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A glimpse into the sex industry from the people who work in it

How did a Melbourne health service come to support an art exhibition about sex work? It’s a long story, but it turns out the sex work industry in Victoria can be a health hazard for those working in it.

The laws pertaining to sex work vary from state to state in Australia, with NSW being the only jurisdiction where it has been decriminalised.  A decade on, in 2016, a NSW Legislative Assembly Select Committee on the Regulation of Brothels concluded that decriminalisation “has achieved positive health outcomes and outreach” and is the best way to protect sex works and maintain a more transparent industry.

In Victoria there is what is described as a ”two tiered sex industry,” whereby licensing allows people in some facilities to work legally, but many others end up working outside the legal framework. The Sex Worker art exhibition is being held to raise awareness, and to call for a decriminalised system where sex workers to have the same rights and protections in their work as other Australians.

An article published in the Conversation last year runs through some of the history of sex work decriminalisation in NSW and concludes that,

Amnesty InternationalThe Lancet, the World Health Organization and more than 237 sex worker organisations describe full decriminalisation as the safest and most humane approach to the governance of sex work.”

The exhibition opened last week in Melbourne. One of our Croakey editors, Marie McInerney, was there in her role of assisting Star Health’s Resourcing health & Education in the Sex Industry (RhED) program to promote the event.

Below she profiles some of the artists and their work, and explores the human, as well as the health case for decriminalisation.


Marie McInerney writes:

At the heart of The Sex Worker art exhibition now on show in Melbourne is a call for decriminalisation and equal rights – for sex workers to have the same rights and protections in their work that everyone else has.

But the exhibition’s magic is in how it gives voice to more than 40 sex workers across Melbourne to talk about about their work and lives – the challenges and rewards, the stigma and discrimination.

A unique opportunity to connect

At the formal opening of the exhibition last weekend, we heard how powerful it has been to bring the artists together on this project over the past two years – female, male, trans and gender diverse sex workers from different cultural backgrounds and different parts of the industry, including brothels, escort businesses and street work.

Sex worker and proud: Kora

“It’s been liberating, bringing me out of my isolation and into contact with other sex workers and to learn the full diversity of our industry,” said Lisa Marie, a Melbourne woman who has begun sex work in her 50s, in this Op Ed in the Sunday Age.

That unique opportunity to connect has produced about 80 works that are as diverse as the artists themselves: funny, sad, heartbreaking, provocative, humble, sharp and nuanced.

For a glimpse, watch this 2 minute video produced by exhibition facilitator Tamara Desiatov: https://vimeo.com/257060785.

The Sex Worker exhibition is being staged at the Gasworks Art Park in Albert Park until 18 March 2018, a collaboration with the RhED (Resourcing health and education in the sex industry) program hosted by Melbourne community health service Star Health.

The exhibition officially opened last Saturday, 3 March, to mark International Sex Workers Rights Day. Below are some of the works on show, their artist descriptions, and insights into what the arts project has meant to some of those involved.

“We really wanted to normalise what we did”

Kora worked as a sex worker in a brothel for two years and helped bring the exhibition about.

We used to sit around between bookings, to talk about what art we liked, draw together, create, talk about all the things we wanted to do, how we wanted to make an impact on the sex industry world and bridge that gap between us in that small room and everyone else outside.

We really wanted to normalise what we did, to the outside world, outside the four walls we lived in during our work.

I didn’t think I’d be afraid to tell anyone (I was a sex worker) but I was. I told my family straight away that I was doing it, to mixed (reception), and that’s when I realised how much of a struggle that sex workers have in the industry, in being heard and recognised as a valid service. That’s what we wanted to do with the exhibition: we wanted to show that we are a service, it’s a service we provide. We’re not selling our bodies like people say we are, a lot of the time we aren’t using our bodies at all, we’re using our voices, listening to people who don’t get to be heard as well.”

#22 Breasts

Some of my most memorable conversations in the girls’ room were about breasts. Girls who loved their breasts, who had them enhanced, who wanted surgery, who complained about bras, who had back pain, who had beaten breast cancer, who knew others who had passed due to the disease.

After seeing so many beautiful pairs, we talked about how different ones looked and put them to paper. As the drawing got larger and larger, girls would come by and find their pair. It normalised our bodies, as they should be. There is nothing sexual about this painting, as it should be when we leave work. We are not objects, we are bodies, just like you.

#20 Aqium

Aqium (hand sanitiser) is something that is in just about every single workplace in Australia – it’s used and it’s replenished. In a brothel there’s Aqium at the front desk, behind the bar, in the girls’ room, in your locker, your handbag, in the room. It’s everywhere, it practically flies out of the cupboard at you.

For most, it serves its intended purpose and for others it’s a barrier between your booking and coming back downstairs for your next one and when you’re leaving for home. As good or as tough as a day has been, most have a ritual: Aqium on the hands as you’re leaving for home, music to ease you on the train home, gym to sweat the stresses of the day away.

Like any other job we have the tools we need to complete the ‘task’ at hand, it’s just that some of our tools mean a lot more than they do to others who use them in 9-5 offices.

Listen to this interview with Kora: https://soundcloud.com/user-550534661/180303_1508a

“Art as cultural resistance”

Queenie Bon-Bon is Victorian vice president of Scarlett Alliance, Australia’s peak sex worker organisation. She spoke at the opening.

Deeply leisured wear: a coat for all occasions, by Luna Aquatica and Queenie Bon-Bon, made of wigs.

“Criminal consequence for consensual sex is fundamentally unhealthy and harmful and a punitive concept that should be abandoned. These laws tell us to stop what we are doing, not to carry on in better conditions. Sex workers just want same rights as everyone else.

When decriminalisation happens  the moral fibre of the land won’t evaporate but what will happen is that people who engage in sex work will be able to do so safely.

In Victoria, the frameworks that we work within perpetuate stigma and discrimination against our community and remain a major impediment for workers’ wellbeing. This impacts our interpersonal relationships, as well as our access to health care services and how we can interact with the police.

Like so many marginalised groups, sex workers have a long history of art activism as a form of cultural resistance strategy. Arts (are) a way to connect with much larger audiences and connect more deeply than just with straightforward information.

It’s such a joy for me to see this amazing work and for other people to be able to gain insights into the lives of sex workers and learn about the sex industry from people who know about it. It’s so important for us to be able create work that gives us a real voice, that counters the media representations that perpetuate stereotypes and often try to silence our voices.

It’s so powerful to have these bodies of work that can inspire our own lives, and also let so many different voices be heard. These works are a real investment in our community.”

“Breaking down walls”

Sisters Rebecca and Carla were at the exhibition to represent their sister Kathleen, who had been a sex worker and was passionately involved in The Sex Worker project when she died suddenly in late 2016 due to an aneurysm.

They described her as a “trail blazer…with a keen sense of adventure”, who had started to push gender roles and stereotypes early, to become one of Australia’s first female submariners, before later moving into sex work:

She was really passionate about removing the stigma from sex work, passionate about decriminalisation. Basically the choice to work in sex work is simply that: it’s a choice, and they have no less right to be safe and protected at work than anyone else and that’s what Kathleen was passionate about. She worked hard at every role she was in and she deserved just as much protection in this role as she did in any other.

She was always one to push boundaries, challenge the social stigma around gender roles and sexuality. She was the one to see the person behind the title, behind the label, and influenced me and my sisters and whole family to do the same thing.

She challenged our own prejudices and predetermined view on sex work and sex workers and how we thought it would make her look and how we thought it would make our family look.

These kind of walls could only be broken down slowly through conversation, understanding and our unconditional love for Kathleen.

We are really proud to be here today to honour her and the amazing work she put into it for a cause which is so important.”

Watch this interview with Carla about Kathleen and her work:

“Work in progress”

Lisa Marie took up sex work in her mid-50s and has become a powerful advocate for decriminalisation. With elderly men and men with disability among her clients, she talks about the crucial role that sex workers play in providing relief of ‘skin hunger’ for those with limited options for intimacy in their lives.

“Once society sees the sex worker’s labour for what it is – service work – it will be easier for those without access to physical closeness to openly have their needs met and for sex workers to be professionals in their work, protected by all the laws we expect in every other workplace.”

#37 Cleopatra Bust

The pieces of text are from a Gideon’s bible, often found in 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!

This work celebrates the unsung role sex workers have traditionally played in maintaining civic morale, during peace as well as wartime. The cast is decorated with traditional pearls, beads and sequins. The patches of red might be blood, they might be red velvet, satin or lipstick, and there are white strips which could be bandages or stays.

I also wanted this piece to suggest a map, uncharted terrain, speaking to the mysterious and unknowable parts of all of us. The slightly unfinished papier-mâché effect is to say that each individual is a ‘work in progress’ and that no-one should be defined by their work.

Read Lisa Marie’s Op Ed, published in The Sunday Age: Time to fully decriminalise sex work

You can also read this story about the exhibition.

Making the health case

Alan Murnane is General Manager of Primary and Mental Health at the South Melbourne-based StarHealth, which runs the RhED (Resourcing health and education in the sex industry) program that has facilitated the exhibition. He said:

Why would a health service work towards decriminalisation of sex work?

We come from a social model of health and understand the potential ramifications for sex workers of working either legally or illegally in the Victorian system. Both create stressful work situations, and ongoing stress creates health issues.

Sex workers have been shown by Australian medical research to have lower STI/HIV rates than the general population and yet in Victoria are subject to mandatory health testing. An end to forced testing will allow sex workers to manage their own health needs and free up space in over-worked government health clinics.

Another potential point to consider from a public health perspective is the cost of enforcing the regulatory framework we have in Victoria and the current inequity of health messages provided to sex workers. Sex workers in brothels for example are provided with a wealth of information in relation to their health whereas somebody working in an unlicensed brothel will have next to no information. Public health messaging could be improved if we diverted funds from unnecessary over-regulation into education.

Decriminalisation places greater control into the hands of sex workers to operate independently, self-organise in informal cooperatives and control their own working environments.

In 2016, Amnesty International published its policy calling for decriminalisation of consensual sex work. This is based on evidence that these laws often make sex workers less safe and provide freedom for abusers with sex workers often too scared of being penalised to report crime to the police.

In 2014 The Lancet, published a series of papers that investigated the complex issues faced by sex workers worldwide and called for the full decriminalisation of sex work, in the global effort to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

Listen to this interview with Alan Murnane and sex worker/artist Lisa Marie on ABC 774: http://www.abc.net.au/radio/melbourne/programs/afternoons/the-sex-worker/9485886

Thanks to Kima O’Donnell, Health Education and Support Worker at RhED, and exhibition facilitator Tamara Desiatov who created the video and provided most of the photos.

The Sex Worker exhibition is at the Gasworks Art Park in Albert Park until 18 March 2018.

Declaration: Marie McInerney, a Croakey editor, has done paid work for Star Health to promote the exhibition.

Comments 3

  1. Zldoll says:

    Great Post.!!!!
    Thanks for sharing this post with us it was really very informative and quite helpful for my small research.
    Thanks again.

  2. oksexdoll says:

    Thanks to Kima O’Donnell, Health Education and Support Worker at RhED, and exhibition facilitator Tamara Desiatov who created the video and provided most of the photos.

  3. We all need to change our thinking regarding sex workers as they are also workers like us and we all should give them respect. There is nothing wrong in this work the thing we need to change is our thinking.

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