Why women in the sex industry are feeling 'left out' of conversations on sexual violence

Many sex workers and advocacy groups are pushing for improved access to basic safety rights for women at work through decriminalisation. But others have competing views, claiming the industry is rife with exploitation.

Transgender sex worker Cansel looks outside the window, in her apartment in the Besiktas district of Istanbul, Turkey, 23 February 2021.

Transgender sex worker Cansel looks outside the window, in her apartment in the Besiktas district of Istanbul, Turkey, 23 February 2021. Source: EPA

Amid a national conversation on confronting a culture of sexism and gendered violence in Australia, one group of women say they're being left out: those in the sex industry. 

Allegations of sexual assault, harassment and inappropriate behaviour continued to be leaked out of state and federal parliament this week. 

One allegation has been levelled against Mr Johnsen has taken leave and says he is innocent but would fully cooperate with police.

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A separate media report claimed sex workers have been brought into Parliament House to visit MPs. 



Gala Vanting, a sex worker and national project manager at Scarlet Alliance, Australia's peak organisation for sex workers, said some media has attempted to use sex workers as a "distraction" from these serious allegations.  

"I think that is a common trope. The media often uses sex workers as a distraction from a pressing issue, and we are often used as a pawn," she told SBS News. 

"In broad conversations about sexual assault, consent and safety at work, I think sex workers can often be left out of those conversations - particularly by some feminists." 

Ms Vanting said a meaningful conversation must include all women, including trans women, non-white women and sex workers. 

"That's not really where we are at a national level right now," she said. 

Janelle Fawkes, a spokesperson for sex worker organisation Respect Inc Queensland, agrees sex workers are being left out in the mainstream. 

Tegan Larin, a spokesperson for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) - which calls itself a secular and feminist organisation that "works to end all forms of sexual exploitation of women" - said the sex industry is being left out entirely, but for different reasons. 

"We are silent on the sex industry at the national level. It's put in the 'too hard' basket and we don't want to confront what is actually happening there," she told SBS News. 



The sex industry has long faced questions around terminology and competing feminist views: whether or not it is a choice to engage in 'sex work' or 'prostitution', and by extension be supported, not vilified, in law. 

This prompted the executive director of the United Nations agency for women to declare its neutrality on the issue several years ago. 

“We are aware of the different positions and concerns on the issue of prostitution/sex work and are attentive to the important views of all concerned,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka  in a letter in October, 2019. 

"UN Women has taken a neutral position on this issue. Thus, UN Women does not take a position for or against the decriminalisation/legalisation of prostitution/sex work." 

Currently in Australia, there is an increasing push to decriminalise - or remove civil and criminal penalties from - sex work. But groups like CATWA, which refer to prostitution, are pushing back. 

What's happening in Australia?

Australia has three approaches to sex work - legalisation, criminalisation and decriminalisation - that are implemented differently across jurisdictions. 

Aspects of sex work have been legalised in Victoria, the ACT and Queensland under licensing schemes, while South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania have full or partial criminalisation. 

NSW decriminalised sex work in 1995, and the Northern Territory followed suit in 2019. 

The Victorian government announced a "targeted" review into decriminalisation of sex work in the state in November 2019, led by MP and Reason Party Leader Fiona Patten. 

Ms Patten told SBS News her final report has been handed to the Minister for Consumer Affairs, and a response from the state government is expected soon. 

'For us, it's about access'

Scarlet Alliance is among those organisations advocating for full decriminalisation of sex work. Ms Vanting said this comes down to removing barriers from sex workers seeking justice. 

"For us, this is really about access," she said.

"For sex workers, conversations around sexual assault are around whether or not we have access to justice when we experience those things - whether we experience them at work or in our personal lives."



Ms Vanting said sex workers are often not taken seriously when they report sexual assault, and come up against stigma, discrimination and "a conception that, by virtue of their profession, they should be handled in a different way when it comes to accessing justice".

Barriers to reporting are only magnified if they are a person of colour, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person or a migrant, she said. 

"We want sex workers to be seen as having a viable claim when it comes to being assaulted at work," she said.

"We have a really long way to go on that in Australia - there are some places where sex workers can't report that kind of violence because their work is completely criminalised." 

Laws criminalise sex workers' 'basic safety'

Ms Fawkes is also pushing for full decriminalisation of sex work in Queensland, saying current laws are not workable and criminalise basic safety strategies. 

Under Queensland's laws, sex is legally sold in about 30 licensed brothels across the state. Workers are criminalised for working in all other sex industry businesses, working in pairs or from the same premise as another. 

Under section 22A of the Criminal Code, it is illegal for a sex worker to let another sex worker know where they are on a booking or to hire a receptionist to screen their calls. 

"If I as a sex worker was to drive another sex worker to an outcall booking, we could both be charged," Ms Fawkes told SBS News. 

"It's extremely problematic those laws are in place and they need to be repealed."

She claimed current approaches to policing targeting sex workers in Queensland has left them distrustful and reluctant to report a crime, years after revealed decades of police corruption linked to the sex industry. 

Under the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000, police can "entrap" workers while posing as clients and have immunity to request (and undertake) illegal activities. 

"This can be very distressing for the sex worker," Ms Fawkes said. 

The state's Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman has committed to referring the regulation of the industry to the Queensland Law Reform Commission in June. 

Meanwhile, Respect Inc is calling for a moratorium on police use of entrapment and charging activities. 

'A deep contradiction'

According to one feminist thought, the reality of the sex industry is much different - and should be recognised for promoting gender inequality. 

"This is a gendered industry - it's mostly men buying sex from mostly women," Ms Larin said. 

"We're saying two things: on the one hand, men should respect women and they don't have a right to women's bodies. But then at the same time, this industry says, 'you have a right as long you are pay a fee'.

"It's a deep contradiction, and one that we don't want to confront as a society." 

But Ms Vanting said this idea works to dismiss a sex workers' agency. 

"A lot of our issues are written out of these discussions by virtue of us simply being dismissed as human beings with agency," she said.

Asian migrant workers are 'targeted'

Ms Larin is a PhD candidate at Monash University who researches unlicensed massage businesses that provide illicit sexual services in Melbourne. It's , which is five times the amount of licensed brothels. 

She claims Australia's sex industry promotes a "normalisation of sexualised racism" - a notion that has been discussed by advocates in the aftermath of the shootings at several massage businesses in the US city of Atlanta where six Asian-American women were killed. 



"Male demand for Asian women in prostitution means that Australia’s sex industry relies on the migration and trafficking of Asian women for its survival," she said. 

Accurate statistics for the number of people trafficked into the sex industry are impossible to gather because of the hidden nature of the crime.

Ms Vanting said the police targeting of migrant sex workers, particularly Asian migrant sex workers, is a "severe issue" in Australia. 

In 2019, found about 80 per cent of surveyed women working in Sydney's "lower-end brothels" were from Chinese-speaking backgrounds. Over 90 per cent of respondents did not have permanent residency, and held a variety of different visas. 

Ms Fawkes said her organisation has anecdotal evidence massage parlours and Asian migrant sex workers are also targeted in Queensland. 

An alternate framework

Ms Larin supports an alternate legal framework - the so-called 'Nordic model' that she says decriminalises those in prostitution but not those who exploit them, such as buyers and brother owners. The model is being adopted by several countries, including Sweden, Norway, Iceland and is currently being considered in New York. 

"This model includes robust social services to support those currently relying on prostitution to survive and assist them into other industries," she said.

While the model has been hailed as a progressive approach in tackling sex trafficking, some studies show . Other commentators have argued it is in its approach.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, you can call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit .


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9 min read
Published 27 March 2021 at 6:37am
By Emma Brancatisano