Sunday, March 18, 2012

Scarlet Road and the United States

Whelp, SXSW is officially over and all of our lovely visitors are making their way out of Austin. But before we put SXSW 2012 fully behind us, I wanted to drop a quick note about one more film, Scarlet Road. As according to its website,
Scarlet Road follows the extraordinary work of Australian sex worker, Rachel Wotton. Impassioned about freedom of sexual expression and the rights of sex workers, she specializes in a long over-looked clientele – people with disability.
The film is great and is a very compassionate look at Rachel Wotton and two of her clients, John and Mark. It treats everyone with dignity and is hugely eye opening about the sexuality of disabled people as well as sex work in general. I appreciated the story portrayed and think Wotton is an amazing woman. She's even co-founded a nonprofit to bring people with disability and sex workers together called Touching Base.

During the Q&A the topic of feminism came up as well as how the United States' will receive this film. This where I think things get tricky.

In brief discussion at the start of the Q&A with director Catherine Scott and Wotton, the women shared that so far their film has been really well received with no "hate mail" and the moderator joked that they should just wait; the US audience would surely supply plenty of that. And there was then a brief mention of how Wotton's way of life is illegal in the States.

Later, a man asked them about how feminists have received this film. I was worried from the start, because the way that the guy asked already sounded like he was spitting out the word "feminist" with disgust. Scott and Wotton shared that there is significant opposition to them from feminists in their country. Wotton mentioned that many of these feminists feel that empowered, happy sex workers are so damaged by what they do that they don't even know how damaged they are and so they just think they're happy--a viewpoint which she is rightly offended by.

If I was the kind of person who did these things, I would have really liked to hijack the discussion right there and make a few key points I wish had been represented in this discussion:

-There is no single "feminist ideology" which dictates that we are against sex work as a group. I'm not against sex work, for example. (I'm against how it plays out in my country, but more on that later.)

-Many feminists here are in favor of sex work systems which allow the workers full agency and choice. Those conditions are impossible through criminalization of  prostitution which has made prostitution based in the streets with a high degree of danger involved. The result is the pimping of women by men under the guise of protection, but who often beat, rape, and steal from them. Because sex work isn't allowed to be a legitimate career here, these women cannot stand up for their rights. This system also often traps very young girls who are then prosecuted as criminals. (When if they were in the exact same sexual situation but with no money exchanged they would be deemed statutory rape victims.)

-Wotton's entire activism surrounding Touching Base and the wonderful work she is doing with both sex work and people with disabilities is irrelevant in the United States. Until we decriminalize sex work, we cannot even dream about comparable institutions here.

I think what I appreciate most about this film is a reminder about the issue of sex work. It is a realm of feminism which I don't write about much, and I still have a lot to learn about. But seeing Wotton's wonderful work with Touching Base in Australia just made me mad because I kept coming back to the fact that an American version of her is really impossible, currently.

Is there any significant movement to decriminalize sex work here? I feel like I don't hear much about this, but I think our current system proves pretty well that we haven't done any good in preventing prostitution, we've just set up a system where it is driven into the shadows and we're just unable to see what's happening to the people involved. Or we're pretending we can't see. And that's scary. If a law is hurting, not helping, people--you've got to wonder why it still exists.

Sex work is a feminist issue and I can't help but come to the conclusion that decriminalization is best. Wotton is surely an example of the great things that can happen when we trust women.

1 comment:

  1. Your viewpoint is well-reasoned and fair. As the author of the book, "Are They Bad Girls or Brilliant?" (, I commend you. It is indeed a terrible thing when an entire group of oppressed women has to feel the oppression of feminism as well as from everywhere else. It's psychological fratricide, more offensive than anything the patriarchy inflicts.

    There IS a growing movement for sex workers in our country (the USA). Start with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, which has a national base and state branches. There are many other organizations, as well.

    Go to the site Tits and Sass.

    And I'd be honored if you check out my book site...I've left no stone unturned.



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