The Underground Australian Sex Workers Refusing to Register with the Government

Sex workers in Victoria can only practice lawfully in brothels, or as escorts. The result is a growing underclass of sex workers who feel they have no choice but to operate in secret, risking their safety.

by Raili Simojoki
Jan 19 2017, 3:20am

Illustrations by Ben Thomson

Twenty-eight-year-old Rhani tried brothels, but the owners expected her to work ten-hour shifts with no break. They also pressured workers into unsafe sex, and paid poorly.

"They control workers by not giving them shifts," explains the sex worker from Melbourne, Australia. "And if you complain about being asked for natural sex [without a condom], you won't get another shift."

Rhani has spent most of her career avoiding brothels, aside from a stint during university. Instead she's tried street work, and working from hotels or her home. This means she is practicing outside the law: In the Australian state of Victoria, all of these types of sex work are illegal.

In brothels, you don't make much money. They take half of it. That's just not okay.

"Brothels are like cattle calls," Rhani says, reflecting on the brief stints during university that she tried them. "You have to wear lingerie, and some ask you to wear stilettos too. There are six girls on, and we all have to do an introduction. You're in your underwear... most guys just want to cop a feel and leave, and some boys just come in for a perve."

There is also no payment unless you get a booking. "You don't get paid to wait until clients turn up. Just for the jobs."

These days, Rhani works privately—mainly from hotel rooms. She says it affords her a greater sense of control over her safety. "They come to me," she says. "I know who's in the hotel, I know where everything is. I do a screening process before I get them to come up. I'd say no if they were too drunk or demanding on the phone."

Read more: Stigma Puts Sex Workers at Higher Risk of HIV

It's also more profitable. "In brothels, you don't make much money. They take half of it. You can do a client that only earns [you] $50. That's just not okay, as far as I'm concerned."

But the law also forbids her from operating out of a hotel—or her own home. Instead, it limits sex work to the client's premises (escort work), or a licensed brothel. Many sex workers, however, consider escort work unsafe. And setting up their own, licensed brothel is prohibitively expensive.

This has led to a growing and self-described "non-compliant" sector, made up of sex workers operating covertly. They do this at hundreds of massage parlours, karaoke bars, nail salons and hairdressers all over the state—something the police have now been charged with cracking down on.

The state of Victoria was the first in Australia to move from total criminalisation to "licensing" in the 1980s. This brought some new protective measures for sex workers, like the right to refuse unsafe clients and guaranteed access to condoms, but it also alienated street workers. In addition, mandatory STI testing was introduced—reflecting an ongoing squeamishness around sex work as legitimate employment.

As the sex workers association Scarlet Alliance puts it: "Licensing creates a two-tiered sex industry ... [plus] reduced options for sex workers and reduced control over working environments and safety."

For Evie, an unlicensed 41-year-old sex worker who suffers from a chronic illness, operating from hotels provides her with the flexibility she needs to support her recovery. She is concerned about the privacy implications of registering as a licensed sex worker, and the mandatory three-monthly STI testing.

"I would have to provide photo ID and my full name," she says. "Then there's mandated medical testing every three months because I'm not regarded as responsible enough to look after my sexual health situation. That's how you treat a dog, and I'm not a dog."

Jane Green, a sex worker and spokesperson for Victorian sex advocacy group Vixen Collective, says because sex workers face so much discrimination, protecting their anonymity is often front of mind. But mandatory STI testing—part of the licensing regulations—means many workers have to "out" themselves to doctors to get the required medical certificate.

"Discrimination is common in medical settings," says Green. "Workers have faced inappropriate questions, refusal of treatment, and exclusion from premises."

While workers such as Evie and Rhani may feel safer doing non-compliant work, Victoria Police are concerned about the risks faced by unlicensed workers. "There are physical and sexual assaults coming out of illegal premises that go unreported, along with health risks and exploitation of vulnerable people," says Sergeant Richard Farrelly from Victoria Police's Sex Industry Coordination Unit.

He says this can include human trafficking, financial control and coercion, STIs, and poor sanitary and working conditions.

Jane Green says there is no evidence of a higher level of exploitation in non-compliant industries. "When you talk about exploitation of vulnerable people, it tends to infantilize us," she says. "In terms of health risks, the STI rates are the same across the whole of Australia. Sex workers take care of our health, because it's in our interest to do so. It's part of our work."

Licensing pushes us further away from police and further away from outreach services.

She points to research showing that STIs among Australian sex workers are as low, or lower, than the general population. "The risk of exploitation of workers is present in every industry, but we should eliminate that exploitation by giving sex workers more rights, not less," says Green. "Licensing pushes us further away from police and further away from outreach services."

Licensing, she says, encourages discrimination against sex workers, making it more difficult for them to enforce their rights and access support. "As a victim of sexual assault, I can say I've never reported it to the police because of their attitudes. Particularly where you have criminalization or licensing, police already view us in a very different light. And when police relate to you differently, you don't get treated very well."

Working non-compliantly also distances workers from legal, medical and social support services. "The only problem I have in working outside the system is that if something goes wrong I can't go to the police and say I got raped or robbed or something like that," says Rhani.

"How [can] I go to the police when they're the prosecutors in this?"

On the other side of the debate is Project Respect, an organization that offers support services to sex workers but is not run by sex workers. Project Respect advocates for the Swedish model, which criminalises sex work against clients, rather than workers. Spokesperson Rachel Reilly says that these Swedish laws have reduced demand for sexual services and human trafficking, while maintaining protection for workers. "By allowing men to continue to purchase women's bodies, we will never foster a society where we're treated with respect," she explains, adding that many (though not all) of the women the organization supports were forced into the industry because sexual assault and family violence.

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Jane Green vehemently disagrees: "How do the police find clients? They do it by surveilling and following sex workers around, which impacts heavily on our lives." She says Swedish sex workers are forbidden from advertising and are at risk of homelessness, because anyone living with a sex worker can be charged with pimping.

To assume sex workers are victims of oppression is patronizing because it fails to recognise their ability to make an informed choice, Green adds. "It's quite an anti-feminist argument. It's just so frustrating to have people who aren't part of our community speaking about us. When you criminalise our work, our human rights are diminished, and we are made less safe."

Sex worker-run organisations are instead calling for decriminalization of all sex work, a model that already exists in neighbouring state New South Wales, and in New Zealand. "The best way to understand decriminalisation is the removal of all criminal laws that apply to sex work," says Green. "It doesn't mean we're not regulated, it means we're regulated the same way other businesses are," says Green.

She points to a New Zealand government study undertaken after decriminalisation, in which workers reported that they were aware of increased health and safety rights, that police attitudes towards them had improved, and that they were more willing to report bad incidents to the police.

"If the licensing system were to vanish overnight, I'd be doing sex work all the time," says Rhani. "At the moment, it's all a sneaky act. But I feel empowered, because I can do what I want, when I want. And I can't do that within the licensing system. It's frustrating."

*The names of non-compliant workers have been changed.