In Conversation with Tilly Lawless

Photo: ABC

Tilly Lawless is a queer sex worker based in Sydney. She writes extensively about her work and the way she navigates the intersection between it, her queerness, and her relationships. She is passionate about sex worker rights, queer literature and horses. I talk to her about some of the issues she regularly addresses in her activism.

Woroni: Do you think society has a tendency to fetishise lesbianism? Do you think this serves to undermine lesbian identity? Has this impacted you?

TL: Totally. There’s a quote I remember from somewhere – ‘queer women aren’t more accepted, they’re just more sexualised’ – which I think is so apt. Especially as a femme queer woman who people read as ‘straight’, my queerness is seen as very much for public consumption, and not just my queerness but my gender identity itself is seen as performative. The fact that people trivialise my relationship with my girlfriend by just seeing us as a doorway to a threesome, rather than a legitimate relationship between two people in love, is constantly upsetting.

However I also utilise this fetishisation through my work – I market myself through my sexuality, playing upon the fantasies men have about lesbians in order to make money and fund my queer reality with my girlfriend. I exploit that myth for my own financial benefit, and it gives me a thrill to build my wealth on the backs of those who trivialise us. It’s an interesting division, though, a sort of quagmire with no clear delineation – when I am paid to come on the fist of a girl whose fist I would be coming on anyway in a different bedroom, what is reality and what is fantasy?

Woroni: As a feminist and a queer rights activist, how do you react to criticisms that engaging in sex work with men is somehow anti-feminist or anti queer-rights?

TL: I could honestly write – and have written – a 15-minute speech on this. For brevity’s sake let me just go with historian Yasmin Nair’s quote: ‘Sex work is as integral to queer history as to feminism. Forgetting that has devastated feminism, and will do the same for queers.’

Woroni: I am a femme queer woman and I think sometimes I am seen – when in the context of a relationship another femme woman – as not ‘queer’ enough. It’s as though because I do not ‘look gay’, then my relationship could be interpreted by people as ‘close friends’, ‘a phase’ or ‘confusion’. Have you had any experience with this and do you think the queer community does have ‘hierarchies’ of queerness?

TL: I have, and it is a double-edged sword. It is a privilege to be invisible in many ways – I’m not going to be gay-bashed or denied a job because I look queer, nor am I in danger of ‘corrective rape’ as some queer women are. But then I am also ostracised from my own community, I suffer from misogyny at the hands of some more masculine queer women, and I am basically told again and again that neither my sexuality nor my voice is valid. Masculinity is held as superior across the queer community, just look at ‘masc for masc’ [on dating apps or websites], or the way butch women are able to judge the authenticity of femme women, or even legitimise their sexuality by appearing alongside them. Femmephobia is alive and well in the queer community, largely because masculinity is seen as more desirable across society.

Woroni: Have you been more accepted by the queer community in regards to sex work than by other communities?

TL: The mainstream lesbian community has never been accepting of my work or my femininity. I have also experienced some whorephobia from gay men – ‘Babe, don’t class yourself with prostitutes, you’re so pretty! You’re way better than that.’ The broader queer community is pretty understanding, though – historically sex work has been incredibly tied up with queerness, in that it is one of the few ways trans people and femme gay men have been able to access money in society because they were excluded from the job market generally. The queer community is usually more accepting of promiscuity too, as well as less traditional romantic relationships, and also gets the need to monetise yourself in whatever way you can.