RMIT slammed for facilitating sex work abolition conference

Sammi Taylor | @sammiiitaylor

When RMIT launched their 2016 marketing campaign with the hash tag #RMIT2016, they were probably hoping all of the tweets looked a little something like this.

Let’s talk about upcoming events! Celebrate successful alumni! Remind you that there’s a free BBQ happening in the Building 57 courtyard! Uni life! Fun things!

But that’s not what they got.

This week, #RMIT2016 has been at the centre of a heated debate about sex trade, and the alleged silencing of local sex workers.

This weekend, a two day anti-sex trade conference is taking place at RMIT in the Emily McPherson building on Russell Street. The Worlds Oldest Oppression: a 2 day conference for a world free of sex trade abuse is presented by an organisation called Sister Survivor, with a line-up of speakers including “sex trader survivors and abolition activists” like Rachel Moran and Julie Bindel. 3 quarters of speakers at the event are survivors of sex work and the sex trade industry. The conference will also launch a book, Prostitution Narratives, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and RMIT’s Dr Caroline Norma.

Dr Caroline Norma, lecturer in Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT, says that the conference aims to look at the sex trade industry critically, and to introduce the Nordic model into Australia—a model that criminalises customers, buyers, pimps and traffickers within the industry, but places no laws on sex workers themselves.

“It’s a sex trade survivor-led and centred conference… a gathering of survivors and their supporters. The conference is centred on a book that I’ve just edited, that contains 20 testimonies from women who have survived prostitution and have come out the other side and been very critical of what the sex industry did to them, and want to abolish that industry as a commercial enterprise of sexual violence against women,” Dr Norma says.

“The conference is about supporting them in Australia and to collectively organise politically against the sex industry and to tell people such as me and others how to support them in the best possible way.”

But the online response to the conference, and to RMIT’s involvement, has been less than favourable.

Spokesperson for the Vixen Collective and sex-worker Jane Green created an online protest at her blog, urging people against the conference to take action by tweeting @RMIT with the #RMIT2016 hashtag. For the past 5 days, #RMIT2016 has been a space for conversation and debate about the conference and sex work in general. But it also contains messages of hate and extreme language, some of which is directed towards sex workers speaking out about the issue.

“What we’ve seen online is quite distressing,” says Jane, “the sex workers have been raising concerns and tweeting a lot of information, links to studies, information about their personal experiences and about decriminalisation…and I think that’s all very relevant…because as sex workers we often feel very closed out of discussions about our lives which is very frustrating.”

“But in the hashtag, the sex workers have been treated quite abusively. The Vixen Collective were called a ‘sex trade group’ not only online in the hashtag but also in the Tasmanian Times, by someone who’s a speaker at the conference. So obviously that’s offensive and distressing for people.”

Jane is the media spokesperson for the Vixen Collective, Victoria’s peer-only sex worker organisation made up entirely of current and former sex workers. Jane says that the online protest came from members of the community who oppose the Nordic model raising their concerns over the conference, and who just want a space for their voices to be heard.

“People in our community were aware that this conference was being held, and they found it distressing, because both the Swedish model—which is partial criminalisation of our work and our lives—and the full criminalisation model, will bring harm to sex workers,” she says.

But Dr Caroline Norma says that the number of women wanting to leave the sex industry far outnumbers those who want to stay and that the Nordic model will help, rather than hinder, the lives of sex workers.

“[The Nordic model] is a real anti-sex trade piece of legislation, and I suspect that the people who are opposing it are the people who think that their incomes will be taken away by the criminalisation of their customers. Now, that’s true to some extent but it’s also the truth that the Nordic model puts in place quite substantial programs to assist women to leave the sex industry if they so choose.

“I suggest that the people who are sort of launching online protests and carrying on have substantial connections to the sex industry and are seeking to protect the men who buy them. But we don’t care one bit about prostitution buyers.”

RMIT has also issued a statement to Catalyst Magazine about their involvement in the conference and has offered critics of The Worlds Oldest Oppression the opportunity to host their own conference at RMIT in the future.

“Intellectual and academic freedom is central to the mission of universities.

RMIT supports open and rigorous debate on significant issues in our society.

We want to enable and encourage the clash of ideas in a safe setting, in a way that connects us to the communities we serve.

As such, we have offered critics of this weekend’s conference the opportunity to host their own conference at RMIT, with the same support as has been provided to this event.”

Jane Green isn’t asking for the conference to be shut down, only that the voices of sex workers are being heard.

“At no stage has the Vixen Collective actually asked for the conference to be shut down or to not go ahead, we’ve simply asked for people to hear our concerns. And that’s all we’re asking. Sex workers want to be heard.”

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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