City Hub

Why sex worker laws do not need changing

The LGBTQI community and sex workers have had each other backs. Source: Scarlet Alliance (supplied)

OPINION: Barbarella Karpinski

Additions to this opinion piece were made on 23 September 2015

On September 11 I attended the Select Committee hearing on the Regulation of Brothels.

Currently, NSW has a system of decriminalisation that was brought in by a bipartisan vote in 1995. This was a response to the findings of the Wood Royal Commission about police corruption. There are proposals to bring in a licensing model, as in Victoria.

Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich, an openly gay politician, is one of the members of the Select Committee, along with four government and two opposition members.

It’s good to historically contextualise decriminalisation. On July 15, 1981, murdered writer and sex worker Sally Ann Huckstepp made the following statement about the vice in the vice squad: “While operating as a prostitute I made regular payments to members of the Vice Squad over ten years”.

Before I report on the submissions, I will share a confession. In the late eighties I worked for a few weeks as an erotic dancer in Sydney. Although my career in erotic entertainer was short, under the proposed Victorian model of legalisation, where workers would be required to register on a sex industry data base, I may have not been permitted to travel to such countries as USA where sex work is illegal. Having to register myself back then would have meant no Hollywood screen career.

Under the proposed Victorian model, rather than just being fired from my job as an erotic entertainer due to my choice of stripper music by Nina Hagen, German punk opera diva, I would never have been able to get off the data base, and would have been subjected to stigma and discrimination.

This happened to Fleur de Lys, a representative of Touching Base, a sex industry referral body for disabled persons of all genders. She said in her sworn evidence that “working as a sex worker legally in Victoria created problems for me”.

Contrary to popular representations, there are many LGBTI representatives of the worker and client population in NSW. As an original member of the founding gay rights protest group who bravely took on the powers that be in 1978 that led to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, I just want to say that sex workers were our allies then by virtue of having a common enemy: the corrupt and often violent police.

Sergeant Richard Farrelly, of the Sex Industry Coordination Unit in Victoria Police, gave evidence at the inquiry. When asked by the Committee if there were any ethnic or other characteristics, the reply was “South-East Asian origin mainly, not Caucasian, also Eastern European, and some South Americans on a student visa”.

Grilled further on the success of the Victorian model in eliminating crime, he replied that  “a person will get a license for a brothel who has no criminal history, but the person who is running the brothel is from a motorcycle or Asian gang”.

Victorian Police also said they were working with the controversial Australian Border Force Unit and they were given permission by the Committee to provide some of their answers in confidentiality, raising issues regarding the public right to know at “public” hearings.

In Victoria, a police unit of around 12 people is being put into administering laws around massage parlours and internet advertising. The police conceded that trying to get evidence of massage parlours operating as sex services venues is “hard to prove”. The Victorian police raised issues of workers being treated badly and management directing workers to force male clients into ejaculating into tissues (to save costs of laundry) and workers being told to wash out these tissues. I would like to suggest that preserving evidence of this testimony may be hard to prove as tissues usually do not survive in water, as me accidentally leaving them in my jeans pocket and winding up with fluff on everything last week, seems to suggest.

Julie Bates, a planning consultant on brothels and “out and proud sex worker” and member of Touching Base, also gave evidence to the Committee. Ms Bates has criminal convictions as a result of working in a system of criminalisation prior to 1995. These charges have not been quashed. Ms Bates said that “decriminalisation allows operators to focus on… making sex work safe.”

Saul Isbister gave a very emotional sworn submission saying that many of his disabled clients have recently died and that giving those people “the opportunity to access sex workers is a blessing”. No members of Touching Base said they had gathered any evidence of “human trafficking”.

Rachel Wotton made the point that there is “no capacity for (foreign) sex workers to gain a visa – a 457 – there is no lawful process to get a visa.”

CEO of Scarlet Alliance, a peak sex worker body, Janelle Fawkes, commented further. “The hearing did not hear evidence of widespread human trafficking or sexual servitude in NSW brothels. In fact, the evidence presented was in line with the finding of the Community Relations Committee 2012 inquiry into trafficking in NSW that found whilst the spotlight was on the sex industry the issue was more prevalent in other industries.

The UN special rapporteur, Ms Joy Ngozi, stated that “there had been a sexualisation of Australia’s response to trafficking” meaning that other industries of higher risk are overlooked.

It seems that prosecuting genuine cases where workers may not know that they are coming to Australia to work in the sex industry is currently difficult, because foreign nationals cannot be honest about their intentions. If it were possible for foreign workers to state “sex work” as a profession, this may stop wastage of resources. The conflation of all the issues appears detrimental to the investigative processes.

The representatives from the Australian Federal Police, Manager Commander Glen McEwen, and Victim Based Crime and Detective Superintendent, Steve Mewburn contradicted this view and when asked what sector stands out in terms of trafficking, the reply was “brothels, sexual services.” When further examined about organised crime the response was “it was organised, but not Hollywood style, more opportunistic.”

The Federal Police note that individuals who are trafficked are now allowed a new non-criminal visa classification. They noted that having no cash, no cards and no identity papers is one of the tell-tale signs of a trafficking victim.

Commander McEwen said in the life of a victim, “you often live on the premises. You don’t get out. You don’t get to choose what you eat”.
Elena Jeffreys, queer sex worker and Founding member of the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Advisory Groupon Trafficking in Humans, said that “the laws in NSW mean workers are able to get assistance if and when they need it.” Ms Jeffreys went on to say that any further tightening of laws would increase the “risk of harm”.

Jessica Megarry, Member of the Executive Committee of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Australia, an organisation with links to Northern Ireland, Canada and Sweden, where the Nordic Model of prosecuting clients exists, gave evidence. Ms Megarry quoted studies from the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, and one study claimed that male clients were more violent than non-clients.

This study has been contested by sex workers. Ms Fawkes commented that “those that seek to demonise the clients of sex workers are out of touch with the experience of sex workers. They are usually the same people who want you to understand sex workers as women and clients as men”.

This radical feminist assumption that all clients are men, all workers are women, and trans people are just invisible, is a big problem for this model.

Rachel Wotton of Touching Base, an organisation that acts as a referral agency for clients with disabilities, services clients of “all genders” (male, female and transgendered) and commented that “we like our clients.” When asked for her comment on the Swedish Model, the reply was “I’ve worked in Sweden. It’s abhorrent. We are not victims. We have independence.”

It must be very time consuming to find the genuine victims of trafficking as opposed to those who came here on visas and are obliged to say they came to work as another occupation like screenwriting, engineering or beauty therapy that is actually allowed under visa requirements.

In terms of the use of public resources in the most frugal fashion, I refer to the response of the Police Association of NSW.

“We again urge careful consideration of the implications of any changes to the regulatory system relating to the sex industry that would place additional responsibilities on members of the NSW Police Force without a commensurate increase in their resourcing,” said the Association.

Pat Gooley’s written representation looks at the resources needed for recent licensing provisions of tattoo parlours and makes the point that there are many more brothels than tattoo parlours in NSW.

Eurydice Aroney, Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology, comments in her submission that “my observations were that licensing discriminated against sex workers having control of their own workplace…The larger commercial brothels owned by men were not impressive, the sex workers unhappy and nervous.” She compared this to brothels “run by sex workers or former sex workers where there was a genuine regard for one another”.

In considering the submission, it is my hope that the Committee considers not only the harm potentially to people who may have no knowledge that they are coming to Australia to work in the sex industry, but also the diversity of workers and clients that work in NSW. Sex work has allowed many clients to experience diverse sexual opportunities, safely, because of a discreet sex industry that benefits workers and clients alike.

It is a concern that if the government may in future require sex workers to register on a data base. Many LGBTI members of the sex work community may be forced into being second class citizens once again.

Sex work is real work, and as such, the politicians could work harder in ensuring rights afforded to other workers such as Anti-Discrimination protection. One important submission was by the Sex Workers Outreach Project. In his written submission, CEO, Cameron Cox, wrote that “the decriminalised framework has provided the conditions to allow for effective peer education amongst sex workers, health promotion by sex worker organisations and resulted in sex workers achieving and maintaining low rates of sexually transmissible infections”.

The second generation of queer and trans community has come to think of sex work as real work and managed to live for the last 20 years without criminality. They have even come to think of the police as “protectors” and this model should continue. The proposed legislation challenges this independence.

It seems a waste of funds to throw the benefits of decriminalisation under the bus, as well as waste public resources to change to a licensing model, when police have said that trafficking is limited to a specific sector.

Reading through all the submissions I was particularly moved by Submission 21, name suppressed, which was by a carer for a disabled person who visits sex workers. “People who visit sex workers are ordinary people, with ordinary lives, just like sex workers are. People who visit sex workers are not inherently immoral or seeking to exploit sex workers. Rather, people who visit sex workers are seeking a positive experience to enrich their lives.”

The committee is to report by November 2015.  Submissions can be viewed at


23 September 2015:

Damned Whores and God’s Police was written by Anne Summers in 1975. This week, the eponymous conference at UTS looks at what that means today. So who are the “damned whores” forty years on?

Originally the term referred to the convict women, many of whom became domestic servants and sex workers, with no rights or choice. Today Summers says that the “damned whores” are the sex workers, lesbians and women who have been incarcerated.

Originally, By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892) [Public domain], Wikimedia Commonsaccording to industry insider sources, the UTS conference organisers did not include out sex workers on the panels, only academics speaking about sex workers. My insider sources said the inclusion of workers themselves by the organisers was a late addition, after some lobbying. One of the key slogans of the sex worker movement is “nothing about us without us” – so often academics will make the egregious error of considering themselves experts on the lives of workers.


The lowest price for a full price ticket was $150 for a one day ticket and there were no single session tickets. Eventually when I found out a film was screening I had participated in and produced with the group, about Sex Work in Australia, I just rocked up. Maybe if the conference prioritised social accessibility over the advertised cocktail parties then there could be more diversity of attendees.

This panel was called: 21st century Damned Whores: Sex workers, sluts and deviant women. Although the conference eventually gave sex workers a chance to voice the knowledge gained from lived experience, I question whether classifying sex work within a “deviant” category is really necessary, as sex work is real work, and clients and workers are often ordinary people, not nefarious, not aberrant, but professionals with unacknowledged skills and expertise.

I spoke to Jules Kim, Migration Project Manager from Scarlet Alliance, who also spoke at the conference. Kim is from a Korean background and I got to ask her questions about the parliamentary hearing from her perspective. “Despite the widely held myth of migrant sex workers being tricked into the sex industry in Australia, none of the prosecuted trafficking cases that included sex work have involved deception or trickery of the fact the person would be sex working in Australia. The people in those cases had all known they would be sex working in Australia with many of them having sex worked before in their home country.

“Essentially they were issues of labour exploitation, with the real issue being migrants having difficulty accessing labour rights and sex work not being seen as work. To prevent trafficking we need equitable access to visas, access to translated information and multi lingual support, easy access to industrial right mechanisms and labour protections and most importantly, the decriminalisation of sex work.”

I note that one of UTS’s research affiliations is an anti-slavery project ( As well as the sex industry, domestic labour, forced marriage, agriculture and the hospitality industry are flagged for anti-trafficking campaigners.

If you believe that decriminalisation is the best practice model then Jules Kim has provided the link to the petition:

The standout session was by Larissa Behrendt, a personal reflection on the first colonial encounters from an indigenous view, mainly about the human rights horrors of the Northern Territory intervention. It got a standing ovation.


Barbarella Karpinski is a former Arts Editor of City Hub, a filmmaker, and currently a Candidate for a DCA at UTS in the area of the GLBTIQ community and Sex Work.