Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia

Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia

Prevalence, risk and safety

Antonia Quadara

ACSSA Issues No. 8 — March 2008
Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia

Men often think that just because you work in the industry that you'll do anything ... because that's what we do ... we do anything ... at any time ... we have no morals or boundaries ... we're on men's beck-and-call all the time ... even when we're not working [pausing]. Why don't they get it, do you think? (Steph in Lantz 2003, p. 298)

This paper provides a review of contemporary research on the sexual assault of sex workers in Australia. It focuses predominantly on the safety of sex workers in their work contexts. It aims to understand both what increases their vulnerability to sexual assault and what maximises their ability to negotiate safe encounters, disclose sexual assault and access support services. Although there is extensive literature on prostitution, there is little research on sex workers' experiences of sexual assault, especially in work contexts (Alexander, 1998; Farley & Kelly, 2000; Pyett & Warr, 1999), and it is only recently beginning to be addressed (Penfold, Hunter, Campbell & Barham, 2004; Sanders & Campbell, 2007). This may be partly due to the perception that violence perpetrated against sex workers is an "inevitable consequence of engaging in the sex trade" (Pivot Legal Society, 2004, p. 14), rather than, as sex workers themselves have said, partly a consequence of identifiable factors such as location, or the laws regulating sex work (see Pivot Legal Society, 2004; 2006). As sex worker organisation Resourcing Health and Education (RhED) stated, sexual assault is not "just a job that goes wrong" (RhED, 2002):

Sexual assault is a crime:

  • whether any semen is ejaculated or not;
  • even if you've had sex with the person some other time;
  • even if you've agreed to another type of sexual service (for example, you may have agreed to vaginal penetration but this doesn't mean you agreed to anal penetration);
  • whether you're female, male or transgender; and
  • whether you're a sex worker, community worker or construction worker (2002, para. 03).

The aims of the paper are:

  • to describe the extent and nature of sexual assault against sex workers in Australia;
  • to identify the conditions that make sex workers vulnerable to sexual assault;
  • to identify the barriers to disclosure and accessing support services faced by sex workers; and
  • to identify strategies that may help to prevent sexual assault against sex workers.

Consultation with sex work organisations in Australia was undertaken to see how recent research 'fits' with the knowledge and expertise these organisations have. These consultations have been acknowledged where appropriate. This discussion is predominantly concerned with female sex workers. To work legally in the sex industry, individuals must be over the age of 18. However, ACSSA's concern is with the sexual assault of people over the age of 15. For this reason, ACSSA has taken underage workers into account. In light of the available literature, recommendations for future research directions will also be suggested. These recommendations include:

  • the prioritisation of sex worker safety in sex industry policy;
  • greater inclusion of sex workers' knowledge and experience in setting these safety agendas, and;
  • a shift in the kind of research that is carried out on sex work in Australia.

The introductory section provides some background on sex work in Australia.

Authors and Acknowledgements

Dr Antonia Quadara is a Senior Research Officer with the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.


ACSSA would like to thank the organisations and individuals who provided invaluable insight and expertise on the key issues for sex workers about sexual assault.

Publication details

ACSSA Issues
No. 8
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, March 2008.
40 pp.
ISSN: 
1833-7864
ISBN: 
978-0-642-39565-8
Suggested citation:

Quadara, A. (2008). Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia: Prevalence, risk and safety (ACSSA Issues No. 8). Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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