Stigma and discrimination won’t bring us down!

Stigma and discrimination won’t bring us down!

HIV Australia | Vol. 11 No. 3 | October 2013

By the Scarlet Alliance Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Inclusion Working Party

Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association, is the national peak body representing the interests of sex workers in Australia.

Through our objectives, policies and programs, we aim to achieve equality, social, legal, political, cultural and economic justice for past and present workers in the sex industry, in order for sex workers to be self-determining agents, building our own alliances and choosing where and how we work.

Scarlet Alliance works towards legal, health, industrial and civil rights for sex workers and uses health promotion focused approaches to achieve this.

The tools

Scarlet Alliance recognises as best practices include peer education, community development, community engagement and peer-led advocacy.

Sex worker organisations have a responsibility to actively work towards greater inclusion of the most heavily marginalised sex workers in order to legitimately and successfully represent the needs and diversity of our community.

The voting membership of Scarlet Alliance has called for improved representation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers in Scarlet Alliance and within the Australian sex worker rights movement.

What can our allies working in Indigenous health and the HIV sector do to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers in our struggle for rights and recognition?

  • Support sex worker organising
  • Do not speak on behalf of sex workers. Hear and promote the voices of sex workers.
  • Do not make assumptions about sex workers. Challenge stereotypes of sex workers when you encounter them.
  • Support decriminalisation of sex work; it is the model promoted by organised sex workers and it benefits both sex workers and the wider community.
  • Educate yourself on whorephobia and sex worker issues! Check out Scarlet Alliance’s website, twitter, Facebook pages and more.
  • Stay in touch with Scarlet Alliance. We have membership forms for sex workers, past and present. Even if you didn’t identify as a sex worker when you were working, we welcome your membership now!


Sex work is real work!

We use the term ‘sex worker’ to refer to anyone who exchanges any form of sexual activity for money, favours, drugs, goods, accommodation, or any other form of reward.

It is important to note that not all people who engage in transactional sex self-identify as sex workers, and this is the case in some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities where transactional sex occurs.

When we say ‘sex work’ we mean lots of activities, and it encompasses lots of people. We believe all sex work is work. We believe transactional sex is work.

Transactional sex, for money or reward or survival, is a form of sex work. Regardless of how the person identifies, that work deserves human rights, industrial protections, occupational health and safety, and dignity.

Not identifying as a sex worker should not be a barrier to HIV prevention. How this plays out in educational settings is a challenge, however, and something that is of great interest to us as we endeavour to learn more about the specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers who do or don’t identify that their sex for money or reward is sex work.

The Law And Sex Worker Health (LASH) study1 (a joint initiative of the University of NSW and University of Melbourne, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Centre), compared three legislative models and found that sex workers working in NSW under decriminalisation had the best health and safety outcomes, and reported better relationships with police and health service providers than sex workers working under criminalisation or licensing systems.

Decriminalisation is also recommended by the national HIV and STI strategies as the best practice model for allowing sex workers to achieve better sexual health.

Scarlet Alliance promotes decriminalisation of the sex industry as both a means to promoting the best health and safety outcomes for sex workers, and as a means to reducing the stigma and discrimination that sex workers can face in dealings with the legal system.

Governments, the public sector and the private sector all discriminate against sex workers. This discrimination results in a general acceptance of social stigma against sex workers and internalised stigma among the sex worker community.

The report Unjust and Counter-Productive: The Failure of Governments to Protect Sex Workers from Discrimination, published by Scarlet Alliance and AFAO, details that sex workers experience discrimination, in a variety of ways, on the basis of their occupation.2

With respect to the laws governing the sex industry the report found that: ‘ … sex industry laws often actively discriminate against the development of, and sex workers access to, mechanisms and legal remedies to address discrimination experienced in the workplace or in conducting sex industry businesses. This is particularly applied to sex workers who work in prohibited sectors of the sex industry.’3

In 2013, sex workers are covered by some anti-discriminations protection in Queensland, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). This includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who work in the sex industry, even if that person doesn’t identify as a sex worker.

Anyone doing transactional sex or any other form of sex work, in Queensland, Tasmania or the ACT who experiences work-related discrimination can access legal protections; however, in the other states and territories these protections are not available.

Sex workers anywhere in Australia will tell you that individuals who are visibly read as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander will be specifically targeted by the police in criminalised settings.

As such, the criminalisation of any kind of sex work in any location will inevitably have a greater effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers than others within the sex worker community.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers experience multiple discriminations

In the states and territories where licensing and criminalisation exists, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers, and also Pacific Islander and Māori sex workers, report being targeted by police for over-policing and harassment.

While regular instances of racial profiling and abuses of police powers may not present anything new, it must to be recognised that discriminatory laws surrounding sex work continue to result in the harassment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers by both police and the general public.

And for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers it is not only police and laws that create barriers to health and human rights.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers who are survivors of sexual assault often face discrimination when accessing justice: firstly for being a sex worker, and secondly for being Indigenous.

The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, in a briefing paper on ‘issues of prevalence and disclosure’,4 highlights experiences of victim blaming by police and the courts when reporting cases of assault and rape – as well as complainants being charged with offences, or arrested for previous ones, after disclosing assaults occurring in the context of sex work.

These represent unique barriers to sex workers accessing justice. Sex workers also experience discrimination and stigma inside some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Similarly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers also experience discrimination within the sex industry; from bosses, fellow workers and clients. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers are a particularly marginalised group within the sex worker community, working at the intersection of whorephobia and racism and experiencing stigma and discrimination on a variety of levels.

As such Scarlet Alliance believes it is important to understand these discriminations within the context of the sex worker community … even if the individual does not identify as a sex worker.

These discriminations stem from an array of intersecting issues relating to the sexual activity the person is engaging in.

We believe all forms of discrimination against people engaging in sex work are unjust and a violation of our human rights.

Scarlet Alliance specialises in understanding and advocating for communities who experience discrimination as a result of their sex work.

Some of the other communities that we represent who experience multiple discriminations include:

  • street-based sex workers
  • sex workers living with HIV
  • migrant and culturally and linguistically diverse sex workers
  • trans* and sex and gender diverse sex workers
  • sex workers who use drugs.

Scarlet Alliance is still at the learning stage in regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers.

However, we are ambitious for the future; a future where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers are able to be represented, have access to services, and have strong support within their sex worker communities if they are discriminated against.

It is crucial, in order to increase the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers in Scarlet Alliance activities, that we are able to make sex worker organising relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers and effectively communicate the real benefits of that organising.

The work that we do must be relevant to all sex workers, including sex workers working in long grass, isolated, and underground environments. Scarlet Alliance believes that sex workers are sexual health experts and that our knowledge and resilience should be acknowledged.

We promote peer education as a best practice approach to service delivery, where people with knowledge of, and experiences in, the sex industry are employed as peer educators.

Appropriate support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers requires service delivery and representation that is both peer focused and culturally respectful.

The primary way of ensuring this happens is for projects aimed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers to be driven by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sex workers.

For further information, visit or connect with Scarlet Alliance on Facebook at scarletalliance


1 Information about the LASH project is available at:

2 Banach, L., Metzenrath, S. (ed.). (1999). Unjust and Counter-Productive: The Failure of Governments to Protect Sex Workers from Discrimination. Scarlet Alliance, Sydney, Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO), Sydney. Retrieved from:

3 ibid.

4 Neame, A., Heenan, M. (2003). What lies behind the hidden figure of sexual assault? Issues of prevalence and disclosure. Briefing, No. 1. Australian Centre for Sexual Assault, Melbourne. Retrieved from: