Sex workers fight against stigma for equal justice
In this story
It starts out like any other booking. A woman advertises her services as a sex worker – usually online – and a man either calls or texts. She tells him what she’s offering and for how much, and, after agreement, they meet in a small apartment or studio close to Canberra’s central business district.
Part way through the appointment, though, he goes to the door and lets in two other men she knows nothing about. She is violently physically and sexually assaulted.
In autumn this year, police in Canberra received two reports of attacks on sex workers with this modus operandi. By winter, they had six cases.
Detective Sergeant David Crowe, of ACT Policing’s sexual assault and child abuse team (SACAT), was appointed to lead a special taskforce into the assaults, called Operation Sparren.
“It was quite concerning the level of violence that was being used,” he says. “As you could imagine, three guys attacking one lady, sometimes with a knife… So we put the team together to concentrate on tracking these guys down and putting them before the court before someone gets seriously hurt.”
By late September, Crowe suspected there could be more victims who hadn’t yet come to police, so he decided to go public with the investigation. At a press conference outside police headquarters, he directly appealed to sex workers to come forward.
“You will be treated professionally and with the utmost respect,” he said. “You will not be judged by anyone from Operation Sparren.”
Canberra-based sex worker Venus de Siren saw Crowe on the news. She immediately stopped taking bookings from strangers – “I knew I couldn’t handle three men and fight them off.” Having worked in the industry for 16 years, de Siren said “never before have I felt that someone was targeting us like this”.
De Siren was also struck by Crowe’s offer of respect and non-judgement. “I got goosebumps when I heard it,” she says. “For sex workers to hear those lines and that narrative of ‘you’ll be heard’ – where has that ever existed before?”
What sex workers say they more commonly expect – from police, courts and wider society – is stigma and discrimination. While sexual violence is a notoriously underreported crime across all segments of society, for sex workers it is particularly so. A wide body of research across Australia shows sex workers are reluctant to go to police if they’re assaulted, meaning it often remains a hidden crime.
Lexxie Jury of the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) in Canberra says in her experience this is definitely the case. The majority of sex workers who have been sexually assaulted chose not to report the assault to police, fearing they’ll face stigma or disbelief, or that the process will “out” them to friends and family. Workers prefer using the “Ugly Mug”, a peer-to-peer reporting system that unofficially alerts workers to dangerous clients.
Jury says police in the ACT are now excellent, but when she first started nine years ago she had a worker “laughed at and told, ‘You can’t be raped; you’re a whore.’ ”
Across Australia, sex worker networks are full of stories of victims being blamed or shamed: a sex worker being asked by a police officer, “What did you expect would happen?”; another being told, “I’m only helping you because I have to.”
Jules Kim, a sex worker and chief executive of Australia’s peak sex worker organisation, the Scarlet Alliance, says sex workers believe the wider society still holds deeply to ingrained myths about their work.
“There is this idea that because sex is involved in our work that somehow that makes it acceptable to sexually assault us,” she says. “That because of our choice of occupation, that somehow we are in a permanent state of consent. Of course, this is not true.”
When Jane Green, who’s an advocate with Victoria’s peer sex worker group the Vixen Collective, was sexually assaulted three years ago, she decided going to police was too risky. “I was injured during the assault, I obviously was traumatised, and I didn’t want to be traumatised again,” she says. “And I think very realistically, I had the expectation that was the experience I would get … based on the contact I’ve had with police over many years in the industry.”
Green says fear of prejudice is not the only barrier to reporting. “Outed” sex workers face the very real possibility of wider discrimination, including media vilification, housing difficulties and impacts on child custody cases.
Even when sex workers do report their sexual assault, advocates such as Green say that too often courts perpetuate the idea that “it’s not as bad to rape a sex worker”.
In Victoria, this issue was recently highlighted when it was revealed that Adrian Bayley – the man who raped and murdered Jill Meagher – had previously been jailed for sexually assaulting five sex workers, however the sentence he received for these assaults was well below the median sentence for rape. The median is five to six years per offence, but for assaults on five sex workers, Bayley was sentenced to just 11 years, with a non-parole period of eight.
A number of sex workers who The Saturday Paper spoke to raised Bayley’s case as proof they are seen as less worthy victims.
Until just last month, evidence of this attitude was written in the Victorian Sentencing Manual – the document that provides education and guidelines to judges and magistrates. For decades, the manual has contained non-binding sentencing guidelines that effectively allow a judge to reduce the sentence of an offender if he targets a sex worker – as opposed to a “chaste” woman.
Following years of advocacy from groups such as the Vixen Collective and the St Kilda Legal Service, these guidelines have finally been updated to say: “The mere fact a victim of a sexual offence was a sex worker will, of itself, have no effect on sentence. Rather, what is relevant are the consequences of the offence for a particular victim.”
According to Green, it’s a significant step forward for the rights of sex workers in Victoria: “For too long we’ve been regarded as second-class victims.”
However, according to organisations that represent sex workers around Australia, the biggest hurdle to sex workers accessing justice still remains – laws that criminalise sex work.
New South Wales is the only jurisdiction where sex work is decriminalised. Other states and territories have a variety of regimes where the industry is divided into legal and illegal parts, with police acting as regulators. Kim says this puts sex workers into an oppositional role with police, making it difficult to reach out for help. “It’s not like decriminalisation is some magic fix,” she says. “But it is the first step in trying to break down these myths and stereotypes and allow police to relate to us like other people.”
Stigma – perceived or real – can be dangerous. After a decade in the industry in Western Australia, Nicole (not her real name) says police see her as “inherently criminal”, so she knows to “keep as far away from them as humanly possible”. That includes after being sexually assaulted. She won’t go to police, or courts: “I’ve seen the way courts treat regular women who’ve been assaulted. What hope do you think a woman like me has?”
Recently, she was being hassled by a former client via text. He was threatening to come and hurt her, and when she threatened to report him, he replied: “You can’t call the cops, you’re a whore.”
Detective Sergeant Crowe told The Saturday Paper he is pleased sex workers have heard his message, but seems mildly surprised it was considered notable.
He’s worked in the field of sexual assault for five years, and says in that time he’s seen “horrendous things done to women, and it is just not acceptable”. The fact that the victims in this particular case are sex workers makes no difference, he says. “This is violence against women. It doesn’t matter what they do for work, it’s just not acceptable.”
Last month, as a result of Operation Sparren, three men appeared before the courts in relation to assaults on two women. They pleaded not guilty and two were remanded in custody.
“Maybe there is a silver lining in this horrendous situation,” says de Siren. “With the police taking it so seriously, putting a taskforce on it, and coming from a place of non-judgement, maybe this can send a message right out across society.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "Justice and stigma".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.