Victorian sex workers are speaking out against the state government’s announcement that it will provide funding to an anti-sex work organisation called Project Respect. Sex worker advocates say the group is increasing discrimination against their already marginalised community.
Victorian minister for families and children Jenny Mikakos recently announced that the Andrew’s Labor government will be investing $300,000 in the project, which she described as a “support service” for women working within the industry.
The funding is in response to recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Family Violence report that was tabled in parliament on March 30 last year. The commission identified sex workers as facing specific challenges when accessing the criminal justice system.
The anti-sex work project
Project Respect has been operating in Australia since 2000. The Project’s website states that it provides support for women in the sex industry. The organisation runs an outreach project to brothels, handing out resources on family violence.
However, sex workers point out that the group follows the Swedish model which criminalises all sex work, adding that it is only interested in helping those who are willing to stop working within the industry.
Minister Mikakos says the government’s funding of the project was providing sex workers with “the help they need without fear of stigma or discrimination.” But sex workers note that exactly the opposite is occurring.
Calls for decriminalisation
Sex worker rights groups and human rights organisations like Amnesty International are advocating for the decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual adult sex work. This is based on the lived experiences of sex workers that show criminalisation makes their lives less safe.
Vixen Collective, Victoria’s peer only sex worker organisation, made submissions to the Royal Commission recommending against government funding of anti-sex work organisations. They believe Project Respect “view[s] all sex work as intrinsically harmful towards women.”
The collective is entering into its twelfth year of operation. It’s made up of a group of current and former sex workers, who work on a voluntary basis. The collective is completely unfunded.
Vixen advocates for peer-based support groups, which allow members of their own community to provide programs and advice using the intimate knowledge that comes only from the lived reality of being a sex worker.
Launching at the 2005 Scarlet Alliance conference, Vixen Collective has gone on to become the leading voice for sex worker rights in Victoria.
Over recent years, it’s been instrumental in lobbying the government over amendments to the Victorian Sentencing Manual, as well as the continued push for the decriminalisation of the industry.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Jane Green, the spokesperson for Vixen Collective, about the problems with Project Respect and other major issues sex workers face.
The Royal Commission into Family Violence report recommended that Victoria police amend its code of practice for the investigation of family violence to take into account the challenges faced by women in the sex industry when investigating family violence perpetrated against them.
What are the specific challenges faced by sex workers in regards to family violence?
Sex workers can be affected by family violence just like other members of the community. It’s important to point out that there’s no evidence or research to show that sex workers are disproportionately affected by family violence.
But the key issue that sex workers do face is discrimination, when accessing assistance from police, when accessing justice in the courts and in facing discrimination when attempting to access assistance from other related services. That’s services like refuges, counselling services and other services related to family violence.
There’s really significant issues that go on there. One of the key things that I can give you as an example of – because we’ve done a lot of work in this area – was that for the last 36 years it’s been legal, if a sex worker is actually assaulted, for the person that sexually assaulted them to get a reduced sentence based on the fact that the victim was a sex worker.
So that was legal?
Yes, it was part of the sentencing guidelines. We actually worked with pro bono legal support to have that rewritten in the sentencing guidelines last year.
There have been really significant barriers to sex workers wanting to address justice to the court. And we view it as a series of obstacles. So we get reports of very negative interactions that sex workers have with police when attempting to report violence, including family violence.
And then there is a series of obstacles in the court process and we outlined this in two different reviews last year: one was the Access to Justice Inquiry and the other was the Victorian Law Reform Commission of Victims of a Criminal Trial Process.
Things like knowing as a victim of sexual assault that your attacker can get a reduced sentence based on your occupation is obviously highly distressing. And we saw that come into play in cases like the Adrian Bailey case, where he attacked eight different workers and got a very small sentence. And then he was back on the streets and went on to murder Jill Meagher.
So sex workers have very low expectations that they’ll be treated fairly. And I think those expectations are justified.
Victorian minister for families and children Jenny Mikakos has recently announced the government will invest $300,000 into Project Respect, a so-called “support service” for women working in the sex industry.
The Vixen Collective is critical of this project. Why’s that?
First and foremost, Project Respect is not a support service for women working in the sex industry. Project Respect is an anti-sex work organisation that lobbies for the abolition of sex work, via what’s called the Swedish or Nordic model of sex work criminalisation.
So sex workers and our representative organisations around the world – as well as human rights organisations like the United Nations and Amnesty International – condemn the Swedish model, because it’s harmful to sex workers.
And it’s harmful for a variety of reasons. One, because it removes our right to work in a range of workplaces. It pushes sex work underground. It removes sex workers ability to work together, because it makes it possible to charge sex workers for pimping each other. It removes sex workers ability to advertise their services.
It criminalises everyone around sex workers, so even their partners or children and relatives can be charged with living off the earnings of sex work. So it makes it incredibly socially isolating. It makes it so you can’t hire drivers, receptionists or security. And it increases police involvement in sex workers’ work and lives, which leads to corruption.
And also again, importantly, it lowers a sex worker’s ability to access assistance if they are victims of crime.
And what sort of on the ground impact is Project Respect having for women working in the industry?
Well, I think critically one of the key things that anti-sex work organisations do, especially Project Respect does in Victoria, is they drive stigma towards sex workers and the sex worker community. And this is evident in the conduct of a lot of these organisations.
You can see it in the submission that Project Respect actually made to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. Because they actually said that family violence and male violence against women in the sex industry makes other women vulnerable to men’s violence.
That’s a form of victim blaming essentially identifying sex workers as the cause of violence against all women, with the solution that they’re proposing being the criminalisation of our work.
A key thing to recognise with Project Respect, and other anti-sex work groups, is that if you truly cared about the rights of marginalised people, then you’d be engaged with and listening to that community, rather than pushing a political agenda that actually harms them.
What’s the alternative to the Swedish-model that you advocate?
What sex workers and sex worker representative organisations across the world do advocate for is the full decriminalisation of sex work. And that’s the model upheld as the best practice model for sex workers’ health and safety.
It’s what the eleven peer and sex worker led organisations across Australia advocate for. It’s what the Global Network of Sex Work Projects – which is 237 organisations in 71 countries across the world – advocate for.
And it’s what the UN, the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International advocate for.
Most importantly, it’s seen as best for the health and safety of sex workers. That’s the key thing. And it should be enough that sex workers say that that’s what we want as a community.
But it’s also, importantly, what the research shows is best for our health and safety. And it’s what all the main human rights and humanitarian organisations also support.
Vixen Collective advocates for peer-based support programs for women working within the sex industry. What are the advantages of these sorts of programs?
Peer-based programs have a long history in Australia amongst marginalised communities. Whether it’s sex workers or LGBTIQ, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, migrant communities, drug users, people living with HIV – peer-based programs are long established as the key way to deliver services that meet the needs of marginalised communities. But also they’re accountable to the communities that they service.
It’s our own community that is best placed to understand the issues we face, because we face them together. And to not stigmatise our own community. We have naturally better access to places that are often not able to be entered or easily navigated by those outside our community.
We’re able to train and mentor and pass on peer knowledge that those who are not sex workers can’t ever have because they’ve got no lived experience of our lives or work.
And again, we’re deeply accountable to our own community in a way that those outside it can never be. That’s a really key thing for peer-based programs.
And are you able to give some examples of where peer-based programs have been effective within your industry?
Absolutely. Victoria is only one of two states in Australia, the other is Western Australia, where there is no funded peer-based sex worker service. Every other state has a funded peer-based sex worker service.
Both Victoria and Western Australia have an unfunded voluntary organisation – here in Victoria it’s Vixen and in Western Australia it’s an organisation called People for Sex Worker Rights WA – because we’re a necessary service, even though we’re not funded.
Ironically, Victoria was the first state in the world to have a funded peer-based sex worker organisation. And that was in 1987. But by 2001, it had become a health service that was no longer peer-based. So we’re in a very unfortunate situation where we actually had the best practice model, but then we lost it.
And there’s no excuse that Victorian sex workers don’t have a funded service.
Minister Mikakos also outlined that the investment into Project Respect was also to help “victims of sex trafficking.” What is the human trafficking situation like in Australia?
It’s important to say that trafficking and sexual servitude are serious crimes and they’re not acceptable in the sex industry, because they’re not acceptable in any industry.
But they’re not typical of the Australian sex industry.
Trafficking is shown not to be a feature of the sex industry and that’s according to the government’s own research and figures. The former minister of justice Chris Ellison has said on record that no significant sex slavery problem exists in Australia.
Between January 2004 and October 2011, which is just under seven years, the Australian federal police human trafficking team undertook 305 investigations. This led to 39 matters being referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, which resulted in 14 convictions. So that’s just slightly over two per year.
What’s important is that those very low figures correlate with what our community tells us. I know that trafficking gets a very high media profile. But I think people need to realise that sex workers are human beings. We’re mothers, sisters and brothers, and if it was going on we’d be horrified. We’d be raising the red flag as much as anyone.
What our members and our community tell us is that it’s just not happening.
On June 1 last year, the Victorian government’s Sex Work Regulations 2016 came into effect. Can you outline what these were and why advocates for sex workers’ rights think they failed those working in the industry?
There were realistically very small changes that were made. The reason for the review was there was a ten year review clause put into the Sex Worker Regulations 2006. There had to be a review of the regulations.
The only substantial change that was made was to a section of the regulations called Advertising Control. There were only two key changes there.
One of which allowed sex workers to use pictures of their whole body, with restrictions. Previously, pictures had been restricted to head and shoulders. We used to call them mug shots. And you can imagine, with the stigma attached to our work, what having the only option for the photograph in your advertising being your head and shoulders meant. It’s not an attractive option.
And being able to put in body shots now allows people to put in a photo that isn’t identifying. They can blot out their face. That relates only to internet advertising, so there’s not going to be photos in the local paper.
The other change allowed workers to indicate their race, colour or ethnic origin. That did get some comments from anti-sex work groups. And I think people wonder why we’d be for that sort of change.
But what actually happened for workers, particularly Asian workers, is that they would get calls – because they can’t indicate their race, colour or ethnic origin – from people who may harbour racist sentiment. And when they were asked what race or colour they were and they indicated, they would then get racist abuse.
It’s much more preferable for them to indicate it in their ads and then they don’t have to deal with that. So that’s the reasoning behind it.
But you were hoping for more changes to come into effect?
Absolutely. One of the key issues we face with the licensing system, is that the system itself is intrinsically discriminatory. The preferred model, as I said earlier, is for the decriminalisation of sex work, as we clearly indicated in our submission.
And to have two very minimal changes come through was obviously extremely disappointing. Particularly the fact that not only sex workers’ own organisations support the decriminalisation of our work but it’s now recognised at such a macro level – by international human rights bodies, by medical research, by Australia’s National HIV Strategy – by so many organisations that it’s best practice for our health and our safety.
To have the Victorian government ignore all of that and not be willing to enter into any dialogue with regards to that issue I think is distressing.
And lastly, what is the Vixen Collective most urgently calling for the Andrew’s Labor government to do for women working within the state’s sex industry?
The key thing is to work with sex workers and our peer-based organisations to fully decriminalise our work. But people need to realise that decriminalisation is a key first step, because it’s not a magic panacea to everything that we face.
There’s obviously still key issues. There’s discrimination towards our community. And there’s also the key issues of accessing police and access to justice.
Jane thanks very much for the very informative interview. And best of luck with securing better rights for those working within your industry in the future.
No problem at all. Have a good day.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.