Imagine if you were assaulted at work, and your attacker received a lighter sentence just because of your job.
Exactly that situation existed in Victoria until just a few years ago, when sentencing guidelines were finally updated to remove leniency for offenders who raped sex workers.
International Sex Worker Rights Day on 3 March is an occasion when workers in the industry come together to fight against stigma and criminalisation.
In Australia, most states and territories still have various criminal frameworks surrounding sex work.
Jane Green from Victorian sex worker organisation Vixen Collective says that many factors can prevent workers seeking help from the police when they are victims of crime, even now that the sentencing guidelines have changed.
“Treatment in the courts has been and remains a massive barrier,” she says.
“It’s not just sex workers who are operating outside of the licensing system – registered escorts and brothel workers are reluctant to go to the police because of the perception that they’ll be treated badly.”
‘Gangs and guns’
Kelly*, a Victoria-based sex worker, has interacted with the police a number of times.
On one occasion, a Victoria Police officer and an Australian Federal Police officer visited a brothel where she was working, “looking for Asian sex workers” and information about “gangs and guns”.
“Nice stereotypes they pulled out of a hat,” she quips.
Kelly had to call the police herself on one occasion because of violence against workers that was being perpetrated by a manager.
After many attempts to contact the relevant regulator, Consumer Affairs Victoria, she resorted to contacting the police.
Kelly says the officer she spoke to wasn’t forthcoming with information about her workplace rights or what, if anything, would be done about the complaint.
“I never heard back from them,” she says.
“Calling the police is always the last port of call, because the police are incredibly dangerous for sex workers, as regulators. And there’s that fear of losing your job.”
Kelly has also dealt with police when accompanying other sex workers who have needed to report sexual assault.
“[Police] equate it to shoplifting, and refuse to take the report,” she says.
Those who are working outside of the licensing framework, such as by working on the street or not having a licence number, may also fear legal trouble themselves if they approach police.
“That’s a big problem in Victoria, that the police are a [sex work] regulator,” says Kelly.
Some Victorian sex workers say that working under the complex licensing framework, where work outside that framework is criminalised and private escorts are required to register with the government, is even worse than working in places that totally outlaw sex work.
‘Crimes against us aren’t taken seriously’
Jules Kim from national sex worker organisation Scarlet Alliance says sex work should be recognised as work, and workplace issues managed accordingly, instead of under a criminal framework.
“We should be working through an occupational health and safety lens rather than a criminal justice lens,” she says.
“Currently because our work is being regulated within a criminal justice framework there are limited avenues for us to pursue workplace rights, and crimes against us aren’t taken seriously.”
Under criminalisation of sex work, in most parts of Australia, Kim says workers are subject to unwarranted “surveillance and entrapment”.
Examples include police calling workers to request services considered illegal within those states, such as threesomes or condomless sex, and then laying charges if the worker should agree.
“It can be extremely difficult for sex workers to navigate due to the complexity of laws around sex work that differ between states and types of sex work,” says Kim.
Such entrapment can disproportionately affect marginalised workers, such as migrant workers with limited English, who may not know what they are agreeing to.
In Western Australia and South Australia, where most forms of sex work are deemed illegal, police may simply use the fact that someone had condoms as ‘evidence’ that they were working.
Kim says LGBTIQ sex workers can be disproportionately harmed because of the multiple levels of discrimination they encounter.
Indigenous sistergirl workers in particular have reported very poor treatment by clients and police alike, at the intersection of transphobia, racism, and ‘whorephobia’.
Trans workers are also more likely to do private and street-based work because of limited brothels that accept them, leading to their being targeted by police.
Green says the answer to better relationships between police and sex workers isn’t simple, but it starts with treating sex work like any other job.
“Decriminalisation won’t make everything perfect overnight, but it’s an important first step in making sure we have the same rights as other workers,” she says.
“Police attitudes… will never change unless we have decriminalisation.
“We’ll never get to the point of starting to shift [stigma] unless we start treating sex work as work, and treating sex workers as other workers are treated.”
*Not her real name.