Pippa O’Sullivan, as she was known outside of work circles, died last week aged 28. She is being remembered for a legacy of generosity, honesty and activism.
“#GraceBellavue spoke out loud and proud,” tweeted sex worker activist Ellena Jeffreys. She was “dynamic, loud-mouth[sic], passionate, loving and angry”.
O’Sullivan entered the industry underage, when she began working at a brothel that didn’t check for ID. She was 17.
After exiting the industry several times at the behest of different partners, she launched her own business as an escort in 2011.
Armed with experience in digital media, O’Sullivan built a wide audience on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She became visible: able to be seen beyond the sex work bubble, which is covered with secrecy and that loaded term, “discretion”.
“My passion is contextualising sex work,” she said in an interview with Radio Adelaide last year. She used her social media platform to titillate and educate in equal measure, making it her mission to speak for those who could not.
“Social stigma silences a majority of the beautiful voices,” she wrote. “I will fight tooth and nail … to dispel these stereotypes.”
“Often, debate around sex work is conducted by non-sex workers,” says the leader of the Australian Sex Party Fiona Patten. “Grace brought a strong, intelligent and personal voice to the debate.”
“She was a passionate and proud representative of the industry, but she also experienced the stigma and discrimination that sex workers receive.”
Prostitution remains illegal in South Australia.
“Within a criminalised environment, I have no legal rights as a worker to take recourse against violent action,” O’Sullivan wrote for The Advertiser in June 2013.
She became a vocal advocate for decriminalisation.
“I have been assaulted at work … I had to face being criminalised for my work while also being a victim of crime.”
In 2012, O’Sullivan published a photo of an attempted rapist on Twitter to warn other workers.
“For sex workers it’s really important to have online communities – safe spaces,” says a colleague, a Newcastle-based worker who wants to be known as Luscious Lani. “Grace and I used to talk on Facebook and Twitter every day.”
Lani was on Twitter before O’Sullivan but, like most sex workers, protected her identity.
O’Sullivan was one of the first in the industry to reveal her face online.
“Grace showed her face in a very big way,” Lani says. “She was in mainstream media publications. She was articulate and intelligent and fired up.”
In salacious yet honest pieces, Grace wrote about her work for Vice and Mamamia, and described the intimacy and vulnerability of sex on her blog.
Jessica Alice, co-director at National Young Writers’ Festival (NYWF), recognised her writing talent: “Her writing is intense, imbued with frankness and wit.”
O’Sullivan was programmed to speak on several panels at the 2014 festival after Alice had followed her on Twitter for years.
“She had become a bit of a celebrity for her advocacy on sex worker rights. She was also obviously a writer: her tweeting style had a powerful storytelling quality. Her energy was infectious.”
O’Sullivan’s sex work storytelling may not have reached such an audience were she not white, conventionally attractive, and well-paid. Her privileged and selective depiction of the industry is potentially problematic.
“Prostitution these days is often presented as a glamorous thing,” says Ros Phillips, National Research Officer for Christian group Family Voice. ”The reality is, an awful lot of sex workers have PTSD,” Phillips argues. “And so many girls die but it’s not reported. Quite a few suicides that are reported as drug overdoses; sometimes they’re murdered.”
Yes, some sex workers can be wrapped up in drug addiction, homelessness, abuse. But this isn’t everyone’s story. According to O’Sullivan, it wasn’t hers.
She did have a history of mental illness, and was open about it. In one of her most popular blogposts, she wrote: “If you’re not careful, the erratic hours can play havok[sic] on your diet, body, sleep patterns, energetic and drug/alcohol intake – often to your own detriment mentally and physically.”
“Grace was a fierce advocate for mental health awareness,” Lani says. “She dealt with it as best she could but it got the better of her in the end.”
A 2009 Swiss study of 193 female sex workers in Zurich found “high rates of mental disorders” amongst its participants. The researchers argued that working conditions and vulnerability to violence were responsible. They further claimed that decriminalisation is a “prerequisite” to taking action towards violence against sex workers, by decreasing stigma.
“The perception that sex work is dangerous is based on the fact that most people have been so afraid of being outed as a sex worker that they have been easily manipulated, and accepted worse conditions,” Lani says.
“Our employers have no responsibility to provide us a safe workplace,” Ari Reid, Sex Industry Network SA spokesperson told The Advertiser in June this year.
Another argument for decriminalisation depicts sex work as equivalent to all other work, and therefore should be governed by the same bodies that enforce workplace safety. Under this argument, brothels would have rules regarding not just physical safety, but mental wellbeing, too.
Speaking to the SA Legislative Council on the Decriminalisation of Sex Work Bill in September, Greens MP Tammy Franks said the proposed bill “safeguards the human rights of sex workers, it protects sex workers from exploitation, it promotes their welfare and safety and health”.
The decriminalisation bill is being examined and discussed by a select committee, and will report to SA parliament on 18 November.
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