Q&A with Sydney Sex Worker Tilly Lawless
Tilly Lawless is many things: a horse lover, a writer, a feminist, a member of the LGBTQIA community, an avid reader and a sex worker and these are only a few of the important particles that make up this magnificent human.
In 2015 she came into the public arena when she smacked the #facesofprostitution movement on the table for discussion, in response to a Mamamia article that depicted female sex workers as victims that needed to be ‘saved’. Ergh.
Since then she’s inspired others to stand up for their industry with many humans rising to the stage in an effort to normalise the sex work industry. While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing (we’re talking to you Instagram, stop taking down anything that celebrates female sexuality – you dick) - she is one of many who are taking the time to take a stand.
We spoke with Tilly about why she got into the industry in the first place, what the whorearchy is all about and where she would like to see the sex work industry in ten years time.
What led you down the path of sex work in the first instance?
I'd moved 600km from my home town for uni, I had no financial support from my parents & needed money. Sex work interested me because sex workers feature prominently in history & literature, and it was good money, so why not try it? What do you enjoy the most and the least about your job?
The most is the community of women & queer people that I have met through sex work & the free time that I have gained. The least is the fact that you are given very little space to talk about how emotionally exhausting it can be. There are no real mechanisms for support because it is not recognised as a 'real' job, and the stigma around it of course.
Do you know any men who are in the sex work industry and if so, do you think their experiences of prejudice and judgment differ from your own as a female sex worker?
Yes, definitely. The anti/Prohibitionist/rescue industry is not concerned with male sex workers, so they face far less aggressive & demeaning attacks from feminists for example - men can of course have autonomy in choosing to have sex for money, women can't.
Also you will find that often when male sex workers are attacked it is just homophobia disguised as something else, e.g when the Rent boy raids happened that was a continuation of bathroom/the beat raids & a concern with overt expressions of male homosexuality, rather than any sort of paternalistic protectionism of male sex workers.
“How is me renting out my pussy any different to you renting out your arms to stack shelves, a journalist renting out their wit, an athlete renting out their body?” - Tilly Lawless (Instagram).
Throughout your posts on Instagram you often mention the ‘whorearchy’. Can you explain what this term means and what you think needs to be done to break it down?
The whorearchy is the hierarchy that shouldn’t – but does – exist in the sex industry, which makes some jobs within the industry more stigmatized than others, and some more acceptable. Basically it goes like this, starting from the bottom (in society’s mind): street based sex worker, brothel worker, rub and tug worker/erotic masseuse, escort, stripper, porn star, BDSM mistress, cam girl, phone sex worker then finishing with sugar baby on the top. Of course, these rungs aren’t set in stone and the order varies from place to place.
While you will find people of all different races, backgrounds, genders etc. in all different kinds of jobs within the sex industry, racist and classist assumptions feed into the whorearchy. For instance, a non-English speaking, immigrant WOC will be seen as “less valuable” than me (a white middle class woman) and further down in the chain of things. So many classist, racist assumptions & prejudices need to be broken down if we are to have any hope in eradicating the whorearchy.
How did you/do you explain what you do for a living to your family & friends and what have their general responses been?
Those I cared about I told straight out & the responses were generally good - besides fears for my safety. My extended family & wider circle of acquaintances found out in a more roundabout way, through my activism. A lot of my extended family were really not okay with it; I got told I was 'tainting the family name' & bringing shame on the family which I found to be very 19th century. In your own opinion, where do you see the sex work industry in 10-years time and does this correlate with where you hope to see it?
I think that we are on the cusp, or perhaps in the midst, of a burgeoning international sex worker rights movement, where these things are being talked about more than they ever have before. I would hope that in ten years more places in the world would have decriminalisation & there will be more understanding & respect for sex workers generally. But I don't know, ten years isn't a long time & these things move slowly.
It seems as though you’re often referred to using a lot of different labels: sex worker, queer, feminist, activist, millennial. Do you think it’s important to attach yourself to these labels that are used to describe you or would you prefer to be ‘label-less’?
Well, some of those are self identifiers that I use proudly - queer, feminist & sex worker. I really struggle with the term activist & would never refer to myself as that, mainly because there is this expectation once you are branded as an activist of you being the 'perfect activist' & very little room is allowed for you to be human in that. My activism is not my life, it is one aspect of it & I find it is something that is a part of my life rather than who I am.
As a writer, how do you manage to draw a line with what information you're comfortable sharing in the public space?
I try not to write too much about other people. I mainly write about my own thoughts & feelings so I'm not intruding on someone else's privacy. Sometimes when I write about sex it will of course involve details about my girlfriend's sex life, through me. If I have a particularly sexual thing that refers to her specifically, I will run it by her to see if she's okay with it being out there. But otherwise I just write about me & then it's fine. What does a day in the life of Tilly Lawless look like?
Wake up usually around 11 and do productive things at the beginning of the day (horse riding, German lessons, life admin). In the afternoon I'll sometimes have a booking, or it's when I relax & read, or go for a swim. Night time I'll hang with friends or work - if I work it's usually till 2-4am.
What do you do to inspire yourself creatively?
I read. Immerse myself in my home up north and the country around it. Have engaging conversations with friends. Go horse riding. These things all invigorate me. When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a horse breeder & then from the age of about 8 I wanted to be a writer. If you were a Beyonce song, what would you be and why?
I love Beyoncé & my favourite song of hers is 'Daddy Lessons', because I absolutely love country & loved seeing her utilise that genre. I don't feel comfortable choosing which song I would be though, as I think her music is written & meant for primarily black women & I don't feel comfortable inserting myself into that.
You can follow Tilly @tilly_lawless
You can read more about Tilly's involvement in the Faces of Prostitution here.
Listen to what she has to say on ABC's 'You can't ask that - Sex Work'
Kate Neilson is the founding editor at Twenty Something Humans. She likes to eat toast in bed and enjoys a gin and tonic in the sunshine. She can be lurked @katiepotatierose.