16 May 2018

News article: The future of sex work – a photo essay

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/may/01/the-future-of-sex-work-a-photo-essay (accessed 01/05/2018)

The future of sex work – a photo essay

It has been 23 years since New South Wales decriminalised sex work. How much has changed for sex workers?

by Jad Salfiti photographer Michael Wickham - Tue 1 May 2018 04.00 AEST 

In 1995 New South Wales became one of the first places in the world to decriminalise sex work. Against a backdrop of the Aids epidemic and a recommendation to fight police corruption from a royal commission into the state’s police service, sex workers succeeded in lobbying the government for change.

The NSW model is often cited as an example of best-practice, evidence-based regulation. The state has an estimated 10,000 sex workers and many of them are active globally in law reform, human rights and HIV prevention campaigns.

But 23 years since decriminalisation, how much has changed for sex workers and what does the future hold?

The Guardian spoke to six sex workers about their personal experiences and the diverse nature of the work they do.


Jules Kim

Chief executive of the Scarlet Alliance – the leading sex worker-run advocacy group 

There is still a lot of confusion about the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation. When sex work is decriminalised, that means it’s no longer in the criminal code. Obviously, we are subject to criminal laws just like everybody else. It’s just that our work itself isn’t seen as a crime. When it’s legalised there are still provisions that regulate sex work in the criminal code. Essentially, the many things around sex work – brothels, clients, etc – are made illegal to obstruct the work. These stigmatising and obstructing regulations do not help but hinder sex workers’ rights and safety.

When sex work is decriminalised, it’s considered like any other business. It becomes subject to occupational healthy and safety laws, industrial rights legislation, council regulation and so on. Many international agencies such as Amnesty International and the United Nations have joined us in recent years to call for the full decriminalisation of our work, our workplaces and our clients.

Many conflate human trafficking with sex work. It comes from the preconception people have that sex work is inherently exploitative. I’m not saying trafficking doesn’t exist, but it certainly isn’t the dominant experience for the vast majority of migrant sex workers. Unfortunately, anti-trafficking policies have been used to persecute and criminalise migrant sex workers nationally and globally.


Rachel Wotton

Wotton’s sex work with people with disabilities was examined in the 2011 documentary Scarlet Road

I have become known for my sex work and advocacy for clients with disability. Over more than 20 years, I have developed many methods and techniques to allow me to work within their physical capacity. The only expectation is that the client needs to treat me with dignity and respect.

I adapt my services to the needs of each individual. For instance, if a client had a stroke and the left side of their body is affected then I need to know that. I can then sit on the other side and they can touch me with their right arm. Certain clients come to lose their virginity. Others want to learn about sexual positions and activities. Some want to find out what their body can or can’t do after an accident or injury.

I co-founded the charitable organisation Touching Base to build training programs for other sex workers and to connect them to people with disabilities. We focus on the barriers these two marginalised communities experience, as well as their concerns such as access, discrimination and legal issues.


The biggest challenge is often organising the appointment, especially if they rely on assistance from family, friends or support staff. It’s hard. Imagine asking your mum to arrange a visit to a sex worker. It’s a privilege that they choose us to share their hopes, fears and dreams with. They trust that we can provide a safe space. 


Tilly Lawless

Sex workers aren’t always passive victims. They aren’t always slaves to the patriarchy. They aren’t people who need to be saved or have decisions made for them. I work – mainly – with a community of women and I love the support that comes from that. I find it life-affirming. I define myself as a feminist. But I have a fraught relationship with mainstream feminism. They silence sex workers by refusing to recognise our work and autonomy. And, in doing so, have committed a great act of violence against us. 


In the west, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have ignited a conversation about women’s safety globally and, once again, sex workers are left out of the discussion. When we talk about violence against women, we need to talk about violence against sex workers.

Often, if a sex worker gets raped or robbed, they have no recourse to legal action, as they won’t be taken seriously or may even be arrested. Instead of having to constantly prove our humanity or justify our profession we should be consulted and included in wider discussions about our work, sexual harassment and feminism.


Ryan James

I used to work for an investment bank. I felt my life slipping away working 14 hours day for a company to pocket the profits. I was looking for a change so I quit. I was doing a bit of personal training and started doing sex work on the side, and then porn. And after a year I started escorting full time. The negatives I experienced in sex work were directly comparable to negatives I experienced in other jobs. There is still stigma as a male escort but it’s less than what women get from society. When I was in the finance industry I worked long hours for little reward. You are basically a cog in the machine and, if you aren’t performing up to expectations, you’re not treated well, even if the demands are unreasonable. But sex work allows me to decide my work hours, travel frequently and be my own boss.

Many don’t realise the job can be much more than just sex. I had one client who had been abused and hadn’t had sexual contact for 10 years. She decided the safest way to do that was with an escort. She knew it would be a safe space and she could be in control; stopping at any time with no issues. For someone to come and see me and place that trust in me, I found it very moving.




Community service worker, Sex Workers Outreach Project

When I told my mum and dad I was moving to Sydney, the first thing they said was: “You stay away from Kings Cross now.” I just laughed to myself and thought: “I might just go and check it out.” The Kings Cross area of Sydney was the main red-light district in the city. It was alive and exciting, full of all things good and full of things bad.

I began doing sex work in 1984. I had a “stigma” thing going, being a transwoman of colour, a drug user and a sex worker. The Aids epidemic had hit Sydney and sex workers were all being labelled as “carriers”. This made it very difficult for us to get work in our chosen profession. It was a very different world then.

The way we were treated was horrible and we couldn’t do a thing about it because we were sex workers without rights. Clients would take advantage of us, coercing us into doing things with them sexually and not paying us, knowing full well that we could not seek recompense or justice from the law. The police would strip us of all our money, drive us way out of town and tell us to find our own way home. The crimes committed against all street-based sex workers were horrific and the biggest perpetrators were the police.


Every now and then, while working as a street-based sex worker, guys would approach me, not realising I was transgender. One night a client picked me up and, of course, I presumed he knew that I was a transwoman because he picked me up in the trans working area on the street. We went back to his hotel room and I started to undress, when he suddenly slipped his hand down my knickers. He was so shocked with what he felt that he kicked me away from him and I flew off the bed and hit the wall. When he had regained his composure, he said: “Fuck! I had no idea. Just keep the money and get out!” These days I’m always open about being trans and, because of that, I have taken full ownership of what is rightfully mine as a proud transwoman.

I’ve had a few trans girlfriends who have been beaten for who they are, finding themselves in similar situations. I realised at an early stage in my transition to become the woman I am today that it could have been worse. I could’ve been the transwoman lying beaten on the floor or murdered by a transphobic nutcase who decided to blame a trans person for all his insecurities.

Over the 23 years of decriminalisation I have witnessed a lot of positive progress with trans street-based sex workers. Back then, we were seen as neither man nor woman, just freaks who were “vectors of disease”. Today it’s important to me that people know who I really am.


Lucie Bee

I love comic books; I’m a big gamer, I like nerdy geeky shit. A lot of my clients are into the same things that I’m into. As a community, we nerds haven’t been invited into sexual spaces. Geek and gamer culture has always been a haven for me but they’ve been traditionally male-dominated spaces. Or at the very least, marketed that way. The people I meet just want to feel safe, attractive, important and sexual.

I get guys who just want to sit with a girl and play videos games for an hour and then fuck. That’s great because these are guys who love everything from video games to comics to tabletop games. They previously felt like they could only talk to their guy friends and now they can talk to me and feel comfortable and realise that, yes, women are right into these things too. I take my job seriously.

Being both a sex worker and avid gamer, I’ve been invited to speak at industry conferences about the importance of sexual consent in computer games.

I know that after this job entering another industry might be difficult. There is a lot of stigma and people say: “You’ll have a lot of gaps in [your] résumé.” Well, I don’t intend to have gaps in my résumé. I’ve built a brand, I’ve built a name for myself, I’ve done a lot of amazing work in a lot of different places. And I’m still diversifying based on the name I made for myself.