'White Slaves' & White Australia

Raelene Frances

I would like to begin this evening's lecture by introducing you to a sex worker. Her name is 'Joy'. For eighteen months in 1995-6, her larger-than-life figure leant against a red door-frame on the corner of Yurong and Stanley Streets in East Sydney. Of course, being a statue, she is not really a sex worker.

Or is she? The story of Joy became something of sensation in the mid-1990s, not just because she was allegedly the only statue of a prostitute on display in public anywhere in the world, and not just because she personified the seedier side of Sydney. Surrounding the creation of Joy was a quite extraordinary mystery.

On the very day that sculptor, Loui Fraser, was shaping her striking facial features, a young woman whom she had never seen but whose face bore a remarkable similarity to these very features was dying in a hospital in a New South Wales country town. After the funeral, her mother who had been at her daughter's bedside when she died, returned to her Darlinghurst home to find the newly-erected statue of Joy in the street outside her house. She immediately noticed the resemblance, and overcome with emotion, took a large hammer to the sculpture. She did considerable damage before being carted off in a police wagon.

When Loui later spoke to the mother about her actions, she discovered that the woman's daughter had been a Sydney sex worker for many years. In fact, she'd been introduced to the occupation by her mother, who was herself a brothel-keeper. Joy was too vivid a reminder of the young woman's life, her early death a result of ill-health following years of heroin addiction.

This grieving mother was not the only East Sydney resident who found Joy's image too confronting for comfort. Many local residents found her presence too stark a reminder of the 'bad old days' when this part of Sydney was better known for its street walkers than its restaurants. Protestors lobbied South Sydney Council. The Council eventually succumbed and had the statue returned to its owner. The response she provoked during her sojourn on Stanley Street is nevertheless enormously revealing about the way in which Australians deal with certain aspects of their history, about what we choose to remember, forget and celebrate.

"At the level of the individual, we recognise that a healthy psyche requires confronting the demons in one's past in order to deal with them and move on. Collectively, however, confronting what are regarded as the less worthy or shameful aspects of our history is seen at best as muckraking, at worst as a kind of bloody-minded, politically-motivated national defamation."

The controversy over Joy goes to the heart of these issues. One elderly male resident who objected to the statue felt that better subjects could have been chosen. 'We should put up statues to returned soldiers - worthwhile people.' Implicit in this statement is the view that soldiers are intrinsically worthwhile; sex workers are worthless. In this value system, whores can never be heroes, but soldiers will be heroes no matter what, indeed, despite the fact that the military have historically depended heavily on the services of prostitutes.

Another elderly male resident objected to the statue because it reminded people of the area's seedier recent history. 'Everybody knows it happened, but who wants to be reminded of it.' Moral judgements about prostitutes and prostitution dictate what we choose to remember and forget. This is partly because remembering in our society (and perhaps in most societies) so often implies celebration.

Which is a curious thing. At the level of the individual, we recognise that a healthy psyche requires confronting the demons in one's past in order to deal with them and move on. Collectively, however, confronting what are regarded as the less worthy or shameful aspects of our history is seen at best as muckraking, at worst as a kind of bloody-minded, politically-motivated national defamation. These arguments will be familiar to many of you. I would argue that the history of prostitution is caught up in a very similar contestation.

Here again the dispute over Joy is instructive. While many vocal residents objected to her, others were very sorry to see her go. The Sex Workers Outreach Project was delighted with Loui's statue and the recognition it gave to the existence of sex workers. While she copped more than her share of vandalism, she was also treated with affection, dressed on one occasion in a pink feather boa, and draped with Christmas decorations in the festive season.

 

She was especially popular amongst tourists, who thought it fun to be photographed arm-in-arm with a hooker. Younger residents tended to be more impressed than the older generation, commenting on the honesty of the statue itself in reflecting an ongoing reality of the area's social and economic life. A young mother brought her seven year old daughter to see Joy as part of a day's outing to the Australian Museum. She told a journalist that she welcomed the statue because it departed from the hypocrisy which characterised so many of society's attitudes to sex. In her view, unlike the many so-called 'respectable' and well-heeled women who had sex with husbands they did not love in order to maintain a certain lifestyle, prostitutes were at least honest about what they were doing and were no less deserving of respect.

Sentiments such as these, and the fact that Joy was approved by the South Sydney City Council in the first place, testify to the existence of a strand in Australian society which deplores hypocrisy and delights in calling a spade a spade.

And again, you can put this in a wider historical context. For almost a century after the end of the convict era, there was something of a conspiracy of silence about our convict past. Many of the archivists in the audience tonight will have stories of pages savagely torn from convict registers by embarrassed descendents. It is a sign of our growing maturity as a society that we can now embrace this aspect of our origins. But remembering the convict era did not go uncontested, at least initially. Today most of us would agree that our history is richer, more complex and more illuminating for being more inclusive of the convict era.

I believe the same lessons will one day apply in the case of the sex industry. Pretending it didn't happen is neither possible nor desirable. Our only choice is to embrace this history and to learn from it what we can.

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