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Australia's Sex Work Industry, Already Marginalised, Is Under Attack

A year ago, US President Donald Trump signed a law which meant some sex workers in Australia lost their whole business overnight.

On the surface, the controversial FOSTA-SESTA bill had good intentions.

Technically called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, the stated aim was to curb sex trafficking and provide victims with legal recourse to sue websites advertising their 'services'.

But internet freedom activists and legal experts argued ferociously that FOSTA-SESTA would not only fail to protect sex trafficking victims, but threaten the internet as we know it, exposing publishers to criminal risk for user-generated content for the first time in history.

Photo: Getty Images

The result was a complete capitulation from websites. Backpage, once the largest website used by sex workers with which to advertise, shut down before FOSTA-SESTA even became law.

Tumblr banned porn, using a specific set of guidelines which included "female-presenting nipples". Google reportedly began reviewing and deleting content from users, and Microsoft announced drastic policy changes that scrubbed adult content from its services.

But it also had effects on sex workers on the other side of the world, with changes rippling across to Australia's adult industry.

READ MORE: Sex Workers Are Being Forgotten By The #metoo Movement

"FOSTA-SESTA meant big changes for all of us," Mischa, a Sydney-based sex worker, told 10 daily.

"Suddenly, we had to look at where our individual escort websites were hosted. We had to change from Gmail [which is US-based] to something encrypted like Protonmail."

Some sex workers lost their business overnight, groups say. Photo: Getty.

Because while the FOSTA-SESTA laws were meant to target trafficking and exploitation, the flow-on effects also punished those who made a living out of working in adult industries.

"We created backup Twitter accounts in case our primary account was deleted. Girls working in the US had to rebrand rapidly from 'escort' to 'model' or 'muse'," Mischa said.

"Our entire industry has been under siege for 12 months."

Gala Vanting, president of Australian sex worker advocacy group Scarlet Alliance, told 10 daily some workers lost "most or all" of their business overnight, with the brunt particularly born by marginalised sex workers.

"Some took months to recover, and others are still feeling the effects," Vanting said.

Sex workers marching in the 2019 Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, with the hashtag #noprideinwhorephobia. Photo: Scarlet Alliance / Twitter.

Recently, the international sex work industry was dealt another blow. Marriott Hotels announced it had trained its 500,000 staff worldwide to spot sex trafficking victims, again in an effort to curb exploitation. 

But sex workers said the policy could easily be used to target people offering sexual services of their own free will, many of whom are already operating in legally murky territory.

"There is a lack of depth to the 'solutions' proposed by FOSTA-SESTA and the Marriott policy," Vanting said.

"Sex trafficking, like other forms of human trafficking, is caused by poverty, lack of access to safe and legal migration, gender inequality, and lack of access to justice."

"It's not caused by sex work. Solving the problem of human trafficking by attempting to abolish or sex work is like conducting brain surgery with a hatchet."

Attempting to make an entire industry invisible is a terrible way to prevent exploitation within it, and an excellent way to increase it.

Part of the problem is that any platform that facilitates sex, or where images are being shared, will inevitably be used by organised crime -- that's the opinion of Jarryd Bartle, a lawyer who works with adult-industry body the Eros Association.

"If there's a channel to sell sex, organised crime is going to use it," he told 10 daily.

"When [lawmakers in the US] say they're taking away avenues for organised crime, I don't think it's necessarily incorrect, but it's such a wide net that it's also encompassing consensual, legal sex workers."

A protest to decriminalise and decarcerate the sex trades in the United States. Photo: Getty.

The Australian sex work industry -- estimated to number at about 20,000 people -- is already subject to laws with huge variation state by state.

In NSW, for example, sex work is decriminalised. In South Australia, while the act of commercial sex is technically legal, a raft of offences around brothels criminalise it.

READ MORE: The 'Reason' Sex Work Should Be Decriminalised In Australia

In Queensland, legislation allows sex workers to operate but penalises them for anything from hiring a receptionist to texting a fellow sex worker to let them know they're safe during a booking.

"Every single day that the government delays on the decriminalisation of sex work in Queensland is a day that we as sex workers have to choose between working legally or working safely," sex worker group Respect Queensland said.

"If we choose to work safely, we risk arrest and fines of ourselves and our colleagues, just for implementing safety strategies that you would be expected to be able to use in any industry."

Queensland is facing renewed momentum to decriminalise sex work once and for all, with Respect running a prominent campaign on social media calling for change.

And while Backpage might be gone, a group of sex workers with IT backgrounds set up an alternative advertising page called Crockor.

"Crockor is sex worker owned and operated, which is an excellent model in terms of prioritising sex worker rights and safety," Vanting said.

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au