When Lilith Staalesen decided to begin court proceedings against the pub which fired her for doing sex work in her spare time, she knew the decision would change her life. “I thought, if I take this further and go to court, I’ll be outed to the whole of Norway,” she says. Despite apprehension, she went ahead.
At the time, Lilith had only been selling sex for a couple of months. Working in the pub wasn’t paying enough to cover her bills and, when a friend joked, “I’m so poor I should probably start selling sex”, Lilith thought, “Yeah actually, I’m going to do that.”
Two months later, she was called into her boss’s office to be confronted with a print-out of her online ad. Lilith had already suspected some of the customers didn’t like her working there, the atmosphere was transphobic and homophobic. Now, a regular had “discovered” her sex work ad and brought it in to show her bosses. She was told not to return.
With help from her union and from Oslo-based sex worker organisation PION (The Prostitutes Interest Organisation in Norway), Lilith took her claim to the labour courts.
“The lead up to the case was very stressful,” she says. “I thought, I’m a sex worker; how will the judges see me? We’d had a recent case in Norway – a sex worker had been robbed and violently beaten. During the criminal proceedings, she put in a claim for compensation for lost income after the assaults. The Supreme Court’s majority of three justices concluded that loss of income from prostitution is not recoverable.”
Lilith says it was her relative financial stability which allowed her to make her situation public. In her previous job, working in a shop, she’d managed to get a loan and buy her own flat. That meant she was safe from Norway’s draconian pimping laws, under which landlords are forced to evict sex workers or face a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. “I think it’s this law which keeps most sex workers in Norway from being public,” Lilith says.
Lilith won her court case, refusing to take the pub’s offers to settle out of court. “It was important to settle this publicly, in court,” she says. The judges ruled that being a sex worker is not a viable reason to fire anyone from any other type of work, at least not any work that doesn’t require “special trust”.
The triumph both threw Lilith into the public eye and turned her political views into something more personal. She began organising with PION, doing as much activism as she had energy for. “To my knowledge, I’m the only active ‘out’ sex worker in Norway,” she says. “Along with a former activist named Hege Grostad, who’s moved on to activism for legalising safer drug use.”
In Norway, disingenuous legislation, supposedly criminalizing clients but not workers, in reality makes life hard and dangerous for those working in the sex industry. However Lilith thinks things are changing slowly.
Every year, PION attends a meeting at which the main blocs for the International Women’s Day parade are chosen. Most years, she says, the group is harassed and bullied. “We still show up at the parade, but we have to walk ten metres behind.” This year, however, the committee warned women at the meeting not to harass the Pion sex workers. “We got at least twelve votes!” Lilith says. Most, she says, came from LGBT and migrant women’s groups.
“I find that PION and our activists are more and more welcome in events which focus on sex positivity, queer events and events focused on promoting better sex education. Norwegian people who care about a safe and stigma-less environment for discussions about sex are positive to the idea of supporting sex workers decriminalisation, while the conservatives who still peddle shame are the ones still stuck with the idea of either criminalising is, saving us or both.”