and ain't I a woman: Prostitution is no laughing matter

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

In a recent "event" put on for the media to highlight cuts to education funding, the Newcastle University Students' Association president and education officer dressed in drag and "prostituted" themselves on Maitland Road, Islington, Newcastle's busiest workplace for street prostitutes.

They joked that these were the measures students had to go to to obtain funds for their library.

But the stunt revealed more about sexist attitudes to prostitution than it did about cuts to university funding.

Triple J covered the event in its hourly news updates all afternoon and the Newcastle Herald published a sizeable article. In contrast, a student rally on campus the following week raised the same issues about funding to the university library and other facilities, involved more students and received no attention from either of these media outlets.

Concerns that the stunt trivialised the working conditions of sex workers were not raised by either news report.

This should come as no surprise; the mainstream media frequently downplay or deny the exploitative conditions most sex workers face. Earlier this year the Triple J morning show, as part of an "A to Z of Sex" series, argued that prostitution is no different to any other job, even suggesting that it's a good one.

But if prostitution was a normal job that women freely choose, why are most sex workers poor?

In the Third World, many women have no other option than to sell their bodies so they and/or their children can survive.

In more wealthy countries like Australia, many, if not most, sex workers suffer from drug addiction. Aboriginal women are much more likely to be sex workers than white women, as are those from poor backgrounds.

Prostitution exists because of the commodification of women's sexuality in class society. It is not just another kind of job. It involves the direct sale of the woman's body itself. It turns the body simply into an instrument of men's pleasure, and denies women their proper control over it.

The women on Maitland Road are not in control — many are dropped off and watched by pimps. They are verbally humiliated by passers-by yelling abuse and throwing eggs. Many have been physically abused or raped or are kept dependant on drugs. It is no coincidence that the same area is also the centre for heroin distribution in Newcastle.

It is a tragedy that in our society so many young women face this kind of life. It's a serious problem, not a joke, and there is certainly little analogy to the lack of funding for a university library.

BY ERIN KILLION

[The author is a member of the socialist youth organisation Resistance.]