Sex Workers: We know what we want

By Ryan Cole

When workers in industries other than mine are organising for rights, their ability to speak on what they need as workers is rarely questioned. However, when it comes to sex workers there is an assumption that we can’t even articulate what we want as workers, and that we can’t organise together. It is often argued that our work isn’t even work and that we don’t understand that it’s just “exploitation” or “violence” or “criminal.” When sex workers collectively organise or speak out about our needs, we are frequently treated differently to other worker collectives and unions. We are accused of not really representing sex workers or of being brothel owners and “pimps” with a vested interest in exploiting workers.

Why is it that sex workers are told that we can’t represent ourselves? Why is our autonomous worker organising dismissed as untrustworthy, of being against the interests of sex workers? And who can speak and represent us if we supposedly can’t do it ourselves through organisations which are sex worker only and exclude managers/operators, such as Scarlet Alliance and its membership?

Those who make these accusations are generally not sex workers themselves. They are people who make some of their living or social and political status through their own commentary and theories on sex work and sex workers. They have a clear vested interest in maintaining the whorephobic belief that sex workers can’t self-represent, let alone organise together and articulate our needs as a community. They often argue that sex workers who speak out aren’t representative of “real” sex workers or that sex worker organisations don’t understand the “real issues” sex workers face. In these statements it is implied that non-sex worker academics understand the “real issues” and know what sex workers really need. Unfortunately, stereotypes of sex workers as “psychologically damaged victims who do not even understand our own oppression” are easily utilised and promoted by non-sex workers to justify their position as a valid voice for sex workers. In doing so they de-legitimise sex worker voices and sex worker organisations generally.

The left wing and mainstream media promote whorephobia too; every time the media chooses to publish the work of a non-sex worker who promotes policies and ideas that autonomous sex worker collectives and organisations oppose (such as the Swedish model of law reform which criminalises our workplaces and clients) it is making a statement that non-sex workers have the right and the authority to speak on behalf of sex workers. This simultaneously reinforces the whorephobic assumption that sex workers are not organised and do not, or cannot, know what we need. Normative narratives about sex workers are promoted by the left and by mainstream media because they are easier to digest. It’s easy to argue that sex workers are victims and need to be rescued. The general public is fed these kinds of myths and incorrect stereotypes every day through mass entertainment, the daily news, and our slut-shaming, sexist, racist and whorephobic culture.


It is notable that online media (including the comments sections) on articles about sex work often end up being full of non-sex working academics and theorists claiming that they know the “real” truth and that sex worker groups are not representing the views or interests of sex workers but of “pimps” or business owners. This discrediting that seems to be a hobby of quite a few people relies on the whorephobic assumption that it must be owners and managers and not sex workers who would willingly engage publicly about our industry. A recent example of this is a piece published on The Conversation which argued Australia should adopt the Swedish model of laws to protect sex workers (the author referred to the laws incorrectly as originating from Norway, something the editor did not pick up). Commentators on the site then went on to claim that Scarlet Alliance – the Australian Sex Worker Association – was an “industry association” and a “bosses union… one that pretends to act for workers but in reality serves only the vested interests of the boss.”

Scarlet Alliance (an organisation made up of and directed entirely by sex workers) consistently identifies issues different to those presumed to be the “real issues” sex workers would face. According to non-sex workers commentating on The Conversation, if Scarlet Alliance’s main policies were not about extra regulation of brothel owners or about monitoring clients we couldn’t actually be sex workers – as if everyone should intuitively know these are the most important issues facing sex workers. In other words, they couldn’t deal with the fact that when sex workers organise autonomously we may come up with different issues to what non-sex workers think. When we organise as sex workers we know we need the tools to organise our own work conditions. Decriminalisation allows for this, not the Swedish model which criminalises our clients and workplaces and pushes us further underground. The Swedish model would mean we would have to prioritise police evasion tactics over setting up for, in a best practice manner, occupational health and safety.

Scarlet Alliance was formed in 1989 by individual sex workers involved in the state/territory networks. Our membership has always been made up of sex workers (past and present) as well as sex worker organisations and excludes anyone who is a sex industry business operator or manager. It includes a diverse range of sex workers of many genders and backgrounds. By meeting together and discussing our experiences as sex workers we form ideas about what the key issues are for sex worker representation, services and political lobbying in Australia. Scarlet Alliance’s member organisations and projects have the highest level of contact with sex workers in Australia of any agency, government or non-government. Through our projects and the work of our membership we have a high level of access to sex industry workplaces in the major cities, over 20,000 “occasions of service” annually.

When we speak as sex workers we are speaking from our own experience. We spend time in sex work workplaces engaging with other sex workers. We spend time engaging in sex worker community spaces. Within our own community we have our own theories and knowledge about sex work through our own lived experiences. To suggest that academics or researchers somehow have a better idea of what sex workers need is insulting, especially amongst the left wing which should be listening to voices from a marginalised community and not speaking on our behalf. We can speak for ourselves.

Sex work is work. And when we organise as workers people need to listen to us as workers. If you are a non-sex worker you need to recognise that when sex workers get together and organise autonomously and speak about sex work it is whorephobic to presume that we don’t actually know what is best for us and that non-sex working academics and theorists have a better idea. As sex workers, we are the experts on our own lives!


  • Tony Treacl

    Marvellous & well-versed writings by Ryan Cole – proving that sex workers can truly speak for themselves. From experiences also gained in moments of ‘higher learning’ (Uni studies), many of the terminology & likenesses given here are very similar to other disadvantaged groups of Australians.

    Share this Article & Join in the cause of sex worker rights and organising.

  • Taylor Alexander

    I would like to congratulate you on a very well put together and articulate piece of writing.
    Gone are the days when sex workers were the down and out socially shun community. We are business owners with a very diverse educational background.
    I certainly believe that the na sayers are actually scared that on a whole we are educated both in life and accademically . Everyone likes a car wreck thus those who want to purpetuate the myth are only doing so for their own gratification or need for attention. I for one would like to see the so called research and factual evidence of so called studies and polling.
    Because no accademic has ever asked for my opinion or seeked information from myself or any of my fellow sex workers that i keep in contact with on a daily basis.

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  • lee

    here here ryan, great work sis – nothing about us without us!
    but a lot of sex work is very private and negotiated outside workplaces, and ‘normative narratives about sex work in my left wing bastion are challenged

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  • Succor1

    Great article. In my research I found a link from a tweet and I didn’t check the date of publication, I thought this was written within the last week. Sadly, this piece was written four years ago and even more relevant today. It sometimes feels as if zero progress has been made in recognizing sex work as work.

    I’m from the Pacific NW in USA and a cruel form of the Nordic model was instituted. Online boards are being prosecuted and each time the a story is published the same studies are touted within comments by the same radfems to identify every sex worker as a victim of her own life. They wish to end prostitution by exploiting the same message.

  • JeromeKJerome

    Interesting article. I’m in the fence on this one having flip flopped before. One of the issues that isn’t addressed is that many ex sex workers support the Nordic model. They surely do have a right to speak from their experience.

    Secondarily it is I feel unfair to characterise those who disagree with the decriminalisation argument as whorephobic. Ex sex workers and indeed researchers don’t usually hate or fear sex workers. Just as those campaigning against the mining industries use of dangerous practices don’t generally hate miners.

    You may think them wrong and misguided but to characterise people as ‘phobic’ seems more like an attempt to discredit via as hominem attack rather than reason.

    • Jay Hurley

      Well how else would you describe people who wont even listen to active workers or the majority of ex workers as activists?

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