Post-COVID Restart Tough for Sex Workers: An Interview With SWOP’s Cameron Cox

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The intimacy involved in a lot of sex industry services was always going to be problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, now it seems that as the economy begins reopening, there’s confusion mounting around when the industry will be fully operational again.

Prime minister Scott Morrison announced on 24 March that from midnight the following evening, strip clubs, brothels and sex on premises venues would be forced to close for the COVID-19 lockdown.

However, now that the federal government has announced its roadmap out of the pandemic restrictions, concerns have been raised over the fact that brothels and strip clubs appear on the list for stage three, however these venues remain starkly closed.

This has prompted the industry to call for some clarification as to when its businesses can reopen, which would also allay fears around the pandemic being used as an excuse to crack down on a sector of the economy that has made some hard won gains over recent years.

Decriminalising empowers

NSW became the first jurisdiction on the planet to decriminalise its sex industry back in 1995. And since that time, the outcomes have been internationally lauded, especially when it comes to those involving sex workers themselves.

The decriminalisation model – which has since been adopted in New Zealand and just recently in the Northern Territory – promotes the health and safety of workers, and in turn their clients, while it also reduces police corruption and empowers workers to report crimes.

Decriminalisation in NSW has also meant that during the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers have been treated like any other workers. And those wanting to continue operating outside of brothels have been able to do so, without breaking any laws.

A peer-based approach

SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project) was established in 1990. It’s Australia’s largest and longest operating community-based peer education sex worker organisation, which has a focus on promoting the rights and health of sex workers.

In conjunction with the nation’s peak sex worker body the Scarlet Alliance, SWOP has produced a harm reduction guide around conducting sex work during the COVID-19 pandemic, covering issues such as screening clients, prepping spaces and sanitation.

But, while SWOP has found that some sex workers have been included in the federal government’s wage subsidy packages, this hasn’t been the case for migrant workers. And the outreach project has been organising relief packages for those that have been left out in the cold.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to SWOP CEO Cameron Cox about the confusion around the reopening the sex industry, the situation for sex workers in this state during the lockdown, and the difficulties the industry had been facing prior to the onset of the deadly virus.

Firstly, since the end of March, NSW sex services premises have had to close their doors. The prohibition is contained in the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020.

Cameron, broadly speaking, what has this meant for those working in this state’s industry?

Sex workers can’t work in sex services premises. So, people who were employed in sex services premises – which most people know as brothels – can’t work there.

A lot of them stopped working, as they didn’t want to continue whilst the virus was around, because it’s not a particularly safe thing to do.

Of course, people have to pay bills, mortgages and rent, so some of those that didn’t come in for government income support have had to continue working. And we’ve produced harm minimisation information for those people.

Sex work isn’t banned in NSW, as it has been in some other states, where they’ve just said there can’t be any sex work at all.

Our public health order was one about public gatherings, football stadiums and churches, rather than sex work or anything of that nature.

So, in NSW, sex work has been able to continue, but in some other jurisdictions that isn’t the case?

Some of the other states took the NSW approach initially. But, they then ramped it up and took all sex work out. That was Victoria and Queensland, in particular.

Since the onset of the pandemic and the closing down of the economy, the government has brought out both the JobSeeker and JobKeeper schemes to cover workers during the lockdown.

Do these subsidy packages apply to those working in the sex industry?

They do. When the packages first started coming out, there was only JobSeeker. And things didn’t look particularly good around that, because most sex workers are independent contractors or sole traders.

People who work in sex services premises usually work there as independent contractors, rather than employees.

And a lot of us work privately. So, we escort, which is the common name for it. We work for ourselves in standalone businesses.

There wasn’t much support for us from the start. Although, when JobKeeper came out, a lot of sex workers qualified.

But, as with any group of people, we have a large migrant population in sex work, and a lot of those people are not eligible for any sort of government subsidy.

There are a number of international students who supplement their fees by doing sex work, which is a very convenient thing to do if you are a student. I did it when I was at uni.

But, these international students also don’t qualify and have been told politely by our government to “go back to where they came from”.

We don’t think that’s a particularly satisfactory solution, whether they’re sex working international students, or they’re working in McDonalds, or they’re not working at all.

Other industries have found ways to continue operating during the crisis. Have sex workers whose main employment has shutdown found alternative means to keep operating over this period?

Some of them have gone to private work. Others have gone to online work. The online space has become somewhat crowded.

There is only a certain amount of business to go around. And with a lot of people staying at home and not having jobs themselves, it’s been reasonable.

SWOP operates in NSW, which was the first jurisdiction to decriminalise the sex industry. The way the industry operates in this state is often held up as an example of best practice.

How has this transpired during the COVID-19 pandemic? Has decriminalisation meant sex workers in NSW are in a better position to deal with the crisis than some of their counterparts elsewhere?

It definitely has. First of all, the government has had a completely different attitude in NSW compared with some of our neighbouring governments. And definitely, compared with those like South Australia, where sex work is illegal.

We’ve been treated very much like everyone else, which has been nice to see.

We are a little worried, because the Commonwealth government has released its three staged steps, and we find that brothels appear in stage three and they’re still closed. So, there appears to be no plans to reopen brothels and strip clubs.

On the other hand, sex on premises venues get to open at level two, and I can’t really understand the logic of that. I don’t think those decisions are particularly evidence-based, which is disappointing.

National sex worker peak body Scarlet Alliance is running an emergency support fund. Can you tell us a bit about what it entails?

As soon as this is on the horizon, we have a mechanism through our national peak, where a sex worker organisation from every state, plus our national body, immediately hook up for meetings.

It’s always apparent that people will fall through the cracks, especially when we’re dealing with a large migrant population and we also deal with Indigenous sex workers.

We knew that whatever happened there would be government aid that didn’t reach those people.  So, we set up a fund straightaway to try and raise money for sex workers who weren’t going to get government assistance.

It was very nice to see that the government assistance was rolled out and when JobKeeper came along, being independent contractors and running our own businesses, a lot of us could apply for that. But, undocumented workers couldn’t, and neither can migrant workers.

The fund that we’ve set up has managed to raise a considerable amount of money. But, it hasn’t been anywhere near adequate for the need.

And lastly, Cameron, the pandemic restrictions are starting to be lifted. You’ve indicated that there’s some confusion around when sex services premises can reopen.

What sort of impact are you expecting this shut down to have on the sex industry going forward?

Brothels are in the Commonwealth list, and that’s the only list we have so far that’s fairly comprehensive.

They’re actually in stage three and they remain closed in stage three. There is no stage four, so it doesn’t look like the Commonwealth plans to reopen brothels at all.

Luckily, it’s not the Commonwealth’s responsibility to close or reopen brothels. So, we’re hoping that NSW – which takes a much more enlightened attitude – will reopen them in stage two or stage three. Stage two would be preferable.

As to the effect on sex workers, just under two years ago, the United States enacted some legislation called FOSTA-SESTA that really knocked the guts out of the Australian industry.

It threw us off the internet overnight. That is where we advertise, exchange safety information and do a lot of things.

It was very hard to get our online footing back. Some sex work businesses hadn’t recovered from that as we moved into the beginning of this year.

Bushfires affect us just like everybody else. Our president had her property in the country burnt out. Other sex workers who live in rural and regional areas lost homes and businesses.

We have a campaign being run against us in America by banks and financial institutions. It is somewhat reflected here.

So, for example, we can’t use PayPal, because if PayPal finds out someone is a sex worker, they confiscate whatever funds they have in their account and throw them out of PayPal.

I can’t use Airbnb for exactly the same reason. I would lose my deposit – quiet legally apparently – if they find out I’m a sex worker. They will refuse me accommodation as well. So, they will take my money and give me nothing.

We were already at the very sharp pointy end of finding business extremely hard. And now this comes along, and it’s knocked the stuffing out of almost everybody, so it’s not going to be easy for sex work to restart.

You have to remember we are people as well. We have wives, families, kids and mortgages to look after, just like everybody else. And we were already finding it tough. It’s going to be tougher.

I’m a privileged sex worker, I’m a white male. I’ve got a university degree. And I can probably choof off somewhere else.

I’ve also got the job of a CEO at a funded NGO. But, not everybody is in that position of extreme privilege.

You can donate to the Scarlet Alliance’s Sex Worker Emergency Relief Fund here.

Photo credit: Koca Vehbi

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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