As a widespread national decriminalisation campaign continues to secure new rights and protections for sex workers around the country, many of them continue to face unrelenting stigmatisation and discrimination. In Queensland, it’s rampant.
There, sex workers have been found to be operating in the face of an “excessively high” rate of unreported discrimination as a result of “archaic” anti-discrimination laws that exclude them from protection.
In the largest survey of Queensland’s sex workers to date, 72.5 percent of them said they had at some point experienced discrimination. As many as 91 percent of sex workers said they did not report the discrimination they experienced and a further 14.2 percent had likely experienced it so often they weren’t sure whether their experiences would even count as discrimination.
“I avoid discrimination as much as possible by anticipating it and concealing my work,” one sex worker told the survey. “That comes at a cost to me. I avoid disclosing it even where it would be an appropriate disclosure, because of the fear of discrimination, and the lack of redress I have if it occurs.”
Discrimination against sex workers isn’t limited to states, like Queensland, where parts of the work are criminalised – it’s something experienced by workers across the country.
In New South Wales, where sex work is decriminalised, one worker told VICE she routinely cycles through psychologists as a result of reaching a point where disclosing her job, and the discrimination that follows, “becomes unavoidable”.
“Once they find out, they think I’m all fucked up because I can’t come to terms with my job, so I just have to find a new one who will listen,” she said. “I’m used to it now, but it still sucks, and it’s exhausting because you have to spend a bunch of sessions playing ‘Get to know you’, which ends up being expensive also.”
“It would almost be better to just say nothing, but I always think ‘This one might be different’.”
The survey, conducted by sex work advocacy groups Respect Inc and Decrim Queensland, forms part of a submission to the Human Rights Commission to rework the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act. The independent Law Reform Commission is currently preparing to undertake a review and draft legislation to decriminalise the sex work industry.
According to the survey’s results, discrimination levelled at sex workers from healthcare workers, like doctors and nurses and even mental health professionals, is rampant in Queensland.
Hundreds of sex workers described their treatment in healthcare settings as “moralistic”, where practitioners would refuse further appointments. These situations were also described as “paternalistic”, attracting unwarranted advice from practitioners about how their profession might impact their “mental health” or their physical safety.
Other practitioners were reported by sex workers to simply lean on outmoded, inaccurate and stereotypical ideas about sex workers being “vectors of disease”.
“I have had to go to 11 different doctors in the space of 12 months to find a doctor that would treat me as a patient and be respectful of my work and actually care about my health,” one sex worker told the survey.
“I have had doctors deny my healthcare or assume any complaint I had was due to STIs despite never having tested positive for any STI over 10 years of sex work,” said another.
While sex workers are discriminated against across a legion of other sectors and services, healthcare workers are often reported to be the most hostile and difficult to reckon with. The reports are only bolstered by admissions from workers within the health system themselves.
In 2015, research by the Centre for Social Research in Health found that as many as 31 percent of health workers self-reported they would behave “negatively” toward sex workers because of their jobs.
The same dataset showed that number almost doubled among members of the general public, of whom 64 percent self-reported they would behave negatively toward sex workers because of their sex work.
Jules Kim, CEO of Australia’s sex work peak body Scarlet Alliance, told VICE it’s likely that most of these people don’t realise that they’re being discriminatory.
“So this is people admitting that they would treat somebody negatively because they’re a sex worker, which is very distrssing – the rates are so high,” Kim said.
“What we are advocating for is to get “sex work” and “sex worker” added as protective attributes in the Anti-Discrimination Act, to ensure that sex workers have a mechanism for redress when we experience stigma and discrimination,” she said.
The survey’s authors at Respect Inc have made similar calls. They want the state government to build a complaints infrastructure that would allow sex workers to report discrimination anonymously, and allow sex worker organisations to lodge complaints on behalf of their workers.
Like Kim, they want the government to introduce reforms that would make “sex work” and “sex workers” protected attributes within the Anti-Discrimination Act. And when the Queensland Law Reform Commission delivers its draft legislation in November, Kim and the team at Respect Inc are hopeful they’ll get them.
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