South Australia has some of the toughest laws in the country against sex work, but that could change with lawmakers considering a push to decriminalise the industry.
Penny, 29, has been a sex worker for about five years.
She started working in the industry after training as a massage therapist, earning about $19 an hour. A change in circumstances led her to consider a different kind of massage therapy – one that offered sexual services.
“My boyfriend and I broke up, and I was alone in an apartment, and I really needed money,” she says.
“I went onto Gumtree [website] and basically just started scrolling for jobs, and I came across a massage parlour.”
She went for a trial shift at the parlour and says she hasn’t looked back.
“I was incredibly surprised at how natural and normal it was to engage in a sensual service with someone,” she says.
“At the end of the day, I left with 400 bucks, and my rent and bills were covered.”
Penny is not her real name, and she doesn’t want to be identified, because sex work is illegal in South Australia where she lives and works.
She could face fines or jail time for spending the money she earns from sex.
Penny says the criminalised nature of the industry makes her more reluctant to disclose her profession to health workers and other service providers. It also affects the way she works.
“It’s scary,” she says. “Will I be arrested the next time I work? I don’t know.”
State Liberal Party MLC Michelle Lensink hopes a bill to decriminalise sex work will pass through the state’s Legislative Council this week.
“South Australia’s laws are probably among the most restrictive in the country,” she says.
“It’s been a very long time since there’s been any changes made to them, and even the police here have said many times over the years that the laws are very difficult to police. So they don’t work for anybody.”
State of play around Australia
Sex work remains criminalised in Tasmania and Western Australia as well as South Australia.
All other states and territories have some form of legalisation or licensing, with the exception of New South Wales, which favours a decriminalisation model.
That means there are no specific laws in place regulating sex work, and it is recognised as a legitimate business.
Under that model, local councils regulate premises where sex work takes place, and sex workers have the same rights and responsibilities as other workers.
They pay taxes and have access to employee services.
Bill would break down stigma
Sharon Jennings, manager of the Sex Industry Network in South Australia, says decriminalisation would make a huge difference to the lives of sex workers.
“We could have work health and safety rights,” she says.
“We could go see Fair Work Australia if we weren’t being treated in an equitable manner.
“It would start to break down the stigma, as well, because the stigma is not just around the fact that we’re having intimate liaisons, it’s around the fact that we’re criminalised.”
Decriminalising helps organised crime
Not everyone in South Australia wants to see the bill pass.
Australian Conservatives MLC Robert Brokenshire says he will not be voting for it.
“If you decriminalise prostitution in South Australia, you give a legal opportunity to organised crime, to bikie gangs and to those that have been making money running the brothels to actually get a green tick that it’s okay to do that,” he says.
Mr Brokenshire says the Australian Conservatives plan to introduce an alternative bill proposing South Australia follow the Nordic model, which criminalises the buying of sex rather than the selling.
“What we want to do is see an opportunity for women to be helped out of the industry,” he says.
Penny is not in favour of the Nordic model – nor of being helped out of the industry.
“A lot of the time, we choose the work that we do,” she says.
“We need a job, and this is the way that we do it. So just, if you want to help us, help us create a safer environment to work in.”
The bill will go to a vote in the South Australian legislative council on Wednesday. -sbs.com.au
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