Australian Summit Against Sexual Exploitation targeted by sex industry lobbyists

The sex trade lobby disrupted a recent conference on sexual exploitation — Caitlin Roper and Sabrinna Valisce recount what happened.

 

Last month, the Australian Summit Against Sexual Exploitation (ASASE) was held at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). The conference hosted presentations from a range of speakers, including radical feminists and abolitionists like Julie Bindel, Dr. Renate Klein, and Sarah Mah, as well as sex trade survivors such as Simone Watson. We both spoke at the conference as well — Caitlin spoke on sexual objectification of women in advertising, and Sabrinna spoke on the impact of technology on prostitution and pornography, as well as leading a breakout session on the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 in New Zealand.

The event was an amazing success, with powerful speeches and discussions. Unfortunately, the conference was targeted by pro-sex trade lobbyists associated with Vixen, a Victoria, Australia-based red umbrella group that lobbies for the full decriminalization of prostitution (meaning they would like to see pimps and punters/johns decriminalized, as well as prostituted people). They not only staged a protest outside the ASASE conference, but also managed to bypass security and burst into the venue during the final session, a presentation by global authority on child sexual abuse, Professor S. Caroline Taylor. Holding signs with slogans like “Fuck you pay me” and “Blowjobs are real jobs,” they shouted abuse and obscenities at Professor Taylor and members of the audience, trashed display tables and threw objects at members of the audience.

The 2018 ASASE states very clearly on its website that the purpose of the one and a half day conference was to work toward a world free of all forms of sexual exploitation via a coordinated, multi-pronged attack by all interested parties. The individuals and groups who attended the conference came from a wide variety of backgrounds and political positions. Simone Watson, a representative of The Nordic Model Australia Coalition (NorMAC) and a prostitution survivor, corroborated this over email, explaining that “attendees were right, left, and centrist.” She said that, while conference attendees might disagree with each other’s political positions, the diverse group of attendees and presenters “were there to educate and be informed.”

In other words, it’s unlikely that most of those attending would agree on all things. But attendees and speakers did have total agreement on one thing: rape, sexual violence, child molestation, children being exposed to pornography and other highly sexualized media, and the abuse of people in the adult commercialized sector cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged.

We were aware, due to posts on social media, that Vixen planned to protest the conference. Indeed, protesters were set up behind the building where the Summit was being held.

Whenever protesters show up at an event I am speaking at, I (Sabrinna) always go visit with them. I believe in opening calm, rational dialogue with the aim of finding common ground and to break down the barriers of “us and them.” Myself and Simone walked around the building to where some of the protesters were stationed (others had already entered the building at this point, unbeknownst to Simone and I). I am only five feet tall and 100 lbs. I am left wing, pro-marriage equality, pro-choice, non-religious, and I value freedom of religion and belief. I would even add that I support freedom from religion and belief, because the separation of church and state is, in my opinion, one of the most important values in Western culture, enabling a multicultural voice at a political level. I am also a pacifist because, in my idealism, I truly believe we are capable of a fair and peaceful world.

My sister survivor, Simone, agrees with me on these issues and, on the rare days I get to see her, we talk up a storm. Simone is also a short, slim woman, who is 51-years-old, non-religious, a pacifist, and Indigenous. The two of us together could barely staunch out a fly.

We approached the protesters together but did not enter their space. We wanted to be respectful, and allow them to approach us.

Protesters outside ASASE

The two of us were clearly no threat to this group (which consisted of approximately a dozen people at that time). Two of the slogans written on red umbrellas read, “No bad whores, just bad laws,” and “Rights Not Rescue,” so I attempted to open a dialogue on that basis. Simone and I made clear that we were in full agreement with both these slogans. (In fact, Simone’s brilliant speech only hours earlier was titled, “Rights Not Rescue.”)

At this point, we were surrounded by nine protesters. I introduced myself and told them I was a presenter at ASASE, invited as a representative of SPACE International, a survivor organization, to speak on the topic of prostitution, as this is my area of personal experience and political expertise. I proceeded to have an informal debate with Jane Green, spokesperson for Vixen, while most protesters listened quietly. Green’s tone and volume became increasingly louder and more agitated until she disclosed her own sexual exploitation and pain, which I don’t feel comfortable repeating publicly. I said I was sorry she had those experiences and that far too many of us do. She responded by calling me “hateful” and said she didn’t wish to continue a conversation with me. I respected her right to withdraw and spoke with others instead, allowing them to ask questions, which Simone and I answered honesty.

While we were chatting, one woman shook her ass at us. She clearly expected us to be shocked by her attempt at twerking, but two exited women from the sex trade really couldn’t give a slight fig.

Through this dialogue, it became clear that the protesters had no real idea what they were protesting. They believed ASASE was a religious right organization, with membership, that was also anti-abortion and anti-same sex marriage. Absolutely none of this is true. ASASE has no membership or particular religious or political position. Nonetheless, they asked us why we would align ourselves with the views they believed ASASE held by presenting at the event. We disclosed our politics and lack of religion, and I explained that, regardless, I don’t solely speak in echo chambers — I will speak to all those willing to listen and be educated, because sexual violence is everyone’s issue.

Two police officers stood half a block away watching the exchange, but had no need to approach or intervene. Simone and I were well outnumbered by both men and women for the duration of the conversation. After patiently answering some more questions, we eventually wandered off.

After the conference, Green claimed online that she and the other protesters had been “harassed” and made to feel “unsafe” by ASASE attendees. Green also said that “ASASE people” had “screamed abuse” at her, “tried to shut down events” she had spoken at, and “doxxed, stalked, outed, and turned [sex workers] in to [the] police.” None of this is true. In this case, two tiny women, both with solid experience in prostitution, gently approached Green’s group and engaged in civil conversation with them. There was no screaming. The police did not approach, but casually watched the exchange. We have never protested any event Green has spoken at.

While talking to the protesters outside, others — both male and female — entered the building.

Prostitution survivor Geneviève Gilbert, founder of Pink Cross — a survivor-led charity working against commercial sexual exploitation — was in the foyer during the final session with Professor Taylor. She recounts:

“When the young people arrived, I thought they were part of the conference. It happened really quickly. I was packing up the Pink Cross table. One young man stormed out of either the stairs or the elevator and yelled: ‘It’s here, it’s here!’ I was just there standing at my table. Then there were up to six of them removing conference catalogues from the first table, walking to the little bin near the auditorium entrance and throwing them in the bin and behind.”

The protesters charged inside and approached Professor Taylor, who was standing at the lectern delivering her speech to an engaged audience, including survivors of child abuse. They shouted at her to “get fucked,” demanded to know if she was a “sex worker,” told her to “shut the fuck up,” accused her of being “whorephobic, transphobic, and homophobic,” and said she was a “fucking disgrace who should feel ashamed.”

Professor Taylor calmly explained she was not speaking about “sex work,” that she was giving a talk on child sexual abuse and rape, and invited them to sit and listen. She also disclosed to them that she was a survivor of horrific child sexual exploitation. This did not dissuade the protesters, who grabbed at her lanyard and tossed what Professor Taylor described as “projectiles” in her face.

Others, including prostitution survivors, attempted to engage with the protesters, and informed them that they were disrupting a presentation on child sexual abuse by a prominent survivor. They were not interested in discussion — one stated, “We are not here to listen, we’re here to interrupt.”

Protesters at the back of the venue were trashing banners and display tables, ripping up pamphlets and stealing merchandise. Some threw objects at members of the audience, and continued to be disruptive as Professor Taylor attempted to resume her presentation on so-called “child pornography,” and legal efforts to secure redress for the children abused in order to produce it. One yelled out, “Sex work is real work,” “Fuck all of you,” and “How do you not realize this is bullshit? I can’t believe you paid to see this.” Despite all this, Professor Taylor got back up and delivered her speech to a standing ovation.

 

Security was completely inadequate and failed to protect conference attendees, some of whom were survivors of violence. The protesters not only got past RMIT security, but were able to make it to the front of the room to harass Professor Taylor directly, and it took half an hour to eject them.

Many women present were left shaken by the ordeal, having been trapped in the room. Some were sex trade survivors, not yet “out,” who were deeply distressed. One young woman was crying. Many women were frightened to venture out afterwards in case protesters were still lurking around. One survivor told me:

“My legs were shaking. I was in shock… My body was in a state of panic and fear. I felt I was close to collapsing… I was very fearful [a protester] was going to come and attack me.”

This is not the first time Vixen has protested women who have experience in prostitution and who speak out against the industry. At the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2016, two books were featured at one event — Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade and Invisible Women: Powerful and Disturbing Stories of Murdered Sex Workers. Prostitution Narratives is a compilation of first person accounts from women around the world (with a heavy emphasis on Australia and New Zealand) who have experienced prostitution. Invisible Women documents the stories of women murdered in Australia’s sex trade. These are two incredible resources — both highly respectful toward the women who did and did not survive prostitution. Melinda Tankard-Reist, co-editor of Prostitution Narratives, and Ruth Wykes, co-author of Invisible Women, both spoke and some of the exited women who wrote about their experiences in Prostitution Narratives were invited to speak from the audience. Nonetheless, Vixen attempted to shut the event down, which is incredibly ironic given that the authors of Invisible Women, Kylie Fox and Ruth Wykes, share Vixen’s support for the full decriminalization of the sex trade.

Sabrinna Valisce talking with a protester at the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival.

Despite our political differences, I (Sabrinna) met with Wykes and Fox for coffee a few days after the book festival, and both women genuinely listened to the arguments for abolition.

Yet again, the pro-sex trade lobby have exposed themselves for their callous disregard for the wellbeing of women with their tactics of verbally abusing, intimidating, and harassing survivors of prostitution and child sexual abuse. While Vixen and Jane Green insist that prostituted women and survivors have voices and can speak for themselves, they continually attempt to silence those women’s voices. Conference speakers, organizers, and attendees behaved with dignity despite the frightening and upsetting abuse they were subjected to. Our resolve to fight for the rights of women and girls has only been strengthened and we are determined to continue.

Sabrinna Valisce is the South Pacific Representative of SPACE International. She experienced prostitution in both New Zealand and Australia and now works as a public speaker, writer and feminist activist.

Caitlin Roper is an activist against the sexual exploitation of women and girls. She is currently undertaking postgraduate studies.

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