Sex workers are rallying in Brisbane to protest their ‘oppressive’ working conditions in Queensland.  istock image
Sex workers are rallying in Brisbane to protest their ‘oppressive’ working conditions in Queensland. istock image

Why sex workers feel unsafe in Qld

FOR sex worker Ruby, there's a sense of fear that comes with doing her job in Queensland.

"I live in Sydney mostly but I travel pretty regularly to Queensland for work and have done for a number of years, and the difference between the laws is staggering," she said.

"Working in Queensland seems quite oppressive. Somehow the laws make it inherently risky whereas in New South Wales, there's just not that level of fear."

Sex workers will unite for a day of action in Brisbane's King George Square from 1pm today as part of a push to decriminalise their industry in Queensland, that some say compromise their safety by forcing them to work alone.

"They have really strict laws about, if you're a sex worker, you have to work alone," Ruby said.

"People work in different ways, but being able to work on a premises with a friend, it does give you an extra person there. But you can't do that in Queensland and that's quite frustrating."

Sex workers are allowed to work in a licensed brothel in Queensland, or privately, but it is an offence to work in pairs or with the support of another person.

There are also strict advertising guidelines that relate to sex workers in Queensland.

Ruby specialises in bondage and domination and worked extensively throughout Australia in different sectors of the industry, but works privately now.

"The laws are different in each state and territory, so we have everything from total criminalisation to mostly total decriminalisation, but Queensland's a weird case because it's actively policed, so the constant fear of entrapment is very real, and it definitely has an impact on the way you feel about your work and how you go about your work as well," she said.

Sex workers say there’s a sense of fear that comes with working in Queensland.  istock image
Sex workers say there’s a sense of fear that comes with working in Queensland. istock image

"You can't have alcohol showing in your photograph. I mean we live in the age of social media. You're out with friends and you have a couple of cocktails or you're having dinner. And if you put something on your instagram, you can't have wine in the background. Just strange little things that seem quite paternalistic and condescending."

"The laws in Queensland I think are definitely designed to make it difficult to do sex work, but I think that just adds to the stigma and discrimination that sex workers face on a daily basis, living in that environment where you've got that fear or that worry in the back of your head all the time. That really takes a toll."

Ruby said she has had men turn up to Queensland appointments where they asked lots of questions but refused to shower or hand over any money before they left abruptly.

"I don't have any proof that they're cops, but I haven't had that experience anywhere else that I've worked. There's just a weird feeling that comes with working in Queensland knowing that the person who walks through the door could be a police officer, and I have had that happen to friends," she said.

Ruby said sex workers would also be fined for advertising breaches by using certain words.

"There are just so many little things that could catch you out at any moment. Sometimes it just feels like even just existing as a sex worker is illegal in Queensland," she said.

"Two or three years ago, they really cracked down on what you can and can't say, and what you can and can't post on social media, and they really went hard on that in a way that they hadn't before. Since then, I haven't really been to Queensland very much for work, and mostly now when I go, I just see my regular clients because I don't want to risk getting arrested for something that is totally fine for me to have on my social media in New South Wales, or for any other citizen in Queensland to have on their social media, but not okay in Queensland if you happen to be a sex worker."

Queensland sex workers face strict advertising guidelines.
Queensland sex workers face strict advertising guidelines.

Ruby said she had stopped advertising in print during her trips to Queensland because of the fear of doing something that might see her unwittingly fall foul of the law.

"I don't have any problem with police per se - they're just doing a job, but since the most recent law changes, I haven't advertised (in print) because I'm too anxious that I'm going to get an undercover cop walk through the door," she said.

Ruby said there was a long way to go to destigmatise sex work, but decriminalisation would be a good start.

"I pay my taxes, I pay my mortgage and my vet bills. Sex workers have children. We're contributing to local economies and to society in lots of different ways," Ruby said.

"Sex work is just a job. It's not all of who a person is. It's just one aspect of a person's life. It's frustrating to have the law define you by that one thing as though that's the whole of your existence."

Sex worker Noriel felt there had been few real changes since the Fitzgerald Inquiry more than 30 years ago.

"That was all about police controlling the sex industry, and the fact is they still do," she said.

"The police can go online and search us out and legally pretend to be a client, so the police are still our regulators."

Isolation is another concern.

"Workers can't be together. Letting another person know that I have a job on the way and I'm not so sure about this person, I can't do that," she said.

"If something does go wrong, how are the police going to help us when they're the ones targeting us anyway? I don't think workers do feel safe going to the police. I would like to see full decriminalisation."

Sex worker organisation Respect Inc's decriminalisation campaign leader Janelle Fawkes said they received regular calls that show sex workers are skipping standard safety strategies to avoid arrest.

"Working alone when you prefer not to, not checking in after bookings, not seeking support from other sex workers when you are concerned about a booking are not ideal in any industry," she said.

"The way the laws criminalise sex worker safety make no sense to us. Why would anyone want sex workers to not implement safety strategies?"

Ms Fawkes said while police say sex workers are a low priority, they target sex workers for crimes such as using the wrong wording in their advertisements.

"But when you are fined, your infringement notice doesn't say what it is that was wrong about your advertisement. Imagine receiving a traffic infringement but there was is no indication what you've done wrong. It makes it impossible to avoid a repeat offence and very difficult to appeal," she said.

"The laws in Queensland increase isolation, and in an industry that is as highly stigmatised as the sex industry, that is in itself a safety issue."

Respect Inc says many sex workers are too scared to go to police for help. istock image
Respect Inc says many sex workers are too scared to go to police for help. istock image

"We are aware of sex workers who have experienced serious crime but were too fearful to report the crime to police. Unfortunately, we are also aware of several cases where sex workers have attempted to report serious crime but police have told them there was no crime because they are sex workers, or have just not taken the report."

Transgender sex worker Elyse said she left Queensland just after the Fitzgerald Inquiry and hoped to return to a decriminalised setting, but found that wasn't the reality.

"Removing police as regulators of the industry is key in all states in terms of making sex work more acceptable and acknowledged as valid work," she said.

"While the police are involved, it's not possible for the stigma to be removed. The public perception is that if the police need to be involved, then there must be something wrong about sex work, because no other industry is regulated by the police. Instead what we've seen is an increase of upping the ante each time we've tried to assert our rights … and be able to work in the same way as other industries, in particular when it comes to working as an independent sex worker. No-one expects to be isolated by the laws and that is the absolute reality of the Queensland law."

Elyse said in the times that she needed to contact police, she had never had a situation where her work had not become the focus rather than the potential crime perpetrated against her.

"I can't drop in and see my friends who are working by themselves at home during the day. If I was there while they were expecting a customer and the police turn up, I would be charged. So we have police turning up at independent sex workers' premises to check there is no-one else on premises, and for those who I know that has happened to, that is extremely isolating. It makes them feel very anxious," she said.

"I cannot legally implement strategies that ongoingly protect my safety. I can't call a girlfriend who's also a sex worker to tell her I have a client coming. Then that other person could be charged with assisting in the provision of prostitution, whereas they haven't at all. The laws impede our right to assert and implement safety strategies, and that has a lot to do with building anxiety because you can't have that reassurance that you're able to do everything in your power that someone's going to know in a timely fashion if something does goes wrong."

An inability to fully describe the services she provides also frustrates Elyse.

"You can (have an ad) where you're not attracting police attention, but if you're not attracting customers, it's pretty pointless. Particularly if you're a trans worker, it's important that you let your client know a little bit more about the services you do and don't provide, because there are a lot of misconceptions around the services trans workers provide," she said.

"We do what we're qualified to do and we do what we do best. For a young person who feels that they are attracted to a trans person, the best person to come and see is me."

Elyse said police also the right of entry to her premises because she was a sex worker, and that they had done so many times.

"The world did not end when New South Wales decriminalised sex work. They need to repeal all the laws that criminalise sex workers in any way. There should be no law that singles out any profession in any way," she said.

"Federal taxation laws recognises sex work as work so to criminalise it with a bunch of ever changing regulations is an exercise in stigmatising a community. I think there's an overall message that the government wants to send people that they are protecting the public from something they don't need protecting from."