Sex Work Is Real Work, So Let Me Pay Tax
Like millions of other Australians, Belinda* had set up an appointment with an accountant to get her tax done.
However, unlike millions of other Australians, Belinda is a sex worker. At the time, she was working in a state where sex work is criminalised. But with a decent amount of earnings in her pocket she wanted to do what she felt was the responsible thing and pay tax on the money she had made.
“Because of the criminal nature of the work, most workers did not want to talk about anything industry-related," she said. "I looked into paying tax on my own, [but] I couldn't find any way to do so without either being dishonest about the work I was doing, or implicating myself and potentially being charged with a crime.”
So Belinda went to see an accountant, thinking –- as many of us do –- that sitting down with a professional would clarify the appropriate course of action when it came to paying her taxes.
“I was very anxious going in there in the first place,” she told me. “And I walked out feeling ashamed and humiliated.”
Once Belinda had revealed that she was a sex worker, her accountant's questions became rude and invasive.
“He proceeded to ask me about my pricing and the services I provided, pushing for more and more detail and wanting to know very precisely what I did, for how much, for how long, and with whom,” she said. “Being younger, I assumed this was par for the course at the start, and it took me longer than I'd like to admit to cotton on to what was happening.
“I got up and walked out without saying anything,” Belinda said, of the experience that she still finds difficult to re-live today.
“And he didn't stop me.”
What happened to Belinda might sound extreme, but it's one of many instances of financial discrimination that adult industry workers have faced when trying to engage professional services.
While some people may imagine the adult industry as the ultimate tax dodge, rife with shady, under-the-table dealings and cash-in-hand payments aplenty, adult business owners and sex workers like myself have long maintained that even the sauciest-sounding sex toy shops, strip clubs, and brothels are businesses like any other. Clients and customers pay for a service or product and business owners and their workers provide it, even if the uniforms are a little skimpier than your average corner milk bar or chip shop.
But the red tape around the 'industry' side of the adult industry means that sometimes, even the most well-intentioned professionals struggle to open businesses, let alone run them like any other office, bar, or shop.
Donna Fox is the owner of Red Door Canberra, an erotic massage parlour. With around eight years of experience in the adult industry, Donna opened Red Door with the goal of providing a worker-friendly environment for her staff, and a warm and welcoming place for the clients who visit: men, women, and couples are all welcome at Red Door.
“I started the business because it was what I knew at the time,” she told me, over email. “I really wanted to make Red Door a normal work environment, but I think everything is a little harder running an adult business.”
Prior to opening her business, Donna tells me that she had to undergo a full background check with the Australian Federal Police, including having her fingerprints taken, before she could apply for a license to run a brothel.
“We fall under the category of being a brothel, even though we only do erotic massage, as it is still sexual services," she said.
She also wanted to access the same services that any other small business owner would use, like insurance brokers, lawyers, bookkeepers, and accountants. But she often wouldn't even hear back once they found out about the kind of business she was running –- even though her work is completely legal in the ACT.
Finding a bank to work with was also hard.
“We wanted to ensure that we had merchant services before we even opened, and were told by three banks that they wouldn't have us on 'moral grounds',” she said. “You can almost sense their judgement that what we do is seedy, immoral, or we must be involved in organised crime or trafficking. Of course, none of these things are true.”
Donna's not alone in her experience. A 2017 report released by the Eros Association, Australia's leading adult industry body, found a 'clear trend' of financial discrimination against Australian adult retailers, brothels, and entertainment venues.
Of the 24 adult businesses surveyed for the report, a "vast majority" had experienced discrimination while applying for financial services like mortgages, business loans, or merchant banking services. Over half were told directly that they were refused services because they were a part of the adult industry, with two more told that they were refused because of ethical or moral reasons.
“The general public would be shocked about the puritanism of Australia's professional services sector,” said Rachel Payne, the General Manager of the Eros Association. “We are constantly seeing our members turned away by bankers, insurers, lawyers, and accountants because of 'moral reasons'. That's right -– bankers and lawyers are taking the moral high ground!”
For business owners and sex workers alike, the flow-on effect of not being able to access the same financial services as other Australians can be huge.
While I was writing this article, a number of sex workers contacted me and spoke of difficulties they had faced with even simple things like personal banking. Some were worried about depositing cash payments into a bank account and being unable to find an accountant to help them manage their tax, while others worried that if they kept cash payments out of their bank accounts, they would have little to no savings on the record and could later have trouble keeping a good credit score or applying for a loan.
Now living in a state where sex work is decriminalised, Belinda has been able to access financial services and sex worker-friendly accountants through peer networks and organisations like SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
And yes: she does pay her tax.
“I believe it's very important to pay tax,” she said. “I may not support all of the government's choices, and in many cases they may not believe in sex work as a legitimate profession, but I very much want to contribute to my community.”
“It may not be a popular opinion, but I believe if the stigma surrounding sex work is to be reduced then it is very important for workers to pay tax, to demonstrate to people outside the industry that sex work is a job just like any other,” she said, pointing towards full decriminalisation of the industry as the best way workers can be helped to pay tax. “We need to be enabled to contribute, just like everyone else does.”
Featured Image: Getty