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Sex Worker Events

National Forum 2015, Sydney

This year’s Scarlet Alliance National Forum will be held in Sydney, from 10-13 November. Full information including the agenda is available from our dedicated National Forum event page.

Jules Kim, Scarlet Alliance Migration Project Manager, presentation on the ‘21st Century Damned Whores: sex workers, sluts and deviant women’ panel presentation session at the ‘Damned Whores and Gods Police – 40 years on’ conference, UTS, 21st September, 2015

The ‘damned whores’ from the first 50 years of white colonization of Australia that Anne Summers writes about in the landmark ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’, were indeed damned by their circumstances. Then, the ‘damned whore’ stereotype was powerful and pervasive and defied any evidence to the contrary and any attempts at reform. The women were vilified without any recognition of their lack of choice in their circumstances.

Today, we whores are still damned by powerful and pervasive stereotypes. But unlike the whores of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we have the reverse issue, that is, the stereotypes refuse to recognise our ability to have chosen our work. This holds particularly true for sex workers who are Asian women or migrants. For us the idea that we could have possibly made a choice to sex work cannot be conceived. Instead we are seen as forced, tricked, coerced, victims of our circumstances or trafficked sex slaves. Now let me be clear, I am not saying that trafficking or exploitation does not exist. Of course it does. And sex work is an occupation like any other and therefore not immune to good and bad working conditions or good and bad employers. However unlike other professions, people can’t seem to accept that we have chosen our work, especially if we are Asian or migrant women. There is an inherent and pervasive racist and sexist stereotype at play here that makes people willing to accept the stereotype of the tricked, helpless, submissive sex slave.

To put all this into context, I will need to lay out the current situation of trafficking in the sex industry in Australia and the current context for migrant sex workers in Australia. The genesis of the anti-trafficking movement was driven firmly from the US, under George W Bush. But instead of addressing any real issues of labour exploitation, the US policy responses were designed to control borders, restrict mobility and to criminalise sex work. And through their annual trafficking report card, US Trafficking in Persons or TIP Report, the US ensured that this model was exported throughout the world. The TIP report gives countries a rating depending on how the US perceives you are performing in regards to their prescribed responses to anti-trafficking, for example “Tier 1” if the US believes your country fully complies with their minimum standards, “tier 2” if they believe you are not yet fully compliant but making efforts to do so, “tier 2 watch list” if the US believes you could be doing more and “tier 3” if you are deemed non-compliant. For countries who receive a “tier 3” rating, the US will impose sanctions, withdraw their support for financial assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and oppose assistance to that country; essentially a form of political bullying that does not support people experiencing trafficking. Sadly, following on from US political pressure via a poor TIP rating, some countries in the region have introduced the model of criminalisation of sex work, South Korea is one example.

In Australia, there have only been 17 convictions for trafficking to date, 14 of these relate to the sex industry. This is despite widespread compliance and monitoring for trafficking in the sex industry. The Australian government acknowledges that the early days of the response to trafficking was 100% focused on the sex industry, more recently the response has shifted to encompass a broader purview of trafficking beyond the sex industry, but the prosecution figures reflect the early response. The widespread level of trafficking that was assumed in the sex industry didn’t exist. This is despite regular and frequent compliance activities where police and immigration officers would come into people’s workplaces and check identification, check visas and expect that if people needed support that they would feel able to come forward in that situation. Not surprisingly most of the trafficking cases have been identified by different means- through the support of co-workers, clients and through community organisations and NGOs. And those handful of cases have also not fit the stereotype. In each of those cases the women knew they would be sex working in Australia and consented to do so, many had sex worked previously in their home country. No one was tricked or deceived as to the fact they would be sex working in Australia. What they did experience was exploitative work conditions. But when cases involve migration and sex work, they are forced into a trafficking framework instead of being viewed as a labour issue. This refusal to view sex work through a labour lens is detrimental to all.

The reality for the vast majority of migrant sex workers in Australia is that we are not trafficked. I was involved as the coordinator of the largest research project of migrant sex workers in Australia to date, in partnership with the Australian Institute of Criminology. The findings of that research support the outcomes of previous research of migrant sex workers and dispel many of the pervasive stereotypes. Contrary to the myth of the young Asian sex slave, migrant sex workers were found to be an older group, well educated with high level of workplace and income satisfaction and good knowledge of workplace rights. However despite this, and despite the fact that the vast majority of migrant sex workers have chosen our work, we are still being characterised as trafficked sex slaves. Repeated headlines and media exposes reinforces this harmful stereotype. This sex slave stereotype is calculatingly sexist and racist and is used as means of migration and social control. We are damned by it and it is used to drive bad policies that are a knee jerk reaction to misinformation and stereotype and it is used as an excuse to try to criminalise sex work.

There are real issues for sex workers- sex workers have extremely limited visa options; there are different laws in each state and territory, regressive laws still exist such as in Western Australia a sex worker doesn’t have the right to remain silent and can be subject to a cavity search by police for no other reason than because we are sex workers, in Queensland and Victoria sex workers are still subject to entrapment by police and condoms are still being used as evidence against us. We still have no consistent anti-discrimination protections for sex workers in Australia. And even when we have decriminalisation such as in NSW, which is recognised around the world by various bodies such as the UN, the World Health Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and Amnesty International as the best model of sex industry regulation- we still have to fight to keep it, such as we are experiencing right now in NSW. Recently I have been at the NSW inquiry hearings and given evidence to the committee. And time and time again, the stereotype of the trafficked sex slave was again being used to try to justify an attempt to introduce regressive legislation. The graphic details of one case were read out to sensationalise and extrapolate to the whole industry. The details of the case are clearly disturbing, but this is one case, and it is not the norm for the sex industry in NSW. Despite the mountains of evidence that migrant sex workers choose our work and that decriminalisation is the best model for all sex workers, including those who are experiencing labour violations, this is being ignored.

We are indeed damned, but we are damned by the stereotypes not by our work. We are whores and we are proud to be whores.

NOTE: Sex worker is the self determined and preferred terminology used by sex workers. In this instance we use whore, which we do at times within our own community, but please note it is not acceptable for others to use the term in referring to sex workers.

Sex workers protesting on the steps of Parliament House, Perth, Western Australia

Scarlet Alliance pay our respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island elders and custodians of this land, current, past and future.

This page was updated 23 September 2015