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Elena Jeffreys, president of Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association, is addressing this year’s F Conference, a conference on feminism held in Sydney. Jeffreys, sitting between Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and academic Catharine Lumby and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “SLUTS UNITE”, is met with rousing cheers from the 500-strong audience as she lists some of the oppressions faced by sex workers. “But,” she goes on, there is another “extreme oppression that we face … the oppression that anti-sex work feminists have wrought upon our workplaces.”
“Shame!” someone shouts. Jeffreys pauses and looks up towards the back of the auditorium as another voice calls out, “Absolutely!” It’s unclear whether the interjections are aimed at Jeffreys or those she is speaking about. She continues: “Anti-sex work feminists have chosen to campaign against our workplaces, lobby for the criminalisation of sex workers and our clients, applaud the closure of services that support us, rally to imprison the migrants among us, stigmatise every aspect of our work, discredit our political organising, undermine our demands, belittle our leadership and pathologise us through unethical and harmful research.”
Sex workers are most commonly portrayed in the media as either high-class, ultra-savvy business women or drug-addicted victims. But the majority of Australia’s sex workers are neither elite callgirls nor chained-up slaves, and over the past several decades a movement has emerged to fight for their interests. What those interests are, however, is hotly debated among sex workers and those who work with them or study their industry. It’s not a matter of competing priorities; it’s a case of two totally opposed belief systems about the sale of sexual services. Scarlet Alliance and its allies believe that sex work is legitimate work and that those engaged in it should be rewarded fairly and provided with safe workplaces. They also seek to have sex work decriminalised.
On the other side of the divide are those who believe that the sex industry is inherently misogynist and that those working in it are victims of exploitation and violence. Author and social commentator Melinda Tankard Reist believes that “to sanction prostitution is to sanction the violation of the human rights of women” and that “any form of prostitution undermines all women’s safety and dignity by entrenching the commodification of women and by sending a message to men and boys that they have a right to be sexually serviced any time by compliant, subservient women.”
Sheila Jeffreys (no relation of the Scarlet Alliance president), an academic and board member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, explains in her book The Industrial Vagina that she uses the term ‘prostituted women’ rather than ‘sex workers’, which is the term preferred by most in the industry, “because this suggests that something harmful is being done to the women and brings the perpetrators into the picture”.
At the heart of the debate is the question of whose experiences are given precedence. “People think it’s OK to form an opinion about sex work without actually knowing or hearing from the sex worker community,” says Elena Jeffreys. Scarlet Alliance is staffed and managed entirely by former and current sex workers, and works in partnership with sex worker groups in Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Fiji and Timor-Leste. However, Nina Vallins, executive director of Project Respect, a non-profit organisation providing support services to women in the sex industry, contends that the majority of women in the industry are not directly represented by peak bodies such as Scarlet Alliance. According to Vallins, most sex workers “don’t have the capacity or time or resources to become involved in advocacy. They don’t want to speak about being in the sex industry and that means their experiences are not necessarily represented.”
This is certainly true for Jayne, a 27-year-old sex worker from Sydney, who is irritated by questions about feminist theory and legislation. “I started doing this because I was in a tight spot [financially]. I thought, ‘well, I’ll just grit my teeth until I’ve earned enough.’ But a few years on, I’m still doing it. I’m not saying it’s a dream job, but it suits me at the moment. When it doesn’t, then I won’t do it. I know it’s not that simple for everyone, but that’s why you have the activists and the do-gooders. I’m not stuck or abused or making a point. I want to work and be left alone.”
The inner-city Sydney headquarters of Scarlet Alliance is a hive of activity even at 6 pm on a cold and rainy Tuesday. The office is a mixture of the usual (shelves stacked with lever-arch files, a sink filled with coffee cups) and the surprising (a feather boa draped over a cabinet, a vintage-style photo of women in knickers and fish-nets playing pool). Workers’ rights posters, feminist poetry and a ‘Chinese Sex Workers in Australia’ information sheet cover the bright red-and-purple walls. With the sound of rapid typing and conversations in an array of languages in the background, Elena Jeffreys describes the response she received at the 2020 Summit in 2008. “I think a lot of people were shocked to hear that the material outcome of the stop human trafficking policy in Australia under the Howard government was Australian Federal Police charged with the duty of bashing down doors and a department of immigration charged with knocking back people’s visa applications. That is not a humane approach to trafficking prevention and the reality is it pushes more people into more vulnerable situations.”
Scarlet Alliance advocates for “a prevention approach that would include education in people’s first languages” about Australia’s trafficking and sex work laws as well as visa categories that sex workers can apply for to allow them to work legally in Australia. Jeffreys wants migrant workers to “understand they can just apply for a visa and come to Australia. They don’t need a third-party trafficker to do that, in fact, it’s possible that their occupational health and safety would be better if they just travelled here on their own and got a job when they’re here rather than have it all arranged for them by a third party.”
Not everybody is convinced by this view. Nina Vallins thinks it’s “a strange argument to be making that trafficking helps women into Australia. I don’t see being trafficked as a career option for women.” But Project Respect doesn’t support criminalising the actions of such women; the organisation has long been critical of anti-trafficking approaches that force victims to give evidence and punish a refusal to participate in criminal trials with deportation. Since its inception the group has lobbied the government for trafficked women to be eligible for visas regardless of their ability or willingness to contribute to anti-trafficking investigations.
Vallins feels that a sole focus on labour rights in the sex work debate can be short-sighted, because, she says, it is “based on the implicit assumption that prostitution is just another form of work. It assumes that prostitution doesn’t harm women or that decent labour laws and regulation make it safe.” Prostitution, according to Vallins, is “a human rights issue”. Nevertheless, Vallins is concerned with improving working conditions in the industry. Far from being an anti-sex worker organisation, Vallins says, Project Respect believes that “prostitution should be as safe and lucrative for women as possible” while working towards a society in which “demand will reduce and women will have better options”.
In Victoria, where Project Respect is based, sex work is legal within the context of a registered brothel or escort agency. In Queensland and the ACT, where brothels are required to be licensed, and the Northern Territory, where escort agencies must be licensed, sex workers also operate under systems of limited legalisation. These systems are designed to give the government control over the location, number and operating practices of sex industry premises, and to ensure that safe sex and other workplace safety standards can be enforced, tax can be collected and the criminal elements of the industry can be weeded out.
Many people oppose the legalisation model. Mary Lucille Sullivan, author of Making Sex Work, claims that laws in Victoria “allow women and girls to be treated as common commodities to be bought and sold like any other marketable product in the capitalist marketplace”. Sheila Jeffreys refers to states that license prostitution as “pimp states” and argues that harm minimisation “is based on the idea that the male urge to use prostituted women is removed from the social, something bestowed by nature and uncontrollable, that the state can only seek to surround with free condoms, cups of coffee and other civilising influences, but could not seriously hope to contain”.
Researchers Christine Harcourt, Sandra Egger and Basil Donovan note in their 2005 paper, ‘Sex Work and the Law’: “Street-based sex workers are among the most vulnerable in the industry and their position is exacerbated when brothels are licensed or tolerated but street work is prohibited.” The report points out that both Queensland and Victoria have a sizeable illegal sex industry operating alongside the legal one and that illegal sex workers “are usually less healthy than licensed sex workers because they are officially excluded from reputable health services, are afraid to present for care, and are easily missed by health promotion programs”.
The debate also runs to mandatory sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing, which is part of the Victorian and Queensland regimes. Sullivan argues that compulsory testing of sex workers but not their clients is discriminatory and that it “is a relatively inaccurate and stressful means of determining whether a woman should continue to ‘work’, as there is a three-month dormancy window for various STIs”. Elena Jeffreys agrees that mandatory testing can create a false sense of security. “Even though the certificate clears you to work for the next period it doesn’t discount that condoms are still the most effective means of prevention and that a certificate doesn’t prevent anything.”
Vallins, Tankard Reist, Sullivan and Sheila Jeffreys all advocate what’s known as the ‘Swedish model’, so called because of 1999 legislation that made the purchase, but not the sale, of sex illegal in Sweden. The law is based on the premise that the purchase of sexual services is an act of violence for which the perpetrator should be punished, while the victim should be given support. The number of women involved in street-based sex work has subsequently halved in Sweden, and the amount of trafficking and organised crime has also reduced since the introduction of the law.
However, sex worker advocacy organisations in Sweden and elsewhere claim that the law has placed sex workers in danger by forcing them to work in unfamiliar, often isolated areas in order to find customers. Elena Jeffreys points out that, since “the sex act itself can’t be policed”, the Swedish law works by criminalising all the activities associated with sex work. This means “not being able to advertise or get an accountant … having to resort to subterfuge with your family because you don’t want them charged for living off the earnings or being involved in the crime … not telling the tax office what you do, not being able to be clear on things such as your home loan or your rental application because you know that every single extra person who knows what you do is not simply exposing you to potential discrimination and stigma but is also putting the clients who are paying your rent at risk of trouble with the law.”
The approach preferred by most industry activists is decriminalisation. Supporters claim that sex workers who are allowed to operate legally are less likely to seek or be coerced into protection agreements with criminal or corrupt officials and are more likely to be proactive about their health and safety. Indeed, the sex industry in NSW, where sex work has been decriminalised since 1995, has the best occupational health and safety outcomes, including the lowest STI incidence, in Australia. Under a decriminalisation model, sex workers are able to seek redress against unfair work conditions, abuse or exploitation without exposing themselves to criminal charges.
Of course, the ability to seek legal justice is no guarantee of receiving it. In October last year, Timothy Davis, an American sailor on shore leave, visited a Sydney brothel and paid to have sex with a woman working there. When his session was over and he hadn’t managed to complete the act, the woman offered alternative services. Davis ripped off the condom and told her he was going to finish “like a real man”. He then used his body weight to force her onto the bed where he shoved her face into the pillow and used a “lockdown manoeuvre” to keep her there while he penetrated her without a condom.
Davis admitted in the NSW District Court that he had done all of this, and the jury heard the woman’s distressed testimony and saw photographs of the scratches she’d received while trying to defend herself. Despite his admissions, Davis pleaded not guilty to sexual intercourse without consent, aggravated by causing actual bodily harm, and to the alternative charge of recklessly inflicting actual bodily harm with intent to have sexual intercourse. He was acquitted. “What this means,” says Elena Jeffreys, “is that many other sex workers won’t come forward in the future because they won’t want to be humiliated through a court case, only to find that it has no decent outcome for them.”
Jayne, who works for a brothel doing both in-house and outcall sessions, says she would be reluctant to report a workplace assault to the police. “Even if something like that happened out of work, I’d think twice,” she says. “The prejudice you get when people find out what you do … It’d have to be something really bad for me to risk all the bullshit from the police and media and everyone.” Despite having “no interest” in politics or activism, Jayne does keep up with what she calls “whore news” via internet forums. “It can feel like the world is against you sometimes,” she says. “Reading the news can be depressing. Things like [the Davis case] and all the stuff that went on at Islington.”
Islington, a small inner-city suburb of Newcastle, has been the site of an ongoing battle between street-based sex workers and local residents. According to ProVision, a magazine published by Scarlet Alliance, sex workers there have experienced a “dramatic increase in assaults” since January 2009 when several media outlets began publicising a local community group’s campaign against street-based sex work. Reader correspondence published on the Newcastle Herald website describes Islington sex workers as “drug addicts”, “ice addicts”, “scum” and on a par with “child molesters”, and contains suggestions for vigilante action including the setting up of websites to identify sex workers and their clients.
Clearly, stigma remains an issue for sex workers even in states where their work is legal. In The Idea of Prostitution, Sheila Jeffreys acknowledges the existence of “whore stigma” but believes it is deserved, though “misdirected … Prostituted women receive the contempt that should more reasonably be directed at the perpetrators.” To those working in the sex industry, such arguments are irrelevant. Sex worker chat forums and bulletin boards are filled with the stories of those who have had their applications for rental accommodation or non-sex industry jobs knocked back, as well as of those who have been refused medical treatment or been treated with contempt by doctors.
Scarlet Alliance is lobbying to have anti-discrimination laws cover sex workers in all Australian states. In the three jurisdictions that do include sex workers in their anti-discrimination laws – Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT – sex workers have successfully challenged discriminatory decisions and actions. In April this year, for example, the Family Protection Society was forced to apologise to Tasmanian sex workers for a series of advertisements, which appeared in the Mercury, claiming that sex workers were responsible for breaking up marriages. The apology was the result of a conciliation process conducted by the Office of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner after Scarlet Alliance had lodged an official complaint.
Scarlet Alliance’s other plan of attack against stigma and discrimination is community education. “Much of what we do is to simply be out,” says Elena Jeffreys. “Seeing a sex worker who has a voice, who can be clear about experiences and answer questions, that alone can be a challenge to people who only see sex workers as a disembodied pair of legs poking out of a dumpster in a CSI Miami episode.”