The sex industry’s one big problem
It was an average Saturday night around the dinner table when, over a glass of wine, one of my friends said that she was checking out some new places to work.
She wasn't looking on your average job website, though.
She's a sex worker, so she had been scrolling through the web pages of different brothels in Sydney, comparing their locations, premises and rates to choose which ones sounded the most promising.
Those of us at the table crowded around her, peering over her shoulder as she searched on her phone. There was nothing out-of-the-ordinary at first - at least, nothing out of the ordinary for our industry - until she happened upon one particular brothel.
On the "prices" page of one particular site, the cost of the booking wasn't only dictated by the amount of time a client might be interested in spending with a girl. It also differed depending on what kind of girl he would choose: "Western" girls commanded a higher rate.
It was written right there, clear as day. For some bookings, a client could expect to pay almost $100 more to see a "western" - or white - girl than he would to see an Asian girl who worked at the same parlour.
While private workers are free to set their own rates and charges, brothel-based workers are paid a percentage of the price that the business sets.
So, this brothel didn't only charge clients more to see white workers, it also paid white workers more than non-white workers for the same amount of work. While the ethnic pay gap has been discussed and debated at length, seeing such a blatant example of it left me feeling horrified.
In no world would it be appropriate to charge a customer more to have their coffee made by a white barista, to get their taxes done by a white accountant, or to see a white doctor. So why was it okay here?
To pay one worker more than another because of their race, or to charge more for a service because of the provider's race, is racism - plain and simple.
The adult industry is frequently considered to be ahead of the curve when it comes to progressive politics. After all, if we can make it past the hang-ups that most people have about sex and nudity, surely we must be a pretty enlightened group - right?
Sex worker and sociologist Zenith Breitling has been in the industry for six years now. She describes herself as Australian-Asian and says that "refreshingly honest" is something she hears a lot about herself, adding, "I'm happier in a pair of Merrells than I am in a pair of Louboutins".
Zenith has met people through work who have made well-intentioned, genuine mistakes in assuming things about her: Clients who've taken her to dinner and assumed she would love chilli, for example.
But she's also had more sinister experiences.
"A brothel wrote a biography of me on their website using phrases that exoticised my race, like 'here to please you' and 'oriental dream'. Both are phrases intended to evoke the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman," she told me over email.
"There's also definitely a cohort of clients who fetishise Asian women for how we look. I've got no drama with fellas who appreciate a certain look - hey, I like ginger dadbods!
"But when they prey on Asian women specifically, expecting us all to behave the same...that's when it's no longer a preference and fetishisation becomes a problem."
As a white woman in the adult industry, I can't say I've ever been judged negatively because of my race. But I've seen it happen to others; friends, co-workers, and clients.
I've met plenty of clients who refuse to see workers of specific races and just as many workers who refuse clients based on race, too.
While in some circumstances this might make sense - a client visiting from China may feel more comfortable seeing a worker who speaks fluent Mandarin or Cantonese - it's rarely ease of communication that informs these judgements.
There are also brothel and agency managers who are quick to discriminate against workers who aren't white; something that Zenith has also experienced ("thanks, but we don't need another worker - we already have an Asian girl working tonight," is something she has heard before.)
Every single person in the adult industry - whether they're a worker, a manager, or a business owner - faces some form of judgement and stigma because of their work.
Sometimes it's the assumption that we're working unsafely or illegally, or that we're harming ourselves or others in our work. Other times, it's just the age-old belief that sex is dirty or wrong and that anyone who has it, especially for money, is also dirty or wrong.
It has always surprised me that people who face so much stigma and judgement because of their work can be so quick to stigmatise and judge other people. While the adult industry might be enlightened when it comes to sex and nudity, we clearly have a lot of work to do in letting go of harmful stereotypes and prejudices about our colleagues and friends.
If we demand acceptance from others, should we not also give it in turn? How can we be so hypocritical as to ask someone not to judge our occupation, when we turn around and judge the worker or client sitting right next to us?
"It's an image-obsessed industry that uses the guise of 'preference' as an easy gateway to encourage racist practises, mostly rewarding whiteness or proximity to whiteness," Zenith told me.
"No layperson needs it explained that racism is a visually-coded form of discrimination."
When I asked Zenith what I - and other workers - could do to help combat racism in the industry, her advice was simple.
Encourage diversity and listen to migrant workers, but also, be conscious of the kind of behaviour we ignore in our workplaces because speaking up feels too hard, or intimidating. "Encouraging, or being complicit to, racist practises within the sex industry gives people yet another green light to treat people outside of the industry the same way," she said.
"But when we embrace diversity, everyone gets work."
- Kate Iselin is a writer and sex worker. Continue the conversation @kateiselin