#CountingDeadWomen in the #FacesofProstitution

The #FacesofProstitution hashtag sprung up in response to a post republished on an Australian news website/online women’s mag, Mamamia. It’s a site which pushes a lot of talk about being really supportive of women but is currently advertising an “intimate daily wash” for my vagina on one page, and a new weight loss scheme on another.

The post was in response to the 25th anniversary of the release of Pretty Woman. In it, Laila Mickelwait of Exodus Cry criticized the way in which the film promotes a fantasy that bears little resemblance to the reality of prostitution and trafficking:

You see, Julia Robert’s teethy smile is not the true face of prostitution. The real face of prostitution is the battered and bruised face of Maria, an actual prostituted woman in Eastern Europe…

Maria, like 74 per cent of women in prostitution, has been raped. Maria, like 96 per cent of women in prostitution has been physically abused and battered. Maria, like 60 per cent of women in prostitution, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to her “job.”

The backlash was swift. #FacesofProstitution took off on Twitter, promoted — of course — by those supportive of the sex industry. Within a few days, Mamamia published a response piece which pushed the hashtag, downplayed any issues of trafficking and began like this:

I was seven when Pretty Woman was released. I don’t know exactly what age I was when I first watched the movie but I was certainly young; it is a movie that I have grown up with. I also already had an inkling that when I grew up, I too, would become a prostitute (sex worker is our preferred term). And that is exactly what I did.

The article went on to extol the virtues of “sex work.” Which is far more in keeping with the overall tack found now on Mamamia, a site known for providing plenty of positive press for the sex industry: articles about how “empowering” sex work is, how great it is that international meetings provide a boom for brothels, and even providing space for johns to speak about prostitution from “a client’s perspective.”

But, as anyone familiar with the ongoing use of the #FacesofProstitution hashtag will know, these are not just claims that positive perspectives from the industry need to be aired (again, and again, and again) but that they should be the only perspectives allowed. Case in point — the original, critical Pretty Woman piece has since been removed from the Mamamia website (although you can still find it archived online).

Indeed, Mia Freedman, the site’s founder, is familiar with the kind of backlash you can expect from the sex industry lobby if you don’t toe the line. She wrote, only a couple of years ago, about her dismay at being attacked online for saying, publicly, that she did not want her daughter to “grow up to be a sex worker.” How dare she.

The same attacks are now being launched against those who have attempted to use #FacesofProstitution to highlight less glamorous aspects of the sex industry. Yesterday, Jonah Mix, for example, started Tweeting names and images to commemorate women in prostitution who were killed by johns.

The response was fairly predictable. Some men were angry that their “right” to buy sex was being questioned. Others defended the turf of #FacesofProstitution as way to promote a stylish and fun vision of the sex industry. But some thought the use of the images of women murdered in prostitution was “ghoulish,” or the tactic of a “scumbag.”

Which is interesting, because the idea pretty closely resembles the Counting Dead Women projects founded by Karen Ingala Smith in the UK. These now exist in many parts of the world, to highlight how many women die as a result of men’s violence. Are women in prostitution, killed by johns, not also victims of men’s violence?

Why can’t we be #CountingDeadWomen in the #FacesofProstitution?

Because it ruins the narrative. The #FacesofProstitution trend was couched by the mainstream media — and many of those participating — as a way for women in prostitution to fight negative stereotypes. Which is quite ironic really, given that the original story was actually about criticizing the romanticized stereotype of prostitution evident in Pretty Woman.

Yes, there are issues to be discussed about what it means to use the images of women brutally killed by men in these contexts. But these discussions apply to #CountingDeadWomen as much as they apply to #FacesofProstitution. And it is, after all, supporters of the sex industry who have made this about visibility and, quite literally, about who will show their faces.

So who is most likely to contribute to #FacesofProstitution? Is it going to be trafficked women, women struggling in poverty, women who have survived abuse, women who are not happy being identified publicly? No, of course, not. Certainly murdered women cannot be part of this parade of positivity. And that’s the point.

It may be inconvenient for sex industry lobbyists, but these women’s stories are part of the story of prostitution too.

Meagan TylerMeagan Tyler is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of gender and sexuality studies. She is the author of “Selling Sex Short: The pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West” and an editor of Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism.

Meagan Tyler

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and is the public officer of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. Meagan is the author of "Selling Sex Short: The sexological and pornographic construction of women’s sexuality in the West" and co-editor of "Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism."