Thai-national Miya Pittaya is proud of the job she’s kept for the last eight years while living in Australia. After all, sex work is one of the oldest professions in the world.
“For me, sex work is just work,” explains Pittaya. “Sometimes, it gets bad but sex work is good because if I’m not happy with this boss I can change or move to another boss.”
The Sydney local tells me she started working in brothels after she moved to Australia for love and her marriage fell apart.
“With sex work, there is never a lack of employment. I can choose my days to work and have enough to time to spend with my son. I don’t care about what other people are thinking about me because I have my family to support.”
“There is a lot of ‘whoreophobia’ in the community because everything we see and hear about sex work, since I can remember, is pretty stigmatising and exaggerated."
Despite Pittaya’s pride in her work, she often faces harsh judgments about sex work from others and occasionally has to battle negative feelings about her own self-worth.
“Sometimes, I have to fight my inner-stigma. I have to fight my feelings.
“I try to think in positive ways. My [current] partner helps me a lot to do that. I feel that I am human and no matter what I do for work, he still loves me.”
Sex worker and CEO of Scarlett Alliance (Australian Sex Workers Association), Jules Kim, says that Pittaya is not alone in being subjected to social stigma.
“There is a lot of ‘whoreophobia’ in the community because everything we see and hear about sex work, since I can remember, is pretty stigmatising and exaggerated,” says Kim. “For example, there are so many TV shows which show sex workers being murdered.”
Kim explains that although there are sex workers who fit the ‘stereotype’ – sex slavery is an international concern and some workers are currently being exploited – many enter the Australian industry willingly because of the money they can make and the amount of workplace flexibility and entrepreneurial freedom they enjoy.
“There’s an assumption that, because we are sex workers, our health needs are all about our sexual health...the medical professionals we see might not even consider the fact that we have broader health needs."
Despite this, she says, moral judgment against sex workers socially marginalises women. Kim also believes that negative stereotypes may interfere with the care sex workers receive from medical professionals.
“There’s an assumption that, because we are sex workers, our health needs are all about our sexual health...the medical professionals we see might not even consider the fact that we have broader health needs.
“Many counsellors or psychiatrists don’t really understand the work we do. They might tell us that we have mental health issues because of the work we do, even though we might be there to talk to them about something totally unrelated to work. They may also ask invasive questions about our job that are not necessarily for the benefit of our care.
“It’s the same with some doctors. I’ve been to a doctor for the flu and as soon as they find out you’re a sex worker, they want to give you an STI check. That’s even though I look after my sexual health and get checked out regularly.”
Jess Davidson, the women’s services manager of Sydney’s Hopestreet, also says she sees this stigma interfere with the care of her organisation's sex worker clients, time and time again.
"When you are facing significant isolation and feel like you are being judged for accessing a service, you’re less likely to access care, even if it’s for something simple like a cold or flu," says Davidson.
“You’re not likely to take a preventative approach and regularly visit a GP because maybe you’ve had a bad experience with a health service in the past, faced discrimination or stigma and that will affect you and prevent you from accessing that service again.”
“With the peer education, I feel I can talk openly to other sex workers without fears or being judged."
Pittaya admits that sometimes she finds it tough to discuss her feelings or on-the-job experiences with people outside the industry and general health professionals.
That's why she is part of the alliance's culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) peer education program, where migrant sex workers like Pittaya help each other to battle through the stigma.
Peers also offer each other support if they have mental health troubles or other concerns.
“With the peer education, I feel I can talk openly to other sex workers without fears or being judged,” says Pittaya.
The Scarlett Alliance can refer members to various sex worker friendly health clinics.
A call for kindness
Although Pittaya receives the peer support she needs to stay mentally and physically well, not every sex worker is well connected to the alliance's services.
That’s why Kim is calling for greater awareness of the mental health needs of sex workers and the stigma they face community-wide.
“It’s important for people talk to us and not base their perceptions about us on their pre-conceived ideas,” says Kim.
“I also want medical professionals to listen to us. I want them to remember that we might visit a doctor or counselor because we have health needs.
"We aren’t there for entertainment.”
Thursday 8 September marks R U OK? Day: a national day of recognition where people are encouraged to ask others if they are okay and be aware of their mental health needs.