IT will probably come as no surprise that the sex work industry still endures stigma and a nature of taboo, but the fight for better legal and work rights for sex workers has been underway for a long time. Change is well overdue.

One body that has long fought for the rights of sex workers and is looking to take their concerns to the AIDS 2014 conference is Scarlet Alliance, the peak body for Australian sex workers.

The national push towards full decriminalisation of the industry lies at the core of the Alliance’s mission.

“Scarlet Alliance intends to use AIDS 2014 to demonstrate through evidence and the lived experiences of sex workers why globally sex workers are advocating for decriminalisation,” chief executive Janelle Fawkes said.

“Our aim is to hold governments and donors accountable to their commitments — after many years of researching the impacts of laws and writing reports on what is needed, it is time to translate what we know into practice and decriminalise sex work.

“It is well recognised that the legal empowerment of sex worker communities is essential to an effective HIV response.”

After adopting laws considered by many to be the most liberal in Australia for sex workers, conditions have improved to varying degrees in NSW, although complete decriminalisation has not been achieved yet.

LGBTI and other sex workers still face difficulties due to the inconsistent laws found in Victoria and Queensland that impact on their safety, health and ability to earn an income, as well as reinforce a stigma that can cause irreparable harm.

Johnny Black from Melbourne has been a gay male escort working in an illegal private capacity for six years, and is also a committed sex worker activist. While not decriminalised, sex work in Victoria is operated largely through a licensing system that requires workers to register their details with the Business Licensing Authority. A counterproductive process, according to Johnny.

“It’s demeaning, but a registry is also a real barrier to legal work for those who are scared of being outed, losing custody of their kids, being subject to intimidation, etc,” he said.

“This creates a two-tier system, that of the legal sex industry, and the illegal industry.”

Even attempting to comply with regulation in Victoria has proven difficult.

“I actually went to register as an individual sex worker back in 2007, but I needed a police officer to sign my form and to witness my signature,” Johnny recalled.

“I went to the police station, and the plod there was friendly and helpful until I said what I needed, and then she completely changed, becoming hostile.

“That was my first impression of the Victorian police, and it remains a lasting one. That’s why I’ve never registered: I knew I was a second class citizen, but didn’t want anyone else knowing I was.”

Another issue faced by many sex workers in Victoria due to criminalisation, according to Johnny, continues to be the reinforced “whorephobia” that is fostered by the illegal nature of the industry.

“This has serious repercussions for me: I’m discriminated against openly, I can’t trust police, I can’t trust health professionals, and to be honest, I’ve learned not to trust the media either,” Johnny said.

“It means I can’t report, and am not taken seriously when I do, crimes against myself or those I care about. I have literally no legal recourse when I am outed as a sex worker.”

This is also the experience of Brisbane queer, cis-female sex worker Lulu, who says criminalisation only advances stigma and safety concerns.

“It means we are less likely to seek help from the police when we are threatened or assaulted by clients for fear of penalties,” Lulu said.

“If sex work were decriminalised it would help people to realise that sex work is work, it is a legitimate occupation choice and should be treated as such. I dream of the day when I can tell someone I’m a sex worker and they perceive it as a real job.”

However, a pivotal concern for sex workers across the country is health and access to free, and most importantly, confidential health care.

“I go to Melbourne Sexual Health Clinic (MSHC) and use a pseudonym different from both my real and working name, because I worry about who has access to what records,” Johnny said.

“Free treatment is also really important, and MSHC provides that. Nobody wants Medicare knowing where they’ve stuck their bits, right?”

Recent major cutbacks to the most-utilised sexual health service in Brisbane, Biala, have been of great concern to Brisbane sex workers. Free and confidential STD testing and GP care were completely cut.

“It is absolutely crucial for me that I am able to access confidential and professional, non-judgmental medical care. The closure of Biala has been a real problem for Brisbane brothel workers. Biala is closed and other sex worker-friendly health clinics are either so full you can’t get an appointment for weeks or aren’t taking on any new clients,” Lulu said.

Sex workers are required to undergo mandatory tri-monthly health checks — a policy Johnny describes as “draconian” — while workers in Brisbane are finding themselves forced to seek health certificates at local GPs: an experience fraught with apprehension.

“Many [GPs] don’t know what a health certificate is, or don’t think they can issue one… or think they can’t give it without the blood results, which take a week, which means a week without income because we can’t work without the certificate,” Lulu said.

“GPs will give us their unwanted moral opinion about our work. My friend was outed by the GP at reception. He felt justified in shaming her in front of the whole room. It’s appalling. I’ve had a GP talk to me about his problems with sex worker patients, while I’m lying there, like I want to know. It’s exhausting.”

Meanwhile, most states and territories criminalise HIV-positive sex workers to varying degrees.

“The criminalisation of HIV positive sex workers is another example of legal frameworks perpetuating stigma,” Lulu said.

“There is no known case of a sex worker ever transmitting HIV to a client in Australia. Sex workers are safe-sex professionals and yet those living with HIV are seen as criminals.

“This criminalisation is another reason why confidential health services are important for sex workers, and an example of why sex workers may not feel protected by the police.”

As for the continued efforts of the Scarlet Alliance to advocate for the rights of sex workers across the country, Fawkes believes that the decriminalisation is key.

“Sex workers are clear that the only model of laws that enables effective HIV prevention, access to treatment and delivers rights to sex workers is decriminalisation. We are clear and prepared to step up to the challenge,” she said.

“When you consider different models of laws — taking into account compliance, cost, safety, health outcomes and rights for sex workers — all of the evidence shows decriminalisation is the ‘everyone wins’ model.”

(Main photo credit: David Alexander; Star Observer)

**This article first appeared in the brand new August issue of the Star Observer, which is now available in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra.  Click here to find out where you can grab your free copy.

© Star Observer 2014 | For the latest in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* and Intersex (LGBTI) news in Australia, be sure to visit starobserver.com.au daily. You can also pick up the next Star Observer monthly magazine November 21 or Join us on our Facebook page and Twitter feed.