By Neelima Choahan
2 March 2018 — 2:34pm
The abuse began suddenly. There were no warning signs.
A "regular" customer had started stalking.
"At one stage there were 100 texts a day – about 300 in total over a couple of weeks. It was the constant calls late at night, it was coming to the front door, leaving sinister messages and threats ... (slipped) under the door.
Gasworks in Albert Park is exhibiting artworks by sex workers to highlight International Sex Worker Rights Day.
Photo: Joe Armao
But it took Evan, a sex-worker in his 30s, about 12 months before he could pluck up the courage to approach the police for help.
"It was threatening to go to the police against me because I was working outside the licensing system."
In Victoria street sex prostitution is illegal, while all other sex workers are required to be licensed.
Star Health primary and mental health general manager Alan Murnane said many sex workers like Evan were reluctant to be registered because they feared breaches of privacy.
"The fear of being publicly exposed remains high for sex workers so a requirement to register as a sex worker in Victoria with a government body creates risk," Mr Murnane said.
"People actually have to apply to government and say 'I am a sex worker'.
"They are very nervous about doing that. Or they choose to work without the registration and then they are breaking the law."
The Sex Workers Act 1994 regulates the industry, including rules about advertising, safe sexual practices and where the sexual services could take place. Industry insiders have long pushed to decriminalise sex work, but New South Wales is the only state in Australia to do so.
A spokesman for Victorian Consumer Affairs Minister Marlene Kairouz said sex work in Victoria was legal as long as the business was licensed.
"This helps to protect the health and safety of sex workers," he said.
“Sex workers who work alone or with one other person can also register with the Business Licensing Authority for an exemption to the licence requirement.”
Recently, Amnesty International recommended the decriminalisation of consensual sex work.
According to Vixen Collective, Victoria's peer-only sex worker organisation, decriminalisation is the removal of all criminal laws relating to the sex industry, allowing sex work to be regulated like any other business.
Mr Murnane said there was growing international evidence to support decriminalisation of sex work. "We have to got to totally deregulate the industry," he said.
"[There] is a whole range of legislation that affects the industry: occupational, health and safety, council planning permit ... and sex work should be the same. They should have to fit in that system. Not have their own set of regulations which makes it stand out, which stigmatises it, and which in the end increases the risk to workers working in that industry."
But those who oppose the reforms say legalising and decriminalisation puts more people, especially vulnerable women, at risk of trafficking.
Coalition Against Trafficking of Women in Australia public officer Dr Meagan Tyler said they supported the Nordic model which criminalised pimps and buyers of sex, rather than those working in prostitution.
"International evidence shows that total decriminilsation and legalisation increases trafficking inflows, " Dr Tyler said.
"The Nordic model understands prostitution primarily as a form of violence against women."
However, Mr Murnane said there was no evidence to suggest that decriminalisation resulted in more trafficking.
"To the contrary, [Amnesty International] says that when sex work is decriminalised, sex workers are better able to work together and demand their rights, leading to better working conditions and standards and greater oversight of commercial sex and potential trafficking within it," he said.
"When they are not threatened with criminalisation, sex workers are also able to collaborate with law enforcement to identify traffickers and victims of trafficking.
"Sex work is work; trafficking is a crime."
Now Star Health's Resourcing, Health and Education in the Sex Industry program, dubbed RhED, has put together an art exhibition by sex workers to challenge stigma and discrimination in the industry and highlight the need for better workplace and legal rights.
"Sex workers are professionals but stigma and discrimination mean they miss out on the rights that protect the rest of us in our working lives," Mr Murnane said.
"In powerful, moving, and humorous ways, the exhibition takes us into their daily working lives and experiences and underlines why we need to decriminalise sex work here in Victoria, as it is in New South Wales and New Zealand."
A Gasworks exhibition of art by Victorian sex workers highlights calls to decriminalise the sex industry.
Photo: Joe Armao
Artworks by about 50 sex workers include a handpainted bedspread to works incorporating the tools of a sex worker, including condoms and antibacterial hand sanitiser.
Lisa Marie, who took up sex work in her 50s for "adventure", created "Cleopatra Bust" for the exhibition. The life-size artwork has pieces of text from the Gideon's bible, often found in hotel rooms – a sex worker's temporary place of business.
"I see the prettiness of the cast contrasting with the ugliness of the biblical quotations, many of which are about burning ‘harlots’ – so the cast might seem to be singed around the edges. Aren’t we all," Lisa Marie said.
"[The quotes] didn't make me feel negative or ambivalent about what I was doing myself, but it made me aware of the historical, deeply held pernicious stigma against sex workers."
The Sex Worker is at Gasworks Art Park in Albert Park until March 18. For information visit http://www.gasworks.org.au/event/the-sex-worker/.
Lisa Marie's comment piece on sex work and safety: No bad whores, just bad laws