‘Uncertainty, fear’: Sex workers beg for help as brothels shut


Sex workers are pleading for help as brothels around the country close their doors and social isolation brings the world's oldest profession to a grinding halt.

It comes as a Sydney CBD massage parlour and three of its workers this week becoming the first to be fined for operating in defiance of Scott Morrison's orders to close their businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The industry said issuing fines at a time many sex workers faced evictions, would not discourage them from working and would only increase their financial need.

The impact of COVID-19 has devastated the sex industry and inconsistent laws across States and Territories mean many workers will fall through gaps in the Federal Government's stimulus package and won't be able to get help.

Sex workers have mobilised across Australia and an online crowd-funding campaign has been set up to raise money for short-term financial support.


Sex workers are being affected by the pandemic.
Sex workers are being affected by the pandemic.


But it is temporary fix for a group which says it was marginalised long before COVID-19 arrived and is especially vulnerable in the current crisis. As of yesterday morning (FRI), the campaign had raised just $12,500.

Acting president of national sex worker association Scarlet Alliance Gala Vanting said the industry was built around casual workers who didn't have access to leave entitlements or withdrawals from superannuation.

"Sex workers (have been) forced out of work almost entirely, and require immediate financial support," she said.

"Many don't have savings to live off of during this time or family to turn to for support. "Many also have dependants that they are financially responsible for."

She said some would be able to access the government's income support package but many wouldn't, including migrant sex workers and those who weren't eligible to receive Centrelink payments because they did not have a fixed address or ID.


Many sex workers are finding it tough to pay bills.
Many sex workers are finding it tough to pay bills.


There were also many reasons sex workers didn't want to disclose their sex work to a Government Department because it could have a negative impact on their families or future job prospects.

"For a community already heavily impacted by stigma and discrimination, options for seeking stability later on can be limited," she said.

Ms Vanting said the industry had been through tough times before but COVID-19 was unprecedented.

"The global financial crisis impacted many sex workers but the pandemic is a very different beast because of social distancing, increased isolation, and the enforcement of workplace shutdowns on such a wide scale," she said.

Jane Green, who works out of a brothel in Melbourne, said it had been a week of uncertainty and fear.

"I've been a sex worker for many years. I know that - as someone who lives with chronic illness - I obviously had the stresses that I think everyone is feeling at the moment. And I don't think this is reserved for the sex work community," she said.

"(I'm) looking to meet basic needs, to pay rent, to pay utilities, to access basic services. I think the idea that people are going to be shut away in quarantine and be limited in their social interaction is profoundly distressing."



Last week, Victoria's sex worker organisation, Vixen Collective, announced a team-up with the Victorian Trades Hall Council which would give it office space for the first time and an ally in its push to fully decriminalise sex work in Victoria.

But the COVID-19 outbreak means Vixen is now unable to move in and the focus has shifted to bracing the industry for the coronavirus fallout.

"In the last 24-36 hours, the impact of travel restrictions and business closures and the ongoing impact of self isolation … (means) there has been an unprecedented loss of work and income in our community," Ms Green said.

Ms Vanting said the situation workers now found themselves in showed the need to fully decriminalise sex work across the country.

With no centralised laws regulating the sex industry, Australia's current approach is patchwork with different states taking vastly different approaches.

New South Wales is the most liberal while South Australia has some of the most repressive laws still on the books.

In Adelaide, where brothels and sex work remain completely criminalised, workers have been hit the hardest.

South Australian Sex Industry Network spokeswoman Kat Morrison said the impact of COVID-19 was profound.

"Sex workers in SA operate within a criminalised framework and have no access to industrial rights and protections, no annual leave, no sick days, and are not included in any state or federal stimulus packages," she said.

Many were scared and uncertain of their future.

"Sex workers are mothers, father, sisters, and brothers - sex workers are members of the community and are subsequently experiencing all of the same emotions as anyone else," she said.

Originally published as 'Uncertainty, fear': Sex workers beg for help as brothels shut