BY BARBARELLA KARPINSKI
The Melbourne Writers Festival 2016 was full of accusations, allegations and counter-allegations. This added spice to the treadmill of literati and glitterati, raves and ramblings. The organisers opened the stage to diversity and dissent. The contested areas were marginalised representations of race, gender, sex work as well as talk of a few disgruntled former GDR Stasi officers, offended by their representations too. The key conflict of the festival was about who has the right to speak – the voice of experience or the voice that gets published?
The website of MWF describes one of the most contested seminars called Invisible Women. “MelindaTankard-Reist (Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade) and Ruth Wykes (Invisible Women: Powerful and Disturbing Stories of Murdered Sex Workers) explore the ‘devastating’ impact of prostitution”.
Sex workers stood in peaceful protest outside with banners saying “Invisible Women Have Voices” claiming that the authors did not represent them. Alex wrote on the MWF chat: “This is disgusting. Why aren’t there any actual sex workers invited to this discussion? Get off your white saviour high horse and ask actual sex workers.”
The MWR website was initially closed for comments on this event weeks before this event, but eventually engaged with dissent and promoted “Nothing About UsWithout Us” where sex worker, Jane Green and MJ gave their voices of lived experiences.
I asked questions from the floor of Melinda Tankard-Reist who claims to also represents sex worker views via her subjects. I asked Green from Vixen, a Victorian peer organisation of sex workers, why Tankard-Reist’s views do not represent Vixen, herself and allies.
“As soon as local sex workers in Victoria became aware of the event ‘The Sex Trade: Murder & Survival‘ at Melbourne Writers Festival, which was later re-named ‘Invisible Women’, sex workers planned to protest. The exclusion of sex workers from discussions about our own lives is common – and happens not just in arts and media, but also in legislation and policy that affects sex workers. This exclusion of sex workers voices is harmful and we are used to fighting for space so that we can speak up.”
I ask Tankard-Reist about the process of research. “The women wrote their pieces and there was minimal editing. The power of the first person narratives is much more powerful than we could write.” Although this response gives the impression of transparency and sex worker inclusiveness, Melinda Tankard-Reist is a radical feminist and does not agree with the use of the term “sex work” and conflates human trafficking, child sex abuse, domestic violence, pornography, erotica and even a movement for industry rights and workplace safety, concluding it all should be abolished and clients arrested in what is known as the Swedish legislative model.
In response, Green states: “The Swedish Model of sex work criminalisation harms sex workers.”
The creative inspiration behind Prostitution Narratives are ‘slave narratives’ but it seems anomalous that the lives of oppressed slaves from Egypt, Africa and the Americas,was then taken as a framework for contemporary women from the first world, including Canada, Australia, UK, New Zealand, and USA.
Interestingly, the authors chose to exclude testimonies from the third world women as well as any sex positive advocates or proud happy sex workers lumping that under the category of ‘sex trade’.
Trying to fit all the complex lives of the interviewees into the theme of ‘slave narratives’ gives historical accuracy little room to breathe, kind of like putting on a tight theoretical corset that just won’t do up after dinner. The ‘slave narrative’ genre with its roots in transportation from Africa is just not a good fit for the material, like the last time I bought a pair of jeans on e-Bay.
The lives could have been interpreted in a number of alternative ways –perhaps a comment on poverty, police corruption, homelessness and lack of funding for the arts given many of the women interviewed also had been art students unable to find a job in their first chosen field. Domestic violence support, social welfare support, funding for the arts, could be other solutions to the life problems explored, not the abolition of sex work.
The editors of Prostitution Narratives were like pushy narrators riding roughshod over messy tragic complicated lives with one-size-fits all solutions. One hopes readers could still find universal truths embedded within the textual framework of the interviews about violence, lost dreams and lost love.
Both Wykes and Tankard-Reist claimed to be traumatised by the disturbing content of their books though Wykes’ book included much valuable evidence of a lack of police investigation into crimes against sex workers.
Tankard-Reist also claimed to be “terrified” of the sex worker protesters. However, the seminar I attended was not interrupted by protesters and although Tankard-Reist claimed to need festival security guards to leave the venue, I just witnessed a small group of protesters with placards exercising their democratic rights who only entered the public space long after the seminar that finished ten minutes before scheduled time.
Green comments: “Vixen Collective has a history of peaceful protest. This includes holding public rallies and engaging in silent protest at events, but this has and will include challenging speakers who are particularly harmful.”
When I mentioned to Green that the authors claimed to be scared of these protests around the country, she replied: “That’s ridiculous, sex workers don’t have fangs.”
She added: “The full decriminalisation of sex work is the best solution because it is both what sex workers across the world say they want. “
The book also dismissed the whole sex worker genre of first person memoirs such as The Intimate Adventures of a London Call girl by “Belle de Jour” as titillation before deriding Japanese erotic art. French Cinema and pop culture would have been a more insightful analysis of the derivations and antecedents of this particular memoir (noting the creative influence of Luis Bunuel in this sex worker non de plume). The speakers also had negative views about Britney Spears, that messy American sex bomb/singer, giving an indication that the authors represented baby boomer feminist beliefs that women in skimpy outfits who sing do not deserve respect or understanding. I confess to being a Spears fan.
For many of the subjects of Tankard-Reist’s book, abuse began long before they worked in the sex industry which for them was a negative experience. One wonders whether being so public in the raging debates on social media is the best outcome for these vulnerable women whose lives are hoisted into the limelight. Only time will tell if the involvement in this book will turn out to be something that started off rosy but did not end well as a dominant pattern in the lives exposed and explored.
In conclusion to my time at the festival, it was a joy to listen to author Anna Funder speaking about her writing process saying she often “had to reign in reality to make it credible. . .You go in the room and shut the door… I don’t think about myself at all.”
Anna Funder’s work is full of brilliant insights and the author appears unruffled and slightly humoured by a few former Stasi officers from former GDR who have protested her well observed representations in Stasiland at a Berlin book launch.
For further background, see this story Barbara did in 2015.