real life

Street sex workers: What it's really like

Gemma Rose Turnbull’s book, Red Light Dark Room

She’s young, blonde and distracted in that self-centred, teen way. She’s got a daggy boyfriend and her clothes hang off her tiny hips. She lives on raspberry liquorice and red cordial. She’s got no boundaries and is prone to the odd inappropriate and thoughtless remark. Just your typical teenager really.

If I had to guess I’d put her at sixteen, though she could be younger. She says she is eighteen but it’s hard to believe her because her habit has already stunted her growth and because the standard line when the youngest ones walk in is, ‘I’ve just turned eighteen.’ It’s the underage mantra.

She has a boyfriend and works for the both of them, walking the street. They both have a heroin habit. They share it, and their homelessness. But I don’t see the romance in this addictive relationship, which is wearing them into the ground.

‘I’m off to work,’ she chirps, her tender age unmistakable in the skewed movements of her uncontrolled and angular limbs. He lingers after she has been taken by a car, stoned and playing at spotter*, mostly failing to take down the number plates like he’s supposed to. He’s dopey and pretty much monosyllabic. Another typical teen: baseball cap, acres of boxer short above his waistband and a slouchy ‘tude.

She is very sweet of course, naive and faintly abrasive, but unarguably sweet. Yesterday she wrote on the whiteboard:

I (heart) you guys. thank-u for ur (heart) and support without this place I wouldnt get through (heart) Angel xxx


And then added the moniker of teen love:

Angel (heart) S. xxxxxx

I’m surprised she didn’t add a 4 EVA.

On Monday, Angel was raped. Raped by a client who beat her with his belt in the hotel room that he had booked for his lunchtime jerk-off. He pushed her on the bed and raped her from behind without a condom while she cried, all the while berating her for her tears.

The hardest part is that Angel is not the exception to the rule. The youngest ones are the easiest targets for violence at the hands of mugs. C. is another young girl who walked in today and, in a tiny voice, asked if she could drop some fits off in our yellow bins. She had two big hickies on her neck and I reckon she was no older than fifteen. She talked so quietly, eyes darting this way and that, about her habit and her baby and how guilty she felt about not being able to breastfeed. All the while I could not help but notice the scars, track marks and bruises on her skinny arms.

She told me she was on the street for the first time after ten days in hospital. She had been beaten by a mug and dumped unconscious in Richmond. I made enquiries into what sort of support she was getting, trying to conceal my dismay. She was reluctant to discuss it and left with a soft smile, back to business. All I could think about was the horrible future I could see stretched before her. She’s just a baby, but one that has a baby and a heroin habit that she works on the street to support. She should be in school having fun.


A friend and I had a discussion this week about the rhetoric that sex work is empowering. I’m not a sex worker so this is just my gut feeling, not individual experience. But this kind of sex work – street sex work – this doesn’t seem empowering. This seems like slavery. Slavery to a habit sure, but more than that it is slavery to the idea that men can let their sexual desires run rampant, can fuck without a measure of self control, and that this is sanctioned by the fact that the act is transactional. It’s almost always vulnerable women who ultimately pay for the most insidious of men’s fantasies.

Every day our society reinforces the notion that men and women are inherently different. From the time our children are young, we squeeze them into gender-assigned roles that tell them how they can and can’t behave. Muddled up in all that should and shouldn’t is the myth that somehow, biologically, sex is a male desire for which society needs to cater to. It’s so ingrained that it filters down to the street level to become an excuse that sees a middle-aged man rape a young woman. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that we have to sit back and indulgently support the uncontrolled sexual desires of men.

But we do. The onus is almost always on sex workers to stop their ‘socially destructive behaviour’. Very few countries target the men who solicit them instead. Very few cultures question a man’s right to be oversexed. Many tolerate appalling standards of sexual behaviour. You only have to look at the pack-raping antics of football teams to prove that point.


Society’s steady diet of porn, advertising, movies and music videos stream an insidious message into our consciousness. The message is that men are allowed to need sex and women are vessels for that need. The effect of that message is the dangerous and degrading sex act enacted on a teenager in a St Kilda hotel room at lunch time. And all the while we walk obliviously by.

*A spotter is someone, usually a boyfriend or friend, who takes down the registration number of the cars the sex workers get into. They also take note of how long the job should last for, and other identifying details. They usually receive a percentage of the sex workers’ earnings for this. Often street sex workers will spot for each other; a camaraderie and mutual protection which has been seen to play an important part in sex workers’ health and safety.

Gemma-Rose Turnbull is an award winning photographer, who has just released her first book Red Light Dark Room; Sex, lives & stereotypes which was the result of a collaborative project with a group of street sex workers in St Kilda. The book has received vast acclaim and attention, and is being sold to raise money for St Kilda Gatehouse, a non profit organization who provide a safe haven off the street for marginalised women.

Street sex work, which involves the trading of sexual services for money or drugs at the street level, is a particularly hazardous and stressful occupation. Those engaged in street sex work tend to be the most marginalised, oppressed, and stigmatised. These women face many daily challenges, including physical and sexual assaults, ill treatment by the public, housing instability, incarcerations and continued financial difficulties. These women often suffer from physical and mental health issues related to their work and lack of appropriate medical or psychological care.