getting intimate with feminism

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“These shoes were made for fucking, not for walking,” said sex worker and feminist campaigner Grace Bellavue. It was rush hour during the darker days of winter in Sydney’s Macquarie Street. Bankers, tuck shop attendants, tourists and barristers were all scampering for cover. No one was safe. Grace was teetering in six-inch, nude heels in one size too big, which made her porcelain pins look even more luminous and balletic. We were on a mission to source some ciggies. Marlboro Lights. “Come on 7 Eleven. Oh dear God. We can do this.” Our civilised chat had run out of steam when Grace was overcome by the need to smoke. She didn’t say, “Do you mind if I have a cigarette?” She said, “I need a fucking cigarette.”

Sometimes she called herself Grace and sometimes she called herself Pippa. When we met, she said, “Sooo lovely to meet you, sorry I’m late, I’m Pippa.” Pippa, or Grace was exactly 42 minutes late for our scheduled afternoon tea in her hotel mezzanine. It was one of those hotels that harked back to the classics: columns, theatrical, a lot of marble and gold leaf – architecture that was handpicked to make you feel in awe.

Grace was late because her previous client was late. She runs a tight ship with the help of a PA out of Adelaide – a former sex worker that’s been there, done that, and doesn’t want to do that anymore. There’s a process Pippa goes through to become Grace: getting made up and putting on a mask. Foundation that asserts a translucent complexion, eyebrows that mean business, black, powdery eyeliner with wings and red lips contained with liner. It’s a routine that’s down pat and gets drawn on afresh for each client during the working week.

Grace wanted the sparkling white, I went for the English Breakfast with a side of soy. I had wanted to meet her for the best part of a year to see exactly what a working girl had to say on the subject of modern feminism. Did her job immediately devalue, or even discredit the quality of her thinking? Or, did it make it even more valuable?

The thing that hits you first about Grace is her enunciated, almost theatrical vowels and conscious choice of words that you only pick up in a humanities degree. Unlike other 20somethings, she talks in absolutes, with very “likes” – utter conviction. She also calls a spade a spade when it comes to sex. Words like “fucking” and “flaps” are softened and don’t seem off-colour at all. Her voice lost its innocence a long time ago. She said, “A lot of my strength has come from, well learning from men.”

So what caused this teen from suburban Adelaide to choose sex work at the age of 17?

“I used to read my Mum’s Mills and Boons novels in the attic and I was really horny and I fucked guys in the back of cars and was like, this is shit, it’s not what the books told me. Sex is crap! I was really rebellious as well, so I was like what’s the naughtiest thing I could do?”

Pippa’s parents are supportive and her dad goes with her to rallies and helps her petition for equal rights for sex workers.

“When something bad happens in our community all we have to protect ourselves, is ourselves. What that involves is internal knowledge sharing, passing information, because if something happens, we can’t go to the police. She gets raped and she has to suck it up and keep moving on.”

Grace is a restless spirit. You get the feeling she doesn’t need sleep, or downtime. People, coffee, meet ups, cigarettes and cerebral conversations seem to stimulate her. Even sustain her. Grace doesn’t care for talk about the weather. She said, “I’m seeing you for what you lay on the table next to me and what you add to the conversation.”

For someone who spends a lot of her time tackling issues of women’s injustice and engaging in feminist discourse, she hadn’t branded herself a feminist before our conversation.

“I guess so. It’s something I’ve never really consciously thought about and it happened really organically and if I look back, I go shit yeah.” She prefers to be called a humanist. “I do believe in feminism, but I do believe in this general understanding of the other side of the story and have empathy for it. I’ve become more sympathetic towards men.”

Grace spends most of her waking week in bed, in the company of men – who she claims are after more than just sex. “They come to me under the guise of sex, but in reality they just want to be close to somebody – it’s therapy in a way.”

Australia has a stiff upper lip when it comes to male mental health and she hypothesises that it’s a mix of male pride and ego that get in the way. Getting naked with a complete stranger is their chance to say what’s really on their mind.

Grace bares all on Twitter and posts about ten times a day – a funny, witty, blow-by-blow of a day in the life of a sex worker. Under the guise of GraceBellavue, she’s gunning for complete transparency in an industry notorious for its closed blinds and blind eyes. Naturally, she’s quite nervous about her online persona. “The bigger you get, the more people want to undermine you.” Being vocal on the Internet allows the community to tell it like it is to the listening mass. Grace calls it social contextualism. “You know sex work needs to be socially contextualised in a healthy way, so it feels less scary.”

Although she can empathise with the male plight, it seems Grace can still identify with the cause of feminism. She acknowledges the work that’s been done, but feels men should be allowed to enter the debate too. “We’re owning our gender and we’re asking them to step away from theirs and support ours.”

She’s also vocal about what she thinks the main problem with the movement is – and that’s, well women. “We’re an incestuous, backstabbing bunch of cunts sometimes and we’re our own worst enemies. I can sit next to you and talk about feminism and then turn around and go, she’s a fat bitch. We undermine ourselves. Constantly.’”

By and large, most sex workers are women and Grace says they’re often unwittingly the target of feminists – albeit well meaning feminists.

“Feminism has historically caused more harm than good. They think we need to be rescued, that something’s wrong with us – that we’re bad women.”

In Grace’s eyes, being a feminist is all about strength.

“If you’re strong enough and bright enough in your contribution to the community, men don’t give a shit what gender you are and it’s your word and your actions that have value.”

Taking gender out of the equation is something she’s all for. “I think striping the word feminism out of feminism is the way forward for women.”

The air was getting damper, thicker and the asphalt was getting perilous in her precarious choice of footwear. Even though her legs were splattered in grey rainwater from a careless car and her sleek hair had gone slightly haywire, she had a presence, a captivating quality. The 7 Eleven cashier’s eyes were only on Grace.

She said, “Oh, shit I’m late.” Because of our impromptu dash for nicotine, her next client was already waiting. And then she said, “Oh, fuck it. I’m my own boss I can do whatever the fuck I want. Seriously, my feet fucking hurt. I’m getting a cab back.”

And with that, Grace Bellavue gave me an embrace that hung around. The kind of clinch you’d get from someone you’d built a familiarity with. She briskly toddled off back onto the swamped street.

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