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image|Matt Zulak Sex workers in WA

Sex workers in WA

Our laws are lagging, and people are suffering for it.

Sex workers in WA

Sex work may be the world’s oldest profession, but West Aussie laws surrounding the sex work industry are troublingly behind the times.

According to the West Australian Prostitution Act 2000, brothels and public solicitation are illegal. Prostitution itself is legal but not regulated.

But the Law and Sex worker Health (LASH) Study released by Curtin University suggests this model is harming some of our states most marginalised people.

The 58-page report is peppered with quotes from sex workers, police, health service providers and more. It contains some promising—even heartwarming—anecdotes. But it also tells troubling tales of isolation, abuse and discrimination.

The study concludes that, rather than protecting sex workers, criminalisation of the industry is detrimental to workers’ health, safety and wellbeing.

The official recommendation from researchers? Decriminalise sex work in WA.

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US

A great strength of the LASH study was the collaboration with individuals who actively worked in the sex industry.

Curtin University employed nine sex workers of mixed gender and ethnicity to carry out aspects of the study. By doing so, they gained authentic insights into the lived experiences of individuals in the industry.

In fact, sex workers were involved at all stages of the study, right from the initial planning.

Researchers used just about every avenue available to gather data on the state of the sex industry in WA. They audited venues, analysed data from hospitals and scanned newspapers for adverts. They talked to health service providers, sex industry owners/operators, academics, police, local government and sex workers.

Researchers accumulated data on many factors. They looked at sex worker demographics, the nature of sex work being conducted and the motivation to engage in sex work. Drug use and police interactions were also investigated, as well as sex worker health and wellbeing.

The study was exhaustive and the results complex.

CHANGE IN THE INDUSTRY

What is most apparent in the LASH report is that the sex industry in WA is not what it was.

Reflecting a general downturn in the WA economy, sex workers and brothel owners described a slump in the sex industry.

One sex worker interviewed says, “[T]he worst thing, particularly in WA, is the downturn in the economy because … we rely on there being a high level of demand to work the way we want to work, to work the way we feel safest, to be able to assert our boundaries. And the less demand there is, the more people have to sort of compromise on those things.”

‘Those things’ include having sex without condoms.

Most study participants stated that up to half of all clients requested these ‘natural services’. Some workers with significant experience in the industry reported that requests for sex without condoms were becoming more common.

This places sex workers at risk of contracting sexually transmissible infections. This then places future clients at risk should they not use condoms.

A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Unfortunately, should a sex worker try to find a job in another sector of the economy, they’ll have to overcome significant barriers.

If they choose not to reveal their past in sex work, they’re left with inexplicable gaps on their résumé. If they include sex work in their CV, they’ll likely come up against entrenched stigma and discrimination.

“… one of the horrifying things about a lot of anti-sex worker advocacy is they think if they stigmatise it, it won’t exist. But what they’re doing is trapping people in the industry,” says one sex worker.

 

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Image|Jason Pier in DC
Many believe decriminalising sex work will help reduce stigma against the workers

But if the economy has changed, so has the way in which we can promote business.

Like most other facets of modern life, the LASH report reveals that the sex industry has not been immune to digitisation.

To continue to profit in the industry, many sex workers have moved to digital spaces for self-promotion.

“Everyone can be their own pimp on the internet now,” suggested one participant.

In fact, LASH researchers say this is now the predominant way of promoting services. This comes with certain benefits, such as being able to make a living. But it also has its own set of risks.

PAYING FOR SEX IN THE DIGITAL AGE

Private sex work allows workers to keep a flexible schedule and see clients in the comfort of their own homes. However, it does mean they miss out on any protections afforded by working out of a brothel.

Before mobile phones, a sex worker’s reluctance to establish a landline number in their name was one reason that they would seek employment in a brothel. Another reason was the high costs of advertising their services. At the brothel, they would learn the tricks of the trade and how to keep themselves safe—an “apprenticeship”, as one participant put it.

But now, as one sex worker said, “All you need is a mobile phone number.” While LASH reporters heard tales of digital promotion being profitable and safe for some sex workers, others had concerns.

“[It] has led to a lot of people who don’t have a f***ing clue what they are doing, putting up ads and advertising, and engaging in quite, really dangerous services that never used to get offered.”

If sex workers are concealed in houses and massage parlours, it can be more difficult to spread messages of health promotion.

Some private workers may be more vulnerable to abuse than brothel-based sex workers, especially if they haven’t been able to learn strategies that limit their risks.

But even when the LASH investigators looked at the group of respondents as a whole, the number of assaults reported caused concern.

HIGHS AND LOWS

23% of survey participants reported that they had been assaulted at least once in the last year alone.

Horrifyingly, a number of sex workers said that some clients thought abusing sex workers was justified because they perceived sex work to be illegal.

When it came to taking action against this, 50% of study participants said that they felt uncomfortable reporting crimes against them to police. Some explained that they had already had negative experiences in dealing with police, with one reporting she felt she could not trust them.

Whilst some cited rough or abusive clients as having negative impacts on their wellbeing, others said that it was their marginalisation that had been detrimental to them.

16% of all participants answered surveys in a manner consistent with suffering severe mental distress, and the LASH researchers suggested that this was associated with drug use. Drug use, as with most topics canvassed in the survey, revealed a wide range of experiences, with some sex workers reporting never taking drugs.

40% of survey respondents reported that sex work enhanced their wellbeing. This positive sentiment stemmed from factors such as enhanced body image positivity, the ability to be the main breadwinner in a household or simply being able to enjoy talking and listening to people.

This complex industry clearly constitutes all sorts of interactions and experiences—some of them good, some of them bad. The LASH study suggests that, by decriminalising sex work, we’ll be able to minimise some negative experiences and help sex workers to be healthier, safer and happier.

HUMAN RIGHTS AND WRONGS

WA is not what it was in 2000, when the last sex work legislation was passed.

The economy is vastly different, and almost everyone exists in the digital space. This has led to changes in the sex work industry. So shouldn’t the law reflect these change and evolve as society does?

In NSW, sex work is almost completely decriminalised and has been since 1995. While this occurred partially in response to police corruption, the NSW sex industry model is often cited as an example of best-practice, evidence-based regulation.

It is the only model that supports sex workers’ health and safety and human rights.

Laws against prostitution are often rationalised by saying they protect human rights.

But if the LASH study shows that sex workers would have more rights and better health under a decriminalised model, we have to wonder what is preventing law reform? And who is the law really protecting?

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