Punishing the vulnerable: the perils of criminalising street-based sex work

About a decade ago, Kate Connett was a sex worker on the streets of St Kilda, supporting a heroin addiction.

Kate Connett. Source: Aron Lewin
Kate Connett. Source: Aron Lewin

“I remember the moment I decided to do it … [I was thinking] tomorrow I’m going to wake up with no money. It’s either this, deal drugs – which I wasn’t going to fucking do – or hard crime, and I couldn’t do that either as I’m not a violent person,” Kate said.

At the time, Kate was adamant about not working for a brothel. She hated the work and did not want to share the money that she made with a brothel owner.

But, with the exception of New South Wales, where the sex industry is decriminalised, buying or selling sex on the street is illegal in all states and territories.

Concerns have been raised that the criminalisation of street-based sex work and the policing strategies used to enforce the legislation is increasing the risks faced by street-based sex workers in Victoria.

Although it is legal in Victoria to work in a licensed brothel or as a private escort, the Sex Work Act (1994) stipulates that sex workers convicted of a first offence of loitering or solicitation in a public place face a penalty of about $1470 or can be imprisoned for a month.

The punishment for being a client of a street-based sex worker in Victoria is three times harsher.

Kate is now an outreach worker for Project Respect, a drop-in centre that helps sex workers leave the industry. But she said that the prospect of prosecution during her time as a street-based sex worker meant that she is still suspicious of police.

“I worked in St Kilda, and I had nothing to do with sex worker organisations because I was really paranoid they would be working with the police … I still have problems trusting the police today,” she said.

The tendency of street-based sex workers to distrust the police is particularly problematic because they are among the most vulnerable members of the community to incidents of sexual assault, drug and alcohol dependency,homelessness and mental health problems.

Research conducted in 2006 by the National Drug and Health Centre in the University of New South Wales showed that, of the 72 street-based sex workers surveyed, just under half suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A few years ago Victoria Police discovered a cycle was occurring where street-based sex workers convicted of loitering or soliciting in a public place either could not pay the fine, or had to go back to work on the streets in order to pay the fine.

St Kilda Police sex worker liaison officer Sgt David Morrow said St Kilda police had changed their strategy by heavily targeting clients rather than the workers. He also said  the aim of this strategy was to reduce demand, and consequently supply, of street-based sex work.

March against the stigmatisation and discrimination of sex workers in Melbourne, 2014. Source: Flickr/Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.
March against the stigmatisation and discrimination of sex workers in Melbourne, 2014. Source: Flickr/Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.

This approach is a modified application of Swedish sex worker laws – known as theNordic model – which criminalises the purchase but not the sale of sexual services.

Implicit in the Nordic model is the belief that the sex industry is a result of entrenched sexism – as the demand for sex workers is almost exclusively male – and that government funding should be placed in support of services that help sex workers leave the industry.

In line with Project Respect’s ideology, Kate said street-based sex workers were safer under the Nordic model.

“I think the Nordic model offers the most protection for women and also realises the gender inequality of sex work … the vast majority of women who turn to the sex industry do so because they have little other choices and having a choice of shit choices isn’t really a choice at all,” she said.

“There’s only three organisations in Victoria that help women exit the sex industry … and I don’t think there is one little girl who wants to be a prostitute when they get older.”

But, there have been criticisms against the Nordic model with studies suggesting that it places sex workers at further risk of harm.

Researchers Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren wrote that as demand fell, so too did the bargaining power of sex workers. The reduction in clients consequently saw the workers take greater risks in choosing whom they work with, and in order to avoid exposure, transactions between clients and sex workers were more likely to be rushed and conducted in hidden, unprotected areas.

Victoria’s peer-only sex worker organisation Vixen Collective advocates for the complete decriminalisation of the sex industry.

Floral memorial in Greeves street, St Kilda for Tracy Connelly, a street based sex worker murdered by a client in 2013. Source: Aron Lewin
Floral memorial in Greeves street, St Kilda for Tracy Connelly, a street-based sex worker murdered by a client in 2013. Picture: Aron Lewin

Now a fly-in-fly-out sex worker across Australia, Vixen Collective spokesperson Jane Green was a street-based sex worker in New Zealand before the sex industry was decriminalised in 2003.

According to Green, criminalisation places street-based sex workers on opposite sides to the police, which makes police officers a threatening presence.

“If you’re a general citizen and you’re subjected to violence the natural instinct is to call the police,” she said.

“If something goes wrong with our work, the natural response isn’t to call the police as they can come and arrest us for doing something wrong.

“You can’t be expected to turn to help to the people that are there to arrest you.”

A sex worker for about 20 years, Green also said that only targeting clients had an “absolutely appalling affect on sex workers”.

The idea that you can criminalise any part of our work without affecting our work is utterly laughable and ridiculous. It would be laughable if it didn’t have such tragic consequences on the health and safety and rights of the sex workers in Sweden,” she said.

“Look at the reports that have come back … the increase in violence towards sex workers over the years. The increase in homelessness because of the sections in that law … [where] anyone renting an apartment to sex workers can be convicted of pimping.

“I can’t say anything bad enough to measure up to how awful this has been for sex workers.”

St Kilda Gatehouse is a drop-in centre that provides support services and a safe and comfortable space for street based sex workers who want a break from the street. They also provide food, clothes, condoms and clean needles.

Chief executive Sally Tonkin has seen a greater understanding from both the community and the police regarding the issues faced by sex workers over the years.

While Gatehouse has no official position on how the sex industry should be regulated, Tonkin said it was “crazy” to think relationships between police and street-based sex workers could be improved when both the purchase and sale of sex on the street was illegal.

“We’ve noticed that when they do blitzes [police operations targeting street sex workers and/or clients], the women feel very agitated and it creates heightened risk for them in that the men are more rushed and the women really needing the work are having to make really quick decisions,” she said.

“For the women, one of their biggest strengths is their intuition and they need time to see warning signs and make safe decisions.”

March against the stigmatisation and discrimination of sex workers in Melbourne, 2014. Source: Flickr/Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance
March against the stigmatisation and discrimination of sex workers in Melbourne, 2014. Source: Flickr/Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance

There is also the concern that criminalisation of street-based sex work has an adverse affect on the health of the workers.

Under the Victorian Sex Work Act, it is mandatory for sex workers to have health checks every three months for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV.

However, as street-based sex workers are already working outside of the legal framework, they are not bound by health regulations set in the Sex Work Act to have health tests. In addition, research shows that the criminalisation of street-based sex work makes the workers reluctant to access health services for fear of revealing their identity and consequently placing themselves at risk of prosecution.

Melbourne Sexual Health Centre director Professor Christopher Fairley said he was aware the legalisation of the sex industry resulted in “substantially better health and safety of the sex workers and substantially lower rates of sexually transmitted infections”.

“I don’t think that sex work on the street can be thought of as different to sex work anywhere, [but] there’s data to suggest that street sex workers have much higher rates of sexually transmitted infections than sex workers within legal brothels,” he said.

“The logical conclusion is that if you legalise sex work you will get reductions in STI rates.”

Prof Fairley also said that there was little evidence to suggest criminalisation acted as a deterrent in preventing street-based sex work.

“The police do not go around arresting sex workers, they have a sense of tolerance. The trouble is that when [street-based sex work] is illegal, people are tested less, they use condoms less and there is the propensity for criminal organisations to get involved.”

In addition to the police not targeting street-based sex workers, there are judicial safeguards in place to help ensure that the workers charged are not fined or imprisoned.

The Resource Health and Education in the Sex Industry (RhED) established theArrest Referral Program, which provides free legal support for street-based sex workers charged and liaises with the St Kilda Police in order to avoid going through the courts.

Arrest Referral Program co-ordinator Sally Boothby said while the St Kilda police were now fantastic in dealing with street-based sex workers, the law allowed for workers to be  charged by policemen who hadn’t heard or seen the exchange of money for sex work.

“It has happened in the past where a street-based sex worker is living in St Kilda and walking to their local coffee shop and they have been charged because they’re in the red light area,” she said.

“If you have on your criminal history that you have a prostitution charge it can really work against you down the track if you are trying to get some other job.”

Taken at an Australian sex worker protest. Source: Flickr/Sleepyheads
Taken at an Australian sex worker protest. Source: Flickr/Sleepyheads

Despite the attitudinal change from the police to protect street-based sex workers, there has been no will by the Victorian Government to decriminalise either street-based sex work or just the selling of street-based sexual services.

In 2001, the Attorney-General Street Prostitution Advisory Board(AGSPAG) was set up to deal with the “untenable” and “unacceptable” situations faced by street-based sex workers in St Kilda.

The two key recommendations in the report were the establishment of tolerance areas, which are designated zones where street-based sex workers could legally solicit clients, and street worker centres which are government-funded safe houses that provide sex workers with a safe and clean environment to service clients.

Despite both tolerance zones and street worker centres being backed by Victoria Police at the time, the Bracks government did not implement either of the recommendations, nor did it implement most of the other recommendations in the report.

University of Melbourne  PhD student Rebecca Hiscock was one of the policy advisers for the AGSPAG report. She said that there was no governmental urgency to change the criminalisation of street-based sex work.

“Originally the government came out and supported all of recommendations [in the AGSPAG report],” Hiscock said.

“The day of the launch I was sitting in the office with a project manager and a couple of other people and we were listening to the radio … and Andrew Bolt was on 3AW.

“He started calling it taxpayer-funded brothels and as soon as I heard that I knew it was dead. It’s not going to happen. And within a couple of weeks the government completely backed away from it.

“Because the report blew up so spectacularly, nobody is going to touch [the issue].”

Jane Green also argues that Australia has a long history of not recognising the voice of sex-worker organisations.

“I lobby at a state and federal level … There was a government submission process in the last four or five years where Christian and religious groups and a whole range of other interest groups were asked for opinions and sex worker groups were left and they were told that they weren’t relevant,” she said.

“There is a consistent attitude that we are not relevant in our own lives and our opinions are not worth listening to.”

For Kate Connett, it is stigma from the community that is preventing systematic change.

“When I was working on the streets women used to just disappear. They would just go and it would not be reported because no one cares about a fucking prostitute,” she said.

The Victorian Minister for Planning (and chair of the 2001 AGSPAG report), Victorian Minister for Health and Victorian Minister for Consumer Affairs declined the request for an interview.

Go to the links attached if you wish to donate or get involved in St Kilda Gatehouse or  Project Respect, or RhED, or find out more about sex industry laws in Australia

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