The passing of Grace Bellavue gave me pause this evening. For the Twitterati of Adelaide, Grace is a household name. And for those who were lucky enough to be friends with her, such as The Upside News‘s own Libby Parker, Grace leaves behind her a yawning gap.

Grace was a high-class escort, and people often forget the nature, or purpose, of the work.

And, secondarily, they forget that in South Australia sex work is still illegal.

Many years ago, I worked in an ad-hoc capacity for the Sex Industry Network (SIN) in South Australia, as part of a role I had at the AIDS Council of SA (ACSA).

imagesThe Sex Industry Network is a peer-based organisation. That is, to work for SIN you had to be a sex worker yourself. Well, perhaps I was one of the few exceptions, being ‘on loan’ to SIN from ACSA for the administrative purposes of stocktake, and actually having never met a prostitute before I worked there.

You see, SIN houses possibly the most extensive safe sex products store in South Australia, and when I was at ACSA, we were also the distributor of Glyde safe sex products in SA.

This was a job not without its fun. I remember a time when a father brought his son into the store to buy his first box of condoms, and after an embarrassing tour through the products, walked out with a box of 100.

Or the time we had a safe sex products demonstration by a distributor, and in the audience was a sex worker newbie who got to practise putting condoms on wooden models until she was adept.

Or the time the courier thought that the condoms in the bowl on the reception counter were mints… and realising they were condoms, threw them away with a hilariously dramatic, ‘I’m MARRIED!’

And the sex worker who proudly proclaimed that she loves her job, because it’s something she’s great at, and she knows that she adds to people’s lives. As testament she pointed to regular clients that have been with her for many, many years.

Why do people visit sex workers? I asked one day. “Great question,” one woman replied. “For head jobs and cuddles, mainly.”

And what about women? “For head jobs and cuddles,” said one man.

And a third added, “People come to us for what they’re not getting at home.”

It made sense, but until you hear it directly it’s not something you ever really consider.

Perhaps most poignantly, is the fact that of the sex workers I worked alongside, whose stories I heard, and form whom I gained an enormous appreciation and understanding, their families often had no idea of their work. Later in life, I found myself working alongside members of their families, in the position where I knew more about their family members than they did.

This becomes a massive problem if these people experience traumatic events, suffer PTSD because of those events, or start to develop other mental health issues. If your home is not where you can rest and feel safe, what does that do to your wellbeing? How are you supposed to get the help you need, if part of your active life is missing from the record?

Grace is lucky that her family knew, and were supportive.

South Australia, for all of its amazing public sexual health work, its tireless campaigners, its peer networks, and the state’s own apparent liberality, still makes sex work illegal.

When people discover that the state of South Australia has a register of sex workers trained to work with the disabled community, where they provide a much-needed service to the sexual dimensions of our disabled citizens’ lives, they’re often shocked. And then confused. Sex work is illegal, but sanctioned for this purpose?

Did you know that sex workers can’t display workplace health and safety materials in their workplaces, for fear they’ll be taken as evidence if they get raided?

Having a rational debate about sex work is hard when it’s already illegal, and when people tend to have very definite views about sexuality as a whole. The recent debates about gay marriage have proved that to no end.

Grace Bellavue’s untimely death, and the stories written about her, serve a very important purpose. This is to remind us that sex workers are real people. And that sex work is real work.

And also that sex work is also dangerous: Not because of sexually transmitted disease, but because of the workplace conditions.

Sex workers are real people, with real families. They are in relationships, they have kids, they are married. They work for females and they work for males. They have friends, hobbies, interests, bills to pay, lives to live. They are just like you and me, except they use their bodies to make money. They deserve safety, refuge and safe working conditions, just like anybody else.

On the surface, sex workers they are prostitutes and strippers. But they are so much more. They are friends to the friendless, counsellors to the broken-relationship-dwellers, educators in sexual health and sexual function. They are advocates for the leading of a full and holistic life, one in which every element of you is celebrated and part of your existence. They are also extremely body-positive people.

And many are plagued with addictions and mental health issues as a result of traumas like those people in no other industry experiences. I’ve known a number of them personally, people who fell into extremely dark places as a result of the conditions in which they worked, and the things that they’ve endured.

Rest in peace, Grace. Your demons have taken you, but your work is not forgotten.

By Leticia Mooney