'White Slaves' & White Australia

Prostitution and the making of Australian Society


Raelene Frances


I would like to begin this evening's lecture by introducing you to a sex worker. Her name is 'Joy'. For eighteen months in 1995-6, her larger-than-life figure leant against a red door-frame on the corner of Yurong and Stanley Streets in East Sydney. Of course, being a statue, she is not really a sex worker. Or is she? The story of Joy became something of sensation in the mid-1990s, not just because she was allegedly the only statue of a prostitute on display in public anywhere in the world, and not just because she personified the seedier side of Sydney. Surrounding the creation of Joy was a quite extraordinary mystery. On the very day that sculptor, Loui Fraser, was shaping her striking facial features, a young woman whom she had never seen but whose face bore a remarkable similarity to these very features was dying in a hospital in a New South Wales country town. After the funeral, her mother who had been at her daughter's bedside when she died, returned to her Darlinghurst home to find the newly-erected statue of Joy in the street outside her house. She immediately noticed the resemblance, and overcome with emotion, took a large hammer to the sculpture. She did considerable damage before being carted off in a police wagon. When Loui later spoke to the mother about her actions, she discovered that the woman's daughter had been a Sydney sex worker for many years. In fact, she'd been introduced to the occupation by her mother, who was herself a brothel-keeper. Joy was too vivid a reminder of the young woman's life, her early death a result of ill-health following years of heroin addiction.

This grieving mother was not the only East Sydney resident who found Joy's image too confronting for comfort. Many local residents found her presence too stark a reminder of the 'bad old days' when this part of Sydney was better known for its street walkers than its restaurants. Protestors lobbied South Sydney Council. The Council eventually succumbed and had the statue returned to its owner. The response she provoked during her sojourn on Stanley Street is nevertheless enormously revealing about the way in which Australians deal with certain aspects of their history, about what we choose to remember, forget and celebrate.

The controversy over Joy goes to the heart of these issues. One elderly male resident who objected to the statue felt that better subjects could have been chosen. 'We should put up statues to returned soldiers - worthwhile people.' Implicit in this statement is the view that soldiers are intrinsically worthwhile; sex workers are worthless. In this value system, whores can never be heroes, but soldiers will be heroes no matter what, indeed, despite the fact that the military have historically depended heavily on the services of prostitutes. Another elderly male resident objected to the statue because it reminded people of the area's seedier recent history. 'Everybody knows it happened, but who wants to be reminded of it.' Moral judgements about prostitutes and prostitution dictate what we choose to remember and forget. This is partly because remembering in our society (and perhaps in most societies) so often implies celebration. Which is a curious thing. At the level of the individual, we recognise that a healthy psyche requires confronting the demons in one's past in order to deal with them and move on. Collectively, however, confronting what are regarded as the less worthy or shameful aspects of our history is seen at best as muckraking, at worst as a kind of bloody-minded, politically-motivated national defamation. These arguments will be familiar to many of you. I would argue that the history of prostitution is caught up