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The Harsh Realities of Sex Work

Updated: May 17, 2023

A conversation with workers of the industry.

Here in Queensland, the dense air will drench your skin, leaving sweat settling upon your bare shoulders. It will feel as if the sun had chosen this place to rest its head, its bright light bringing infinite hues of green that are painted on billboards and television advertisements. There is not so much a place that sells itself so well.

The sunshine state speaks for itself.

Yet tucked away, hidden behind red lights and an air of unforgiving criticism, sits a career that flourishes when the sun departs. Tourism brochures wouldn’t dare whisper its name, for any association can appear too daunting.

In order to meet someone who works this elusive job, you couldn’t find them advertising in the local newspaper. In fact, you couldn’t really find them advertising anywhere. You see, if they wrote one word too much, so much as even eluded to their services in a certain way, they could face criminal charges.

Sex work in Queensland has a complex history. As it stands, there are strict laws about sex and sexual activity.

Hannah is a 28 year-old sex worker in Brisbane.

When I met Hannah on Zoom, she was sitting in a hotel in Sydney, travelling for work. A dreary lamp lit up the left side of her face and she turned to me: “Let’s get into it.”

Describing herself as a full service sex worker; or escort, she had no reservations about laying it all bare. Admittedly, I was quite nervous. I could feel my lips turn inwards and begin rubbing together, like applying lipstick.

You see, I had already completed a deep dive into Hannah’s online history. I had unearthed award nominations, elusive online advertisements and price lists. I could in detail explain the package contents, and describe the fantasy she could provide. On her Instagram profile, I had seen her squeezed into a bubblegum pink mini dress posing for the camera. Another brief scroll revealed the coordinated lace set that she wore underneath.

The life of a sex worker is a story that has been told many times. Whether explored through fiction, written in an article or hung in a gallery by twine. Despite my initial hesitations, her calm approach and makeup-free face was calling for me to enquire more. Is this the result of a damaged childhood or broken family? Was she forced into this life?

Hannah’s answer was a resounding no.

“I used to be very different when I started…” She pauses for a moment and looks around. “Sex work was actually an escape for me.”

Hannah was just twenty-one when her need for some extra cash led her to research the world of sex work.

“I was living in Adelaide at the time, and I simply Googled brothels. Escort agencies, that sort of thing,” she said.

Her lips began to turn up at the sides and her eyes fluttered briefly, the reminiscing appearing to hit a soft spot for her.

“I realised that I could become somebody else. I could live this dream.”

It was obvious from the way her voice rose an octave that this wasn’t just some job for Hannah, that this was a way for her to cope with life. She says that with every job, her confidence grew. Her private-self and her work-self were beginning to intermingle, in the most positive way imaginable.

“I am authentically myself, personality wise” she shrugged. “I am me and you know, I find clientele want that because they don't feel like it is forced and they are receiving a genuine experience.”

After a couple of years being in the industry, the word of her choices spread like gossip in a sewing group. First to her friends, then acquaintances, then all the way to her family in Adelaide. The younger men in the city, accustomed to knowing her as a teen, treated her as if she had committed a sin against them. Cruel and nasty comments would slip off their tongues, attacking her self esteem and making her question her judgement. Friends began to lose contact, her number slowly disappearing from their phones.

“It was a secret for a long time,” she giggled.

One notable exception was Hannah’s parents, who of course worried for her safety, but showered her with support and encouragement.

Their concerns of safety however are not to be taken too lightly – private sex workers in Queensland are not allowed to work with anyone else. They cannot text another sex worker, for safety, before and after a booking. They are alone.

Hannah said the laws prevent sex workers from working safely, and that in no other industry are police involved in the regular enforcement of workplace regulations.

“It defers me from working late at night because the only people who are awake at that time are other sex workers.

“I lose a lot of business because I can't keep myself safe, I can't check in with anybody,” she said.

She often wonders with frustration - why are these laws still enforced? Why is Queensland so far behind the other states?

Groups campaigning for decriminalisation in Queensland say that under the status quo, 80% of sex workers have to break the law to protect themselves. As days pass, and other states begin changing the laws, their cracked system becomes slowly more exposed as a way to control and intimidate.

Reason Party Leader Fiona Patten believes the Queensland laws are dangerous.

“When they were implemented, we warned the Queensland government that this will result in violence against sex workers, and it has and it does,” she said.

As she shook her head, I sensed something other than political strategy and policies: personal experience. She seemed upset, disappointed like a mother to a rebellious teen. Her restless hands slowly moved out of frame.

Fiona, an unassuming politician who lobbies for sex worker rights, has dabbled in the industry, once or twice. This is news to me

I continued to research, and found myself tumbling down a Patten-sized rabbit hole. Her brief stint gave her an intimate view into the realities of the industry and provided her with a working knowledge of the risks involved. Her words now become personal, poetic even.

“Sex workers break the laws to keep themselves safe,” she said .

“By repealing the legislation, and treating sex work as it should, as work, it should be protected and regulated under normal work practices such as work cover – we will be making workers safer.”

For many sex workers, these regulations cause great anxiety about getting caught, but sex worker Rebecca Walker is not so afraid.

Camouflaged as a date, a daughter or a gold digger, none would be wise as to her real purpose. Paid to comfort, to listen and share, her work blossoms in the early evening.

Showered with champagne and compliments, she would sit and observe, making company out of barristers and travelling businessmen.

On her profile, she wrote that she “just wants to be able to have deeper and more interesting conversations with more experienced men.”

Not a kiss, not a night in Egyptian cotton or a graze of a calloused hand on a thigh, but a conversation.

She detailed that the men were lonely, travelling far from their wives and families, in need of a friend. A transaction was made, a cash handover, but she did not have to feel the tightness of fear in her chest. Her parents were aware of her location, her friends sharing stories and picking each other up to gossip.

“I always had my location turned on,” she demanded. “I always had people know exactly where I was, who I was with and what was happening.”

“I couldn’t even imagine how it might feel going at it all alone, with no one to rely on. They must be terrified.”

She said she escapes all punishment and anxiety, her safety secured and protected. So why is it that when the sun sets, the ones who stay out later are the ones to be punished?

As we neared the end of our conversation, I asked Jasmine for any closing remarks. Her demeanour shifted from calm to defiant, her voice itching to speak the words.

“This is something that empowers me and I am proud. I am a completely different person now,” she said.

“Anything that is a victimless crime, shouldn’t be a crime.”


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