SEX workers across Victoria are outraged at the state government’s decision to help fund an anti-sex work project that they fear will increase stigma and discrimination against members of their community.

Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos recently announced that the government would invest $300,000 in Project Respect, a ‘support service’ for women in the sex industry.

The funding was announced in response to recommendations that came out of the government’s recent Royal Commission into Family Violence, which identified sex workers as being particularly vulnerable.

“The government is ensuring that sex workers and victims of sex trafficking get the help they need without fear of stigma or discrimination,” Mikakos said.

“[Project Respect] is doing powerful work in providing support to some of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

Victorian sex workers have criticised the move, describing it as ill-informed and the project as inaccessible.

In the past, sex workers have protested against Project Respect in Australia specifically because of its treatment of sex workers. More specifically, they’ve advocated against the project’s policies and its support of the Swedish model of sex work, which criminalises consensual sexual activity and perpetuates the idea that sex work is immoral and criminal.

Victorian brothel-based sex worker Alice said Project Respect isn’t truly ‘helping’ sex workers at all.

“Project Respect only want to ‘help’ me if I want to stop working, they want to make me ‘free’ from sex work – I’d like to access services that can actually help me and be free from their opinions,” she said.

Queer sex worker Jane Green from Victoria’s sex work organisation Vixen Collective said the government has questions to answer.

During the Royal Commission, Vixen Collective submitted recommendations advising against funding anti-sex work organisations such as Project Respect.

“We couldn’t have laid more groundwork for preventing this sort of outcome,” Green said.

“We sent in our submission and wrote to Mikakos but unfortunately it didn’t have any effect and the funding was granted – since the announcement we’ve again contacted the Minister’s office by phone and in writing.

“It’s very well-recognised that what Project Respect does is intrinsically harmful. A lot of feedback in the sex worker community is one of anger and rightly so, because it’s money going to an organisation that actually harms our community.”

The project itself involves outreach to brothels and the handing out of resources on domestic violence, however Green believes these resources are dangerous.

“The reports we get back from brothel workers is that the representatives from Project Respect are extremely ill-informed. It has been shown that peer-based programs run by sex worker organisations are the most effective way of engaging with our community,” she said.

“We get complaints about Project Respect all the time, we expect they’re doing more harm than good.

“There’s a sense from Victorian sex workers that we’re being invaded by people that look down on us and judge us – and that’s from personal experience, because I’m a brothel-based sex worker.”

Vixen Collective and Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association, have said in a statement that peer-based programs and services are the most effective way to respond to violence, stigma, and discrimination for the sex worker community.

“Appropriate targeted support and care that is responsive to the lived realities for sex workers and respectful of agency is the best way to address the needs of sex workers that have experienced violence,” it read.

“Judgemental projects that coerce sex workers to ‘rehabilitate’ from sex work, and invalidate individual experiences and needs, serve to increase stigma and discrimination against us.”

Jenny Mikakos was contacted for comment.

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