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Michaela Dunn's experience of violence was tragic. But not uncommon.

Warning: this post contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault, rape and suicide and may be triggering for some readers.

For 24-hour crisis support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the National Sexual Assault Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT.

On Tuesday afternoon, 24-year-old Michaela Dunn was found dead in her Clarence Street unit. It’s alleged she was killed by a man who had been in contact with her in her capacity as a sex worker. 

The murder of a young woman is fortunately rare, but violence against sex workers is not. In 2016, Mamamia spoke to a number of sex workers about their experiences of violence at work, and the unique barriers they face in pursuing justice.

**

There’s a look, Madison Missina says. It’s hard to explain, hard to teach others to recognise, but it’s something any woman or man who’s seen it will understand. The look someone gets in the moment before they assault you. It’s dark, she says, almost psychopathic.

On December 1, 2011, Madison saw that look.

She was working for a “sugar daddy” dating website at the time, a portal via which men – usually wealthy – pay women for dates or company. Essentially a hired girlfriend situation, she explained exclusively to Mamamia.

The man who booked her that evening invited her to his Sydney hotel room. Hours slipped by with nothing but conversation, as it often does with clients, she explained. It was getting late, so he suggested they dissolve their dinner plans and order in.

“The room service came and I was trying to wrap things up, then he got the look in his eye. He was between me and the door, and I just froze in that moment,” she said.

The assault lasted five hours, during which Madison said she almost dissociated, but pleaded with him: “Could you at least just use a condom? You know, if you’re going to do this, if you’re going to hurt me, could you just protect my health?”

He did, she said, but only for 30 seconds.

Madison. Image: Instagram.
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Sometimes it’s a sense of entitlement, Sydney escort Lilly Medina believed. “Some men think, ‘I’ve paid you this money and, now, I can do whatever I want with you’. They don’t see it as an agreement or a contact. They see it as a time slot they can use as they wish.”

Today, Lilly is an elite escort in Sydney. She calls herself ‘Australia’s Sex Captain’ and is an advocate in the industry for better screening methods of clients and keeping women safe. Her passion comes from experience. From attending to women who’ve been beaten. From talking to sex workers on the brink of suicide. From her own experiences, too.

It was five years ago that she’d been booked by a client for a ‘girlfriend experience’. She was working as an escort and self-screening the men who were requesting her services. “Different girls use different methods, but a lot of us rely on our contacts. Our safety depends on girls speaking to each other.”

Lilly met her client in a hotel room and he paid her straight up.

“He tried to force sex, which we hadn’t agreed on and he hadn’t paid for,” she said. “When I resisted, he became violent and very aggressive. In the end, it was easier just to go with what he was trying to do.”

“I was left bleeding and bruised and needing stitches. I was sent to the hospital and although I did go to the police, eventually the case was dropped.”

She talks about the assault with a nonchalance that is chilling. It’s one story of many who work in the sex industry. They roll in together; there is a story about a friend of hers, another about a man who slammed her head against a wall.

She now has the phone number of a policeman who she can call whenever she feels she’s in danger.

It’s a level of acceptance that wouldn’t exist in any other workplace. But, when the industry is the sex industry, issues of rape, sexual assault and battery are, all of a sudden - overlooked. These are stories that, in any other circumstance, we would fight to make stop. Yet in the case of sex workers, many of us don't even listen.

The right to say ‘no’ and the granting of consent is somehow perceived differently when the woman saying ‘no’ makes her living as a sex worker. We ask ourselves: How can a sex worker renege on consent when money has changed hands?

The answer is when he refuses to use a condom.

When he slams her head against the wall.

When he forces anal sex that she has not agreed to.

When he's too intoxicated to achieve an erection, so uses a bottle on her instead.

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When he hits her in the face because she’s stood up for herself, her rights as a professional and her rights as a woman.

"It's a business transaction. They agree on the terms and the client must respect the sex worker’s boundaries,” Samantha X, a private escort who runs her own agency in Sydney, told Mamamia. “The four words I live by are 'my body, my choice'. That’s what I tell my girls: Only you have the right to tell or show someone what they can and can't do with you body."

Sex work is legal to varying degrees across Australia. Brothels, for example, are currently legal in five of Australia’s states and territories and there are different restrictions on their operation in each of these places. Private sex work is illegal in some states; in some it’s decriminalised; in others it’s legalised - all three levels are different.

This confusion fuels the stigma. The way we don’t talk about sex work and we don’t talk about women who do it getting hurt - raped and abused.

This same stigma means that, rather than reaching out to police, to lawyers, these women and men turn inward, relying on their colleagues and industry bodies for support and help with prevention.

“I mean, it would be great if we could be open about what we do,” said Madison. “It would be safer and we'd be able to access more services, but our society just isn't going to change that quickly.”

Madison speaks to Mia Freedman on No Filter. Post continues below.

Madison learned that lesson early on in her now high-profile 16 year long career. After watching a brothel colleague’s experience of reporting an assault, she vowed never to press charges if (or as she soon realised - when) it happened to her.

“The attacking and the bringing up of her past nearly killed her, and I saw that that was more damaging than just getting up after that booking and saying, 'I'm safe now, I survived. That was horrible, but I'm going to move on with my life’,” Madison said.

But it was police, she said that ultimately persuaded her to speak up. Her attacker was a con-man, and when investigating him in early 2012 detectives had uncovered evidence of the assault on her phone via deleted messages.

She was hesitant, but, “The detective was very clear that even though this is, like, three months later and you don't have a rape kit, we really want to press charges and we really think this will work,” Madison said. “He was so assuring that this would go through and [said] that it would probably be very empowering for me to confront my perpetrator in court and tell him, 'It's not OK what you did.’”

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And so she agreed. Blow by blow, she relived the night she had pushed from her mind and gave them her statement.

Six months on - it was a Friday afternoon - she found out that the prosecutors of her case had decided not to proceed to court. Madison said they told her about the difficulty of persuading juries that rape has occurred in cases involving sex workers, and that asking the client to wear protection could be misinterpreted to look like a sign of consent.

“It was a horrible experience. Just to be told that the simple fact of, 'I don't like what you're doing and you're hurting me, but could you at least use a condom' could take away five hours of tears, of 'no', of 'stop', of 'I don't want this to happen',” she said. “That was the lowest point in my life."

***

Amity Adams also learnt to rely on only herself to stay safe in the sex industry.

“He raped me anally after I asked him to ‘please get out of the room’,” Amity said. She had just begun working part-time in the sex industry in Melbourne and, though she’d asked this client to stop, she felt it was risky to fight back further. “It’s a difficult balance, because you want to walk out of there safe,” she said.

“I told him ‘you’ve inappropriately tried to push the point three times’. He didn’t listen. He was very forceful, pushing me up against the wall,” she said. “The rape affected me deeply.”

Amity Adams. Image: Supplied.
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When Amity ‘came out’ as a full-time sex worker, the response was alienating. “There were death threats, slit tyres. People wouldn’t invite me to weddings or events because I was ‘The Prostitute’. I lost a lot of friends,” she said.

When she was raped, no one listened either. People outside the industry couldn’t understand the concept of ‘consent’ in sex work. “They thought I was homeless or taking drugs. They don’t understand that I am making money and in control of what I’m doing,” Amity said. “When someone violates that, it’s rape. It doesn’t matter if you’re a banker or a sex worker, it’s always rape.”

Amity learnt from the man who slammed her against the wall before raping her anally. She learnt, too, from the next time a client started “pushing the boundaries” by slapping her repeatedly in the face during sex. She realised: “I have to be rude.”

“You can’t go in scared. You have to be strong and say ‘no, this wasn’t in the contract’. You have to go in believing there’s a rule, like three strikes and you’re out. It still sounds very wrong when I say it out loud. But that’s how it is. No is no and disrespecting that - regardless if the service involves sex - is wrong.”

The statistics around sexual assault of sex workers are hard to pin down.

While Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicates that 17 per cent of Australian women have been sexually assaulted since the age of 15, figures for sex workers generally hover in the single digits.

A survey by the Law and Sexworker Health Project, for example, suggests that roughly eight per cent have been physically assaulted by a client.

It’s a figure that doesn’t sit well with Madison Missina. She can’t think of a single sex worker she’s spoken to who hasn’t been a victim of violence. She herself has been sexually assaulted five times and understands why women may seek safety in silence.

“[Discussion of the statistic] has been skewed in a way to make everyone think it's fine and that this is a safe role. It's not,” she said. “Because any one of the incidences of violence that we've been subjected to, we could walk away with HIV, broken bones, or be murdered. That's a big risk to take.”

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She calls this skewing the ‘happy whore’ narrative. One perpetuated by pop culture, one fostered by the industry itself. Yet anyone who works within it knows it’s just that - a narrative. A story, a myth, that makes it easier for the rest of us to turn away.

***

Lilly received a phone call from a woman who was hiding in a bathroom.

“She was a beautiful girl. New to the industry and I answered the phone and she was crying. I could here him in the background: ‘Open the door you whore, who are you calling?’ She had locked herself in the bathroom of the hotel room.”

It was up to Lilly - not the police or the ambulance services - to intervene.

“He answered the door, quite aggressively, and I barged in. I could see how he’d realised she was new to the industry and had tried to take advantage,” Lilly said. “I told him that I’d ‘blacklist’ him. That I’d tell as many sex workers as I could about what he’d done. The girl in the bathroom could have gotten seriously hurt.”

It’s this side of the industry that Madison said is the most “beautiful”, when women rally to each other’s side to give comfort, support and coping strategies based on their own experiences.

But there are problems with turning inward. There is the obvious injustice of relying on co-workers - as opposed to society - to protect against rape and battery. But there are more nuanced issues, too, because not everyone receives the same protection.

Women who are new to the industry, for example, are unlikely to have received any education around staying safe. “This is where all girls need to be taught the best methods for screening clients,” Lilly said. “There needs to be education on what to do when you’re not feeling comfortable, or how to deal with a client who’s drinking heavily or on drugs, without antagonising them further.”

And then there is the fact that sex work is a business. And, when the owners of brothels are looking at the bottom line, it is clear that talking about violence and trauma simply isn’t good for business. It’s likely to make new workers wary about entering the industry and could turn away potential clients worried about discretion. It’s the ‘happy whore’ narrative at work.

***

Samantha X was fifteen when she realised the power she had over men. Working her first job at a flower shop in London, more than once she carefully wrapped a bouquet only to have the customer present it back to her across the counter.

She’d seen it in other women, too. Sex workers standing on the edge of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice where her affluent, middle-class family took holidays in her youth. Intrigued, she watched as these women climbed into Mercedes-Benzs and Rolls-Royces, and were driven away.

Two decades later, living in Sydney and disillusioned with her journalistic career, the 37-year-old single mother chose to become part of that world. It was a world in which she could freely exercise her power. Until a client at a brothel she was working at took it from her.

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“It was probably about two and a half years ago now. He was a really handsome Australian guy. I thought it was my lucky day when he chose me. He booked me for an hour and he just increasingly became... he just changed when he was in the room. He just became taken over by... you, know, I can't really explain it. It was like he sort of lost all emotion in eyes and became very dominant,” she said.

Samantha froze as the man proceeded to assault her. There was no condom, no relent.

“I said to him afterwards, 'You've just raped me.' He went, 'Aww, have I? Well, let's spend another hour and I can make it up to you.' I remember I had a glass in my hand and I wanted to smash the glass and slit his throat. Obviously I didn't,” Samantha said. “I was just shell shocked.”

Samantha X was left shell-shocked by her assault. Image: Supplied.

In the days afterward, Samantha said the manager of the establishment learnt what had happened to her. Rather than being supported, sheltered, counselled, she was shown the door; her profile was removed from the company website, record of her was deleted and no one answered her calls. While she knew she would recover from the assault eventually, the devastation of the way she was treated by management still lingers.

“In hindsight, they didn't want any trouble, probably. They probably knew I would have said something or taken some action. You know, it's an inconvenient truth for them,” she said.

And Samantha did take action. She went to police, who were “amazing” and believing, she said. With little more than a first name and suburb, they found her attacker just months later. A lack of evidence meant the case never proceeded to trial, but for Samantha it was enough.

“[Reporting the assault] it was the best thing I did because it got me closure and I felt I'd sort of regained a bit of power. By knowing that that man was arrested at work, that he was dragged into the police station with a barrister, that to me was sweet victory,” she said. “I didn't need it to go to trial, you know, I didn't need to see him again.”

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Samantha is now a private escort and runs her own agency, guided by her treatment in that Sydney brothel; her employees (mostly over 35) are trained in self-defence and live by the mantra ‘my body, my rules’. Samantha no longer relies on anyone else to be the gatekeeper, and is able to be “fussy” about who she sees using her “gut, intuition and experience” to guide her.

It’s a privileged position. She knows that.

“There are girls who are starting out in the industry who think that it's all fantastic and great, but things do happen. But that said, it doesn't just happen to sex workers. The job isn't dangerous - It's men that are dangerous.”

***

Yes, these women are choosing, of their own free will, to work in this industry. Yes, they are choosing to use sex as a commodity in spite of the apparent risks associated with that choice.

But that does not mean they are consenting to becoming victims; it does not mean that their personal boundaries are suddenly dissolved; that they are slaves to violent, self-entitled people who believe that in hiring these women they have purchased 30 minutes of sexual carte blanche. It does not mean that ‘no’ suddenly means ‘yes’.

As is the case with sexual assault in the broader community, it is not likely we will ever really know the true scope of this problem. With few incentives for women to come forward, it’s likely to be much broader and deeper than any statistics would suggest.

The least we can do is talk about it.

Talking about rape in the industry might help in the fight to introduce more effective screening methods and better education for women in sex work.

It might encourage the people staring at the bottom line to put the safety of its workers, ahead of the industry’s PR and profits.

It might help law enforcement and juries to see the woman behind the job title and the way she’s been hurt.

It might help the friends of a sex worker understand her assault, instead of slashing her tyres.

But, deeper than this, it might help the rest of us remember: these women have rights that are being ignored. No woman - regardless of her profession - should know what it means to see ‘the look’.

For 24-hour crisis support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the National Sexual Assault Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT.

READ MORE: Porn star Madison Missina: 'Other industries protect their workers, so why not mine.'

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