As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each article will be dedicated to a woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Renee Duckmanton, killed by a man on 14 May 2016, at the age of 22.
By Amy Bradshaw.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.
I have a confession to make.
I’m a pole dancer.
Some of you may be thinking that’s not much of a confession, but every time I say those words to a stranger, I feel slightly apprehensive. The reason for this is because I don’t really know how they will react to such a revelation. I’ve been fortunate enough to associate with pretty open-minded people, and so at the time of writing I’ve not had someone react with particular negative vehemence when I reveal I’m a pole dancer. I consider myself very lucky because I think this is quite rare. I certainly have many friends in the pole dancing community who can’t make the same claim. While I haven’t had the wonderful experience of being called a slut by a stranger, I have been on the receiving end of many a sly comment from individuals (mostly men) who seem to have only one thing on their minds.
“So, you’re a stripper?”
“You must get all the dick.”
“I’ve got another pole you can dance on.”
These kinds of comments all have one thing in common – they assume that I do what I do for the pleasure or enticement of men. Herein lies the extremely dangerous assumption that if women are doing anything with sexual connotations (or indeed just having sex), they are doing it primarily or even completely for male approval. From here, it’s a short leap to the misogynistic idea that men are entitled to have their way with a woman that is “flaunting” herself. But then what happens when a woman declines a proposition from one of these men? Degradation. Verbal abuse. Rape. Beatings. Murder.
There are of course many sides to the sex industry, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to break it into two main categories: those women who are in it because they want to be, and those who are in it because they have few or no other choices. Interestingly, the reasons that individual women have for joining the industry seem irrelevant to both the general public and the people who frequent the brothels and strip clubs in which they work.
These women may be sex workers in order to cover unexpected medical expenses their regular income can’t, because they can’t find any other employment in their area, or to pay for an otherwise unaffordable tertiary education. They may have been coerced into it by a boss threatening to fire them if they didn’t comply, or perhaps they are one of the estimated 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking exploitation. Then again, they might do it because they actually like the work, have control of their own work hours, or want to have a job that will keep them physically fit. No matter the reason, the default attitude towards these women is often one of disdain because of their perceived moral bankruptcy and lack of self-respect. In the eyes of a misogynist society that polices female sexuality, sex workers are deplorable human beings and should not be doing this kind of work.
What is often forgotten when this rhetoric is being spouted by both men and women, is the basic economic principle of supply and demand. The sex industry exists because there is a demand for it. People, predominately men, want it, and people use the services offered extensively and frequently. I will never understand the attitude that even though it is largely socially acceptable for men to go to strip clubs, somehow it is not acceptable for women to be working in them. Men are expected to seek out sex workers (boys will be boys mentality), and are not only not denigrated for that fact, but are encouraged by the societal idea of it being a ‘manly’ pastime. Conversely, female sex workers are seen as “fallen women” with “no self-respect”, making the entire scenario an excellent illustration of blatant double-standards.
This social attitude as well as the perceived amorality of sex workers makes it very easy for the rest of society to look down upon them. This attitude also makes it easier for men to justify inflicting violence against sex workers. They can be seen as ‘lesser’ and not as deserving of basic human kindness and respect, seeing as they choose to “debase” themselves through sex work. When it comes to violence against women working in the sex industry, this widely held belief is one of the core problems that needs addressing.
A study done in 2003 at the University of Nebraska found that most of their participants who were involved in the commercial sex industry had experienced some form of violence in their work, the most common being sexual assault (93%). This horrifically large number was closely followed by being threatened with weapons (83%), physical assault (82%), and rape (75%). As if that wasn’t bad enough, a 2007 paper stated that “Standardised mortality rates for sex workers are 6 times those seen in the general population, the highest for any group of women.” For murder specifically, that statistic jumps to 18 times more likely, or approximately 6 women per year in the United Kingdom alone. Studies performed in the USA indicated that female sex workers were 18 times likely to be murdered, and a Canadian study estimated that sex worker homicide was 60-100 times more likely than in the general population. In Phoenix, Arizona from 2004-2006 the percentage of sex workers who had experienced rape at the hands of a client was 37%. In New York, 46% of sex workers working indoors (for example, at a brothel) were forced into acts they objected to, despite being in an arguably ‘safer’ situation than working on the streets. A 1999 study of sex workers in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Leeds found that out of the 240 sex workers they surveyed, half of them had experienced some form of violence in the past six months.
The above figures are sourced from the United Kingdom and the United States, but the pattern can be seen globally. A 2012 meta-analysis including more than 41 separate peer reviewed studies included findings from multiple geographic locations including India, China, Thailand, Mongolia, Canada, Mexico, Central and Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, South Africa, and a few more besides. They found that between 45-75% of sex workers (the majority of which were women) would experience violence in their workplace over the course of their ‘lifetime’ in the industry.
At least partly due to the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act which decriminalised prostitution, sex workers in New Zealand reported significantly lower percentages of workplace violence than seen in other countries. While this is heartening, violence is certainly still a problem in this country. A survey conducted in 2006 by the New Zealand Association of Economists looked at the experiences of sex workers over the previous 12 months and comprised 730 respondents across Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. They found that 16% of respondents had experienced violence, 23% reported theft, and 20% had received threats from clients. In comparison to the rest of the world these statistics are encouraging. However, the only acceptable percentage in any of these categories is 0%.
Decriminalisation of the sex industry has been a great step towards affording its practitioners a degree of safety, and we can but hope that those countries where prostitution and its associated practices are still outlawed will follow suit. For this to happen we need the people in the industry to be recognised for what they are: human beings, and that their work (regardless of whether their involvement in it is by choice or necessity) does not mean they are worth less than anyone else.
Beyond that, we must reject the common premise that the value of a woman is based solely on her sexual purity. As a society we must be able to accept that each and every woman has the right to take control of her own sexuality, and if she chooses to participate in sex work, she maintains the same level of value as if she chooses not to. A woman’s value is inherent, because she is a human being. It should not be based on enforced societal standards that sexually repress women. Women in the industry who are being assaulted, exploited, raped, and murdered do not deserve to be treated that way. The circumstances that led them to that point should be irrelevant, and the rage and disgust that is usually directed at the victim should instead be focused directly at the despicable abusers. Only once we fully realise this can we move forward and work to fully protect the physical and mental wellbeing of these women. That’s what they deserve.
So, gentlemen, if you ever meet a woman who tells you she’s a pole dancer, do yourself a favour and don’t say something absurd like “Wanna dance on my pole?” We’ve heard it all before, and I can guarantee that we are not pole dancers to make you desire us. It’s this sort of assumption that can lead to men harbouring feelings of entitlement over a woman’s body, and thereafter spurring them to violence when they don’t get what they want. We dance for our own enjoyment, for the fitness, for financial freedom, for the confidence it gives us, and myriad other reasons besides.
Not for you.
 John J. Potterat, Devon D. Brewer, Stephen Q. Muth, Richard B. Rothenberg, Donald E. Woodhouse, John B. Muth, Heather K. Stites, Stuart Brody, Mortality in a Long-term Open Cohort of Prostitute Women, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 159, Issue 8, 15 April 2004, Pages 778–785, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwh110
 Lowman, J. & Fraser, L. (1994) Violence against persons who prostitute: The experience in British Columbia. Available at http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2014/jus/J3-7-1996-14-eng.pdf
 Church, Stephanie; Henderson, Marion; Barnard, Marina; Hart, Graham (2001-03-03). “Violence by clients towards female prostitutes in different work settings: questionnaire survey”. BMJ. 322 (7285): 524–525. doi:10.1136/bmj.322.7285.524. ISSN0959-8138. PMC26557. PMID11230067.