Excessive testing of sex workers has led to their being regarded as “dirty whores”, according to a brothel worker in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs.
Sex worker Paige, 23, warned that such a low opinion of women ‘on the game’ – together with other aspects of Victoria’s regulation regime – left them more liable to being bashed up by clients.
Studies by the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre and similar Australian bodies have shown that sex workers have an equivalent or lesser rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) compared with the general population.
The MSHC study found that, of 2893 female sex workers examined for STIs, only 3 per cent tested positive.
Paige said such findings should come as no surprise: “Any insertion is done with a condom. It’s illegal to ask for no-condom sex. The men must shower before they can even touch us.”
Yet, despite safe sex practices and low STI rates, workers are required to be tested every three months.
“It used to be, when it was first introduced, every fortnight,” said Jane Green, a spokesperson for sex-worker advocacy group Vixen Collective.
That fortnightly test was soon moved to monthly, and from there to once every three months, at the behest of organisations such as Vixen and the MSHC.
MSHC’s director, Professor Christopher Fairley, viewed the change as a good thing: “Moving from monthly testing to three-monthly testing has certainly helped free up services for the general population.”
But Vixen’s Ms Green had reservations: “Because it’s government- mandated, we’re often put in a position where we’re outed [as sex workers] to medical professionals.
“They can become part of our medical records and cause discrimination years and years on.”
Prof Fairley – who is also the Professor of Public Health at MSHC’s host organisation, Monash University – said the health centre had introduced safeguards against such an outcome.
“[We at the centre] don’t do Medicare, so we don’t require [their] real name for testing.”
The Vixen collective believes quarterly testing is still “too frequent”, a belief shared by many other organisations.
A paper published in the World Journal of AIDS in 2012 brands mandatory testing “expensive, invasive, and an undue burden on sex” while giving workers a “false sense of security”.
Paige: “I feel there are a lot of misconceptions about what we do. We’re viewed as dirty whores that will do anything for money: that’s not true.”
Green echoed this sentiment: “It’s over-testing a section of the population that don’t need to be told to get tested. We’re not children, it’s part of our job to maintain our health.”
The law contributed to stigmatising the sector, she added, leaving workers vulnerable to assault.
“People often think the licensing system in Victoria means that sex work is completely legal. It’s not … Street-based workers are still criminalised.”
Often, when street-based workers were arrested, they were fined and given an order to move on.
“Most street-based workers live in an area which they work, so they’re often told to remove themselves from an area where they have a residence,” said Green.
“When your work is criminalised, it can make it harder to get assistance from police … because you can be charged at the same time you are reporting a crime.”
But it was not just street-based workers affected by this judicial discrimination. “There was, as part of Victorian sentencing guidelines, a recommendation that if the accused had assaulted a sex worker, they could get a reduced sentence based on the fact [the victim] was a sex worker.
“This was a part of the sentencing guidelines for over 36 years and was only removed by advocacy from Vixen in partnership with a legal service in October last year.”
Severe social stigma remains entrenched. Many workers can lose friends and family just by telling them what they do for a living.
Paige is a case in point: “My mother found out what I did for work, rang my entire extended friends [network] and family, and kind of outed me [as what an older generation would call a prostitute].”
After that loss, Paige found herself in a dark place: “You feel abandoned, isolated, excluded.
“It took a while but, with the support of my partner and close friends who know what I do, it was just easier to move on.”
Before joining the trade, Paige had issues with her self-confidence. Back then, “I didn’t consider myself attractive in the slightest.
“But since starting in this industry, and seeing how well I do at it, I started to see there were certain qualities to me. I started to see that, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good.’ ”
And she expects there to be many good years ahead: “I love my job … I get frustrated when I can’t work … When I’m old and grey, I’ll probably open my own place.”
If you would like to know more about the work of the Vixen Collective, visit www.vixencollective.net