What happens when sex work is re-criminalised

Like most casual and self-employed workers right now, sex workers lost the ability to earn an income during COVID-19. However, seeking government assistance for sex workers is not as straightforward or safe as it is for workers in other industries. This will have resulted in marginalised people falling into poverty and harm as sex work was then re-criminalised due to social distancing laws. While the government neglects the needs of sex workers in Australia, workers’ organisations across the country are fighting tirelessly to provide COVID-19 information, counselling, advice, as well as financial and food assistance and much-needed advocacy.

In the US, sex workers are openly excluded from receiving government support and unemployment benefits in light of COVID-19. Here in Australia, the exclusion is far more subtle, yet just as alienating. Predictably, those left without any options or safety net are more marginalised sex workers, who do not have the opportunity to pursue other employment options or government support.

Sex work is one of very few financially viable options for people who face stigma and barriers in other workforces. Many choose this profession because of its flexibility and relatively high income. The sex workers I have come across are mostly women who are: carers, living with mental illness and other disabilities, from low SES backgrounds, queer or linguistically diverse. Many of these workers are also not Australian citizens or residents. Women in Australia make up the majority of unpaid caregivers, so flexible working arrangements and a high hourly rate of pay are crucial for allowing them to manage both work and unpaid caring duties. Although it will seem counter-intuitive to many people, the sex industry implements conditions feminist labour movements strive for.

Despite the benefits of sex work, being in the industry comes with its own risk of harm. Sex workers are routinely murdered (examples here, and here), assaulted (here and here) and publicly shamed (here). They face housing insecurity when landlords learn where their income comes from, are overpoliced (here, and very recently here) and vilified even after ceasing sex work (here, and here).

To protect their safety, many sex workers do not associate their legal names and identities to their jobs, which makes it harder for them to access state-funded COVID-19 relief and services. Many workers are faced with few options, none of them ideal. When applying for Centrelink’s JobSeeker payment, separation certificates from an employer, invoices, and/or a ‘cease of business’ declaration must be provided. In each case, being truthful means putting yourself at risk, while lying can result in fines or imprisonment.

The JobKeeper process is equally fraught. Workers must operate with an ABN and apply through the ATO to qualify, leading to the privacy issues mentioned above. Many sex workers are in Australia on visas, and don’t qualify for either of the government assistance packages. Even when they are willing to put their privacy at risk, they may find it difficult to navigate processes that people facing far fewer barriers struggle with. 

In these ways, marginalised people are forced into poverty and harm while sex work is effectively re-criminalised. Many workers ineligible for government assistance have still been seeking work, putting their health at risk and needing to break social distancing laws in order to pay rent and buy food. 

The nature of the work has also become more dangerous and less financially rewarding. Workers who usually operate in brothels and massage parlours have had to advertise online for private bookings, preventing them from accessing safe and secure premises. Further, because online listing sites are being inundated with new workers, prices are being driven down at the same time as demand for the services is shrinking. This would have forced sex workers accepting riskier jobs than they would in normal circumstances. 

While some sex workers do have access to Centrelink and JobKeeper funding, they are the privileged ones who meet eligibility criteria, accept the risk involved, and have the capacity to interact with government sites and services. This issue intersects perfectly along class, race, (dis)ability and gender lines, ensuring those most vulnerable continue to be locked out of an acceptable standard of living. 

The support that sex workers do have however, is the strength and resilience of our community and workers’ organisations. The Scarlet Alliance and Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) are working tirelessly to provide up to date information on government regulations. They publish risk minimisation handbooks specifically for working with COVID-19, as well as continuing their ever-dedicated counselling and sex work supplies services. SWOP in Sydney have organised food boxes to be delivered to struggling sex workers in conjunction with the Addison Road Community Centre. The Scarlet Alliance also has a crowdfund active to raise money for vulnerable sex workers who do not have access to government support, although the funds are stretched very thin. The support and advocacy provided by The Scarlet Alliance, SWOP, and other local and regional workers’ organisations at this time of crisis is vital. 

Support for workers during major global emergencies should include all workers, with special attention paid to vulnerable and marginalised communities. Rather than supporting these communities, the government is excluding and over-policing them. Sex workers’ organisations are doing as much as they can to stop people falling through the cracks.


Image: Yann Beauson


Eliza is a Sydney-based sex worker and political economy graduate.

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