The sex work is a red herring, but Cassie Sainsbury really is Schapelle Corby 2.0

When news about Cassie Sainsbury’s arrest in Colombia for drug trafficking first attracted media attention, social media laughingly tagged her “Corby 2.0”. Though many parallels can be drawn, it was the attention-seeking nature of her and her family’s pleas for assistance that most starkly resembled Schapelle and her family back in 2004. But last night, “Corby 2.0” went from being a joke to reality when Channel 9’s 60 Minutes  and Channel 7’s Sunday Night went head to head with “exposes” on the mysterious, inconsistent and questionable stories around how Cassie ended up with 5.8kgs of cocaine in her luggage at El Dorado Airport in Bogota.

Both stories had interesting nuggets of information. On Sunday Night, her father revealed that she had mentioned a trip to Bogota back in January, which he advised against. There is no communication between members of her family: her fiance has not communicated with her mother and sister, and nobody has contacted her father. Colombian officials and experts on their drug trade provided insight into her situation and the consequences she may now be facing. However, what is consuming the most media attention and discussion today is the revelation that Cassie worked as a sex worker prior to her excursion around the globe to Colombia.

This is the missing link in the disconnect between her fiance’s story that she worked for a cleaning company that was never named and her sister’s that she was engaged in personal training work, and answers the questions around how she paid for an expensive cruise around the Pacific Islands and other elements of her lifestyle. However, that is all it is: an explanation, and, contrary to the fascination and judgement it has elicited, a very reasonable one.

Sex work is a legal and legitimate profession in the manner in which Cassie was undertaking it. She was working in NSW, where it is decriminalised, and at a registered establishment. It is no different to her doing any other work, such as cleaning or personal training. The fact that she concealed it from those around her is typical; indeed I commented in a prior blog post on Cassie that most sex workers conceal their work. This occurs due to the very stigma that has resulted in 60 Minutes’ revelation generating so much intrigue, and the reaction serves as a direct example of why the stigma needs to be broken down. Cassie’s story would have garnered far less speculation and damaging probing if she had felt comfortable to own up to those around her, or at least when she was arrested, that she had been a sex worker. Also, if she had, that information could have been contained or at least controlled, in such a way that it would have far less impact on her reputation in Colombia, something which is going to be extremely important in determining her sentence.

It is a myth that professional sex work and drugs automatically go together. Over my years as a sex worker I have seen no more drug use amongst my colleagues than I have amongst friends and people in other professions. Sex work can certainly expose people to drugs, but this is often by the clients. Whilst it is arguably more openly discussed, this is a product of the same stigma that prevents people from being honest about their work. That stigma invades every aspect of the industry: on some level we are conditioned to believe that we’re participating in something illicit, if not legally, morally, and therefore talking about other illicit activities is less taboo and comes more naturally. A sex worker will talk about the cocaine she has seen a client snort off the coffee table in his hotel room; a lawyer is not going to mention the client who did it on his desk during a conference. But openness about an issue is not the same as prevalence. The stereotype that all sex workers must somehow be involved with drugs is a product of the conservative mentality that sex is a vice and all vices go together.

And it is certainly a fallacy that sex work is in any way connected to becoming a drug mule. Although Cassie may have come in to contact with someone via her work who set up the drug trafficking, any brief perusal of drug mule circumstances will show that being a sex worker has nothing to do with it. Mules are found in all sorts of places: nightclubs, youth hostels, workplaces. Many members of the Bali 9 worked for a catering company. If Cassie’s work had anything to do with her being targeted it would have been because she stood out as vulnerable and/or greedy. These can certainly be character traits of sex workers, but they are by no means exclusive to those in that line of work nor a pre-requisite for it. It is just as likely that Cassie disliked sex work and saw being a drug mule as a preferable alternative.

However, the most frustrating component of the 60 Minutes story was not that they delved into this part of Cassie’s life and answered some questions. Actually that was quite beneficial as it removes that speculation and tends to suggest that her income was not from prior trafficking. Rather, it was the sex industry worker who spoke about Cassie.

Taking that commentary at face value, Cassie concocted quite a tale about her mother being ill and dying and needing the money to pay for care and then funeral costs, and she does come across as manipulative, conniving and a compulsive liar. But what this ignores is its context: just as sex workers often conceal their work from the outside world, so too they typically conceal their identity and circumstances within the industry. This is demonstrated acutely by the fact that sex workers use aliases which, contrary to popular belief, are not just to protect their identity from clients, but also to protect it generally. I have worked with some women for years and not known their real name or them mine.

The ubiquitous nature of the stigma surrounding sex work means there are risks everywhere. If a client or co-worker knows your real identity or even gleans information about your real life this can be used against you. They might not know your name, but they might find out where your children go to school or your “day job” workplace. Imagine an angry client or a co-worker with whom you have a feud calling one of those places to reveal the other work you are doing. Further, many women are apprehensive about discussing their reasons for sex work – out of shame, guilt and/or a fear of judgement – reasons for concealment to which we are all prone. It might be a debt they have to pay off or a gambling problem they’re managing. How many of anyone’s work colleagues own up to the fact that they’ve taken an extra shift because they gambled last week’s paycheck away? How many say that they’re struggling because their husband is an alcoholic? Instead stories – about a sick mother, saving for a house, putting oneself through Uni – are common, even standard.

Moreover, brothel sex work is a highly competitive environment, even vicious at times. A sex worker’s earnings depend entirely on getting clients to choose her over other women, and gone are the days when money floated through the industry like liquid. Underhanded tactics are common. Anything to unsettle the opposition so they’re off their game for the night; anything to manipulate the client away from someone else; and anything to keep him coming back to see you. A facade amongst co-workers is important because any weakness can be exploited, and the corollary to this is that a good story, a sympathetic one, can act to both one’s protection and advantage.

Consider what was said by the sex industry worker on 60 Minutes in this light. At best, even if everything that she said was true, she was selling out someone whose motives she should and probably does understand, failing to provide relevant and important context, and contributing to the stigmatization of the very industry she relies on for some financial purposes; at worst she was behaving with the same conniving and manipulative tactics she highlighted in Cassie. Heck, she may have done it for the benefit of her own earning capacity. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that clients will attend her workplace requesting to “see the sex industry worker who spoke out on 60 Minutes”. The flight attendant/sex worker who shagged a celebrity on a plane was inundated with requests due to her notoriety. The establishment itself is now likely to be something of a tourist attraction. More clientele means more money for everyone. Note that the sex industry worker would not appear as herself, requiring both a wig and voice alteration. That could be because she herself is wary of the stigma or it could be because she does not want to be held accountable for her comments, which have not been (and probably won’t be) tested in any legitimate manner.

And what did it achieve? Beyond the explanation of Cassie’s work and earnings, which could have been established without the extensive commentary, she has added nothing of value to this situation. That Cassie is potentially a liar, manipulative and conniving is already well-evident from the ludicrous victim act she has had going on from the beginning of this saga. It was damn obvious from the headphones story alone, let alone the fact that she keeps changing her position on how she came to be in her situation. If she did indeed get other women to give her money through the use of her story, that’s appalling behaviour. But if you search hard enough there will be stories of most people behaving appallingly at some point in their lives, particularly when they are young, and what she did is no different from a co-worker in an office taking money from someone under false pretenses. It isn’t worse because she was a sex worker. The information is entirely irrelevant to the charges Cassie is facing so it was a pointless exercise in character assassination, to the detriment of all of us who work in that industry, both in terms of playing to the stigma and increasing the fear we all have (to varying degrees) of exposure. And if you truly are so determined to highlight someone’s negative character then you speak to the prosecution and accept accountability, you don’t blather about it anonymously on a TV show.

However, most damningly of all she – and all the other people coming forward to support her story – has increased Cassie’s vulnerabilty in this situation multiple-fold. Sex work is stigmatised enough in countries such as Australia where it operates legally and with worker protection. In Victoria, for example, if a sex worker is raped, the rapist’s sentence can be reduced by virtue of the fact that the victim was a sex worker. Consider how much worse the stigma is in a country such as Colombia, and how that may impact the perception of Cassie. This type of information is not fodder for amusement or to participate in a media frenzy; it is delicate and sensitive. Moreover, it is not Australia’s interest in knowing what has happened that is important, but Cassie’s capacity to defend herself from the charges against her in Colombia. Knowing that stigma and still speaking out about Cassie’s sex work, especially when one is so conscious of it that they wear a wig and alter their voice, is the height of hypocrisy. It’s disgusting.

I was also unimpressed with 60 Minutes shifting between the use of “sex worker” and “prostitute” to describe Cassie’s work, depending on the narrative they wished to highlight at the time. The woman speaking to us was a “sex worker” but Cassie was a “prostitute”, the implication being that we should be respectful of what we are hearing from the speaker but recoil in disgust about the woman at the centre of the situation, despite the fact that they were both engaged in the same industry at the same place.

That 60 Minutes ran with the story in the first place is a separate issue. That is the price to be paid for courting the media, as Cassie and her family did. How they could be so oblivious to the ramifications it had for Schapelle Corby, and ignore the repeated advice from people in all quarters about the risks of doing so is beyond belief. I can certainly appreciate their desperation and vulnerability, mired in confusion and trauma and cut off from a loved one. But the media is not your friend in these situations, and they acted exactly as expected: fly the family to Colombia and appear supportive of their quest to see Cassie all the while gleaning snippets of information and frantically researching the background.

But as Corby 2.0 goes, both Sunday Night and 60 Minutes absolutely nailed it. The former had the focused, almost ebullient, fiance, giving another questionable account of events and on a quest to see the woman he loves, interspersed with a detailed examination of the holes in his and Cassie’s story. The latter had the distraught mother and sister, the mother’s desperate love and belief in her daughter on full display, which they then shattered with the answer to what we’ve all been wondering: just what WAS Cassie’s work?. And what an exciting answer it was!

However, the sex work is a red herring. It is simply the work she was doing, and like most of those in the industry she had a cover story.

So when you look beyond the compulsion to stereotype sex work and the fascinating but questionable insight into her character as a sex worker, it was actually Sunday Night that did the most damage. The text messages that were exchanged between Scott and Cassie while she was a sex worker, coupled with the fact that the two frequently communicated while she was in Colombia on her “working holiday”, raise questions about how much he knew. He appeared in the interview to be quite perplexed about the holes in the cleaning company story, and yet, despite speaking to her frequently since her incarceration, never indicated they’d had any discussion around that. Sunday Night had much more damning commentary from Cassie’s uncle about her character, a former military investigator whose credentials speak for themselves, and equally damning revelations from her father about her planning the trip to Colombia right around the time she stopped working at Club 220 in Penrith. They also established that the headphones Cassie claimed she was supposedly planning to buy from a market and then told she could get more cheaply from a friend of a friend – the lynchpin in her story – could only be purchased expensively at one electronics store in Bogota.

And thus the end result is exactly as feared: Cassie’s family’s plea for assistance from the public and gravitation to the media has shattered any hope she has of using naivety or threats as mitigation, let alone to claim she is the innocent victim of a set-up. A potential 4-6 year sentence is now looking more like 20 years. That really is Corby 2.0.

Except for the fact that it isn’t a laughing matter. Colombian prisons are not like Kerobokan, where Corby and other Australians were imprisoned in Indonesia. El Buen Pastor is a much larger and more hostile environment. Cassie’s notoriety and attitude have the potential to garner resentment amongst and make her a target of other inmates. There are already reports she has been moved in to isolation. Cartels and drug trafficking rings also have the capacity to exert control within that system, and whilst they won’t care about most of her ridiculous stories, they will take note if she starts to draw attention to their operations. Further, where Indonesia is a close neighbour of Australia’s, Colombia and Australia’s relationship is quite distant. Cassie is far away from family and consular support and any potential diplomatic engagement about the issue will be nigh on impossible.

With Schapelle, the circus was only ever going to increase her sentence. With Cassie, it could cost her her life.

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The sex work is a red herring, but Cassie Sainsbury really is Schapelle Corby 2.0

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