If someone told me I would be working with women and transgender women in the sex industry two years ago, I would have laughed. I wouldn’t have believed them.

I’m an average woman, who has lived a somewhat sheltered and privileged life. Now, I lead a team of dedicated and extraordinary people striving to improve the lives of women working in Sydney’s sex industry, and my day-to-day life has changed in ways I wasn’t prepared for.

At HopeStreet, my path has led me into a world I didn’t know much about. I’ve learned many things from the incredible women I work with, both as colleagues and clients. one in particular has really stood out, and still plays on my mind each day: how often we categorise women into one of two categories – virgin or whore.

Every woman is either the perfect and wholesome girl next door, or she’s a dangerous, loose woman leaving scandal and destruction in her wake. We have created two polarised models of femininity, and neatly sort every woman into one extreme or the other, happily ignoring the diverse spectrum of womanhood that lies in between.

Now, I’m not suggesting that people are saying this out loud, although sometimes they do; but for most of us, it’s something that happens without a lot of thought. It’s not malicious or intended to be hurtful – it’s not even something that we recognise or confront within ourselves. More often than not, it quietly emerges in the subtle and implicit ways we speak about and treat people. We love to create boxes into which to sort people.

The problem is people rarely fit neatly into their assigned category and those boxes have real, tangible consequences. The Scarlet Letter may be a work of fiction but we do attach value and worthiness to a person according to their category. Worse, having often sorted someone into one extreme or the other, we then treat them as if we could not possibly change their designated category; we won’t allow them to climb out of that neatly-labelled box, even though we didn’t think much before putting them in there.

Case in point: I’m a white, middle class, educated women, who ‘does nice things’ and lives in a ‘nice part’ of the city. If a horrible assault happened to me and my life was threatened, I have no doubt it would be in the news. Probably front page; definitely page three. There would be outrage, there would be action, there would be cries of “How could this happen?” Yet whenever this same circumstance happens for any of the women I work with, it barely makes the news. Even when it’s happening on a regular basis, and the violence is horrific. And if by chance it does make the news, I can guarantee the word ‘prostitute’ will be used in the headline – implying that by default of her occupation, the woman concerned is somehow to blame for what has happened.

We attach value to victims or to people we see as worthy of help. We are generous to someone that needs rescuing, to give resources to someone down on their luck, to demand justice for someone that we feel did nothing to deserve the circumstances in which they find themselves.

But as soon as we think that there’s a level of responsibility and choice or that the person concerned did something to warrant their situation, we immediately become more critical. The helping hand is withdrawn and replaced with criticism. “They need to make better choices.” “She should just get another job.” “She just needs to work harder.”  

We don’t look at the broader power structures that exist and diminish the choices available for an individual or a group. And it’s always easier to forget these structures, and the challenges and dangers they pose, when the person lives a life that is very different to our own.

People are more complex than just good or bad; victim or perpetrator; virgin or whore. We need to start asking bigger questions about what needs to change in our society to provide women in difficult situations with greater choice.

Our response cannot be tied to hastily-formed or unconscious opinions of whether or not some women are undeserving of help. The very essence of our Christian faith is that no one deserves Salvation, but we all have access to it. We can understand that from a spiritual level, and now it’s time to practice it. We need to stop attaching value only to those we think are deserving of our selective compassion, and start to look at how our “category system” might be contributing to further disadvantage.

Jess Davidson

BaptistCare HopeStreet Women’s Services Manager