haven't spent my life studying the patterns of trafficking.

That feels like a slippery slope, saying one part of sex work is OK, but not another.
I don't think it's ever OK to say one thing is OK and another isn't. I don't think it's my place to draw a line. My comment was that anti-trafficking rhetoric is often used to disadvantage migrant workers who do want to be working. It's far more complex than the way it's generally presented.

Why do you think #facesofprostitution took off the way it did?
I think social media allowed it to move in a way it wouldn't have ten years ago. I also think it was a simple and effective hashtag, I mean #facesofprostitution—any sex worker can get behind that and interpret it in anyway they want.

Is inclusion among sex workers an issue?
Sex workers sometimes try and highlight how respectable and normal they are as a way to try and gain rights. You hear things like: "Oh, well, I don't use drugs, I'm not a street walker, I'm a respectable member of society, I pay my taxes—therefore I should have rights like other people."

That feeds into the whorearchy—the hierarchy of sex work. By proclaiming you don't do drugs you're making the argument at the expense of the sex workers who do use drugs. And it suggests they're then less deserving of rights because they're not as much of a normal member of society.

There's often talk of the need to normalize sex work and recognize it as just another job. What's your take on that?
I think it's oversimplifying it because it's asking people to toe the line in order to deserve labor rights. It says to sex workers, if you stop doing drugs, or you don't go party on the weekend, or if you dress like everyone else and maintain a monogamous lifestyle outside of work, then we're happy to give you rights.

But the images under #facesofprostitution are largely of happy, well-adjusted looking women—which seems to make that argument.
I think with #facesofprostitution, at least when I started it, it was about saying, we are people and we're all individuals and unique.

Also, I use drugs, I'm not going to go around saying I don't do all these things. Once you start saying that, it allows people to take away rights from sex workers who do use drugs. And then we're doubly stigmatizing them: They have the stigma of being a sex worker and a drug user. Does that makes sense?

You're saying you shouldn't have to earn the right to be heard—it should be a given.
Yes. These rights are needed regardless.

It's been a pretty weird week for you, right?
Oh my god, I've have over 200 messages in my inbox and most of it has just been dick pics and disgusting propositions from men describing how they want to fuck me. I mean I've always got messages like that, all girls on Facebook have, but it has increased exponentially.

How do you manage that kind of bombardment?
I've been getting back to some of them. I got sent a prayer for redemption by a Brazilian pastor and I just sent back, "thanks babe xxx."

What about the non-dick pic, non-prayer-related interactions? The attention has spilled into the mainstream media too.
It hasn't been enjoyable. I'm the kind of person who likes being in control of my life, so it was intense to wake up on Monday morning to all this media and suddenly be treated like an authority. There are plenty of more educated opinions out there.

I think you're handling it all pretty well.
Well I have to take advantage of it because the more talk there is about sex worker rights the better. And amongst all the gross and inappropriate messages there have been some really nice ones. One of those outweighs 50 awful messages.

Follow Wendy on Twitter.

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