Stigma in the Sex Industry

Jane Green is part of Vixen Collective, a sex worker group that is run by sex workers, for sex workers. The group formed in 2005, in response to Victoria not having a sex workers group that was run by sex workers. The aim of the group is to empower sex workers through peer support and advocacy. Part of the groups aim is also to tackle the multiple facets of discrimination and stigmatisation that sex workers may face from society.

Jane Green became a sex worker when she was in her late teens, in order to survive. “I started doing sex work when I was in my late teens and I was looking for something that would help me a. provide, and b. would also pay for university.

“I needed to pay for life. I had been working another job, which was in hospitality and minimum wage. And I couldn’t afford to pay for life basically. And so it wasn’t like I looked around for something glamorous, because I ended up doing street sex work. I picked something that allowed me to live and get along.”

She comes from a religious upbringing and faces discrimination from her family for being queer and a sex worker.

“Neither of those things, being gay or a sex worker, go down terrifically well with my family. So I have family members, that strangely enough, find one ok but not the other, and obviously some find both very unpalatable. So I only have one family member that I have consistent contact with. And I have some family members that tell people I’m literally dead.

“So I think a lot of sex workers experience difficulty around those issues, not just with family but also with coming out, in terms of being open about being a sex worker.”

Green spent a long period of time where she wasn’t open about being a sex worker, “the process you go through not to be outed as a sex worker affects how you conduct yourself, in terms of having a cover story and managing your life in that way.”

And it effects your “interaction with friends and family and partners and other situations, social situations, work”.

De-criminalisation is the first step to breaking down stigma towards sex workers.

In Victoria the only form of legal sex work is to work in a licensed brothel and escort agency. Selling sex on the street or in an unlicensed brothel or private residence is illegal. If caught by the police, sex workers and their clients face fines, among other penalties.

Laws regarding where sex workers can work varies around Australia, with NSW having decriminalised sex work.

Sue White, the general manager for Inner South Community Health Service, works with sex workers through Resourcing Health and Education (RhED), a specialist service for the sex industry, based in St Kilda, Victoria.

“I think making the purchasing of sex, a criminal offence doesn’t really achieve equity and safety. And it’s an ironic system, where it is legal to work here and you step around the corner and it’s illegal. It’s the same job. There’s not a lot of merit in having a dual system,” White said.

RhED and Vixen Collective lobby for the decriminalisation for sex work for many reasons, including increased safety for sex workers and society as a whole. But also because it would reduce stigma for sex workers, with the current laws suggesting that sex workers are a type of ‘other’.

“The criminalisation is what places us as other workers…And it is very much the first initial step and there are many more steps that need to be taken in terms of breaking down stigma entirely. It’s a slow process,” said Green.

You cannot with any degree, feel safe to reach out to police…

Sex workers also face discrimination from police.

Green said, “I think one of the biggest things that come back to access to police and access to justice, is when the police are the people constantly coming and arresting you and monitoring you, they are on the other side. You have that oppositional relationship where they are not the people you reach out to for help if something goes on.

“For example, here in Victoria with street based sex work it is completely criminalised, that’s how street based sex workers function here. And for anyone that’s part of the licencing system it’s the same. You cannot with any degree, feel safe to reach out to police if something goes on in your work because you have that fear that they’re going to arrest you or going to look down on you or they are going to treat you badly.

“And because the whole system itself is not decriminalised, there are a lot of sex workers that are working within the licencing system still feel the same way. And I have certainly felt that, in the licencing system because I work in a brothel now, in Victoria.

“And I still feel lost because it is very hard for police themselves when they are in a role where they are still treating us as if we are a separate, and in a way criminalised, different and special group that are not like the general system, to not carry that stigmatising attitude about sex workers and coordinate their interactions with us.”

I have had officers that have refused to take a report…

Green said, “I think there are individual officers that have been responsive, and I hear that back from some street based sex workers. There are also officers that have been awful.”

“I know myself, when I have taken workers in to report, in Victoria, particularly when you are going in to an individual police station, I have had officers that have refused to take a report. And that’s not just discouraging, people that have that sort of behaviour demonstrated, are very likely to never attempt to make a report again.”

And police officers that refuse to take crimes against sex workers seriously not only impact sex workers safety, but also society as a whole.

Society has a history of not taking crimes against sex workers seriously, as demonstrated by these case studies from Victoria’s County Court: R v Hakopian [1991] and R v Harris (1981).

In R v Harris (1981), a sex worker was raped. However, the judge tried to argue that crimes, in particular sexual crimes, were not as important to a sex worker, then a ‘chaste’ woman:

It seems to me that the crime when committed against prostitutes, at all events in the circumstances of the case, is not as heinous as when committed, say, on a happily married woman living in a flat in the absence of her husband when the miscreant breaks in and commits rape on her.

This type of mentality has created barriers between sex workers and police, meaning that the idea of justice is often unobtainable to sex workers.

And the impact this has on society can be horrific.

Adrian Bayley, who raped and murdered Jill Meagher in 2012, had previously been sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment, with a non-parole period for eight years. This was in relation to the sexual assault of three sex workers.

The average sentence for rape is five to six years per offence, illustrating that he recieved a reduced sentence because the women were sex workers.

This divide between ‘chaste’ women and ‘non-chaste’ women has broken down to ‘chaste’ women being worthy of protection by the law, whereas ‘non-chaste’ women are not. Which also acts as barrier between achieving gender equality.

Green argues that systematic change, where cops respond to reports made by sex workers, can’t come from the police force itself. It needs to come from the law.

“I think we shouldn’t be relying on whether or not individual officers are behaving well towards our community, in terms of encouraging people to report because that just doesn’t work. It is very much like people are playing Russian roulette.”

Poster based off other protest posters in the sex industry

The biggest issue that sex workers talk about, no matter if they are country or metro, is stigma and discrimination…

“The number one issue, no matter what sex worker you are, more so in the country, but certainly in the city as well, is stigma. Because sex work is still a bit taboo. Society is still a bit uncomfortable with it. It’s still illegal in some parts. It’s not often someone in your personal life will tell you that they’re a sex worker,” said White.

The stigma has impacted sex workers in many ways including access to police resources, relationships with family, friends and partners, being denied access to bars and clubs, exclusion from university courses, discrimination in the media and the list goes on.

And this discrimination is impacting societies ability to operate at its best. While this discrimination occurs, in universities, in achieving justice through the law, in relationships, society can never reach its full potential.

White hopes “that in 50 years time we talk about sex work like we talk about dentists, or working at Coles. It’s a job.”

And to do this, we need to hear more from sex workers directly.

Green said, “I think there are a lot of ideas that people have about sex work. About all different types of sex work, that are not necessarily correct. It may or may not be.

“For example around street sex work, that it’s awful, or around high class escort work that you make thousand and thousands of dollars. And neither of those things are necessarily true.

“But I think they are propagated in the media. Because it’s easy to address sex workers by stereotypes. And when the general public has very limited, if any, contact with sex workers the ideas that take hold and remain very set for the public. Because the public hear so very little from sex workers directly.”