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 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey