Sex worker fears over US bill

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An estimated 100,000 or more Australian "sugar babies" using social networking platforms to conduct business could be among sex workers around the world impacted by a US bill. Rachel Dodemaide reports

When “Lilly” starting using a popular “sugar daddy” dating site, she was able to network with other sex workers through online platforms and get advice on ways to help her stay safe.

“Starting out with no guidance could get you into trouble,” the 19-year-old said.

Being forewarned is key as Lilly found out with the “underwear shopper”, who contacted her through SeekingArrangement.com which describes itself as “the leading sugar daddy dating site, where over 10-million-members fuel mutually beneficial relationships.”

The client asked to meet Lilly over lunch and buy a pair of her underwear. To Lilly this seemed like a quick and easy job.

“He said he wanted to get lunch in the city because he had a day off. Later, he changed the arrangements, claimed he was working late, and told me to come to his place in the suburbs. It was wishy washy and when I questioned him he got uncomfortable and cagey. I didn’t see him in the end, it just felt off.”

Lilly’s instincts were right. She later discovered, through an online sex worker support group, that the “underwear shopper”was known to workers and considered dangerous.

Along with the public sites, the private networks and digital communities, which kept Lilly informed, are currently at risk of disappearing.

In the digital age many sex workers have chosen to use social networking platforms to conduct business.

This has given sex workers the opportunity to work independently, screen their own clients and negotiate their own rates. Many sex workers in Australia now depend upon digital platforms for their livelihood.

BackPage.com, a popular US based website, used globally by sex workers, was recently shut down. After being charged by American law enforcement with the facilitation of sex trafficking, money laundering and illegal sex work.

The legal means used to take out BackPage is the new FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking)/SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) bill, which was signed into law by US President Donald Trump in February. The bill, originally designed to help fight online sex trafficking, has the potential to adversely affect people working in the sex industry, both in the United States and globally.

Censorship laws, included in the bill, could see web site owners liable to criminal charges if people use their site to discuss sex work. Independent sex workers, who rely on private sites and chat rooms to screen and flag potentially dangerous clients, will be forced back into the streets if these avenues of communication are shut down.

The dating website SeekingArrangement.com caters for a variety of clients. Some use it as a means for wealthy older men to network with younger women in a “sugar” arrangement. Such liaisons are relatively exclusive and popular with young students who may need the patronage of an older man to get by. Similarly, many sex workers use the platform to find clients, while others see it as a safe and secure way to enter the sex industry.

Lilly started using SeekingArrangement.com to gain financial independence when she was 18. She said sex work allowed her to move to Melbourne from her family home in Sydney, with enough money to pay bond and a month’s rent in advance.

“I had always been interested in sex work and it seemed like a good place to start. l gave up on the “sugar daddy” thing pretty quickly and just started using the website to screen potential clients. I would send out a bunch of spam messages and then filter through the replies, picking out the ones I knew had the means to pay my hourly rates.”

Being able to set her own rates allowed Lilly to earn more than she would have received through an agency or brothel. More importantly, Lilly also had control over who she engaged with and when and where she would meet. She described her experience in the sex industry as “empowering”.

“It’s like, this is the price of my body and it’s not for free, it’s really helped improve my self-confidence. It’s funny, you have all these people paying you thousands of dollars to be with you and then you meet some stupid boy at a party that tries to put you down or pressure you and you just don’t let it happen, you know your own worth.”

The Australian Institute of Criminology puts the number of sex workers operating at any one time in Australia at roughly 20,000. However, this number does not take into account the number of people using platforms such as SeekingArrangement.com.

According to Seeking Arrangement’s own statistics, over 100,000 female students are currently registered as “sugar babies” in Australia alone. This number has grown markedly in since 2010 when the site reported 79,400 student “sugar babies” worldwide.

Whether it is the rising cost of living, higher rates of youth unemployment or growing student loans, it is apparent that commercialised sex work in some form or another is now common place for many young Australian women.

With a growing sex industry, the need for more and better support for workers is obvious.

Fair Work Australia and special divisions of the police force have a mandate in law to support and protect sex workers. However, more needs to happen. Resourcing health and education (RhED) is an organisation that represents the interests of sex workers commented on the role and responsiveness of these bodies.

“Many sex workers report that, after contact with some staff of regulatory bodies, there is not sufficient knowledge of the sex industry. Many also report a perceived lack of resources and will to effectively address problems,” a spokesperson said.

The alienation that exists between sex workers and the agencies that are there to protect them is a serious concern for the industry.

RhED reports that while many sex workers are satisfied with their workplaces, they also receive reports of adverse working conditions and unsafe practices:

“While RhED encourages sex workers to report to regulatory bodies, a range of barriers means that reporting and successful follow up does not always occur. These barriers include the fear of stigma and discrimination when reporting, fear of not being taken seriously, and ‘victim blaming’ in cases of workplace violence.”

“Rose” worked for a number of years in Victorian brothels and escort agencies. She now works independently and reports that her experience in the sex industry as an independent worker is far more positive.

Rose recounted that the power was largely in the hands of agency management, adding that she’d regularly witnessed staff take advantage of workers.

“More than once I found myself locked in a car and forced to an address, which I’d made clear I hadn’t wanted to go to. It’s easy for them to take work away from you and blackmail you if you don’t comply,” Rose said.

It’s clear to see the decriminalisation of sex work and the encouragement of sex workers to collectivise and share industry knowledge needs public support and agency assistance. Rose expressed her opinion on the lack of representation felt by workers.

“Sex workers don’t have a union so we have no way to fight back, I’ve tried to encourage work mates to go to VCAT on multiple occasions and they don’t because they are scared they would be laughed out of the place.”

With advertising laws that curtail the online presence of sex work, and the signing of the FOSTA/SESTA bill, the future of the independent sex worker is looking more uncertain and unsafe.

“Sex work is work, we deserve the same rights enjoyed by all workers in society,” Rose said.