Steve Dickson’s comments reveal an ugly truth about our attitude towards migrant sex workers | Gala Vanting | Opinion
If Tuesday’s commentary on the 2019 federal election’s “politician visits strip club scandal shock-horror” has laid anything to rest, it’s that we are much more interested in the particular kind of strip club clientele Steve Dickson is than the simple fact that he is one. Despite his claim that the way he behaved on this particular occasion is “not a true reflection” of himself, the collective experience and wisdom of sex workers knows this: the client you are is absolutely indicative of the person you are. We see our clients in spaces of diminished inhibitions, vulnerability and moments of very human contact. We see them quite clearly, even when they’re trying their best not to be seen. And we know that racism between the sheets can generally be presumed to equal racism in the streets.
Dickson’s resignation from One Nation is potentially a short-term electoral boon for those so radical as to suggest that holding such deeply misogynist and racist views disqualifies one from holding public office. But we must not accept that he is “no longer of pub[l]ic interest”. We need to stay interested, because the vitriol that flows from him in the footage represents more than the views of one drunken, entrapped cowboy on holiday with the NRA.
Dickson’s comments are so inflammatory and so “scandalous” because they echo the views of far too many of his compatriots on either side of the divide: that interactions with sex workers exist in some sort of code-less social or commercial space where “anything goes”. That sex workers forfeit their rights to personal and professional boundaries, or that their clients can purchase their infinite consent. That the sex industry, too, is “swamped by Asians” as Pauline Hanson likes to say, threatening the whiteness of desirability. And that we can attribute a value to a woman on the presumed characteristics of her race.
Sex workers make contact with these attitudes in the daily operation of our businesses, from management using descriptors like “oriental dream” to advertise Asian workers, to clients passing off racialised fetishes as mere “preferences”, to white workers being required to provide proof to clients that they are “Australian”, like the time my potential client requested a FaceTime call to confirm my whiteness before he confirmed his appointment.
The visibility of Dickson’s attitudes – most notably that Asian women “don’t know what they’re doing” as sexual service providers, qualifying himself as an authority on the division and comparison of white and Asian sex workers by noting that he has “done more Asians than” he knows “what to do with” – is so uncomfortable for us because it tells a truth about the national consciousness around migrant sex workers. It’s an ugly truth – so ugly this time as to be too ugly for One Nation.
Our conversations about sex work in Australia are deeply racialised, with roots in a number of anti-Asian tropes around both gender and labour that have appeared throughout its colonial history. The long-standing fear that migration of workers from Asian countries threatens white access to the labour market, drives wages down, or otherwise degrades and disadvantages the true-blue fair-dinkum Aussie working class continues in current dialogues about Asian migrant sex workers. These conversations occur among sex workers, clients, business owners, law enforcement, media and migration officials, all with wildly varying agendas and literacy levels around the lived realities of sex workers or anything resembling best practice for their labour rights.
Gendered cultural stereotypes of Asian women as “passive” has primed white Australia to swallow the portrayal of Asian sex workers as always already exploited. This generates a default suspicion that has been used to justify intense over-policing of Asian migrant sex workers and their lack of access to safe and legal long-term labour migration pathways, all under the banner of “anti-trafficking”. It’s also contributed to the construction of the popular image into which a collective xenophobic contempt for for sex work and sex workers is currently distilled: “illegal Asian brothels”. This image normalises and perpetuates state violence against migrant sex workers in the form of racial profiling of sex workers for disproportionate enforcement of the laws that criminalise them across the country, raids on brothels and massage parlours accompanied by grotesque, sensational media reporting, and the resulting deportation of migrant sex workers on minor breaches.
Few public conversations about sex work in Australia – including in progressive spaces – fail to make mention of a presumed proportion of women who find themselves in the sex industry by force or coercion, and yesterday’s Dickson dialogue was no exception. Progressives may politely neglect to name exactly who they think comprises that proportion, but conservatives are less likely to stealth their racism or their misogyny. Especially over scotch and burgers with fellow blokes.
Dickson doesn’t just get to slink away from public interest, because with him will go yet another opportunity for Australia to reckon with the racism embedded deeply within its consciousness around sex work.
• Gala Vanting is the professional name of a Sydney-based sex worker, writer and educator