Activist, writer, sex-positive feminist, single mother, sandgroper, grumpy old woman.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The sex work activist at the live export rally: an explanation (not an apology)

A few weeks ago, I attended this live export counter-rally.

I didn't just attend it. I promoted it online, hand-delivered flyers to local businesses, helped unload the utes and had beers before and after with the organiser and his family. I supported it, wholeheartedly.

And it was AWESOME. People just kept pouring in, individually and by the busload. They brought their kids, their dogs, their friends and extended families. Many travelled thousands of kilometres to be there. Those who couldn't attend, from all around Australia, sent us messages of solidarity and support. As a group, we chatted, we laughed, we ate BBQ sausages and played that uniquely country game of tell-me-your-grandfather's-surname-and-we'll-count-the-degrees-of-separation. But beneath the fun and frivolity, there was a more serious common goal: to speak up and have our voices heard.

Reaction to the rally by some in the mainstream media was predictable. While there was some great coverage, particularly by smaller and/or rural publications, others painted the country participants as thugs and the front page of The West featured a pic of the only (five-second) scuffle of the day involving farmers.  The WA Farmers Federation was interviewed repeatedly, though they had nothing to do with the organising, to draw the focus away from families and individuals and more towards 'corporations' and 'peak bodies'. Numbers on the Ban Live Export side were inflated and ours were grossly underestimated. Sadly, none of that was surprising.

What WAS surprising was the reaction I got from Twitter.

From the moment I started talking about the rally, I started losing followers. On the morning of the rally, I posted a warning that I would be live-tweeting it for the next couple of hours and uninterested people might want to mute the #hadagutful hashtag. I was careful to hashtag every tweet so none could accidentally slip past people's filters. That I felt the need to do that is telling in itself.

But instead of muting a couple of brief hours of photo-posting, people - some of whom had followed and chatted with me as friends for years - started BLOCKING me. In droves. It was hard to tell how many I was losing on the day, because the live-tweeting was also gaining me new followers, but once I got home and had the chance to check, I was genuinely upset to see some of the names in my 'recently unfollowed' list.

Upset, and to be honest, stunned. You see, the majority of people I have relationships with on Twitter are 'bleeding heart lefties', drawn together by our shared passion for social justice. Not all of them vote 'left', mind you. Many of them are conservative voters. But they mostly subscribe to small-L liberal social values, including compassion and understanding for marginalised communities like refugees, sex workers, Indigenous peoples, the queer community, people living with HIV, etc. They fight for the rights of these various groups to be heard, especially in the political arena, on the basis that EVERYONE deserves to be involved in policy that will ultimately affect their lives and/or livelihoods, no matter how 'unpopular' that group is with voters.

Everyone, it seems, except farmers.

The first comments I got about the rally photos were that most of the placards focused on profits. Farmers need to turn profits in order to stay in business. Rural businesses need farmers to turn profits so they continue to inject money into the local economy. Country towns need rural businesses to turn profits, OR THEY DIE. This is essentially why the rally was held in the first place - to keep our country communities alive - so yes, many of the signs focused on profits. The automatic response to this fact (by a complete stranger on Twitter) was that farmers are "greedy whiners" and all they care about is money.


Twitter (with support from me) has railed against public service retrenchments and fought for increased wages for police, nurses and teachers. Is that not about money? Is that not outrage at pulling people's incomes out from under them and/or supporting a profession's right to fight for better conditions? WHY DOES THE SAME NOT APPLY TO FARMERS? On the evening of the rally, a prominent WA union representative tweeted her opposition to the farmers' actions. What the hell? A group of workers from a specific industry get together to save their livelihoods and demand input into policy and the union condemns it?! It's this kind of double-standard that really shocked me - from the union, from social justice activists and from individuals who belong to other marginalised communities.

I am a country girl. I'm a farmer's daughter: born and raised, and currently living, in a wheat and sheep town. I'm passionate about rural health and education (or lack thereof), about govt spending on regional infrastructure (or lack thereof) and about rural representation in Parliament (you know the drill).

But people who know me will know that my primary passion is sex worker rights. It's hard to imagine two issues more completely unrelated than sex work and live export, but the politics of them are almost identical. In fact, I can give you two identical examples that were triggered by the very same TV show.

Last year, ABC's Four Corners did a sex trafficking piece on Australia's 'flesh trade'. It was a sensationalist piece of rubbish, with the creators refusing to interview primary stakeholders, preferring instead to rely on 'pity-porn' imagery, myths and stereotypes to incite 'moral outrage'. And incite moral outrage, it did. The public took one peek into a world they have NO understanding of, saw manipulated images of a worst case scenario, and immediately screamed BAN IT. Legislators responded to public demand, launching reviews and promising to 'crack down' on sex work. When sex workers and sex industry business owners attempted to speak out and say THESE CHANGES WILL ONLY MAKE THINGS WORSE, they were accused of bias (and dismissed) due to their 'personal agenda' and 'financial interest'.

A couple of months before, Four Corners had 'exposed' another industry: Australia's live exporters. It followed exactly the same formula - avoid facts and stakeholders, show emotive imagery of worst case scenario - and had exactly the same results. Moral outrage ensued. The public peeked into a world they have NO understanding of, found it distasteful and screamed BAN IT. Legislators jumped to it, imposed temporary bans and started developing policy to 'crack down' on the industry. Farmers and exporters who again tried to say THESE CHANGES WILL ONLY MAKE THINGS WORSE were again dismissed as having a personal agenda and financial interest.

On both issues, the voices of primary stakeholders are being actively silenced. On both issues, people with precisely ZERO knowledge of the respective industries are driving policy changes and 'moral outrage' is driving community support. And on both issues, people whose personal belief systems are offended by the subject matter are flatly refusing to even ACKNOWLEDGE the other side of the story, let alone listen to it.

I get that some people have an unshakeable position on sex work/live export. I get that some people find the act of selling sex/eating animals morally reprehensible. I get that some people want to 'help' sex workers/livestock that are 'trapped' in what they see as hideous situations. You believe what you believe for your own reasons and it's not my place to question that. But NONE of that negates a sex worker/farmer's right to speak out about their own experiences and influence policy that will otherwise have negative consequences for their lives and livelihoods. Argue with them all you like, but you have no right to silence them.

And yeah, I kind of see blocking tweets by someone politely presenting an alternative view as an act of silencing. They deliberately turned their backs on a group of people fighting for their own survival and demonstrated not only that they were unwilling to hear the other side of the story, but that they had made that decision based on stereotypes and misinformation. This became glaringly obvious in the number of times I've since been misrepresented as not caring about the welfare of animals. Just as supporters of sex workers are accused of being 'pro-pimp' and unsympathetic to victims of trafficking, supporters of farmers are accused of being pro-profits and unsympathetic to animals harmed in the process.

I support abortion rights. That doesn't mean I run around singing "Yay, abortion! Abortion is awesome!" Same goes for live export. I'm not shouting from the rooftops that live export is awesome. I don't 'like' the idea of long trips on ships or animals being slaughtered any more than I 'like' the idea of terminating a life before it even begins.  But I firmly believe that policy should be informed by FACTS and I know that in every case where legislation has been driven by moral panic and knee-jerk reactions, it has consistently proven to CAUSE more problems than it solves.

I will continue to support both these 'unpopular' causes, because there ARE problems that need to be addressed in sex work and in agriculture, but those problems will not be addressed with bans, nor by the active exclusion of primary stakeholders.

Both sex workers and farmers are in a position to change their industries from the inside. We should be empowering them to do that, not tying their hands.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Michael (follow @farmersway on Twitter and/or his blog) who has been FAR too modest in describing his involvement with the live export counter-rally and the fight for farmers' rights in general.

The rally was his baby. He sparked a passion in rural Western Australians that saw people driving thousands of kilometres to attend. He sparked a passion in ALL rural people that resulted in hundreds of messages of interstate and international support. He reminded us that we are a COMMUNITY, separated by distance but united by shared trials and tribulations. The passion, pride and connection that I felt amongst the people at the rally, and the supporters online, is something I will never forget. The video still gives me goosebumps.

Michael is just one farmer, trying to find common ground and ways to connect with the 'outside world', to tell them we're here, to share our experiences, to ask them to understand us. And that one farmer started a movement. I just want him to know that he is an inspiration and that I'm so very proud to be able to call him my friend. x

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Parenting choices are important

Today the Labor Govt committed to ending special arrangements for grandfathered Parenting Payment recipients and putting them on Newstart, bringing them into line with the rest of Australia’s single parents, who were forced onto the dole back in 2006. It was Howard policy that passed with comparatively little fanfare – probably because it happened pre-Twitter and who can even remember life pre-Twitter?

It was a low blow from Howard, using some of Australia’s most vulnerable families to make a point (WIMMINS SHOULD BE MARRIED, OK?) and win votes. I can’t help feeling that in endorsing Howard’s policy, it’s an even lower blow from Gillard. Them being the party of the Fair Go and all.

This sole parent smackdown caught Twitter’s attention today and my feed was full of comments about single mums – most supportive, some bordering on reprehensible. I didn't have the time or patience to argue about it on Twitter, but now my fury is threatening to boil over, so I’d better blurt it here before I make a mess of the curtains.

Before I do, just a little pre-emptive strike on the knobjockeys who try to belittle and shame me into silence whenever I raise this issue. Last time’s favourite was “This from a single mum with Foxtel and a PS3. I don’t have that and I WORK for a living”.

This idea that poor people don’t deserve to enjoy small luxuries is another rant for another day, as is the automatic assumption that anyone who identifies as a single parent must be on welfare.

I do, however, want to clarify up front that I am NOT ON THE PENSION and haven’t been for some time. I don’t even qualify for Rent Assistance. If I want to spend my wages on Foxtel and Playstation games (the console was a gift, if you must know), I will. And quite frankly, if I’d wanted to spend my welfare payments on Foxtel and Playstation games, I would have had every damn right to do so.

So yeah, this issue actually has no direct bearing on my life any more, so by all means go ahead and disagree or argue with me, but don’t bother with the “OMG YOU’RE SO ENTITLED, GET A JOB YOU LAZY SLAPPER” routine. Kthx.

That said, I've been a single parent for most of the past 20 years and spent a lot of time on the pension. Like many single parents, I was usually working and getting a part payment, or being cut off while things were good and falling back on it when money got tight. A few times when the shit really hit the fan, it was my only income for extended periods. I was one of the ‘grandfathered’ recipients they’re talking about at the moment, until a few months of short-term, high-paid work saw my pension cancelled and when the work ended and I tried to go back, I was put onto Newstart instead.

The changes had a pretty big impact on my family, most notably on the choices available to me. Or lack, thereof.  In the grand scheme of things, I didn't get that much money out of the pension. I've probably paid as much in tax and if not, I certainly will have covered my share by the time they cart me off in a box. The reduction in payments will really hurt single parents, but this isn't just about the money. The pension was a safety net that I had always relied on, empowering me to make the best decisions for my family. Single parents no longer have those options.

There are sooo many things I want to rant about right now, but I’ll try to focus on two comments that repeatedly appeared in my feed today. This will end up wordy enough, without going off on tangents.

“They can still sit at home until their child turns eight...”

I'm going to ignore the ‘parents of young children just sit on their arses and do nothing’ dog whistle and move straight on to the bigger problem with this statement: Not all single parents are single when they give birth.

Ok, so if I give birth to my first child while I'm single, I can go on the pension and have eight years to start planning for my future (actually, it’s six years, because Mutual Obligation kicks in when they start school). I can sign up for some study (if I can afford it), or maybe do a bit of volunteer work, to improve my chances of employment later. I can start or go back to paid work, safe in the knowledge that if I find I can’t juggle a job and small children, I have a safety net to fall back on and my family won’t starve. Or I can just focus on motherhood and enjoy taking my youngster to the park. ALL OF THESE OPTIONS ARE GOOD FOR KIDS.

Hey, you never know, I might even find myself a partner before then and not have to worry about this at all – six years is a long time.

But that’s not how it works for most single parents. For starters, the overwhelming majority of sole parents were married or defacto when their kids were born. Why is that important? Because they become single parents at later stages in their child’s development and under wildly diverse conditions.

Let’s say, for example, a woman with two children aged 12 and eight. She’s been married for fifteen years and a stay-at-home mum for nearly thirteen of them. She has no recent education or employment history. She doesn't qualify for the Parenting Payment. She has to go on the dole and start looking for work and/or studying.

After a fifteen year marriage, she’s going to be experiencing some serious heartache and her children will likely be acting out in ways that can be very difficult to manage. She may be escaping domestic abuse and dealing with stalking or threats of violence. She may be going through a messy divorce, which can also lead to a loss of friends or family support. She may be left struggling with ‘sexually transmitted debt’. She may be moving house, possibly to an entirely new and unfamiliar area. The family vehicle, furniture, etc may have belonged to her ex. If she’s renting, she WILL be battling massive discrimination in housing and likely can’t afford the bond, anyway…

In the past, the sole parent pension provided breathing space for people in these situations, right up until their kids were sixteen. Not any more. If their youngest child is over six, they are expected to gather their shit and become a functioning member of society immediately, with no time to reflect, plan, deal with trauma, or settle their new family unit into a new rhythm.

There are eleventy billion valid reasons why a newly single parent can’t, and shouldn't be expected to, immediately get a job. In these circumstances, even those who HAVE a job at separation might need to quit in order to deal with everything. Some might be able to arrange extended leave and go back later, but how many of us are lucky enough to have that sort of flexibility? And what if your field is not the sort of thing you can go back to as a sole parent, like jobs requiring long periods away from home? Suddenly your work history means nothing and you’re starting all over again like a highschool leaver.

Which brings me to the second comment…

“There’s no reason why someone with school age children can’t get a job”.

Aside from all the reasons listed above, there are a bunch of other reasons why single parents can’t just pop out and get a job, including:

- LACK OF JOBS. Kind of a fundamental problem, amirite? Most people these days are underemployed - it’s tough to find anything more than casual, part time, or short-term work. That might sound ideal for single parents, but it's not always the case, due to…

- THE WAY CENTRELINK PAYMENTS ARE STRUCTURED. You only have to earn a tiny bit of money p/fortnight before your benefits start getting docked. Pretty soon after starting your low-paying part time job, you’re losing your Parenting Payment – which allowed you to be with your children – and working every day away from home for exactly the same amount, minus miscellaneous work expenses and…

- CHILDCARE. It’s expensive. It’s particularly expensive during school holidays when, even with the full single parent rebate, I used to pay out MORE THAN I EARNED for 13 weeks of the year. I had to borrow money or get advances to cover the costs during school holidays, then work off the debts during the school term. I've quit three part time jobs over the years because it simply wasn't financially viable to continue, including one that I dearly loved. The worst part is that my kids weren't even there most school holidays, as they often went away to visit family, but you have to keep them enrolled (and paid for) to secure your place, thanks to the…

- LACK OF AVAILABLE CHILDCARE. People in the city are struggling to get their kids into a childcare centre. For most people in the country, such a thing doesn't even exist. You can’t force single parents into the workforce without providing adequate childcare options. *Note: The newly single mother with the 12 and 8 year old I described above? There is no childcare available for children over 12. One of the reasons I moved back to the country is that my oldest was about to turn 12 and I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with him after school. We were faced with moving to an unfamiliar (poor, high crime) suburb due to rent rises and, while I have no problem with kids coming home from school alone, it’s just not something I felt comfortable with under those circumstances.

And then there’s that other dirty word that nobody ever wants to talk about…

- DISCRIMINATION. I don’t know any single parents who haven’t experienced some form of discrimination in employment. I'm old enough to remember the Good Old Days, where employers could say “Sorry, I’d just prefer someone without kids” straight to my face. These days it’s usually more subtle, like interviewers asking what childcare arrangements you have in place for emergencies - a more polite version of “But when one of your kids get sick, you’ll go running”, which still gets said to me in less politically correct environments (*cough* the country *cough*). Sadly, it’s often true, because…

- SINGLE PARENTHOOD CAN MAKE YOU SOMEWHAT UNRELIABLE. The key word in ‘single parent’ is SINGLE – as in ALL BY YOURSELF. Many single parents are completely alone, with no family and friends close by and/or no other parent in the picture. If my kid got sick, the school would ring me to pick him up and the childcare centre wouldn't take him. If one kid is sick for a week and the second kid comes down with it over the weekend, it could mean two weeks off work. The average employer won’t tolerate that for too long. And every time you are fired or forced to quit, it only makes you look more unreliable in the eyes of future employers and that much harder to get the next job.

I'm not suggesting all these issues are unique to single parents. I'm well aware that many others face similar problems, especially those on Newstart. But many of the easier answers are unavailable once you have children.

You can’t just crash on a mate’s couch or live in a sharehouse with five other young adults. You can’t survive solely on 2-minute noodles and water crackers. You constantly have to buy clothes and shoes, because kids are always growing. School fees, uniforms and supplies can’t be avoided and their requests for additional cash are relentless. Childcare costs are a shocker. You need bigger houses, bigger cars, you use more electricity and water, pay more doctors bills, blah blah etc etc. They’re expensive, needy little critters.

And before anyone pulls the old “If you can’t afford kids, you shouldn't have them”….really? Is your life going exactly as you planned it 5, 10, 15 years ago? Shit happens. Many children of single parents were born into loving, financially secure relationships, which eventually ended up neither loving nor secure. ALL of us are only one accident or illness away from financial ruin - and many are only one affair, or gambling problem, or domestic violence incident away from single parenthood.

Which is why, of course, everyone should pay attention to what the government is doing to single parents. Because one day, it could be any one of you in the firing line.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dear internet, YOU ROCK. Love, a crazy person.

My last post was a long time ago, but I'm still getting responses to it on Twitter.

Some of the things I've learned from those responses:

* That people think I'm 'brave' for talking about my mental illness. This makes me sad, because it suggests the default is to maintain silence and, more importantly, that there's a huge risk involved with 'coming out' as a crazy person. And there totally is. And that's messed up. I feel like we should be able to talk about mental illness in the same way we talk about having a sore thumb, or the flu, or cancer. Why is it that when people tell you they have, say, diabetes, we're all sooo sympathetic, but if you say you're manic depressive, people shit themselves?

* People also think I'm 'brave' for admitting I use alcohol to deal with depression. Some pointed out how unhealthy it is for people 'with my condition'. Or that I should be careful. Or that I'm irresponsible. I find this quite interesting. Every afternoon, my twitter feed is chock full of non-crazy people saying "Fuck, today has been so stressful. Now relaxing with a well-earned beer" or "Hooray! It's the weekend! Off to the pub!" or "Argh, my kids are being total arseholes. Need a glass of wine". You know what? I use booze in exactly the same way. It makes me relax, it calms me down, it slows my brain - which generally barrels along like a fucking out-of-control freight train - and helps me think more clearly. Obviously I'm not (by any stretch) claiming that it's a good way to deal with mental illness. BUT I'M NOT A CHILD. My brain may work in mysterious ways, but it still works. I understand the difference between 'healthy' drinking and 'unhealthy' drinking - in fact, I think I made that quite clear in the original post. I know what works for me and what doesn't and I'd appreciate if you could trust me to make those decisions for myself. Kthx.

* People in the country really identified with my post. I don't know if that's because it was circulated more via country networks, or because it was written from a country perspective, or because country people experience more isolation than most. I suspect the latter. Lots of country people are online these days, but we're still lagging well behind the city. Get your country friends into social media! It will make a world of difference to their lives.

* Some people who know me IRL were surprised to learn I was a total nutbag. I get this a lot. Mental illness manifests itself in many different ways and, I admit, I'm lucky that mine (mostly) allows me to function in a way that keeps me off the radar. Mind you, friends have still said "Ah, yes. Some things make more sense now", so it's not like it was completely invisible. But my point is that you can't always tell when someone's mentally ill. People need to remember this when they're telling their 'sad' mates to pull themselves together or stop being pathetic and just get over it. They might be struggling more than you realise.

I want to thank everyone who commented on that post, here and on Twitter. I wrote it in a fit of gratitude, to let others know that support was out there - that the magic of social media means you can still feel connected, and loved, and cared about, even when you're totally alone. The response pretty much proved my point, because I've since received a whole pile of love and support via online networks and it's put me in a better position to offer the same to others.

Keep fighting the good fight... against your moods, against self-censorship, against shame, against stigma, and against non-internet folks who keep telling you to switch off your computer and meet 'real' people. We're real and we really do care.

In solidarity x