Persephone Fraser

How the oldest trade sours gender relations

New TBS writer Persephone Fraser enters the discussion, elucidating how the ‘oldest trade’ colours the perception of all women who surround it.


Where I worked for the last three years, a bar in Brisbane’s infamously unattractive Fortitude Valley, was a block from a strip of uninviting and inexpensive strip clubs. At the end of our short street was one with some Candy related name, known for it’s $5 lap dances where, as people more or less comically retold, you could actually touch them. The nearest cab rank to us was in front of this establishment, where small groups of overweight and unsuccessful middle-aged men headed after asking for their change in $5s. When I was a few years younger (and more importantly, before I’d been to one of these establishments), I subscribed vaguely to the idea that we each own our bodies, that those involved were empowered by the ability to charge for the asset or at least that it didn’t affect me what they did with their bodies, time and money.

In a very real sense, though, it does. The effect is not just on that corner of the Valley past a certain hour, but I’ll start there.

Getting a cab outside of this strip late at night or early in the morning meant cabbies frequently gave me spurious looks when I said I’d been working. I thought at first, as a modern empowered individual with an open mind, that whether this guy thought I worked on this strip or on the adjacent one seemed unimportant. But the way their manner would consistently change, the way they would speak to me and look at me went to show that it does. They weren’t uproarious, they didn’t say hateful things, but their behaviour would consistently show an absolute void of respect, and frequently disgust. It can be seen – in the way the people I worked with and I looked at the girls smoking outside that strip joint; the way they swore across at us; the way people crossed the street to pass them; the way men yelled at them or the way the guy in the convenience store wouldn’t make eye contact or small talk with them – that it’s divisive.

It becomes clear when I get into a cab and am treated like the women who work on this strip instead of at the other end that it is not possible to cleanly segment what is okay there and what is okay everywhere else. It seems in the behaviour I repeatedly observed that it doesn’t seem possible for guys to go to a strip joint for laughs, buy their friends lap dances, and respect their female friends, partners or people just trying to walk down the street. Even if they could cleanly divide what’s for sale and what’s not (which becomes seriously spurious for them with a few drinks and anyone on shift), there is a more subtle effect in their relationships and brushes with all women.

My argument is this: these women are seriously disrespected whilst smoking outside and getting home just as much as while working inside, because sex is a fundamental factor of gender relations (perhaps unfortunately) and the bastardisation or commodification of that gender relationship, and the strict separation of sex and affection from love, fosters contempt and disrespect that impacts the patron in question, inadvertently the friends they associate with, coworkers, children and partners, and in turn those behaviours and attitudes affect those who work in the sex industry, bystanders as well as women they come into contact with, souring the relationship from the other end by the creation of a norm, of particular expectations of those involved, making it normal for women to be treated like property that can be bought in drinks or tips or specifically priced services, which solidifies disrespectful and unequal gender relations. The lack of respect, even spite, that you see cabbies, passers by and patrons alike throw at strippers (being the most public of the sex industries) is a reflection of the offensive that is taken to selling something that is held sacred by our society.

At this point, the common argument arises that it is the oldest trade, that concubines existed in the oldest of our records of civilisations and thus must be a) acceptable and b) eternal. This is an obviously flawed argument, not least of all because slavery too has been recorded in these societies, and, because many great things we have now, like medicine, the internet and human rights, didn’t exist then; so perhaps improvements can be made. It is also important to note that just because something has been, doesn’t mean it should. Mill’s notion of owning yourself but only to the extent of (and because of it) not being able to sell oneself is my point. Our bodies and our rights were not recovered so as to be resold, and just as a lack of civil rights infected race relations, so the sex industry (despite its proclaimed purpose of empowering and protecting) sours gender relations.

The reason it existed then, though, is presumably the reason it exists now. When you’ve nothing else to trade, you trade your body. If you’re born into a situation where you’re taught that such is acceptable, your place or your value. There are jobs in here, be they waiting tables or selling mass-produced T-shirts, even for those most disadvantaged in our communities; it’s just that selling your body is better reimbursed. What facilitates that decision though is an underlying acceptance of the validity of selling your body if the price is high enough.

The crossroads you come to when you decide that the sex industry is doing a great deal of societal damage, but that an unregulated industry is dangerous and equally poisonous, is: how do you change attitudes so that there is no longer supply or demand for that kind of work?


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  1. TraitorWhore said:

    As a sex worker, I can tell you I know partners, friends, strangers, clients and coworkers who have no trouble respecting me despite the fact that I’m a mindless prostituted apparently unrespectable whore. I’m so sorry my existence meant someone mistook you for someone as awful as me, but a bit of solidarity might have been nice? I’m sick of this respectability politics game: the false idea that if women somehow act perfectly in line with men’s ideas of classiness, ladylikeness, and chasteness, we’ll then get some crumbs of respect. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that. If I have to jump through your respectability hoops to get decent treatment it’s not really respect. Perhaps men as a whole would treat women with respect if more non sex working women like yourself said “hey fuck you they’re my sisters, I’m not ashamed to be mistaken for one of them and I will stand up for them. Respect all women and their choices. I will not give you an excuse to continue your shame and violence against sex workers by saying ‘they don’t deserve good treatment cos they bring us all down so treat them how you want.’ End victim blaming of violence against women.”

    Please consider joining sex worker activists and allies in breaking down the idea that men only need to respect women if women just act exactly how men and their apologisers want. Surely you see the futility in this idea.

  2. Sam Woud said:

    I would argue that disrespect towards women is not a natural outcome of sex work itself, but of the society in which we live.

    In certain countries women who smoke are disrespected. Does that mean that smoking is the issue?

    No. No it doesn’t.

  3. lexi said:

    Equal rights — yes i agree 100% but what you are forgetting is that men are quite literally built differently, what, with all that testosterone perhaps? Since the legalisation of brothels (where btw, i work as a receptionist) rape has dramatically decreased since punter’s urges can now easily and consensually be met. Both parties are willing participants as the girls absolutely have a choice of who they choose to stay with. Which of course, is a common misconception among the general public.
    I like to call the girls ‘little crime fighters’ for that reason. Would you also believe me when i say the girls genuinely enjoy their work? They see women picking up men in bars or on ‘tinder’ etc.. as the same way you see sex workers.. Though I tend to agree with them wholeheartedly – ‘Why allow men the ability to have their way with you FOR FREE’?
    Your mind seems to be so incredibly narrow. It’s people like you who aren’t allowing society to move forward with the rest of us progressives – instead you stay stuck in this second wave (outdated) cluster fuck approach. The reason i say this is because you mentioned ‘how do we change attitudes so that there is no longer supply or demand for that kind of work’.
    All i’m asking is that you educate yourself further and perhaps the things you learn will enable you to grow into a person people wouldn’t mind getting to know.

  4. Brianna said:

    It killed me when I read Hannah’s comment about ‘selling a service’ because I feel you missed the whole point. Yes perhaps she doesn’t know what it feels like to be a worker, but she is writing it as an outsider who is constantly reminded of traces of a past society that empowered males for being male and demeaned woman in a lot of ways.

    Yes a massive point is that we do not know who you are OR your background and we can not ever judge your choices.. it’s simply that it makes me sad that this ‘service’ still fits in to our society today. It kills me that in our educated society persons are still making concious decisions to support and serve this purpose. As much as you can say that it is there choice and of course the argument that ‘woman are more empowered being free to sell their bodies’ is all bullshit, because in the end the predominated business (sometimes-very rarely) does it inculde a man exhibiting himself and a crowd of woman mentally masterbating. Even if this was the case that there where more male strip joints and it was equal in that kind of way i would almost feel a little better knowing that at least both genders were equally voilated. The point is not that ‘selling a service’ that you feel ok with is not exactly wrong, because it is your choice…. it is just that being that there is mainly only woman strippers and sex houses, and that it just provokes the idea that woman are lesser than men, and is a constant step back when trying to build a society that treats everyone as equal!

    Because woman still are being paid unequal rates than men working the same job, woman are still ornamental mantlepiece bodies to a lot of men, and these idiologies are just being past down generation after generation and it’s strip joints and unequal rights that fuel them!

    But we are all fucking equal, we need to fight for what we believe and woman should fight for equalality because it is right, and it begins small…. by not supporting businesses like this, by standing up for yourself and all woman… we should fight because if we don’t fight the next generation will suffer and inequality will continue as an eternal cycle..

  5. ActualSexWorker said:

    You’re a whorephobe. Stop writing about sex work if you’ve never been a sex worker. Your opinions and thoughts on our livelihoods are irrelevant. Hate to burst your whorephobic bubble, but it’s the truth.

  6. Hannah said:

    I feel it is an important distinction to make that sex work is not for necessarily about selling your body but selling a service. This is very important and you have completely overlooked it in your piece. I value some of what your saying but feel you need to research what it is actually like to be a sex worker before you speak for the women who work in it and claim to know why they do it.

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