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Sex Work Is Nothing Like The Stereotypes You've Been Told

We knew Michaela Dunn's profession before we knew her name.

For 24 hours she was an anonymous sex worker killed in the Sydney stabbing. While people were -- rightly -- praising the heroics of the men who used a chair and a milk crate to subdue accused Mert Ney in the street, little was known about the 24-year-old woman who lost her life.

There's good reason for this. Her body had to be identified, and her family needed to be informed. But when Michaela Dunn's name and image were released by police, the narrative on social media and comment sections, as well as some parts of the media itself, took on a dangerous and harmful turn.

Michaela Dunn was known as "Mikki" to friends. Photo: Supplied.

Jules Kim, CEO of sex worker advocacy association Scarlet Alliance, told 10 daily there's a persistent stereotype that people in the industry were "tricked" or "forced".

"Unfortunately, most of the narrative that people hear about sex work is overwhelmingly a negative one," she said.

"It's either over-glamorised or really pathologised or demonised. The reality is, it's just work."

READ MORE: Sex Work Is Real Work, So Let Me Pay Tax

Sex work is like any other job, Kim said: there's good days and boring days, good bosses and bad ones. Many people get into sex work for the same reason they take any other job: "You have to pay the bills."

Nikki*, a sex worker who has been in the industry for 15 years, told 10 daily she was a university student tired of minimum wage when she decided to move into sex work. Initially, from the United States, where sex work is criminalised, she emigrated to Australia after hearing from fellow workers in the industry about New South Wales' decriminalisation.

"It's the safest [system] and it honours my human rights," Nikki said.

sex work
Sex workers advocate for decriminalisation as a way of keeping the industry safe. Photo: Getty.

"We don't have anti-discrimination protections, which is messed up on a lot of different levels. But at least for the most part, we have legal recourse. If violence is perpetrated, we can [report it]."

Laws around sex work vary state-by-state. Some, like NSW, have total decriminalisation, meaning sex is legal to both sell and purchase. Others, like Queensland and South Australia, criminalise certain aspects of the work which are widely recognised as making the profession less safe. (Both states are on track to decriminalising sex work, a welcome move from the industry.)

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

Depictions of sex workers in popular culture as being from troubled backgrounds in need of saving -- such as Julia Roberts in 1990 classic Pretty Woman -- can contribute to the misconception that sex work is inherently exploitative. It's also worth pointing out that some 'radical feminist' organisations explicitly claim this while campaigning against the industry.

Neither view is particularly helpful, says Kim.

"In any other workplace, if [for example] wages are withheld, or if you're not paid for a service, or if there's excessive hours, that's exploitation," she said.

Jules Kim Scarlet Alliance
Jules Kim of the Scarlet Alliance. Photo: 10 News First.

"But unfortunately, when sex work is characterised in itself as being exploitative, then it becomes really hard for us to be able to challenge and address the actual acts of exploitation and violence against us."

Horrific acts of deadly violence against sex workers are, thankfully, a rarity in Australia. Violence against women, on the other hand, is alarmingly common, with an average of one woman being killed every week. Indeed, the man accused of Michaela's murder, Mert Ney, was also under investigation for an alleged domestic violence incident involving his sister.

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

Kim said the stark difference in the way Australia has talked about the death of Eurydice Dixon, for example, compared to Michaela is "disappointing".

"It sends a message that somehow if you have ever sex worked in your life, that your life is less valuable or less worthy than others, and I think it sends a really unfortunate message," she said.

Michaela Dunn is being mourned by friends and family as a beautiful, loving person. Photo: Instagram.

Nikki said there was even a stark difference in how Michaela was being talked about in comparison to the 41-year-old woman also injured in the stabbing is telling.

"Anytime sex workers are in the news, it's all they talk about: her occupation. It's almost like that's the rationale for her being a victim. If she wasn't a sex worker, this wouldn't have happened," Nikki said.

"There's no one saying, if [the other woman] wasn't walking down the street this wouldn't have happened to her.

"The media is happy to sensationalise [Michaela] as a victim. And it sells more papers because she's a sex worker. But no one wants to know about the other woman like that. She's just an ordinary woman."

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au