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‘How can you reach out to someone when you’re criminalised?’: Sydney sex worker rally for full decriminalisation

The rally called for greater rights and reform ahead of the NSW State election.

Photography by Elizabeth Pike.

A grassroots collective of Sydney-based sex workers gathered in Hyde Park on Wednesday 8 March – International Women’s Day – to demand full decriminalisation of the industry.

The International Working Girl’s Day (IWGD) organised the rally and march to NSW Parliament, supported by a student contingent including the National Union of Students Queer/LGBTQIA+, University of Sydney Women’s Collective and USyd Queer Action Collective.

Local activists and prominent voices in the sex work community were also in attendance. They highlighted the collectives’ demands for greater rights and reform ahead of the NSW State election.

These demands were accompanied by calls for accountability from the federal government following Mardi Gras and World Pride.

Damien, the event’s host and Union National Officer, condemned the Labor party’s lack of commitment to nation-wide decriminalisation despite support for the events and said that, “this government knows our struggle and they know our pain.”

Speakers at the rally represented key struggles and concerns within the industry; ranging from the exploitation of migrant and international student sex workers, the persecution of transgender sex workers, discriminatory policy and police enforcement, and the need for strengthened vocational rights and occupational health and safety.

The fight for sex work’s inclusion in the Anti-Discrimination Act was at the core of these concerns. “How can you reach out to someone when you’re criminalised?” Damien asked the crowd.

Alex*, a fellow migrant sex worker and advocate for international students, echoed Damien’s sentiment as she spoke of her experience since arriving in Australia seven years ago.After mistreatment in other industries, sex work was liberating and provided a liveable income. However, lack of protections has left migrant workers living in “fear of deportation for reporting violence and exploitation.”

Greater protections were also demanded for transgender sex workers in the wake of the ‘not guilty’ verdict for the murder of Kimberly McRae. “How are we still at a point where sex worker’s lives mean less than any other human lives simply because of our profession?” asked Olivia*, reflecting on McRae’s death.

With thirteen years in the industry fighting for trans visibility and rights, Olivia said that the NSW Supreme Court’s non-guilty verdict “sends a clear message to the sex work community and trans community that we are disposable, that our lives don’t matter.”

The rally signified a gathering of workers and allies in solidarity with McRae, whose lack of justice was condemned by speakers as the result of discriminatory policies.

Emma, a full service and online sex worker who started in the industry through survival sex work, challenged the criminalisation and stigmatisation of the profession.

Threatened with eviction from housing programs on the basis of conducting sex work, Wei also called for the de-funding of the police in favour of sex worker organisations that “protect us, house us. Give us support when we need it, that provide us therapy and that provide us access to transitioning out of the workplace if we want to…”

“Because it is not the police that protect us…that make sure we are safe in our work. They are coming into workplaces, arresting and abusing us.

“Sex work is legitimate, real work. It does not need to be stigmatised by our bosses, by the state, by our laws, and by the police.”

In the lead up to the state election and in the wake of McCrae’s murder, the rally’s final speaker, Lucy*, touched upon the movement’s history as a hard-fought battle for decriminalisation, economic liberation and protection from corruption. 

“Until that day, we will continue to organise not only in the back rooms but on the streets…The future is ours to shape.”

*Names have been changed.