By Jules Kim, Gala Vanting and Cameron Cox
The loss of Michaela Dunn at the hands of a violent male attacker is still in its first phase of shock and grief for her family and community.
The sex worker community is deeply sorrowful at both the loss of her life, and at the way we knew it would be spoken about in the days and weeks to follow.
Ongoing speculation by media and the general public about the relationship between Michaela’s work as a sex worker and her tragic death adds further distress to the trauma already being experienced by those connected to Michaela, even if only as fellow sex workers.
Questions about whether or not our work is “safe” — or, as is commonly inferred, intrinsically unsafe — question the wisdom of Michaela’s decision to do sex work and, by extension, our own.
At a time when we should be allowed space to grieve and to pay respect to a life tragically lost in an act of gendered violence, we are instead tasked with defending our fundamental human right to feel safe at work.
Why single out sex workers?
It isn’t lost on us that had the alleged attacker accessed the apartment on Clarence Street as a client of a home-based counselling business, for example, we would not be questioning the validity of the victim’s decision to undertake counselling as a profession or to work from her own home.
Nor would we be referring to the victim in the breaking news as “a counsellor” in quite the way that many media outlets brandished the term “sex worker” in the headlines following the attack.
The question should not be whether or not our work is materially more or less safe than the work of any other profession.
The question sex workers wish to raise here is about how the actions and dialogue of governments, police, judiciary, media and community create conditions in which the harms done to us and the crimes committed against us are able to be rationalised or excused, go unreported or become sensationalised, or are blamed upon us and our decision to do sex work.
The acceptability of the idea that being a victim of violent crime is an inherent occupational hazard of sex work must be challenged in the way Michaela’s story is told.
Our work and workplaces are criminalised.
Sex workers, like any other workers, have a right to feel safe at work. (ABC News: Malcolm Sutton)
We lack anti-discrimination protections that would allow us to access justice and be self-determined in our lives.
We are subject to stigmatic and misinformed perceptions of sex work and sex workers that are consistently reinforced by media and cultural storytelling.
As such, we find ourselves here; where the tragic death of a woman who did sex work is being sensationalised by some media outlets as though her profession itself should make us suspicious.
A legal risk to curtail a safety risk
Sex workers, like professionals in all other industries, employ safety strategies in our work.
In many Australian jurisdictions, strategies like working in pairs or organising security are criminalised, meaning that sex workers take a legal risk in order to curtail a safety risk.
Where this is the case, our safety is specifically legislated against, denying us the right to protect ourselves at work.
In some Australian jurisdictions legal barriers make safety while at work harder for sex workers. (Supplied: Respect Inc 2019)
Even in NSW, where those safety strategies are legal, sex workers are not protected by anti-discrimination legislation, creating barriers to seeking redress through the mechanisms workers in other industries are able to use when harmed at work.
Stigma and discrimination against us still runs deep throughout society and the justice system, and there are legitimate reasons why a sex worker may choose not to disclose their profession in those processes.
Sex workers — like all workers — have a right to feel safe at work.
Michaela’s attacker violated that right.
Under no circumstances should we be OK with that, and under no circumstances should any information about Michaela’s life, choice of occupation or identity compromise the necessity to seek justice around her death.
When a violent attacker assaults a sex worker, regardless of their gender, of course we need to ask why. But that question must be asked of the people who perpetrate that violence, not those who suffer it.
The painfully long history of violence against sex workers tells us this: that it is how we are seen — not what we do — that constructs us as victims.
Jules Kim and Gala Vanting are from the Scarlet Alliance and the Australian Sex Workers Association and Cameron Cox is from the Sex Workers Outreach Project.