A major crackdown on massage parlours and brothels across Adelaide has forced sex workers into risky private work where they are more vulnerable to violence and crime, according to the Sex Industry Network (SIN).
Police have been accused of aggression and threatening behaviour during a flurry of raids since September that have resulted in the closure of well-established brothels and sex workers who are too scared to report crimes against them.
Lucy [not her real name] was working at an Adelaide sex work establishment during a police raid late last year and said the experience was terrifying.
“I started crying, and it was just threatening … they were quite aggressive,” she said.
Police asked her for ID, which she was happy to provide.
Sex workers were then asked for their telephone numbers but when Lucy refused she said she was threatened with a home visit.
Police officers in full uniform took sex workers’ car registration details, working names, and, according to Lucy, they told workers they would be arrested unless they left the premises immediately.
“Now that we know that the police are taking such a harsh kind of approach to the industry, what are the chances of anyone reporting aggression, or violence, or sexual assaults, or rape, from clients?” Lucy said.
“I know that I am not going to. No way in hell am I going to go to police and ask for help when they are targeting us.”
SA prostitution laws arguably the strictest
Laws around sex work differ in every state but SA’s are arguably the strictest in the country.
The act of soliciting prostitution can attract a maximum penalty of $750, while living on the earnings of prostitution can attract $2,500 fines for repeat offenders or six months’ imprisonment.
It is also illegal to manage a brothel, receive money paid in a brothel, knowingly lease accommodation to be used as a brothel, or employ or procure a person to become a prostitute.
SIN general manager Sharon Jennings said she had been inundated with phone calls from sex workers frightened by the change in policing.
“We’ve been seeing some raids going on where there has been 10-plus uniformed cops going in, seizing equipment, and shutting places down, and making threats against workers, receptionists, managers, drivers, even establishment owners,” she said.
Ms Jennings said police in the past, usually in plain clothes, would stop by establishments and have a “nice sit down coffee and a bit of a chat”.
“They assume this gatekeeper role where it’s all ‘just coming in to check out that everything is running smoothly’ and that has been the end of it really,” she said.
That has changed with raids ending in charges for workers, including receptionists “because they are the ones that handle the money” and managers.
It is unclear how many sex work establishments have been shut down since the apparent crackdown began last September, but Ms Jennings said the scale of the police operation was unprecedented.
She said a number of establishments in Adelaide that had been left alone by police “for over 10 years, 15 years” are now finding themselves under scrutiny.
“All of a sudden there is this real heavy handed policing going on,” Ms Jennings said.
“We have actually spoken to the Chief of Police in Licensing Enforcement … but we’ve had no definite answers as to why this is changing all of a sudden.”
Police refuse to comment on ‘methodology’
Police Licensing Enforcement declined an interview but a police spokesperson said “if there are specific allegations about police harassment we would request that those people put their concerns in writing and the proper course of investigation of complaints will be followed.”
“As you would understand, such allegations are very serious and would need to be specifically addressed,” they said.
“We will not comment our methodology on policing brothels, however it should be noted that that SAPOL [South Australian Police] are responsible for the enforcement of the state’s laws as they stand”.
Shortly after the police raid, the establishment Lucy was working at was shut down, leaving her with no income.
“I have no money, I am struggling financially, and it has disconnected me from pretty much everyone that I work with, who were like a family,” she said.
She said many sex workers did not want to work in the few establishments still open in Adelaide because they were afraid they might be the next to get raided.
“We are scared of seeing police outside of work hours, we are scared to be driving,” Lucy said.
“To have it all change and suddenly not feel safe, that’s affected our quality of work. It affected the attitudes of clients that were coming in.”
Lucy said the crackdown had caused a surge in the number of workers operating privately from hotels and homes, which put them at greater risk of assault and robbery.
Lucy said word of mouth about the change in policing had spread through client forums, and there had been a rise in the number of rude and violent clients approaching sex workers.
“You are in a much more vulnerable position and unfortunately some people will take advantage of that,” she said.
Lengthy process for decriminalisation bid
A bill to decriminalise sex work was presented to the Upper House in 2015 by Liberal MLC Michelle Lensink
It is currently in front of a select committee of MPs where it has been for more than 12 months.
Ms Lensink hoped to bring it back to the Parliament in the first half of this year, for debate and vote.
“South Australia is really the only state in Australia where we have this criminalised model,” she said.
“Whether people agree with it or not is a separate question but we are not going to prevent sex work in our community by having it criminalised.”
“We have this absurd situation where there is not really any particular law on our law books that says you are not allowed to pay someone in exchange for the service … but living off the earnings, and those sorts of things are actually illegal.”
Law Society SA president Tony Rossi said sex work would always exist in SA and decriminalisation should be supported.
“The statistics interstate and overseas indicate that the amount of sex work activity won’t change dramatically,” he said.
“What will change if we decriminalise the activity is the health and safety of those women engaged in it.”
But the time it is taking for the bill to get over the line is frustrating Ms Jennings and Lucy, who sees her work as far more than just sex, but as counselling, talking, and offering “basic human affection”.
“Other people might think it’s a ridiculous comparison, but we would see it the same as going to a physiotherapist,” she said.
“Workers just want to live their lives, they just want to go to work and go home, like everybody else.”
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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