Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2016

Meet an Aussie Author: Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist

Prostitution NarrativesI was a bit taken aback by the publicity email about this book; and it seems I am not alone. The authors and publisher are not finding it easy to get media and public recognition of the significance of the book.

Legislative reforms intended to decriminalise ‘victimless crimes’ and movies like Pretty Woman have changed the narrative around ‘the oldest profession.’  But what if it’s not just another kind of work?  What if it involves horrific damage to women?  I interviewed the editors to find out more about their purposes in bringing these stories to publication:

Tell us a bit about yourselves:

Caroline NormaCaroline Norma PhD is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, and a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA). She is also the author of The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars (Bloomsbury Academic, London and New York, 2016).

Melinda Tankard Reist

Photo credit: Laura McNally

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls.  She is the co-founder of Collective Shout: For a world free of sexploitation.  Melinda’s books include Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (2009) and Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry (2011 with Abigail Bray).

How did you come to be interested in this issue?

Both of us have been involved in feminist anti-violence against women, campaigning for two decades or more. We see prostitution as a form of violence against women, and so our campaigning forms a part of broader efforts. MTR is a founder of Collective Shout, and this organisation campaigns in particular against sexploitation, so anti-prostitution campaigning fits well into that agenda. CN does research and activism on prostitution, and has done for 20 years since completing an internship with a women’s organisation in the Philippines at age 19.

How long did it take to write the book?  Was that what you expected when you set out to do it?

The book was put together over a year, which was quicker than expected because survivors submitted their pieces quickly and to a high quality, which we also didn’t necessarily expect. In many cases, survivors come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, and the task of writing about their experiences in prostitution is extremely difficult and re-traumatising. But, to their credit, all of the contributors were extremely easy to work with, and that’s why the book came out very quickly.

How did you negotiate processes for research?  (I’m thinking here of trust and confidentiality in interviews about intimate issues; perhaps about defensiveness). 

Yes, we gave this a lot of thought before commencing the project. We offered contributors the option to have their pieces written from oral interviews or ghost-written, but no-one took up this option. Around half did, however, take the option of using pseudonyms. We had a number of survivors tell us how difficult it was for them to write their pieces, and one contributor said she had to dissociate in order to write it. We suspect this might have been the case for others too. We’ve put efforts into organising launch and conference events where survivors can come along (they don’t have to declare themselves contributors) and perhaps meet other survivors, or at least see that their book is having an impact, and being received sympathetically. We’ve found that political organising in favour of survivors goes a long way to assisting them in overcoming the hardship of PTSD and dissociation. Around one third of contributors were already active politically in the struggle against prostitution, so their involvement was perhaps less traumatic.

What hurdles did you face? 

Actually, the compilation of the book was relatively problem free. Instead we are facing hurdles in terms of media and public recognition of the significance of the book, given its unprecedented collation of the experiences of women who have been prostituted and have criticisms of the sex industry, and especially because many of these women are Australian. The political situation in Australia mostly sees prostitution as ‘work’, and therefore a book about prostitution as a form of violence against women is difficult for the public to understand. For many years the public has been led to believe that women in the sex industry enjoy their situation.

Was it difficult to find a publisher?

No, in fact, the publisher (Spinifex Press) was fully involved in the initial idea of the book and its organisation from start to finish. Spinifex has a long history of facilitating projects like this one.

Who do you expect your audience to be?

We’re hoping the book will be passed onto politicians and policymakers so it has the effect of changing laws in Australia toward the Nordic Model (i.e., a model of legislation that criminalises the customers of the sex industry), but in the meantime we expect that survivors of prostitution will be a readership, plus feminists and others concerned with violence-against-women issues. We hope women’s sector organisations, like Domestic Violence services, might read the book and understand the role of prostitution in relation to other forms of violence against women.

What do you hope (realistically) your book will achieve?  What do you say to people who say that it’s impossible to stamp out “the oldest profession” and that it’s better to legalise it than to move the industry underground?

The book has two outcomes in terms of real-world action. Firstly, it forms a basis for survivors to meet each other and join in political organisation against prostitution. Survivor groups are beginning to form in Australia, and the book plays a part in that. Secondly, the book can be used by activists, women’s organisations and political lobbyists to show politicians and policymakers that all is not fine in the Australian sex industry, and prostitution is not necessarily experienced as a form of work by women in the industry. We don’t expect the book to change Australian legislation straight away, but we do think it’s a step in the history of abolitionism in Australia that will eventually bring about policy change. To those who say criminalising the industry and its customers will push prostitution ‘underground’, we say that the hand of women in the sex industry is strengthened when these people are at risk of criminal penalty. When prostituted women are free of any legal sanction, but their pimps and customers are not, this puts them in a better position in terms of police assistance, and coming forward to receive public service help if they wish. While prostitution is viewed as work, these kinds of public services aren’t established, because there is seen as no need for them.

What about your own personal journey?  What impact did it have on you personally to listen to these stories? 

 Reading and hearing the stories is a privilege, we feel grateful the contributors trusted us with their words. Everyone was very open and honest about their experiences, it was a very unique experience to be able to read them. Of course the details of prostitution are horrific, but we feel it’s important to hear about these details to break away from the ‘happy hooker’ stereotype of prostitution.

This is a courageous book.  It exposes the suffering, degradation and physical torture of women in a way that most of us don’t want to think about.  It could be a game-changer.

Marilyn at Me, You and Books has written an excellent review of this book.

Update 28/3/17: I thought of this book as soon as I saw this article at The Conversation: ‘A soldier and a sex-worker walk into a therapist’s office: who is more likely to have PTSD?‘ The answers will surprise you.

Editors: Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist
Title: Prostitution Narratives, Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781742199863
Available direct from Spinifex Press, including as an eBook.  See other stockists at Booko.


  1. Greta post Lisa. I guess I come from the ‘prostitution as work’ camp, but I have often wondered, and it is impossible to ignore the role of drugs and organised crime. My general position would be that drugs and prostitution should be decriminalised; that criminalisation only makes organised crime more profitable; and that the only possibility for eradication over the long term is education.


    • Thanks, Bill.
      I think the position that this book raises – if any other kind of work involved foreseeable serious injuries, there would be workcover and legal claims for compensation, right? And there would be regulations (e.g. as in the building industry) to prevent injuries. Employers would be liable for the injuries if the regulations were not enforced. And even if people are self-employed, they are still not allowed to do things that inevitably involve harm to themselves. We do not tolerate industries in Australia where we know that injuries are inevitable, do we?
      It’s a very complex issue…


  2. I’ve recently read a bit about the Nordic rule – the stuff I’ve come across has made reasonable-sounding cases for and against so must say I’m still not sure about what’s the best approach for the protection of prostitutes. Seems this book takes a clear – or at least a more detailed position – than what I’ve read to date.


    • I think part of its value is in raising the issue. I’m a bit like Bill, I’ve always been in favour of decriminalising what I think are ‘victimless’ crimes – but I’m starting to understand that there’s more to it than I had thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was a doctor, I had sex workers as patients. Their experiences were much different to the ones that seem to be detailed in this book (I’ve not read the book).
    The sex workers in my care worked at a legal brothel and were looked after by the owner. We did their six-monthly STI checks, signed certificates, etc.
    They were earning well; they were treated well; they didn’t have to go with a client if they didn’t want to; and there were duress buttons in the rooms for them to press if they felt unsafe. They also had prospects—some were University students and paying their way through their degree.
    There are many careers I wouldn’t choose. For example, I can’t think of anything worse than being the governor of the Reserve Bank—economics and interest rates would bore me to tears. So would being a sex worker. But just as I don’t judge Glenn Stevens for his choice of job, nor do I judge anyone else.
    Yes, there are problems within the sex industry, but criminalisation and trying to abolish the industry isn’t the answer. The problems stem from stigma, and I feel books like this promote that stigma. Get rid of the stigma and regulate the industry like any other industry, and then stories such as these wouldn’t exist.


    • But … um… don’t answer this in detail please … what about some of the more …um… diverse tastes that people have? Shouldn’t we be concerned about those?


      • I’m not really sure what you mean, but I take the view that what goes on between two consenting adults isn’t my business. Does that answer your question?


        • I used to take that view.
          But now I take the view that it’s analogous to the situation that if two consenting adults – an employer and a employee desperate for work and willing to do anything to get it – agree to unsafe work practices, that might, depending on circumstances, not be ok. So for me it’s not B&W, it’s a grey area, one worth revisiting to find out more.


          • I agree with you and that’s why the industry needs to be regulated, with proper occupational health and safety, like every other workplace. There are sharks everywhere who will exploit their employees, and the sex industry is no exception.


  4. Sigh. It’s complicated. Through my work I have met a lot of sex workers who are very positive about sex work being legitimate work. They are feisty, empowered, creative and committed to caring for their communities. While I can’t speak for them, my understanding is that they feel that narratives such as those in this book often get hijacked by moral crusaders and reinforce stigmatising stereotypes of sex workers (not all of whom are women) as victims, suffering some kind of false consciousness or themselves perpetrators of an exploitative industry.

    I think it’s a problem that neither side can find common ground regarding the issues for people who really are exploited, have been traumatised, and want to exit sex work, but I’ve also observed that reluctance to concede any ground can often happen among groups who are marginalised – they are always on the defensive, because the consequences of stigma are real and harsh.

    Pro-sex work activists globally are strongly committed to improving occupational health and safety for workers in the industry and see decriminalisation as integral to achieving this. They are deeply concerned about the human rights of sex workers and point out that many of the issues raised as concerns about sex work (such as trafficking, or poor OH&S) are problems independent of the kind of work that people do, that can and should be addressed through regular legal channels. Where sex work is criminalised, it’s usually impossible for sex workers to take such problems to the police or legal system for fear they will themselves be punished.

    The organisation I work for co-published an OH&S guide for the sex industry – which addresses issues such as violence – as long ago as 1999, and the national peer-led sex worker organisation, Scarlet Alliance, still refers to it as a ‘bible’ for best practice in the industry (

    Sex worker organisations are also very critical of the Nordic model because although it may feel intuitively satisfying to penalise the clients, this can have quite negative consequences for sex workers – for example the clients’ fear of arrest may lead them to pressure SWs to meet them in obscure locations that are less safe, for the worker, than a brothel. Also, of course, it can effectively put people out of work who have no desire to leave the industry.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to write a whole essay on this, and I certainly don’t want to discredit the women who contributed their stories to the book, but as an ally to sex workers, I feel it’s important for me to try & point that that the issues aren’t as black & white as they may appear.


    • It certainly is complicated, and I welcome your thoughts. I think there’s a lot in what you say about marginalised groups in general being reluctant to concede anything to common ground.
      I don’t know anything about the industry, and as I’ve said above, I’ve only ever held a generalised philosophical position about ‘victimless’ crimes. But when I was approached about reviewing this book, I thought it was worth offering a place for the authors to put their PoV. I like to think that people who read this post and the comments that now form part of it, will at least think about the issue in a more considered way rather than simply accept the comfortable Pretty Woman face of it, which is not the whole story.


      • Yes, with this as with so many issues, there’s always more going on than we realise – working in the HIV sector has certainly been an eye-opener for me in that regard. It’s often easy to accept the most emotive argument as the only one, but if as a society we can get to grips with nuance, I think the world will be a better place.


        • I don’t disagree. but just reading today in The Saturday Paper about template campaigns for elections, it’s easy to think that the chances of dialogue about anything becoming more nuanced are slim.
          But then, look how the Rainbow dialogue has changed and is dismissing the sloganeering mudslingers as irrelevant, so who knows, eh?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, in this social media age, it’s a challenge to live beyond the memes :( But it’s also true there are signs of hope – just have to remember we’re all human beings and listening is the way to learn.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. The topic is a great deal more complex than it first appears. Like most human activities, it is multilayered and multi determined. The problems do not arise from one thing like “stigma” but from several areas, some at different times.

    In most situations (street, parlour, club) there is a level of menace and abuse. [LH Unfortunately here I have had to edit out Jonathan’s specific examples of violence done to women in these situations because publishing them is not appropriate on a ‘family friendly’ blog and might result in this blog being rated ‘adult’ by WordPress.] Depending on parlour management a great deal of nastiness can be inflicted on the girls in a parlour too. Real enduring psychological and physical injury by punters who get off on the degradation and humiliation they inflict.

    It’s not just a middle class chat topic – the lived experience of sex-work at the sharp end has a real cost for the workers. It’s not just a question of consenting adults like those who debate the issues, especially when you’ve had a background of disadvantage, heroin addiction withdrawal, or awful messages about the worth and value of women.

    The ongoing trauma of most types of sex work is something that most don’t speak of until they leave the activity, before that you just block it out.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Lisa, for drawing my attention to this book and these posts. Yes, a very complex topic and I confess to being ambivalent.


    • Indeed it is. TBH I think it’s best to be ambivalent on topics like this and leave it to the people involved…

      Liked by 1 person

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