“Gender equality cannot be achieved while the sex trade exists”, by Sabrinna Valisce

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The following speech was presented by Sabrinna Valisce at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) Feminist Forum event at the past International Women’s Day. The topic being discussed was, ‘Can gender equality be achieved while the sex trade exists?’ The speech used a mixture of historic, current, global and specific South Pacific statistics and facts.

Her speech was very powerful and demonstrated that we can learn more from direct knowledge and experience than from theories surrounding legislative models.

Most recently, Sabrinna was invited to go to the UK to speak against the New Zealand Model of Prostitution Law, as there is an imminent threat of this model being passed in England. If you would like to know more about Sabrinna’s activism and learn how to help, please click here.

If you want to understand why the New Zealand Model of Prostitution Law is not working, click here.

As part of our HerAdvocacy program, HerSpace aims to support and raise awareness for the voices of survivors of sexual exploitation.



I’d like to begin by opening a window into a New Zealand brothel lounge room. For this, I will be using the language found there. It isn’t pretty and it will be full of vulgar words and misogyny. I thought long and hard about this and even consulted with others including SPACE International. I decided that to water down the language and only allude to the brothel lounge would result in less understanding of it rather than depth of understanding, which is my goal.

This comes from more than one brothel and more than one city and is my direct experience. I believe the lounge and the everyday experience in it, is enough to show inequality and an extremely unhealthy environment without even looking at the bedrooms.

In the lounge are around 20 girls in lingerie or tiny dresses. Huge 6 inch stripper heals are mandatory. Punters come and go, fully dressed. Some arrive alone, others in pairs or groups. The heating is set for them. The girls switch between standing and moving about to get warm and sitting down to ease the pain in their feet. There’s 5-7 of them at any given moment.

A man comes in. He bellows, ‘Which one of you cunts wants to suck my dick’. Not all johns speak like him. The one I’m chatting with says to me, “Ooooh. That’s a bit on the nose.” The receptionist doesn’t notice. This is business usual. Quite often the men talk to each other about the ladies. They talk as though we can’t hear them. “Whaddya think of red over there?” “Mate, I aint no chubby chaser.” They laugh. “Well how bout that, then” pointing at the girl next to her. “Nice face but no tits on it.” They nod to each other. “That one’s got a good rack.” “Do they throw the ole girl in for free when ya book her daughter?” They openly laugh at their own wittiness. One gets up to book a girl. He goes to reception, “Yeah, the blonde”. “We have 3 blondes on this evening, which were you wanting?” “Aaaaa green dress.”

The ladies are meant to pretend this is normal and just fine. Let’s change the context shall we? An employer in a bank notices that one of her tellers seems to lack confidence. She gets a psychologist in to empower the worker. The psychologist says, “I have just the thing. We’ll put him in a lounge just wearing his underwear and some very painful shoes in a cold environment. Then we’ll get women he doesn’t know to come in and comment disparagingly to each other about his looks in front of him. They can refer to him as asshole, bastard and wanker as though that’s his name. We’ll do this for a 12-17 hour shift without breaks. By the end he’ll be confident and empowered.”

Clearly, no psychologist would ever make such a recommendation, yet this is how people talk of prostitution. What is also clear, either they’re lying through their teeth or they’ve never stepped foot in a brothel.

So, we’ve all heard of the Madonna / Whore Dichotomy.

The Good woman juxtaposed with the Bad woman in a seemingly binary opposition.

I want to pose that they’re exactly the same woman. They’re not opposites.

Both images are of male design that service male need. There is the doting selfless, self-sacrificing mother in perpetual service to husband and child. Then there’s the sexless and highly sexualised, self-sacrificing whore in perpetual sexual service to men.

Neither has needs or wants. Both service endlessly, both are caricatures and both are downtrodden. They are the same woman. Their only difference is sexual availability.

The mother must have had sex but she is portrayed as the virgin. In patriarchy she no longer resembles that of the untouched child so her sexuality has hit its use by date. Deemed unfuckable her role is that of breeder and nursemaid. She may be cast aside for a younger model, cheated on or be subject to domestic violence. Her very being is now the male excuse for drunken whoring.

The whore must have once been a virgin and risks motherhood daily but she is portrayed as the immoral, barren, wanton woman. There is a long history of girls raised in brothels and boys sent to the priesthood. Many were and are mothers. Men created the sex class of women to service them sexually. The image of the good husband and father didn’t sit so well with drunken whoring so in a showy display of moral outrage they criminalised the women as though this were a female inclination. But the whore too, has a use by date. Her body ages and she is deemed useless. Her role becomes as madam, cleaner, servant to the good woman, wet-nurse in history, or worse, the example of the fallen woman to avoid. Her very being is now the male excuse for obtaining the wife and mother.

One image is used to justify the other. They’re intricately tied and every woman is subject to lifelong negotiation between the two and in a futile attempt to avoid both.



Pearl Clutching




Man Hater


Conservative Moralist



Old Maid








And even ‘dyke’







And the all-encompassing Bitch.

While one remains so too will the other because one feeds into the other and back again.

We will never eliminate the sex trade while the image of the subservient, selfless mother remains intact. While our sisters with children are struggling to be seen as whole women and as adults in full time work already, not just extensions of their children and husband then we can’t expect the image of the whore to be understood as damaging all women. Today imagery is at its very strongest than ever throughout history and I’d like to go into that a little more deeply.

I read a book called ‘Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television’ by Jerry Mander, published 1978. Jerry worked in advertising. Today, we may be carrying up to 3 screens everywhere we go with images at the ready. So why was this ad man against TV?

He argued TV reduced arguments down to slogans. We can see this in the pro sex trade lobby’s arguments. ‘Sex Work Is Work’, ‘Her Body Her Choice’, ‘Sorry for your experience but not everyone has that experience’. These are sound bites, not arguments, but they’re catchy and they work because generations have been taught in sound bites without awareness of logic, analysis and evidence.

Jerry Mander also talked about studies involving eye movement to prove that information from screens can bypass the conscious mind, hitting directly into the subconscious. And this is what advertisers know. Worse still, they’ve known for 40 plus years. What they also know is the subconscious mind cannot differentiate between fact and fantasy.

So, when we watch online pornography, it isn’t just being seen by the iris and interpreted by the rational, conscious mind. It’s bypassing that, entering the subconscious and being interpreted as real. No less real than we are all in this room. That is how the subconscious mind interprets everything we see.

If I say the name Jill Meagher, we all know who I’m talking about, right? Murdered here in Melbourne and portrayed by the media as the perfect woman sitting perfectly on that central line. Neither whore nor madonna, yet a fatal statistic anyway. There is no way to win. The dichotomy which I pose to be a continuum is simply a measure of how and where each woman fails. Though she is just a story and photo to me, I am intricately connected to her via the negotiation of that continuum upon which I continually fail. As is every woman.

The line says:

Not feminine enough

Not heterosexual enough

Not giving enough

Not self-sacrificing enough

Not assertive enough

Not pure enough

Not sexual enough

Not old enough

Not young enough

Not stable enough

Not adventurous enough

Not pretty enough

Not good enough


In the world of the sex trade activist where sex workers sit divided and opposed to survivors this dichotomy is used to two dimensionalize us all. It’s the sluts VS the prudes. The happy hooker who just loves all men and all sex, juxtaposed with the poor victim with a sad face telling an even sadder story. Look at mainstream media articles and this two dimensionalizing of the women in the trade is prolific; and in both cases she is too stupid or too ditzy or too uneducated to offer political or social analysis.

When I stepped up to speak I had no idea my position in this. I knew my politics but not position within the activist world. I’m wising up fast and have since made a promise to myself. I reject being the tokenised survivor voice telling only my story. I only accept engagements that recognise me as a 3 dimensional, whole woman with a heart and a brain. I have more than just a story. I have analysis, insight and ideas toward social and political policy and can hold my own in the political arena. I and my sister survivors are the experts on our own exploitation. The wonderful researchers and academics who support us also come to us for their information. We are the whistle-blowers and we stand equally beside them as experts. I reject the mainstreams desire to have me speak my story, so that a media spokesperson might stand beside me, pat me on the head with a look of sympathy before I’m told to sit down while they give political commentary. I am my own spokesperson, thank-you very much.

Sound bites are catchy, easy to remember and repeated so many times that they go into the subconscious. The more often we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it. When we’re told we’re not good enough only once we can easily fob it off as utterly ridiculous but when we’re told we’re not good enough from the day we’re born to the day we die via school, art, media, news, politics, social policy, academics, experts, the lay person, friends and family, communities and society in general in subtle and overt forms then we cannot help but internalise the messages and treat ourselves and other women accordingly.

So, let’s bring this back to our subject; Gender equality cannot be reached while porn and prostitution exist and especially not so while they are normalised, legitimised and in the case of Victorian law, government sanctioned. Right now, 42 million people, most of them women and girls, are in prostitution worldwide. 99% of buyers are men. 99% of the demand is caused by men. In Australia 81% of those in the trade are female. The other 19% ‘Identify’ as men, boys, transwomen, transgirls, transmen, transboys, non-binary or any of the other 52 made up genders. Or in other words, many of the other 19% have a female body too. There is no way to obfuscate the fact that this is highly gendered and intricately connected to the slave trade.

I have an interest in reading quotes from history about prostituted women and have done so for around two decades now. I have found that quotes about ‘whores’ from classic Roman literature always contextualise it to slavery. The moment that it changed was around 2200 years ago just prior to the Christian era. It is only now that it is being reconnected to a context of slavery. While not all 42 million prostituted persons are slaves, the horrible truth is that most are and that cannot be forgotten when women, such as myself stand up and speak about prostitution. Even survivors are overwhelmingly white women, from Western countries, who were not trafficked and didn’t experience slavery despite us being in the minority.

No, gender equality cannot be achieved while the sexual slave trade exists, the loudest voices are those parroting the high class call girl choosy-choice happy hooker, ditzy narrative of all sex good and the third party profiteer fat cats sit in cushy surrounds while the madonna whore dichotomy gets played out by the media moguls using and tokenising those of us who stand and speak.

The challenge, in my opinion is to re-humanise and 3 dimensionalise the female voice and the female image. This cannot be done by only focussing on one area. It requires a multi-pronged approach and includes the good woman in with her sister, the bad woman.”