Working with sexual assault in the sex industry

Working with sexual assault in the sex industry

Project Respect

Liz Wall

ACSSA Working With No. 5 — June 2013
Working with sexual assault in the sex industry

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Liz Wall, a Research Officer at ACSSA, interviews the Executive Director of Project Respect, Kelly Hinton.

Project Respect is a non-government organisation that supports women in the sex industry, most commonly those in brothels, but also including women in street prostitution, escort, pornography and those who have been trafficked into Australia for the purposes of prostitution.

Sexual assault features strongly in the issues that women using your service need assistance with. What are the contexts and situations of sexual assault that you are hearing about?

It varies from women that are being trafficked and then forced into the sex industry to sexual assaults are perpetrated against women that are not trafficked. In this context, women don't consent to provide particular sexual services and then when they are in the room in the brothel it is forced upon them. Our work around sexual assault also includes women who have previously been in the sex industry and are sexually assaulted outside the industry whether it's by a partner, a stranger or whoever.

The common theme throughout, is that most of the women we work with don't want to report the sexual assaults. Regardless of whether it was in the brothel or not, they are reluctant because they feel that there will be stigma if they do and attitudes that if they report, the police might say that "well you are in the sex industry so there is no such thing as sexual assault".

Do the women who do choose to go down the criminal justice path feel they are discriminated against in that legal process?

Women that are trafficked may experience less or different discrimination, maybe because their lack of choice is clearer. A few women from the sex industry that have reported sexual assault have had some negative experiences that I am aware of. There is a story of one woman we worked with, probably a few years ago now, who was sexually assaulted in a brothel, she was actually raped in a brothel and went to the police and reported it and the police officer's response was that you can't get raped in a brothel. So the thing about that is that word spreads. That may have been a one-off incident, there are a lot of great cops out there but that woman tells her story and other women think "why would I report if that is going to be the response".

Have you noticed a change in attitudes since that time?

Not really because most women don't even get as far as the police. I think it's really useful that we now have the Sex Industry Coordination Unit within Victoria Police. We have a good working relationship with them and its great that we can say with confidence to women who do want to report, that these are the officers you are going to talk with and we have worked with them before. But I think you are asking for a massive cultural change in society in terms of understanding consent and the sex industry. If you are looking at a woman who might go of her own volition to her local police station and report it, she could get the new recruit who doesn't know much about the industry and she might get an inappropriate response.

For women who have been sexually assaulted in their work place - how does that impact on their lives and their work?

I think it would have a different effect on everybody. But you can't underestimate the trauma and the re-traumatisation that could happen for a woman in the sex industry. The really awful thing is for a woman who is in the sex industry because she needs the money, she doesn't have any choice about going back. There are bills and rent to pay, so she is almost forced to go back and relive the scene.

How does Project Respect support those women who have been sexually assaulted in the sex industry, particularly in a work context?

It really depends on what the woman wants. Often we won't know about the sexual assault right away unless we have already been working with the woman. And we are very much led by what the women want and recognising them as the experts in their life. Certainly we would support women to report it, because if someone is out there and they have done it to them, chances are they will do it to someone else. If a woman doesn't want to report it we are not going to force her to of course.

Also recognising all of the issues she may unfortunately go through if she does report it, particularly if it does go to court. Not only will she go through the same trauma as other victims of sexual assault in reliving it, she will potentially be outed as working in the sex industry as well, which is another reason many women don't want to report it. We'd certainly encourage them to get counselling or some other kind of professional support - again, if a woman doesn't want that, that is absolutely up to her.

We would also talk through safety plans with her. If it occurred in a brothel, we'd look at the response from the people at the brothel - if she told them - she may not have. If there was an inappropriate response from the manager or the brothel owner, that would be something we would look at advocating for her about and potentially encouraging her to report it if it is a licensed brothel.

Do you have a good relationship with the brothel owners or operators in that sense? Are they supportive of your work?

It varies. Some brothel owners are very good, to the point that if there is a woman in the brothel who is having some problems, they will actually ring us and ask us to send a worker down to offer support. Some are quite ambivalent and some will let us in some days and won't let us in other days, and some brothel owners just point blank will not let us in ever and there is no legal requirement for them to let us in.

Are there any kind of work compensation schemes for women who are injured by a sexual assault or suffer a trauma like sexual assault at work where that work is a brothel?

Interestingly, there was a case a couple of years ago and a woman had a gun pulled on her because she refused to have sex without a condom and she went for compensation which we didn't think she would get because women in the sex industry aren't employed, they are subcontractors, so there's no actual employment relationship. However in that particular case I believe it was proved there was an "employment-like" relationship so she did have some recompense.

So things may improve?

Yes, I think that potentially the opportunity is there, but violence and sexual assault within the sex industry is so normalised. Often we talk to women about how often they meet a violent client and initially they might say, oh there's not many but when we talk about what we mean by violence - pinching and biting and scratching and bruising and all of that, the response is quite different, but it is normalised . But I think the idea of compensation at work would fall into the same area as the criminal justice response, women will potentially be outed publicly, which, for women whose families and friends perhaps don't know they are in the sex industry, is a massive fear. The onus is on the victim to come forward and to be able to come forward to access supports and for a lot of women who have gone into the sex industry because they are suffering a lot of difficulties - it is a massive ask and it is unrealistic.

Do you think perhaps some women wouldn't consider then that they have been sexually assaulted?

I think some of them wouldn't necessarily use that term, absolutely.

Do you find that your services are something that women use for a long period of time or is it something that they need at a crisis point in their lives?

It definitely varies, normally when a woman comes to us, it is at a crisis point. Some women we will just work with them through their crisis and then they move on. Some women will sort of come back and forth over a long period of time, particularly if they have had the response they were after and the support they needed, then something else comes up in their lives. For a lot of women, the long-term engagement is around our social supports and being around people who know that they have been in the sex industry or that they are in the sex industry and are okay with it. For example, we have a lunch here every week for women who are in the sex industry. A lot of the women who come to that we haven't been actively supporting for some time, we don't even necessarily talk about the sex industry its just that they don't have to constantly watch what they are saying or being judged.

Some of the women that you see have very complex problems and need multiple services for these. How do you deal with that?

Recently, a funding body asked me for a list of services we deal with and I think they wanted the ten most commonly used and I gave them four pages because we have so many. Everyone's needs are so diverse. We are a statewide, and sometimes a national service, and so we need to find the women appropriate services for them in their area. The diverse needs of the women are so massive - we do just about anything! Really, our role is as a kind of bridging the gap between the woman and mainstream services. Often the fear is around stigma and discrimination. So we'll refer her to services that she needs because we can't do everything, we are not a housing service for example, or domestic violence or mental health service. We will often go to a few appointments with a woman and when she feels comfortable we will pull out of that. If there are a lot of services involved, we will often case coordinate and make sure everyone is talking to each other. The majority of our work, apart from connecting women with services, is just about emotional support and counselling.

What are the therapeutic issues that relate specifically to women who have been trafficked?

Again, it is so diverse. And different women experience it differently. One of the biggest issues is trust. They have had their trust betrayed, often by people they knew and then they have been sexually assaulted and raped, numerous times, and people have made money off that. So just working with someone to even be able to trust again is massive. I think with a lot of women it is about being able to feel that not everyone wants something from them, not everything comes at a price.

Project Respect has a strong volunteer component - how do you assist volunteers, who may lack training, to become skilled in responding to stories of sexual violence?

None of our volunteers have roles that require them to directly interact in that sense with women. They will meet women and talk to them in the office, they might pick up the phone but we do training with our volunteers and do a lot of work around an appropriate response, how to contain it and hand it over to a worker who is trained. We do a lot of debriefing with our volunteers because we are a small office, so even if they are not directly involved in something, they are hearing things and what is going on so we do a lot of debriefing and internal supervision of our volunteers as well.

What about staff and vicarious trauma that may be experienced - how does Project Respect deal with this?

We do a practice reflection every fortnight, which basically means the direct service team gets together and just talks about what they've been doing. It's a good chance to debrief and also to have other staff walk them through what they did, particularly if the outcome wasn't favourable. Often it's just an affirmation that you did everything you could. We do internal supervision, for all staff and all the staff access external monthly supervision as well.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about how sexual assault impacts the people you work to support.

It is so normalised, not just for women while they are in the brothel but also because of the stigma and discrimination and the langauge used about women who have been in the sex industry. We've worked with a lot of women who have been sexually assaulted completely out of the industry, but somehow internalise that as being their fault and it being related to them being in the sex industry. I think the frequency of sexual assault within the sex industry and the fact that women are not necessarily recognising it is of deep concern.

Do you think there is any possibility of being able to change that culture? Particularly within legal brothels, are there policy changes that would help?

I honestly don't know how you could make it completely safe. We've got things like safety buzzers in each room but you have to be able to get to the buzzer, have someone respond to the buzzer if it goes off. You're talking about men who may not have that much respect for women, going into a room with a woman - and women often say to us that it is like he thinks he paid for access to my body for an hour, not for a sexual service. It's an attitudinal change, how do you change that? And then change the response afterwards of the people who are running the brothel.

One of our outreach workers suggested that what the licensing test for operating a brothel should be about is the safety of women. For example, what would you do if a woman comes out and says to you that she has been sexually assaulted, what are you required to do, so you know that is something that could be potentially implemented. Or should be. But really, could it ever be eradicated? I don't know. 

Publication details

ACSSA Working With
No. 5
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, June 2013.
Suggested citation:

Wall, L. (2013). Working with sexual assault in the sex industry: Project Respect (ACSSA Working With). Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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