ON World AIDS Day, I was at Government House in Melbourne mentoring someone in the art of bugging strangers for their help. I do this a lot. Approach strangers and ask for help, that is. I am an activist, so I routinely lobby politicians and other useful bystanders. But as a queer sex worker, I am always on the outside asking to get in.
The discrimination I face, both because of my work and as an activist, are compounded in complex ways by the fact that I am both queer and a sex worker. Yet each is distinctly different and cannot be compared. Queer and sex work communities are diverse and no-one should attempt to speak to collective experience – I speak to my lived experience only.
“So what do you do?”
That’s a standard question when you meet people, usually one of the first asked. Every time I am asked this, I have to choose between lying (which I don’t like), or telling the truth and dealing with the aftermath.
It’s called “sex work 101”. Sometimes it’s actually okay, other times it’s boring. It can be so frustrating it takes me hours to wind down, and sometimes – unfortunately – it’s violent. I also get asked to lie. Asked to lie about what I do by friends when I am going to their birthday parties and weddings. Asked to lie about both my queer identity and sex work by one family member, while another strongly disagrees with my choice of work they tell people I am deceased. I get asked and can’t be bothered explaining. I get asked and (occasionally) explain in detail… And every time someone asks there’s that choice.
When people know I am a sex worker, I get hate. Yes, hate. Telling people the truth about being a sex worker is a little like a lottery – but every now and then you get someone that feels they have the right to tell you that you don’t have a right to exist. That sex workers’ right to work should be abolished. That is the position of both conservative politicians and radical feminists – an unholy alliance. Radical feminists believe that sex workers suffer from false consciousness – that I don’t know my own mind and lack the ability to consent to sex work, which considering I’ve been able to consent for a while now, I find pretty offensive. Also, this is a position that compromises the bodily autonomy and agency of sex workers – who are conceptualised in radical feminist theory as all-female and rendering male and trans sex workers invisible. This isn’t just a “difference of opinion”. This is hate speech.
Speaking of invisible, as a sex worker, my queer identity is constantly questioned. Persistently. Pretty much by anyone that I come in contact with that finds out that I am both queer and a sex worker. Questions like:
“How does that work?”
“If you have sex with men for money how can you be gay?”
“Don’t you get grossed out?”
“Do you ever get turned on?”
“If you get turned on, how can you be gay?”
“So you must actually be bi, right?”
“I could never date a sex worker, it must be hard finding a partner?”
“I could never do what you do…”
To start with, it’s work. I maintain boundaries between private life and work. My sexual identity and my working life do have points of interaction (obviously), but neither of them obscure or overwrite the other (if you want me to explain further – book me).
I also see female clients and couples (no, this doesn’t make me polyamorous). And yes, I am grossed out mainly by people who think they have a right to ask intrusive questions about my sexual identity and/or work.
Yes, I do get turned and no, I am not bi.
Dating hasn’t been a problem, ever – people find the idea of someone who has spent a significant time honing the erotic arts attractive. (Who knew?) And you might not be any good at it, but you could try.
When I’m not invisible, I am being outed against my will through forced STI and HIV testing. Current laws in Victoria mandate the monitoring and criminalisation of sex workers, even though sex workers have lower rates of STIs and HIV than the general population, and have higher compliance with condom use. Government-mandated health checks are offensive and demoralising to Victorian sex workers. The most regular unwelcome contact I have is when I am forced to be examined by someone (a doctor) who – because they know I am a sex worker – is able to make whatever bigoted comments they like, and I, needing my certificate to be allowed to work will (usually) shut up and take it.
At the World AIDS Day event I listened to Victorian Health Minister David Davis talk about the need for “promoting environments and settings that support people disclosing their HIV status”. Meanwhile UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about discrimination, stating it was “not acceptable in a civilised world”.
Laws for sexual conduct should be the same for all members of the community – not applied according to any discriminatory characteristic. Kane Mathews, an out sex worker living with HIV and former president of Scarlet Alliance, argues that “the presence of money does not affect HIV transmission”. Rather obviously, laws criminalising those that are HIV positive do not support the disclosure of HIV status, this affects sex workers. Laws in Victoria that criminalise sex workers living with HIV go against the currently-stated goals of both the Victorian Health Minister and UNAIDS.
Going into 2014 as a queer sex worker, and looking towards events such as AIDS 2014 in Melbourne that impact so profoundly on both communities I inhabit, it would be better if belonging to both of these communities at once didn’t compound ongoing discrimination, and instead made potential contributions to such events more, rather than less possible.