(Content Note: abuse, assault, suicide
This week, Mia Freedman clarified her position on sex workers:
“Let me lay out my position very clearly.
If you are an adult woman who is not suffering from a mental illness, addiction or sexual, physical or emotional abuse, who has not been trafficked or exploited or co-erced into sexual slavery and who is CHOOSING of her own free will to sell sex?
I respect that. I’m cool with that.”
– from MIA: No, I won’t apologies for my sex worker comments, @ mamamia.com.au
Hear that? Mia Freedman seems to believe that if you are living with a mental illness, an addiction, or have been abused, you are incapable of making your own choices.
As anyone who has, or who knows someone with a mental illness would know, mental ill-health does not automatically remove from a person the ability to consider options and consequences and then make a decision based on those considerations. Similarly, neither does addiction or a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
Certainly, there are some cases where a person who has a mental illness might become temporarily unable to advocate for themselves, such as if a person is in the midst of an extreme psychotic episode or suffering from active suicidal ideation, but generally speaking, a diagnosis of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD or any other DSM-listed mental illness or disorder does NOT carry with it a caveat that the person can no longer make their own decisions.
Similarly people with a history of abuse. There are PLENTY of people who have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused in their lifetimes who remain capable of making their own choices. Additionally, there are plenty of people out there right now being bullied or sexually harassed in their workplace who remain capable of making their own choices, and who – for reasons they may or may not choose to disclose – remain employed in their jobs despite the fact their boss shouts abuse at them or a coworker touches them inappropriately. Sex work is not unique in this regard. Yes, some sex workers have been sexually assaulted by their clients, or bullied by their coworkers or their managers. But so too have some checkout operators, some secretaries, some nurses, some teachers, some accountants, some engineers. Are these people suddenly incapable of choosing their profession because they have been assaulted?
And as for people with addictions, what would you have them do, Mia? Break into your home and steal things you worked hard to earn the money to buy in order to sell for cash to support their habit, or engage in legitimate work to earn money to support their habit?
A friend of mine pointed out in a discussion on this subject that sex work provides addicts with an honest way to support their habit. She also points out that the flexibility of sex work is important for the mentally ill as well. (This friend guards her privacy so I haven’t directly quoted her in order to respect her right to her privacy – if she wishes to be directly quoted I am happy to do so.)
This is an important point. If Mia understood anything about the nature of mental illness, she would understand that keeping a regular schedule can be harder some days than others. To borrow from the Spoon Theory, some days it can take more spoons for a person with depression (for instance) to make it out of bed and to work for a 9am start than it can on other days. Some days are easy, and some are hard. Some days you wake up and you feel good, and going to work doesn’t feel like an insurmountable challenge. Some days you’ve been awake all night, stricken with anxiety, or thinking about what would actually happen if you killed yourself, or trying to ignore the voices, and then have to get up, put clothes on, and jockey a cash register or a telephone or a computer for 8 hours.
A critical element of sex work is its flexibility. Sex work allows a person to set their own schedule, to work as much or as little as they need to or want to. It allows a person to work at whichever time of the day is convenient for them. It allows a person to set their earnings based on their own requirements.
It allows a person suffering with a mental illness to continue to pay for their housing, their food and clothing, their appointments with a mental health professional, and their medication, WITHOUT having to put themselves at risk of further mental ill-health by forcing themselves to go to a 9-5 job on days when they are simply not well enough for it.
But according to Mia Freedman, mentally ill people are not able to make their own decisions. Which is HARDLY a feminist statement.
Normally I wouldn’t spend this much effort worrying about Mia Freedman’s opinion. But Freedman is a popular writer and her website receives thousands of visitors – her opinion has the power to misinform people, and to become public opinion. Public opinion sets public policy, and mentally ill people are already demonised enough without being considered incapable of making their own choices.
Mia Freedman may call herself a feminist, but her comments this week about mentally ill women, abused women, women with addictions and sex workers do not reflect any feminism I recognise.