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We need to talk about the media’s portrayal of sex work Posted by Maralann on 07 Jun 2012

By Helen Lobato

Last week I caught up with the movie Careless Love. Written by John Duigan it’s about a Sydney university student called Linh played by Nammi Le who works at night as a sex worker to help her immigrant family with their mortgage. Basically it’s just a contemporary expose of a university student/prostitute’s life without any analysis of the institution that is prostitution.

John Duigan decided to write Careless Love after reading a series of reports on how university students were turning to prostitution to cope with the rising cost of living and university fees. Duigan  says that he didn’t set out to write a story about sexual slavery or drug abuse, or to depict sex work as glamorous. He was equally  determined that Linh wasn’t regarded as a victim. Careless Love presents prostitution as a choice for young women to make; delivering greater income than the usual part-time work available for university students such as waitressing. 

Last week there was a plethora of stories in the media about sex work with workers and their supporters arguing for the practice’s legitimacy. The first of these articles concerned the Melbourne Festival of Sex Work.  To note the occasion, local sex workers intent on demystifying their profession appeared on a panel open to the public. The Age reports that at the Secret Society Bar in Bourke Street a porn star, an escort, a tantric practitioner, a dominatrix and a rent boy invited members of the public to ask any question about their sex work in exchange for a gold coin donation. Then there was an opinion piece written by Wendy Squires. In Selling your body, not your soul, Squires  defends her prostitute friend whom she says is ‘not manipulating affections or promising more than can be delivered.’ Rather she’s ‘a businesswoman exchanging sex for money in a legal and safe environment. 

In Careless Love, Linh is an intelligent and beautiful young woman who chooses to do escort work in an effort to pay for her family’s mortgage. Linh is portrayed as strong and in control of her life and her clients. For her, the process of moving into prostitution and exiting happens seamlessly. She is not a victim, for the idea of the prostituted woman as without ‘agency’ is no longer politically correct. According to Ekman, author of Prostitution, the abolition of the victim and post-modernism’s defence of the status-quo, to be a victim is now regarded as shameful. Referring to someone as a victim, according to the post-modernists, is to deny them their ‘agency’.

To be able to defend that women sell their bodies (and that men buy them) one must first abolish the victim and instead redefine the prostitute as a sex worker, a strong woman who knows what she wants, a businesswoman. The sex worker becomes a sort of new version of the ‘happy hooker (Ekman).

But a ‘happy hooker’ is not the experience of prostitutes who don’t have this so-called choice. In reality, prostitution is a job where 71% of women have been subjected to physical violence; 63% have been raped while in prostitution and  89% want to leave and would do so if they could. Women in prostitution have a death rate 40 times higher than the average and are 16 times more likely to be murdered.

If the only information about sex work is obtained from our current media then the purchase of women’s bodies for sex will continue to be regarded as normal. But rather than prostitution being inevitable and unstoppable, it is  ’socially constructed out of men’s dominance and women’s subordination’ (Jeffreys 1997, 3).

When Linh’s double life is finally revealed there is disapproval mostly from her family but also from her boyfriend. Her parents are ashamed that they have been rescued by prostitution money and her boyfriend tries unsuccessfully to forgive and forget. But why is it that the prostitute, and in this case Linh, who is condemned for her part in the prostitution contract? What about the men who use her and the millions of other women who are trafficked and prostituted.

These recent media depictions of sex work leave so much to be desired.

References: Jeffreys, S 1997, The Idea of Prostitution, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne.

First published:


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'River, River' by Merlinda Bobis Posted by Maralann on 07 Jun 2012

Writer-performer Merlinda Bobis catches up with Filipino-Canadian artists.
Photo by Christine Balmes

It is magic when the river flows: when it springs from some startling depth or height that, by chance, you’ve tapped into; when it surges into the imaginary, which turns tidal through your flesh and bones; when it sneaks into other bodies to form new tributaries of kinship, in lived stories.

This is how I experienced my recent performance of River, River, my one-woman play adaptation of Fish-Hair Woman, at the University of Toronto’s international workshop on ‘Violence in a Far Country: Women Scholars of Colour Theorize Terror’ (18-19 May 2012). I have done performances of this play at various venues, but this show was special. Jet-lagged and all, I gave my paper in the morning and, in the afternoon, rehearsed in the theatre for the first time. Mapped out light and sound with the Romanian-Canadian technical director Teo and the stage manager Mandy, whose family hails from Trinidad. Both amazing, given such a tight schedule. Then a very quick rehearsal. We did all these in less than three hours. By 5:00 pm, the show was on! The tightest schedule that I’ve ever experienced. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to deliver. But magic: the river flowed.

I am primarily a writer-performer. While I venture into scholarly discussions on creative production, I have doubts about calling myself ‘a scholar’. Thus, the impressive line-up of scholars and the spectacular theorising in the workshop awed and intimidated me. I gave a paper (‘“Weeping is Singing”: After Militarism’) on the politics, aesthetics, and ethics of the production of both the play and the novel. But I always felt that my ‘real paper’ is the show (and the novel): the body makes its own argument. And as it enacts the horrors of war and its consequent mourning, this ‘argumentative body’ is always desiring, affirmative. Affirming itself, the dead, and the living bodies in the audience also affirming this story from a far country, and ‘weeping-singing’ with me.

The river flowed in our remembering together: my story was completed because others listened. We made new water tributaries, new wellsprings of story together. Indeed storytelling is not lonely.

And the flow does not stop; there are ripples. The overwhelmingly moving responses of the audience after the show, including the wonderful thank-you emails that I received now that I’m back in Australia remind me this is why I tell a story with the body. As one of the scholars wrote, the powerful performance brought them ‘to a different integrity space’. And humbly, I respond: I simply brought you to the river.



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Notwithstanding the recent HRT review-oestrogen therapy remains dangerous Posted by Maralann on 28 May 2012

By Helen Lobato

For some women, the news that Hormone Replacement Therapy is OK, has come 10 years too late. According to the host of 3AW’s Talking Health, Dr Sally Cockburn; “those of us who have borne the hormonal burden for our families all our adult lives and who are now in our 50s deserve better.”

Cockburn’s lament comes on the heels of a report discrediting a previous study’s finding that HRT for menopause raised the risk of blood clots, breast cancer and strokes. In July 2002, the publication of the first Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) report caused a dramatic drop in HRT use throughout the world. Now a major reappraisal by international experts, published in the peer-reviewed journal Climacteric (the official journal of the International Menopause Society), shows how the evidence has changed over the last 10 years, and supports a return to a “rational use of HRT, initiated near the menopause”.

When Jenni Murray heard that women in their 40s and 50s can now safely take HRT to help cope with their symptoms, she became very concerned. The 62 year old author thinks that HRT gave her breast cancer. At the age of 45, Murray began HRT and the various symptoms that plagued her such as the hot flushes, the night sweats and low moods miraculously disappeared. While enjoying her symptom free life, Murray managed to ignore the warnings that came from the Million Women Health study and after ten years of using HRT, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Menopause occurs when menstruation stops and fertility ends. Common understanding of the process is that the menopausal ovaries are useless and defunct and that diminished and inadequate oestrogen levels need to be supplemented in the form of HRT to ward off the terrible ravages of ageing such as osteoporosis, heart disease and lack of sexual libido. However this is incorrect for our ovaries do not shrivel up but continue to produce
hormones, including oestrogens throughout the life cycle.

According to Sherrill Sellman author of Hormone Heresy:

Millions of menopausal women flock to their doctors’ offices each year seeking relief from such complaints as hot flushes, night sweats, bloating, indigestion, allergies, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, weight gain, head hair loss, facial hair growth, mood swings, aging skin, irritability, foggy thinking, lack of concentration, anxiety attacks, heart palpitations, bone loss, and heavy bleeding. The common panacea prescribed for all these symptoms is usually HRT. All these presenting symptoms are lumped together into the menopausal pigeonhole, oestrogen deficiency is the diagnosis and synthetic estrogen replacement becomes the cure. An obvious and simple solution for hormonal imbalance! Or so we are led to believe.

It was after the Second World War that doctors first began to argue for the maintenance of high levels of hormones for menopausal women and by the 1960s pharmaceutical companies began to spread the myth that menopause was a medical condition. Prior to this time menopause was not a disease but a welcome stage in women’s lives that signalled the end of fertility.

Sellman claims that it is not a lack of oestrogen that is causing the ‘menopausal symptoms’ but an excess.

Unfortunately, women have been intentionally led on a merry hormone goose chase. While medicalizing and pathologising of menopausal women with potent, carcinogenic and dangerous steroid drugs has filled the coffers of the drug companies and doctors alike, the real cause of these health problems has been ignored. The World Health Organization has found that an overweight post menopausal woman has more oestrogen circulating in her body than a skinny pre-menopausal woman!!

Western women now have some of the highest oestrogen levels ever recorded in history due to exposure to medications such as the Pill and HRT along with estrogen mimics found in pesticides, herbicides, and plastics, as well as the hormones injected into feed lot cattle and farmed fish.

In HRT Licensed to Kill and Maim, author and investigative journalist Martin Walker introduces his readers to a little known world of women severely damaged by hormone replacement therapy prescribed for them by their trusted medical practitioners. When Ros, a busy wife, mother and carer told her doctor she was experiencing hot flushes and dizziness, he diagnosed the menopause and prescribed hormone replacement therapy. Six months later with Ros’s periods becoming heavier, her breasts enlarging and her moods worsening, the HRT dose was increased and at the age of 42 Ros had her uterus and ovaries removed. Her doctor had failed to tell her that her symptoms could have been caused by high, not low levels of circulating oestrogen and it was only on Ros’s insistence that her levels were finally tested and found to be extraordinarily high – measuring 2110 with normal around 400.

Over the past few decades HRT has become a drug for which the need has been created, rather than it being a therapy for a legitimate ailment. Menopause is simply the cessation of the menses, rather than some pathological condition for which we must be treated. In spite of the fact that exogenous oestrogens have been linked to cancers and other health conditions for many years, profit-hungry drug companies have continued to market HRT for the most trivial of reasons with major long - term side effects.

Following the publication of the 2002 Women’s Health Initiative study 65 per cent of women on hormone therapy stopped taking HRT but two years later the message had faded and one in four women were back on the therapy. Now that this latest review recommends that the “classical use’ of hormone therapy be initiated near the menopause benefitting most women who have indications including significant menopausal symptoms or osteoporosis, it will be interesting to see how many women return to the HRT fold.

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Your Choice! Posted by Maralann on 24 May 2012

By Pauline Hopkins

On morning radio this week, the presenters ran a quick radio telephone poll asking whether female listeners would rather be Craig Thompson’s wife or Peter Slipper’s wife. (What a choice, indeed, you may ask!) The verdict was that women would rather be Peter Slipper’s wife because “it wouldn’t be their fault.” Fault, you ask?

Well, the thinking went like this. If your male partner has an affair or liaison or tryst with another man, that means he is a closet gay. So no matter now pleasing you are as a woman, you would never satisfy him because his “problem” was him, not you or your sexual appeal or lack thereof.

With Craig Thompson, however, and his purported use of the services of female prostitutes, there is an implicit responsibility on the wife for his unfaithful behaviour because, to put it bluntly, she obviously wasn’t hot enough. Or so the morning radio theory went.

So let’s get this straight. Men behaving badly, whether allegedly fraudulently with credit cards or in breech of their marital pledges. And whose behaviour also comes under scrutiny? The not-hot-enough wife who “drove” him too it? Pleeeeease!

Anyone who doubts the need for feminism or the existence of misogyny just needs to look at this example. When women are held to account for the bad behaviour of their male partners, it is clear that there is still a need for ongoing scrutiny about the norms that operate in our societies, including free democracies.


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To whinge or not to whinge* Posted by Maralann on 16 May 2012

By: Susan Hawthorne

Let's be up front about the title of this piece. You get to decide whether I am whinging or making justifiable arguments about discrimination. You get to decide if highlighting silence, indifference or sidelining is reasonable to discuss in public. Some of you will already have decided that I am a whinger. I hope some will applaud the attempt to make known what usually is not spoken about.

Spinifex Press is a feminist press, that means that we have specialist knowledge about the international women's movement, the histories of women in many places, that we have opinions and have carried out research on subjects where the experiences of women have important social, political and even creative ramifications.

Feminism is a huge subject area and feminist writers and thinkers have much to say about this area. Feminist thinking can be applied to almost any area of knowledge. From time to time the media decides to run some kind of commentary on feminism. They ask this social commentator or that political commentator for their views. You would think that we would be rushed off our feet answering such questions from the media about what is important to half the world. But we are not. In fact, the media almost never talks to us or to the many authors published by Spinifex about the subject of feminism. In recent years a number of writers festivals have had panels to discuss whether feminism is still relevant (the wrong question in my view). Again, you would expect that Spinifex Press would be an important place to source writers who are well versed in discussing feminism. So far, we have never been asked to suggest a writer to speak on such a panel in spite of the fact that we publish more feminists per square inch than any other Australian publisher. Occasionally our international writers are invited to participate, but Australian feminists like Diane Bell, Sheila Jeffreys, Bronwyn Winter or Betty McLellan are not on the festival circuit. Let alone Renate Klein or myself.

In the last couple of years a group of brave women writers have come forward to highlight the asymmetry of awards given to women writers. Out of that has come much discussion about the Stella Prize. There have been fruitful discussions about the poor levels of reviewing of books by women, and it is having some effect on the level of awareness in the media of these issues. You would think, given our specialty, that the media would ask Spinifex Press whether these statistics were reflected in our experience of publishing women writers over the last 21 years. To date, we have not been asked that question, we have not been asked for our opinion in an area in which we have obvious expertise. This is so even though we participate in blogs, online discussions, Facebook and twitter commentary.

The issue of gay marriage has become mainstream in the last twelve months. Spinifex Press probably publishes more lesbian writers than any other publishing house in Australia. You would think that the media who are often caught short-footed in this area would come knocking to ask for comments from some of our out writers (many writers in the mainstream as well as those published by presses like ours still keep the lid on their sexuality to avoid being pigeon holed). To date, no festival organiser or journalist has asked us this question.

Ecofeminism is an area in which Spinifex has considerable expertise. What is often forgotten is that like human rights, women have always been at the forefront of discussions on ecology. Think of Rachel Carson, Donella Meadows, Maria Mies, Helen Caldicott, Vandana Shiva. Feminism and ecology go together. However, there remains great ignorance among many in the media who want to keep feminism out of ecology. But ecology would not exist as a discipline without feminist thinkers.

In a multicultural society like Australia you would expect there to be commentary on women's experience. And if you thought about a feminist perspective on these issues, you would find plenty of expertise at Spinifex from writers with diverse backgrounds. You would find Indigenous writers, writers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and many other places. For commentary on the political changes taking place in the Arab world, you would find several of our anthologies packed with information as well as books by writers like Nawal el Saadawi and Evelyne Accad.

We, of course, wish that the issue of violence against women would go away. But it continues to grab headlines. The increasing sexualisation of girls and women has garnered a lot of comment; sexual slavery, prostitution, pornography and rape of women in war as well as violence against women in the home are regular subjects in the media. Spinifex has been responsible for a significant number of books in this area and we have dozens of authors who could make comment, could speak at conferences and festivals and yet few are ever asked to do so, or when they are, they are frequently expected to be targets of hostile interlocutors. It is unusual that a group who is subjected to violence should also be expected to be apologists for the perpetrators of that violence, but women who speak out against men's violence against women are frequently expected to defend men. The vilification of women should be as important as the vilification of people based on race, ethnicity, religion, class or caste, sexuality, disability or any other form of oppression. Hate speech based on a person's sex is just as hateful as all the other forms of hate speech I have listed. But pornography is strangely exempted as a form of hate speech. And those who speak out about it in these terms are called prudes and whingers.

The publishing industry has gone through massive changes in the last decade, and none more so than the advent of eBooks and digital publishing. Spinifex Press began creating eBooks in 2006. While we have often been asked to participate in industry forums on this subject, the media and most festivals have not asked for input or commentary from us. It's hard to say whether this is because we are feminist publishers and therefore would not know anything (although we were innovators in the field in the 1990s also) or whether there is the assumption that we would only know about feminist issues (but why are we well qualified activist publishers not asked to comment on feminism either?).

You can see that I am caught in a whirlwind and cannot get out no matter whether I shout or remain silent, no matter whether I put forward a critique or try to make jokes and be good humoured about it, or whether I whinge.

That's all very well, say the doubters, but perhaps these books are badly written or didactic, perhaps they are poorly argued or rushed to print with lots of editorial problems, perhaps the designs are sloppy or the book covers unappealing. If any of these were issues, you would read about it in reviews. While it's not possible for every book or every writer to win awards, many Spinifex authors have won awards for their books, state awards, national awards and international awards. Some books have been named in best-of-the-year lists, some authors have been recognised for their work. Spinifex Press has won awards, as have the publishers. On matters editorial, it is something we pride ourselves on and we have been known to spend several years on getting a book right. Our book covers are frequently remarked upon. Internationally, we have numerous translations, including Betty McLellan's Help, I'm living with a man boy in 17 languages. Other books have been translated into Spanish, German, Korean, Chinese and Turkish. I ask, given all this, should you be able to hear our writers at festivals or read features on them in the media?

Don’t get me wrong, we are more than grateful to those festival organisers and media who do support us, as well as to readers who buy books and writers who have stuck with us over the years.

There are many others areas Spinifex authors have written about. Here is a beginning list: war, terrorism, economics, water, health, creative writing, poetry, autobiography, GM foods, holocaust, trauma, sanity and madness, peace, literature, the politics of knowledge, globalisation, climate change, lesbian culture and history, mythology, religion, Indigenous knowledges, abortion, cyberfeminism, ecofeminism, reproductive technologies, menopause, international relations, violence against women, international feminist movements, intimate relationships, exile, masculinity, revolution, history, prehistory, politics, ecology, animals, colonisation, biodiversity, trade unions, education, children, theatre, circus, art, photography, humour, feminism.

When a group of feminist artists in New York began protesting about the number of women artists represented in art galleries, they donned gorilla masks and called themselves Guerilla Girls in part to avoid reprisals from the art establishment and the media. What we see in public fora in Australia is feminism sexed-up, feminism cat-fights, feminism lite. Any attempt to engage seriously with the ideas of feminism, ideas that have changed the lives of millions of women and girls around the world, is met with derision, distortion, exclusion and silence. I say let's have feminism noisy, feminism fun, feminism serious. In short  guerrilla feminism.


* Apologies to Shakespeare.


Spinifex Press was established by Renate Klein and Susan Hawthorne 21 years ago. Both publishers have PhDs in Women’s Studies and have lived and worked feminism for many decades. They are authors of hundreds articles on feminism as well as dozens of books and have organised local, national and international feminist events.

For more on Guerilla Girls:


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