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Politics

Oct 21, 2015

To hell with your morality, decriminalising sex work saves lives

Sex work should be safe and legal, because if it is not the latter, it will not be the former.

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Sex worker Grace Bellavue died last week, and this is an appalling declaration on several counts. First, the person this sentence describes was just 28 and in possession of a rather fine mind that she put to good use. Second, the response this sentence evokes can tend to rely an ignorant morality. In recent reports of her death, both Bellavue and the industry in which she worked have been reinterpreted as tragic.

Bellavue, whom I happened to know personally, was not a victim of but an advocate for her trade. The only truly tragic thing about her is that she did not live to see her 30th birthday. Her early death, like all early deaths, was tragic. Her short life, however, merits no more pity or revulsion than that of any other worker.

But responses in the pity-revulsion range are what we have largely seen from media. Although not directly declared, the assumption that she died as a result of either her bad choices or the bad choices of a patriarchal clientele is at the basis of reports. Hours after her death, the prominent traditional and social media advocate became a cautionary tale.

If Bellavue’s life offers a “meaning”, she wrote it down quite clearly herself. She, an informed and literate advocate, was opposed to abolitionist approaches to sex work. Her view, formed not only through direct experience but by evidence, was that criminalisation, of either sex workers or their clients, was harmful policy. Bellavue, who urged her state’s government to consider the proven positive health and economic outcomes of decriminalised sex work, would not wish to be remembered as a victim.

But that’s how she has been construed in a handful of media reports.

Although Bellavue had been successful in life as a champion for evidence such as that provided by New Zealand’s Prostitution Law Review Committee and the findings of the Kirby Institute, she was not so lucky in death. There’s a particular reason for this, and it’s not just that mainstream news services love to provide prurient details about sexy dead girls. To be fair, News Corp and other organisations have given Bellavue and other informed advocates for decriminalisation occasional previous fair review. It is, after all, impossible to overlook the scholarship of the last two decades that demonstrates that a decriminalised industry delivers better outcomes to workers and clients alike.

But it’s also tempting for media to write according to the terms of a conveniently provided abolitionist press release.

A source provided me with a press release prepared in the days after Bellavue’s death and said to be written to promote the lobbying of Australian abolitionist group Normac. This putatively feminist organisation seeks to follow the so-called Swedish, or Nordic, model on sex work, which criminalises clients, not providers, of sex workers.

The press release, which many in the sex industry view as an opportunistic response to Bellavue’s suicide, urges for better mental health services for sex workers, before it concludes by urging an end to sex work itself.  It describes a letter, signed by people including former ETU secretary Dean Mighell, WA politician Peter Abetz (brother of Eric), and singer Katie Noonan.

This correspondence enjoins mental health organisations such as Beyondblue to care for the mental health of sex workers. By depriving them of a legal means of income.

Former sex worker Geena Leigh, or as the press release describes her, a “prostitution survivor”, is quoted as saying, “I never met one woman who truly wanted to do sex work.” Clearly, she never met Grace.

You can church up the Swedish model any way you want — and it has a certain morally simplistic appeal to those who would say “It’s not the prostitutes I despise, but the men who go to visit them” — but it just ends up making the oldest profession a particularly difficult and dangerous one.  As the New Zealand report, NSW evidence and many international presentations have found, the number of people providing and securing sex work does not change when laws do. Whether sex work is criminalised, decriminalised or licensed in brothels, the number of people buying and offering services remains stable.

In other words, whether you “like” the idea of sex work or not, it’s a persistent demand-driven industry. And this, for all her cheeky presentations about the joys of sex work, was Bellavue’s central message. You don’t need to celebrate us, or even approve of us. But you do need to consider the evidence that demonstrates that sex work is a constant and that when it is decriminalised, it dramatically reduces the rates of STI transmission to clients and the risk to workers of abuse. Decriminalisation diminishes negative mental and physical health outcomes for everyone.

Normac, or whichever abolitionist interest group provided the press release, has no business disingenuously rewriting Bellavue’s working life as the reason for her death.

“As a sex worker, I’ve been confronted hurt and made angry by the use of Grace’s words in a context to which she was clearly opposed,” said Janelle Fawkes, CEO of sex worker lobby group the Scarlet Alliance. “Often, people have so little respect for sex workers that they have not permitted us to grieve, nor have they allowed Grace’s views to survive.”

Abolitionist groups have shown no respect for the dead and, critically, as Fawkes reminds us, no respect for the evidence.

“Grace was a strong, articulate advocate for decriminalisation, and in many of her written works, she clearly articulated what we know: the Swedish model and other forms of criminalisation and licensing were harmful for sex workers.”

Bellavue was an idealistic person who at times sought to change the cultural revulsion for sex workers through playful works in Vice and elsewhere. But she was otherwise a practical person who sought to just change the damn law.

Change the damn law. Ditch the damn morality. You can loathe or pity sex workers or their clients, but what you may not ethically do is deny a group of workers the same rights, however dwindling, the rest of us enjoy.

Vale, Grace Bellavue. When you wrote and when you spoke to me, I knew that your mind was as brilliant as your rack. May the liberty for workers you advanced one day become as ordinary as the illogical pity of your perfectly reasonable trade.

Lifeline: 13 11 14 

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “To hell with your morality, decriminalising sex work saves lives

  1. MsCuriosityK

    Thanks Razer.

    Well written.

  2. Michael James

    And in a very sad commentary on society, following the link in your article, I found that someone has already jumped onto her twitter feed, all of her articles, advocacy and snark has gone.

    It’s as if, as far as Twitter’s concerned, Grace Bellavue never existed. 🙁

    1. Sophie Benjamin

      Hi Michael – I believe her family and people in her inner circle are planning to compile and release a book of her writing, tweets, Facebook messages and assorted other internet postings. As well as that, Grace quit Twitter a few months before she died. I

  3. Helen Razer

    Hi Michael. As Sophie says, Grace is not forgotten. She had great support in the sex work community and beyond and she was certainly gifted of a personality and writing style that made her impossible to dismiss.
    It’s not so much the fault of Twitter but of particular special interest groups that her obituary was written not in service to her memory, but its obliteration.
    The decriminalisation debate is at fever pitch right now, particularly following Amnesty’s remarkably level-headed decision to endorse it. A number of prominent women, including Lena Dunham,. Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep, have elected to support criminilastion of sex work despite evidence, upheld by Amnesty, that it just doesn’t produce anything but bad outcomes. Accordingly, the “anti-prostitution”, or abolitionist, movement is growing. It is in this climate that Grace, and what she unambiguously stood for, is forgotten.

  4. iPinque

    Excellent article, Ms Razer. I’ve often thought that almost all opposition to sex work derives from Biblical (or Koranical or Torahnnycal) moralising. It’s essentially an outcome of uptight old men’s revulsion of sex in all its forms.

    Whether from the pulpit or feminist blog, the underlying assumption is that sex is a dirty, nasty thing that men do to women.

    It’s such an awful thing that no woman would ever want to do it. So, anyone doing it for money is either a victim of coercion, or a contemptible “slut” (hateful word).

    Sex has been mythtified (new word – feel free to use it) as an almost spiritual act between two (and only two) people, done with love.

    I call bullshit on that, and I regret the passing of your friend, who was obviously a saner, wiser person than those who would portray her as a victim.

  5. MsCuriosityK

    I do wonder how her writing will be branded – as Grace or as Pippa … because I hope her writing that is published isn’t only the parts that suit a particular brand.

    Pippa O’Sullivan was an amazing writer and I hope we get the complexity of her mind on paper.

  6. MsCuriosityK

    *aren’t … (not as lucid as I’d like to be … )

  7. Helen Razer

    Hi Curiosity. I elected only to use Grace’s nom d’amour because several of her colleagues agreed that a single form of address was the most proper form of address in this kind of report. Further, as I am sure you know, Grace used the names interchangeably and often made little distinction between her working self and private self, as being “real” much of the time was kind of her whole deal. So, I wouldn’t fret about the brands because I don’t think she, or anyone, thought that “Grace” was less complex than Pip.
    As far as I am aware from news, Grace’s family are seeking to compile her works. I don’t think it matters what pen-name they decide to go with and we can be sure they will make a good decision for the memory of someone they loved very much. We can be happy that she a great family who supported her in life and have her back now! Thanks goodness.
    Finally, I am very sorry if you’re miserable about this turn of events, too. It sucks.

  8. MsCuriosityK

    Cheers, Razer.

    For me, it’s how identity is compiled. As far as I can gauge, Pippa started Grace Bellavue as a business venture. And well, twitter leaves tracks. And contextually, you met Pippa/Grace back in 2013. And complexity and ownership of a narrative isn’t as easy as one would think. While Grace may have ‘loved sex’ … I’m kinda weirded out how no one has made the connection between the meta data collect date and her death.

    Cos, well, complexity. I also off topic but not, want to address the concept of sex work using the body but when the body as commodity ages etc … so I’m grappling with that.

    But please don’t get me wrong – safe work safe sex work and decriminalising is necessary. The idea that Pippa/Grace worked in an environment that was illegal baffles me. Cos well stupid. Cos safe environment is integral. But the complexity of Pippa, this amazing writer who wanted to use herself as a business venture unashamedly in an illegal environment … why aren’t we addressing that?

  9. MsCuriosityK

    Cheers, Razer.

    For me, it’s how identity is compiled. As far as I can gauge, Pippa started Grace Bellavue as a business venture. And well, twitter leaves tracks. And contextually, you met Pippa/Grace back in 2013. And complexity and ownership of a narrative isn’t as easy as one would think. While Grace may have ‘loved sex’ … I’m kinda weirded out how no one has made the connection between the meta data collect date and her death.

    Cos, well, complexity. I also off topic but not, want to address the concept of sex work using the body but when the body as commodity ages etc … so I’m grappling with that.

    But please don’t get me wrong – safe work safe sex work and decriminalising is necessary. The idea that Pippa/Grace worked in an environment that was illegal baffles me. Cos well stupid. Cos safe environment is integral. But the complexity of Pippa, this amazing writer who wanted to use herself as a business venture unashamedly in an illegal environment … why aren’t we addressing that?

  10. MsCuriosityK

    I also do research … when you do this …@helenrazer @gracebellavue in the twitter search engine …

    I guess for me it’s about Pippa O’Sullivan who started a business venture and contextually … it’s about all these people wanting to co-opt who she is and what she wanted and behind all this is a human being who had endured trauma that we have no idea about. I initially liked your piece cos of your premise of a safe work environment.

    And I still like your piece. But contextually, to say you knew her ‘personally’ is a bit of a stretch.

    You had an interaction with her in a specific point in time.

    Pippa O’Sullivan was a businesswoman who wanted to market GB as a business but from what I gather there was also the reach of the metadata legislation that no one seems to want to address.

  11. MsCuriosityK

    Razer … I’m not doubting that Pippa O’Sullivan had a brilliant mind but there are questions that need to be answered and you’re not addressing them. Her mum “vomits” kicks her out … and then that same Mum appears on The Project?

    Can we not do a Belle Gibson here. Seriously if Grace Bellavue were black we’d be so onto her. But hey, white pussy, it circumnavigates truth and reality …

  12. MsCuriosityK

    I am not discounting your original premise but the ‘sound mind’ … when the objectification of the body comes into play and how it plays into mental health … and GB ultimately became an object not the intelligent Pippa O’Sullivan and her mother will milk it I’m sure. Cos her mother ultimately betrayed her cos her mother loves stuff … and treated Pippa appallingly. A mother who can kick her child out of home at 17 … let’s explore that …

  13. MsCuriosityK

    Pippa O’Sullivan knows her mother will censor her works to suit her mother’s narrative and that’s why it’s wrong.

    And as an outsider even I can see that.

    Her mother betrayed her as a child.

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