Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia

Prevalence, risk and safety
ACSSA Issues No. 8 – March 2008

Sex work in Australia

The number of sex workers in Australia is difficult to determine. Identifying as a sex worker is risky (Banach, 1999): laws that criminalise aspects of sex work mean that workers will not disclose being a sex worker for fear of incriminating themselves and/or making themselves targets of verbal, physical or sexual abuse (Scutt, 1992); the pervasive social stigma associated with sex work - even where it is not criminalised - means that workers are unlikely to be open about working in the sex industry, even with their family and friends. Such 'outing' can have implications for family relationships, custody of their children, relations with police, 'straight' job applications, and credit card or loan applications (Perkins, 1991; Pheterson, 1990, 1996; Banach & Metzenrath, 2000, pp. 11-20). Involvement in sex work tends to be transient and opportunistic: according to the AIDS Council of New South Wales, the average period spent in the sex industry is about two and a half years. Statistical information provided by the Council suggests that in any one year there are approximately 20,000 sex industry workers in Australia. This figure includes those who work in other aspects of the sex industry, and legal and illegal workers. It was estimated that New South Wales has the largest population of sex workers, with about 10,000 workers based in that state (Sex Services Premises Planning Advisory Council (SSPPAC), 2004).

Sex work can be broadly defined as the exchange of sexual services (including oral sex, vaginal and anal sex, sexual touching, masturbation and massage) for payment or reward. However, there is great variation in the forms these exchanges take (see Box 1). Street-based sex work, brothel work, private work, bondage and discipline services, escort work, and tabletop and exotic dancing all create very different experiences of sex work for those involved, and differences in the kinds of associated risks and dangers and the standard of living they provide (Bernstein, 1999; Perkins, Prestage, Sharp & Lovejoy, 1994; Sanders, 2004). There is also significant diversity across the states in their laws and regulations which impact on how sex work is carried out in each of these sectors. Finally, although economic necessity is regarded as the primary motivation for sex working (Perkins, 1991; Pivot Legal Society, 2006; Woodward, Fischer, Najman & Dunne, 2004), there is a diversity of life circumstances shaping this motivation. Many women enter sex work because of child-care responsibilities, or to supplement family income (for example, at the beginning of the school year or Christmas time), or following relationship breakdown and finding themselves a single income earner (Sanders & Campbell, 2007; SSPPAC, 2004). Young people (those under 18) may start sex working as a matter of survival after leaving home or state care (Child Wise, 2004). Increasingly, university students are engaged in sex work as a way of supporting themselves through university (Lantz, 2003). In New South Wales, it is estimated that 16% of sex workers are students (SSPPAC, 2004). Substance use can also be a factor influencing entry into sex work, however the relationship between sex work and drug use is complex (Johnson, 2004; Maher, 2000; Perkins, 1991; Surratt, Inciardi, Kurtz & Kiley, 2004). Research suggests that male sex workers engage in sex work in quite different ways from female sex workers (Boyle et al., 1997). These different circumstances affect the extent to which people identify as a 'sex worker'.

Box 1 - Definitions

Street-based sex work
This economy operates from the street. Typically this means workers being present on particular streets (i.e. those known for their sex work trade). Street-based work is mostly illegal.

Brothel work
Sex workers operate from within a brothel with other workers. The brothel takes a percentage of every booking. Workers are considered sub-contractors or employees (although this isn't always honoured in workplace conditions; Murray, 2001). The types of services offered can depend on the brothel manager. The brothel is expected to provide condoms, lubrication, and dental dams.

Escort agency
Escort agencies arrange for sex workers to provide services at the client's location (hotel/home/office). Sex workers register with an agency and are contacted with the details of the booking. Various mechanisms are used to ensure escort workers' safety, such as contacting the agency when the booking has ended, or using a driver.

Private worker
Private sex work usually refers to those who work only for themselves. Services are generally provided from workers' premises, either a location that complies with business and planning requirements or from their own residence, again complying with business and planning requirements. In some states, private escort work is also an option, which means that workers are independent workers but must still provide outcall services to clients (i.e. at their location).

This is not intended to be an exhaustive or definitive list but to highlight the diversity of sex work sectors and to briefly indicate the nature of the work involved.

Such diversity shows that there is no discrete group of 'sex workers' separate from the rest of the community. At the same time as engaging in sex work, women raise children, attend school or university, or try to maintain independence as a minor without family support. Sex workers are members of the community as residents, colleagues, peers, patients and citizens rather than some 'other' category of people. Yet their experiences of sexual assault in both their work and private lives are often questioned, derided, ignored or silenced. As victim/survivors of sexual assault, they are often disbelieved and seen as undeserving of support or legal justice because they are sex workers. The recent high-profile murders of sex workers in the UK and Canada (Miles, 1998), and the murder of sex workers in Australia (for example, in Queensland five sex workers have been murdered since 2001), show the lethal consequences of this perception. Indeed, sex workers are over-represented among female murder victims (Treleaven, 1995, p. 302). As this paper demonstrates, the idea that sex workers somehow bring sexual violence upon themselves, or should expect it given their occupation, deeply influences social and legal responses to them as victim/survivors of sexual assault.

Sex trafficking is not a specific focus in this paper. 'Trafficking' refers to individuals entering countries (destination countries) by illegally supported means in order to work, often in what would be regarded as exploitative conditions. Such exploitation can range from having to repay 'debts' incurred for migration, to being deceived about the nature of the work. This could mean that a woman thinking she will work as an exotic dancer in a Sydney club instead finds herself in a brothel, or could mean deception about working in the sex industry itself.

As an issue, trafficking is both complex and controversial (see Fergus, 2005). Some have argued that sexual trafficking is sexual assault and that trafficking is "nothing more or less than globalized prostitution" (Leidholdt, 2003, p. 177). Others argue that the language of sexual trafficking can obscure and collapse a range of complex issues involving immigration laws, globalisation, and labour (Murray, 1998; Scarlet Alliance, 2003). It is argued that the exploitation of illegal immigrants (often perceived as arriving from south east Asia) does not just happen in the sex industry but also in the hospitality, textiles and clothing manufacturing sectors (Scarlet Alliance, 2003). Some organisations we spoke with observed that debates about 'sexual servitude' can obscure the issues faced by migrant sex workers, which are not exactly the same issues around trafficking.