OPINION: Challenging myths  about sex workers

BEN Smee’s recent Newcastle Herald article ‘‘Covert Inquiry Into Brothels’’ raised many comments and questions from  readers.

It does, however, leave three big-picture issues unexplored.

These revolve around the part local councils play in approving brothels, the impact of unapproved brothels on nearby residents, and the role sex workers play as safe-sex experts, educators and practitioners in the community.

 NSW is considered a world leader when it comes to a successfully managed sex industry.

Sexual health experts from other countries regularly visit to see the way the decriminalised system in NSW compares to their systems of registration, criminalisation or other attempts at controlling an industry that always has, and always will, exist.

 One of the great benefits of our decriminalised system is the way that sex workers have been both allowed and encouraged to show leadership in adopting safe sex practices.

Globally, this is often something that falls away as soon as this line of work is pushed underground through criminalisation or over-regulation.

The NSW Ministry of Health recently received a report on the health and safety of sex industry workers. 

It showed condoms were used  more than 99per cent of the time in the NSW sex industry.

In fact, the report points out that the rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among female sex workers in NSW are actually lower than  those of other sexually active females in NSW.

 With sex workers doing the right thing in health terms, why is there still a lingering discomfort for some with having them work nearby?

Much of that seems to be a response to a lingering feeling that brothels are an illegal business.

However, there is in fact no such thing as an illegal brothel in NSW, just an unlicensed brothel. That’s because a brothel has either been approved by the local council in question, or it hasn’t.

 Unfortunately, complex local council processes, often based on ‘‘moral’’ assessments rather than on the basis of amenity impact, can make it difficult for potential brothel proprietors to obtain a development application.

This can result in some brothels seeking the easier route of establishing themselves first as a massage parlour, which involves a much less complex process, while continuing to operate as a brothel.

While this is unlicensed activity, it is not illegal activity because sex work, in NSW, is decriminalised. 

 An interesting and ‘‘real’’ cause for concern is how many people are still uncomfortable about having sex workers nearby.

 The truth is that for many it is “knowing it’s there” that is the extent of the problem. 

As the sex industry relies on discretion and confidentiality in order to protect the clients – who, along with the workers, usually wish to remain anonymous – the majority of sex service premises have limited impact on nearby residents and businesses. 

Recent research undertaken by the University of Technology, Sydney,   shows that the majority of residents near sex services premises are unaware of the presence of these businesses or regard their impact as neutral or positive. 

 The same study showed that negative responses to development application submissions for sex services premises differ markedly from the actual experiences of residents living in close proximity to such premises. 

There are sometimes some genuine issues, including parking, noise and traffic problems, but when and if these occur, they can be identified and solved in the development submission process, just like they are for any other Australian business.

 The Sex Workers Outreach Project is at the forefront of making sure this cooperative approach is maintained and strengthened.

 We will continue to work with NSW sex workers to achieve world-class public health outcomes, and we feel the wider community should be proud of our work and of their local sex workers too.

Kylie Tattersall is the A/Executive Director, Sex Workers Outreach Project 

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