Stepping in to sex work history through the archives of Roberta Perkins
While Roberta Perkins may not have household name recognition, her work is undoubtedly among the most important and influential research and activism in Australia's modern history. After completing her doctoral dissertation at Macquarie University in 1981 she wrote her first book, The Drag Queen Scene: Transsexuals in Kings Cross, which led to her receiving a grant to open Tiresias House (now The Gender Centre), a refuge for homeless and at-risk transgender youth in inner-city Sydney. She was also a founding member of the Australian Prostitutes Collective, an advocacy group whose submissions to the Select Committee on Prostitution became the primary source of information on the lives of sex workers in New South Wales, and contributed hugely to the decriminalisation of sex work in 1995. “Roberta Perkins lived and worked at the intersection of sex worker rights and transgender rights for more than three decades,” read an obituary prepared by Scarlet Alliance and the Sex Worker Outreach Project of New South Wales. “[Her] impact on the lives of sex workers and trans people cannot be overstated.”
Roberta Perkins died in June this year at the age of 78. During a period of ill health she had been cared for by a number of friends who were later tasked with selling her flat, and organising the possessions therein, upon her passing. Among those possessions were her archives: boxes upon boxes of research, grant applications, submissions, audio tapes, and correspondence collected over the course of her life and work. The archives containing her work and activism within the transgender community were donated to the Australian Gay and Lesbian Archives; while the material covering sex work was placed in the care of broadcaster and academic Eurydice Aroney, and donated to SWOP NSW.
Eurydice met Roberta as a student, when she was doing volunteer outreach work with the Australian Prostitutes Collective. “I think I was given that job because Roberta was such a fast driver and nobody else wanted to go in the car with her,” she recalls. “But I was thrilled and awed to be with her.” They became fast friends, visiting inner-city brothels and strip clubs together and educating sex workers about health and wellbeing, and their rights when it came to dealing with the police. Sex work was not yet decriminalised, and many workers and brothels had a tenuous relationship with the law: a hand-drawn cartoon from within Roberta's archives shows a judge frowning across his bench at a young woman in fishnet stockings and high heels. 'Do you know the law, miss?' he asks, to which she responds, 'No, is he one of my customers?'.
It was Eurydice's loungeroom that Roberta's archives wound up in after they left the flat, and it didn't take long for Eurydice to begin looking through the boxes on her floor. “I had been to international conferences where sex workers and activists were, and they always asked how New South Wales managed to decriminalise sex work,” she told me over the phone. “Even though I had lived through that period, I don't think I really knew the extent of what happened. People and laws came and went, HIV and AIDS came and went, there was a lot happening within the movement and also internal battles occurring within the movement. So getting these archives and seeing it all there in one place gave us an opportunity to do some historical investigation and answer some questions about the past: what did sex workers do, what did we know, what went wrong, and what went right?”
Eurydice has referenced Roberta's work in much of her own: an interactive timeline on the Whores of Yore website exploring the road to decriminalisation between 1979 and 1995 in New South Wales, and an upcoming episode of The History Lab podcast, co-produced with Joe Koenig. But searching through each document in each folder in each box of the archives was too big a job for one person alone, so Eurydice placed a call-out: for those sex workers in the community who wanted to learn a little about their occupation's history, and help out with a project, they could come along to a meeting room at SWOP and play a role in cataloguing the contents of Roberta's extensive collection.
I accepted the open invitation, and a few days later found myself in a warm, sunny meeting room with a small handful of other sex workers and activists. In groups, we each took a box and withdrew a handful of files from it, then got working: we opened envelopes and sorted the correspondence within, we arranged grant applications and submissions chronologically, and we flicked through half-filled notebooks and diaries before tying them up with string in piles according to their contents. Brittle old faxes were singled out to be copied and scanned, and shopping bags full of miscellaneous personal items—matchbooks, nail files, weathered old train tickets—were sorted through and wrapped up gently before being tucked away.
The process was overseen by Nick Henderson, a curator and archivist working with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. “I know of no other Australian sex worker collection that covers activism and research in such detail,” he said. “While there is an industry collection—the EROS Foundation Archives at Flinders University—and government archives relating to criminalisation and decriminalisation, I don't know of another similar community activist collection.” Once the archives have been organised and catalogued, they will hopefully be accepted by a large library or museum and made available to academics, activists, and—crucially—sex workers who want to access them.
Included in Roberta's archives are the interviews she conducted with workers across New South Wales: some are recorded on audio tapes, others are typed out on paper. There are hours upon hours of them, warts-and-all discussions with workers of all genders and ages, conducted in the back rooms of brothels and bedrooms of terrace houses across Sydney. They detail a working life that sometimes seems so different to our modern experience of sex work; but at other times the conversations recorded wouldn't seem at all out of place in the dressing room of a brothel today. Many of the concerns and frustrations the workers have are almost identical to those of myself, my friends, and the other workers at the table with me, and some are addressed in a little information booklet Roberta wrote while working with the Australian Prostitutes Collective: The Healthy Hooker's Handbook. It's a hand-written first draft and it's touching to see the chapter titles there, written out carefully in green and black pen and worn with age: 'The Law And You', 'Going For A Check-Up', and 'Where To Go For Help, Advice, Comfort' are just a few of them. 'We understand how alone you can feel at times on the job,' Roberta wrote, in the introduction to the booklet. 'We hope this little book will help you, make you feel a little less alone, and bring you a lot of comfort.'
“Marginalised histories are often hard to access,” Nick says. “The archival source material, even the published documents, aren't often readily accessible. Ensuring that Roberta's archives are processed to a high degree means that young LGBTQI people and sex worker activists, as well as the broader public, can recover and write their histories, and hopefully bring a bit more balance to the historical record.” As a sex worker myself, I can see how many parts of our history get hidden away and swept under the rug: while sex work has been decriminalised in New South Wales for over twenty years, the heavy stigma still surrounding the industry means that sex workers who do speak openly about their jobs often face discrimination in their personal and professional lives for doing so.
With this in mind, it's no surprise our history is often recorded privately, tucked away with the hopes that one day experiences of the person recording it won't have the potential to invite undue judgement or opinions. Roberta's archives don't only detail how decriminalisation was won for sex workers in New South Wales: they do offer comfort, and the knowledge that even in an occupation that can feel intensely isolating at times, we are never alone. There are people who fought as hard as they could for our rights, and even though they may no longer be with us, we can still feel and see them now, looking back forty years in to the past.
About the author
Kate Iselin is a sex worker and writer living in Melbourne. She writes a weekly sex and dating column for news.com.au.
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