Working by Shadow: Mythbusting and Reform In The Australasian Sex Industry
Earlier this year, I witnessed the ugly side of criminalised prostitution.
This wasn't some hackneyed narrative of crack babies and helpless, lonely and abused waifs; nor was it the down-on-her-luck hooker with a heart of gold. This was a much more insidious and commonplace ugliness. Watching television in an Oregon hotel, I saw a local news story reporting on the arrest of two women for soliciting. One woman had approached an undercover police officer, while the other stood as the lookout. The news report not only named both women, but also displayed their pictures. I was shocked at the treatment - that it was considered content for 6pm television news in a state nearly the size of New Zealand, that it was run-of-the-mill in a place we tend to think of in adorably hip and progressive pop culture shorthand.
In saying this, I hadn't given much thought to sex work in NZ - other than a vague awareness of its decriminalised status, a sort of soft-liberal point of pride for someone who hadn't lived there for a few years. But the contrast between decriminalised and criminal sex work was vividly demonstrated for me in the USA, where the war on drugs spills over into other areas of so-called 'vice', even in progressive states. The exchange of money for sex is still prohibited and legislated against in many parts of the developed world, but prohibition causes harm. In sex work, it criminalizes, shames and puts people in harm's way unnecessarily.
In New Zealand, decriminalisation doesn't mean freedom from stigma or prejudice, as this example of misdirected NIMBYing demonstrates. And in Australia, the majority of states still treat sex work as illegal. I spoke with Melbourne worker Estelle Lucas about working in the sex industry in Australia and internationally, as well as sex in general, the internet, and media.
Tell me a little about yourself.
My name is Estelle Lucas, I am a sex worker that works as a private escort in Melbourne. I've been working in the sex industry since I was about eighteen. I'm twenty-two now and I've only worked as a private escort during those four years. Although, I had worked with an agency when I went to Europe for travelling. My work has me traveling to all states of Australia. In my personal life I have a bachelor's degree and I'm currently doing a diploma. I'm an adamant fan of video games, drinking tea, reading literature and writing and I spend a lot of my time keeping up to date with the sex industry, the research and advocacy.
I want to assert that this is my first-person perspective of sex work, only one view of the industry. I get irritated when I read about sex work and there are no indication as to which specific part of the industry the research or the article relates to. The failure to distinguish the different dimensions is what causes people to make gross generalisations about the work. Everyone gets lumped into one category which is careless, lazy and can misinform people - which in turn hurts us as a whole. There are so many forms of sex work and they are often very different. I probably couldn't work in a brothel – just because I'm a sex worker doesn't mean I can do any sex work and it doesn’t mean I have the same working conditions.
Did you have any assistance when you were first starting out?
Most girls don’t have any assistance when they start out. Some have girlfriends that introduce or help them, but usually it’s the responsibility of the girl to figure it all out. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, I just said: “Yep, I'm going into the sex industry. I don't know anyone in the sex industry, but I'm just going to go ahead and jump in.” So I looked up brothels and I didn’t like the pricing and I was disappointed by my options. I then started looking up all aspects of the industry in my own time, mainly through the internet. I read about private escorting and that sounded like the pay I was looking for. All I had to do is come up with a business plan, and start out.
When I introduced myself into the industry, everyone thought I was an idiot. There are certain rules and expectations that I was unaware of. Because I had no-one to tell me what to expect or how much you're supposed to charge for particular services, I started off on the wrong foot. I now know I started out very high end, even though I had no real experience to back me up, which is frowned upon because most of the time, girls work their way up the ladder. There is a market expectation and people don't appreciate any challenge to that market.
Also because it's an undocumented market – it's illegal to list services and price, correct?
That's only under Victorian law. Each state has its own set of state laws that regulate, criminalize or decriminalize the sex industry. In Victoria we have the Sex Workers Control Act 1991. That helps regulate our industry, and as most sex workers would argue, not in a positive way. In WA and SA it's completely illegal, but it's tolerated, and then in NSW it’s completely decriminalized. Recently, a bill has been put forward to introduce the decriminalisation framework in SA, to help support and protect the workers there. A lot of people don’t understand that ‘decriminalised’ is different from ‘legalised’. Decriminalising makes the job like any other job. For example, they don't have a Bakers Act - and in a decriminalised model, you don’t have a Sex Workers Act. This framework is the best strategy to tackle the inadequacies of the industry.
Private escorts in Victoria are required to register with the Business Licensing Authority in order to operate. What was dealing with the BLA like?
You register with the BLA to get your SWA number which is needed for advertisements. To register as a sex worker in Victoria, you need to send in an application that has your real name, your address and a whole lot of private information. It also has your working name, how you plan on administering your website; general things so they can track your working identity. You have to send it off and trust that they're not going to use that information against you.
You'll find that some brothel girls want to do private work, but they're too scared. They’re scared if they get a SWA number and they register with the BLA, then it will come back to bite them. They think that they won’t be able to travel, that they won’t be able to get a job again or it’ll somehow be used against them. The truth of the matter is, the BLA can't use that information against you, unless you’re aiming for a big government role like a politician or a federal agent.
So a lot of girls are paranoid about the SWA number, and they won’t actually try to increase their business, in the private realm – they'll stay in the brothel realm, because it's a bit discouraging. What that means is the registration process is discouraging for workers to take the initiative to create a business, learn key skills in starting and managing a business and also receiving all their earnings.
Would you have started working without also studying at the same time?
My first priority at that time of my life was education, before money or work. Money was just not a life priority for me. But if it was, if I just wanted to work, there's nothing wrong with that either. A lot of people just want to work. One of the problems with sex work though is that you are sort of expected to have two things going on at once. So all the time I'll get people going “Oh, but what else do you do?” Well, what if I just do this? Does that mean something, does that upset you?
Is that from people outside the sex industry?
That's from clients, that's from other sex workers, that's from anyone who identifies me as a sex worker. Anyone that knows me as a sex worker will say “What else do you do?”. Like it's not okay to just do sex work, like that's a bit weird – that's a bit desperate, maybe.
What does the Victorian industry look like?
What the law does is make a small section of the industry legal, and a bigger section of the industry illegal. So you can have a brothel there that's licensed. Or a brothel that's not licensed. But they're still brothels. So in Victoria, we've got our private workers, we've got our brothel workers, we've got our street workers – we've got people in massage parlours and stuff. There are a lot of forms that sex work can take. The imposition of law usually makes it harder for you to work and therefore more dangerous. The Victorian scene is an example of how making something illegal doesn’t stamp out anything.
In what ways does the law make sex work more dangerous?
For example, in NSW sex work is decriminalised. So a girl can work on the street and if she gets harassed or raped or beaten, she can go to the police. They will write the report and hopefully get on with their jobs and try and catch this guy. Whereas in Melbourne, if someone assaults a girl working on the street, she might not go to the police because she's more afraid of them asking her why she was working on the street than the fact that someone raped her or beat her.
Making things illegal discourages people from seeking help and support. What's more, that person who did those awful things is still on the street; that person is capable of doing that again. That person is still out there and that person will probably commit those horrific crimes again, and it will probably be another sex worker. Because no-one is protecting them. It can go so extreme that if it was completely illegal, some sex workers wouldnt even carry condoms with them, because that could be used against them.
In Melbourne recently, there was a man who raped and killed a young woman who worked as an administrator for ABC Radio. The man had previously raped 5 sex workers on the streets of Melbourne – you need to consider that if the community had taken rape against sex workers as seriously as that of a ‘chaste’ woman, then that man would’ve been locked up and not been to inflict so much more damage later on.
There was some news recently about NYPD officers frisking women a block from the free clinic – if they had condoms they were arrested for soliciting.
They're tackling it as a moral issue and not a labour issue and I think that's the fundamental problem. There's no other working industry where the police regulate the industry, it’s only really sex work. I would rather be able to ring someone like WorkSafe, than have the police on my back. There’s a lot of stress because of police regulation and also just general paranoia. That paranoia, and stigma and discrimination is really stressful, you have to live with yourself – you live in fear, not just from the bad guys, but also from the 'good guys'. We are socially isolated because people push us away.
Do you think unlicensed sex workers are aware of the penalties?
Not really. I guess they assume they'll get a huge fine that they can't afford – and that's exactly why they're working in the sex industry, at times. Or they'll go to jail! Or get a criminal record, and that will limit their employment in the future if they choose to leave the industry.
Have you ever been in any situation where you were at risk or you felt uncomfortable?
I am generally quite a confident worker and I’m not afraid of taking charge and changing the mood of things. I have taken charge in one instance where I thought another worker might be at risk. But I've never felt like I was going to be raped or hurt or punched or anything like that, never. Nothing like that.
I think, at the end of the day, the riskiest thing is to your mentality, your understanding of yourself, because of the stigma. I think that's the most harmful thing for girls. In terms of violence, someone could come in with a gun and rape you or whatever, but that could happen at a bank. That could happen on the street, that could happen anywhere, really. It could happen in your own home, by your own husband or something. STDs are a risk, but you have protection so you're pretty much in the clear. Risk to your personal life, usually. And also risks to the relationships you have with people.
You use a pseudonym to protect your identity – can you explain why this is?
Once again, stigma is the most harmful thing. And if you reveal your identity, your personal identity as a sex worker, people will hurt you. People will judge you. People will discriminate against you. And that's another big thing – discrimination. It's very harmful.
Can you describe any unfair discrimination you know of or have experienced?
In Queensland there was a situation in which a lady got kicked out of a motel. Management said “You're doing sex work, we don’t want that here. Get out”. Which basically meant she couldn’t work. And who knows, she might have had children at home and she can’t work from home. So where else is she going to work, the streets? Or would you rather a nice motel. Where she's safe and she has four walls. And she can open the door and lock the door and have a proper bathroom facility. That also protects her children, or housemates at home, or even her location. I’ve heard of an instance where a sex worker’s home was robbed because she was working from home (legally). A lot of people don’t like doing it at home either, because they don't like the idea of those two lives crossing over. Mentally, it blurs the work-life distinction that everyone has. Also, the last thing you want is a client, drunk off his face, thinking he can get laid if he just knocks on your door at 3am.
So that worker was kicked out of that motel and she took them to court and she won. The motel appealed, so it's in court again, but the really dickish thing that happened is that the Queensland government decided they're actually going to change the law, and make it okay to discriminate. That doesn't affect the case because the incident happened before that law was enacted, but now it is a valid law and people can kick you out if they think you're doing sex work.
For example, if I use 'Estelle Lucas' for a booking and they google my name – they’ll see I didn't use a pseudonym for my sex work, and they don’t want someone like me there. So it's usually just to protect the girls, protect themselves. Also in some extreme cases a girl might get a stalker. She'll want to rebadge herself in a new identity so that person can no longer contact her. Stalking is usually by mobile or phone. If a person knows your full name, if you give it to them, that can be really harmful. They could use that to blackmail you. They might, say report you to your landlord or something. You could get kicked out of your home. In some cases husbands might use that against women when they go to court to get custody of children. I've had friends go to clinics before and doctors haven't serviced them because they do sex work.
A GP at a public clinic has refused to see sex workers?
Yes, and legally they're allowed to do that. They will just say “I am not comfortable with you because I have a moral issue with you, but I can recommend you to this doctor or this clinic or this hospital”. They have to do that; they can’t just refuse service and not redirect you somewhere else.
If you are being personally harassed or stalked, can you simply report it to the police?
The problem with pressing charges is that you are required to give your real name for the court records. If a worker wants to press charges against a stalker, he might say “That Estelle Lucas, that's her taking me to court, and look this is what her real name is. Why don't you all look up her address, or find out where else she's working”. So most of the time the police can't do anyting unless you use your real name, which many worker's can't afford to do. I should note that a lot of my examples (like this one) relate to private work, which can differ greatly to other aspects of sex work.
Do you think changes in the law would change social attitudes towards sex work?
Definitely. Because I have introduced myself to people and I've said “I'm a sex worker” and they've sort of given me a look and I go “No it’s perfectly legal here. It’s perfectly normal. It’s fine”. For example I was hanging out with this an American band and American law is completely unprogressive – when I said I was an escort they sort of gave me this weird look and I'm like “I know in your country that’s really... bad, but over here it’s quite normal. A lot of people do it – a lot of smart educated people do it, anyone can do it, basically”
What changes need to be made to the law?
Most sex workers currently operating usually call for a decriminalized legal framework. That will mean that instead of police policing us, threatening us, coercing us – all this sort of stuff that comes with police – we will actually have compliance officers, and WorkSafe looking after us, and we can get superannuation – we can pay our taxes and so things go through the proper channels. That legal framework has a more realistic approach to make it a nice job that anyone can do and to keep everyone safe, and if they’re not safe, to help them out.
And we don’t want mandatory testing either, because that law is a burden on the public health care system and also redundant. A lot of people who aren’t sex workers can't get serviced because there are so many sex workers utilising the public service. And also sex workers are quite vigilant, within themselves, because they can’t afford getting sick because then they can’t work. So they are quite attentive of their health on their own accord – they don’t need a law to be designed for them. To be honest, sex workers, we know our STDs. We know how you contract them, we know what they look like and what they smell like; we're pretty on the ball like that. People in the public space, ‘normal’ people, generally, they are the ones who dont know much about sexual health, preventative measures, risk assessment. In a recent study on the HIV rate in Australia, the percentage of sex workers who contracted HIV in their work was less than the general population.
What are the conditions for mandatory testing?
In Victoria, you had to do a blood test every three months and swabs every month but they've recently changed it to three months for the swabs as well. Personally, that's probably how often I do it, if not a bit longer if I know I’ve consistently been protected or not working much. But you know, if you're having sex with someone and the condom breaks, we'll go to the sexual health clinic the day after. Also, the problem with sexual health is a lot of the diseases have an incubation period. So you actually go there and get all the tests done, and they'll say you're clean, but you're not. It's just hibernating in you. So it's not necessarily effective, either.
Has the internet changed anything about how you do your work or conduct yourself?
I started with the internet. But I've heard from a lot of girls that the private scene has gone through the roof with the number of girls. Back in the day it was really shunned, - cloak and dagger, under dark kind of thing. And now because of the internet anyone can look up us girls and research us – or research getting into the industry themselves.
Do you think the sheer amount of sex online may change attitudes about sex work?
I think there is an idea that overexposure to sex means you will be desensitised to it, that somehow you’re going to devalue sex and that could lead to dangerous or violent sex. I don’t really believe that. I believe it can incite a desire to be experimental, but that doesn’t mean you’re interested in hurting your sexual partner. Violence within sex has nothing to do with how you learn to have sex, that has to do with you as a person. Hurting someone has to do with your morals.
I just think that if sex wasn't so hush-hush and a bit more open, people would have a better idea of what’s normal. People will learn and understand that there are different intensity levels with sex, that relates with comfort levels, and you have no right to push your sexual partner past an intensity level they’re not comfortable with. Talking about sex teaches people what’s what, what they can do, what they might not be able to do and how it feels for their sexual partner. If you repress your sexual desires within yourself it will sort of manifest and it will become really ugly and if you dont express it, it might become even worse.
Sex isn’t something to be feared. It’s not the enemy. Sex isn’t this fantastical thing that controls people. You can control sex. You can control your sexuality, and you can influence other people's sexuality. And that's done by one-on-one interpersonal relationships with people, that's not done by the media or by porn. Sex is best when practiced, to learn about your sexuality and explore youre partner’s sexuality. We give ourselves so much agency, but then we don’t use that agency. It’s a subject that can be talked about, to understand it better, especially with the younger generation.
How do you see the portrayal of sex workers in mainstream media, film and television?
I hate it! They make us sound like every child we have is going be a serial killer/rapist because all they saw is their mum getting banged all the time. Or, the sex workers have no friends or family, and if you kill them no-one's going to look for them.That’s so not true. I've had situations where my booking has gone over by an hour and I've looked at my phone and my friend has called me three times going “Are you okay? are you okay?” And we're not such lost souls, we're not such victims – and I think that is what the media makes us seem like.
For more information on rights, law reform, and developments in Australia, the Scarlet Alliance Australian Sex Workers Association lives here.