Crime

Abused by the system: The unfair stigma surrounding sex workers

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Sex workers have been treated with an unfair stigma and deserve the same rights as any other trade (Image via YouTube)

Sex workers have been struggling to obtain fair rights, with laws and social stigma making it difficult to earn a living, writes Estelle Lucas.

IT'S EASY TO IMAGINE why sex workers are vulnerable. But apart from the obvious stranger danger, there are other factors at play. The impact of legislation on methods of business, for example, is intrinsically linked to safety and health outcomes. Take the ability to advertise sex services online — the recent FOSTA-SESTA laws in the U.S. draw no distinction between sex workers and sex trafficking victims on the internet, meaning workers are forced offline and onto the streets to find work.

I know this from personal experience.

During a slow week on a recent trip to the U.S., I turned to propositioning men in New York City, something I never had to do before.

Local Australian workers, too, are caught up in the ripple effects of such laws.

Billie, a Melbourne brothel and private worker, says:

"There was an influx of private workers turning to brothel work, making competition and morale worse. I didn’t take the risks like some of my peers, so I lost clients and my income took a dive."

The intense stigma surrounding sex work clouds the eyes of law and policy makers, which in turn influences a worker’s ability to manage risk, assess safety and negotiate consent. It makes us vulnerable to predation, no matter how seasoned the worker is. Sexual predators not only prey on vulnerable individuals, but also exploit vulnerabilities within policy and legislation.

This was recently affirmed by a fraud case in Queensland. Gabrielle was thrown off her game when a client dodged her screening procedures and left her after the service with an empty envelope — a calculated trick. When Gabrielle alerted her peers, she discovered a worker named Stacey had fallen victim to the same ploy by the same man only a week before. Gabrielle and Stacey came forward to seek justice. Both cases were heard together and he pleaded guilty on two counts of fraud. He was fined $750 for his crime and was forced to pay $350 in restitution to Gabrielle and Stacey. By way of comparison, in the same state, if a sex worker ‘causes unreasonable annoyance to another person’, they are fined $1,958.

The Queensland case was more than just fraud. There was a clear issue of consent that was ignored by the judicial system. The predator could have gained consent, had he simply followed the agreed terms. Instead, he disregarded them, committing sexual assault, feeling safe in the knowledge that stigma and discrimination would curtail the sex workers’ access to justice. He believed himself to be immune to accountability — a notion supported by the legal outcome. This wasn’t about money, as is often the case with fraud, but about entitlement and power, as is often the case with rape.

This violation of Stacey and Gabrielle’s being is not a matter of transactional error and the restitution barely addresses how the incident affects their livelihood. His only punishment has been to pay the state $750 for processing his crime. All else is unanswered. For the incident to be dismissed is to be complicit to sexually predatory behaviour and sets a dangerous precedent.

While Stacey and Gabrielle had the courage to come forward, they are not the only victims, says Gabrielle:

"When I reached out to our networks, I found four other sex workers who knew of the man, three of whom had nearly identical experiences. I wish the police would charge him with more as I definitely feel I have been sexually assaulted."

In Victoria and Queensland, sex work is governed under a legalised legislative model, which set reams of somewhat arbitrary rules. In Victoria specifically, private workers are unable to see clients at their own premises, which further increases vulnerability.

In one instance in 2015, when visiting a client’s home, he tried to con me into services before payment. I reported the incident to my peers and discovered he had successfully used the same con on at least two other sex workers. I encouraged one worker to report it to the police, but they had seen the man illegally on their own premises. My assurances were not enough to dismiss her fear of prosecution and, coupled with the shame associated with being a victim, she chose not to go to the police. The other worker did, but the incident wasn’t considered worthy of pursuing. Stigma, not regulation, shapes the laws in Victoria and the fear that every dwelling will turn into a hotbed of debauchery doesn’t reflect the reality that most sex workers are eager to conduct business discreetly and avoid judgement.

Although laws can discourage reporting to the police, sex workers do report crimes to their colleagues. There are thousands more incidents like the above that go unreported to police, but are shared amongst workers to protect our own where the system has failed. Just how seriously the police treat crimes against sex workers is a matter of luck, privilege and prejudice.

A similar incident occurred in 2015 in Canberra, where sex work is regulated but hardly policed. The judge unequivocally found the crime to be rape by fraud and the perpetrator was sentenced to eight months in prison with a two-year good behaviour bond. While this is a more serious outcome than the incidents in Victoria and Queensland, where sex-worker laws are similar, it was ultimately more dependent on clearer wording around rape and fraud than laws governing sex work. Even with the privilege of working legally, and being white and well-educated, stigma almost tilted the scales of justice in the predator’s favour.

Abigail from Canberra said:

"At first, the police said they didn’t think they could charge him with rape of a sex worker, but once they learned of his criminal past, they had a gutful of him. Had I known it would drag on for four years, I would not have seen the conviction through. I risked being outed in hundreds of ways. I was terrified the whole time."

In this terrain of disunified legislation, Australian workers are making efforts to operate legally and safely by creating their own web-hosting companies, their own information-sharing platforms, their own social platforms, classified sites and their own offshore online directories. But despite these efforts, there’s only so much they can do in environments that foster stigma, incite predation and confound justice.

When any part of sex work is criminalised, stigma soon follows. The Nordic legislative model treats only sex buyers as criminal, not sex workers and is a crowd favourite amongst feminists, in particular. However, this model only serves to exacerbate stigma and removes a worker’s agency in exercising risk management. Under this model, sex workers are unable to practise screening procedures because clients are less willing to pass on personal information that could have them treated criminally. Sex workers thus cannot mitigate danger and are left with little client information to share with each other or police. By treating clients of sex workers criminally and shaming them, this model breeds more judgement, closes off doors to support and resources and further impacts how sex workers are treated. The Nordic model is not a workable solution.

Decriminalisation of sex work is the only feasible option, where sex work is regulated like any other business. Sex workers are saying this is the best model for them, backed by Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation. To date, decriminalisation is only a reality in New Zealand and NSW, although laws are under review in South Australia and Queensland.

Studies have shown changes to structural frameworks are often followed by changes in public attitude. We cannot be serious about standing up for the vulnerable and stamping out sexual predatory behaviour if we neglect sex workers’ voices. It’s easy to see why sex workers are vulnerable and, while the issues are complex, the way forward is clear: empowerment, not stigma, is the answer. 

Note: the names of people interviewed in this article have been changed for privacy reasons.

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Abused by the system: The unfair stigma surrounding sex workers

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