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What is the cycle of economic disempowerment?

Written on August 14th, 2023 by Bigger Sister Channel Updated March 19th, 2024. Viewed 486 times.
Image 0 for Blog What is the cycle of economic disempowerment?
Disclaimer: Before Estelle creates a weekly video for the Bigger Sister Channel Youtube, they go through a process of writing about the weekly topic to better prepare and articulate themselves. Estelle is a stronger writer than they are a presenter, and we’ve shared this writing process alongside the accompanying video, for those who want more in-depth explanations. In this first blog post, Estelle defines the cycle of economic disempowerment and why we, as sex workers, need a financial wellbeing program.


Welcome to Bigger Sister Channel, my name is Estelle and I’m developing an educational program to economically empower sex workers. But what does that even mean, economic empowerment, and how does that relate to sex workers? For me to answer that question, I need to share insights from my research and break down my theory on the cycle of economic disempowerment.The cycle of economic disempowerment


I did four major things last year. In May, I was awarded the 2022 Kenneth Myer Innovation Fellowship to make the sex industry safer using technology. With this Fellowship, I did two things: community build and research. The fourth thing I did is get Vampire teeth in Turkey, which no one noticed when I returned to Australia and that made me sad.

Why, you may be thinking? Well, I needed to conduct research because despite working in the industry for 14 years, it would still be irresponsible of me to assume I understood the nuances around how sex workers experience safety and danger in the workplace. I needed to build community because trust is paramount in this industry, if sex workers do not trust me, they will never trust anything I do, no matter how superb my gadgets and gizmos are. And I got my vampire teeth because I read a lot of fantasy fanfic in my teenage years and I’d always wanted them.

It was through this community building and research that I discovered that sex worker safety needs to be approached holistically and that there’s no one solution fits all. I believe the first step to achieving safety in the workplace for sex workers, in a society that decriminalises sex work, is economic empowerment. Not only can economic empowerment help sex workers no matter what type of sex work you’re doing, but it helps sex workers mitigate risk no matter how seasoned they are and its something that can follow you through to the rest of your days. But how does economic empowerment relate to safety you may be thinking.

Let me tell you about my research.

To determine what I should do with my Fellowship, I designed a qualitative study that involved one-on-one interviews with 19 participants. I don’t have a lot of research experience and although this wasn’t academic research, I completed an ethics application anyway, to ensure the integrity of the research design and safety of participants.

The demographic of the 19 participants included:

  • Underage, survival or ‘for favours’ sex work experience;
  • Culturally and linguistically diverse (first generation and migrant);
  • First Nations sex workers;
  • Varying mental health conditions;
  • Physical or chronic disabilities;
  • Ages from 22 years old to 47 years old;
  • Varying experiences in work settings such as illegal/legal brothels, agency, online, touring regionally/cities, or independent sex work; stripping
  • Genders including cis-female, non-binary, transgender male, transgender female;
  • Less than one year's working experience to over 25 years working experience;
  • Those currently experiencing life crises.

The interviews covered four domains: administration tasks, highlights, pain points and prototypes. 

I asked about contemporary practices, admin and business management to see if there was any way I could make these processes optimised, quicker or easier. One question I asked was: ‘how do you track and manage the financial side of your business’. 

I asked participants about the changes in how they conducted their work over time, to measure how experience impacts how a sex worker experiences safety. For example, I asked ‘how did you determine the rates and services you offer and has this changed over time’.

I asked about key concerns, pain points and vulnerabilities with the work, such as their health or their privacy, to determine common trends in experiences. I wanted to not only identify problems but I wanted to measure the extent of the problem.

I then looked at things that were working, the benefits of the job and the tools and techniques that were currently working in their favour. I wanted to identify inherent strengths of the participants, to perhaps leverage these in whatever I ended up creating.

Finally, I had those participants test three ideas that I had sitting in the back-burner for main impressions and to test validity. In the end I accrued 40 hours worth of transcription and I’m still processing the data, but there are some clear cut insights I can share. I can tell you with full confidence almost every sex worker struggles with either stigma, discrimination, mental health, financial security or disability. None of these pain points exist within a vacuum, they are interconnected, and so if we want to improve the lives and health of sex workers, we must take a holistic approach, because you cannot resolve one issue and expect the rest to be resolved. 

Let me explain to you my theory of economic disempowerment.

The cycle of economic disempowerment

What is the cycle of economic disempowerment?  Image 0

*pulls out whiteboard* I’m going to draw a diagram of what I like to call the cycle of economic disempowerment. This is not a perfect, one way circle but here’s how it works.

Financial insecurity is where it begins. The effects of financial insecurity is well-known, it makes people vulnerable to precarity, and it's associated with a decline of health and quality of life. This is true across all industries and we know this because there's a number of financial literacy programs, both government-funded and on a corporate level. There isn't one for sex workers however.

For sex workers experiencing financial insecurity, this can affect how a sex worker experiences safety in the workplace. In one example, if you're financially insecure, you may not have the funds to start your business as a sex worker and may seek the assistance of a third party, such as a brothel or agency, for admin, business management, security and safety. This doesn't always go according to plan because third parties have a conflict of interest when it comes to the safety and security of workers. There will always be business decisions that will be made at the expense of the workers safety, and the nature of these relationships is just one form of precarity and this was demonstrated in my research. This is just one example, of many instances, where sex workers can experience precarity in the workplace.

In another example, say an independent sex worker goes to work in a different city, and hasn't been able to cover the costs of travel. They might compromise on their screening procedures to make ends meet. As you can see, there's an association here between financial security and precarity in the workplace, the more financially secure you are, the more power you have, the more autonomy you have, the more in control you are of the conditions of your employment. This is true in any industry mind you.

I know what you’re thinking, and you cannot in good conscience blame anyone for their financial insecurity. We live under the system of capitalism, and capitalism requires impoverishment to maintain its power. That makes this *circles financial insecurity* a well-calculated by-product, and individuals alone cannot disrupt or overcome systemic barriers. It is designed to be too large, too great for one person to overturn. This *keeps circling* is our moral failings as a society. And we know this because when we replicate this experience in other industries with other people they also experience precarity, their health and quality of life also declines. 

Sex workers are no exception to this known fact. However, we need to factor in the third aspect to truly appreciate how the system is currently set up against sex workers. This is not a perfect circle, stigma can go this way or this way, but I’m putting it here to illustrate how pervasive this experience is. My research discovered that while sex workers are generally competent, because of the stigma and discrimination, we have barriers that others don't in accessing information, products, support, advice, resources or skills related to business or financial management. Now what that means is even if a sex worker wants to be financially secure, we have very little means within the system to achieve this. Everything is stacked against us. Every step of the way, stigma comes into play.

Now financial literacy is a privilege for most people, regardless of what industry you work in, but for sex workers it’s a bit different because banks don’t treat us fairly and our financial capabilities are restricted by stigma and discrimination. In the above example of a sex worker who compromises their screening procedures, this might look like accepting bank transfers instead of cash. A client could show a fake receipt to fraudulently obtain consent, render the act rape by deceit, and if the sex worker seeks recourse through the banks they’ll be told the onus is on them to prove a violation occurred. The banks will wipe their hands clean and say they played no part in enabling that crime, when in reality we have hundreds of sex workers calling them begging them to create stronger protections and safeguards. This is just one example, of many instances where sex workers can be stigmatised or discriminated against. It’s unreasonable to ask individuals to become fraud detectives and dress it up as due diligence, it’s much more practical to ask multi-billion dollar companies to create a technological safeguard that gives a red light to demonstrate that a payment has not come through, to serve millions of citizens, not just sex workers.

Additionally, sex workers don’t start life on equal footing with others, myself included, we have intersecting identities, we are mothers, we are migrants, we are disabled and we are rendered more vulnerable by the stigma and discrimination. Because we have to live in secrecy, we might not be able to ask our friends or family for financial help because that just exposes us to judgment and prejudice. But it’s not just that, if something bad happens at work, and we don’t have access to support systems because of stigma, we are left to deal with this situation in isolation.

These structural barriers impact how a sex worker experiences personal finance, which we now know has an association to safety. If you don't have access to information or tools to develop financial capabilities, if you're financially excluded, the more financial stress you will experience, the more likely you are to experience precarity at work and thus the cycle of economic disempowerment begins anew.

Now there’s a lot of ways one could disrupt this cycle of economic disempowerment on an individual level, but on a more population level, my interpretation is that the systems at play gridlock sex workers into a cycle of vulnerability. Bigger Sister Channel is my proposed solution, and the economic empowerment program is just one way to get out of this shitshow of a reality.

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