From ‘Evening Boys’ to ‘Evening Girls’: shifting the dynamic between transgender sex workers and the policeadmin
From ‘Evening Boys’ to ‘Evening Girls’: shifting the dynamic between transgender sex workers and the police
HIV Australia | Vol. 14 No. 1 | March 2016
By Jackie McMillan and Chantell Martin
‘My work history stems back 30 years before decriminalisation came into place, and things back then weren’t as good as they are today. Police brutality and physical violence from the people passing by on the streets was unacceptable. As a transgender sex worker we were beaten by the police if we spoke out against them, and what they use to do to us.’ – Transgender sex worker.
Since 1995, sex workers in New South Wales have been fortunate to have been able to operate in a decriminalised work environment. As the above quote makes clear, the decriminalisation of sex work has direct and immediate impacts on the safety and wellbeing of sex workers.
Conversely, the myriad effects of laws criminalising sex work put sex workers’ safety, health and wellbeing at risk. Criminalisation forces sex work underground, fosters dangerous work place environments, and acts as a barrier deterring sex workers from accessing health services, for fear of prosecution.1 These effects are magnified for sex workers who experience additional marginalisation, whether because of gender, sexuality, drug use or cultural background.
Given that it’s not unusual for sex workers, particularly transgender sex workers, to engage in sex work for many years, the wealth of experience that NSW-based sex workers have, as both subjects and observers of changing legislative frameworks, law enforcement policies and attitudes to policing, is particularly unique.
Chantell Martin, a transgender sex worker working with the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) in NSW, has seen first-hand the negative impacts of sex work criminalisation.
She looks back to the 90s, recalling how transgender sex workers were routinely targeted by police: ‘As a street-based transgender sex worker, I saw a lot of bad things happen, and not just to me but to others as well. At the time, corruption was rife within the police force in Kings Cross.
‘Trans sex workers caught on the street would be rounded up, and what money we had on us was taken away. Then we would be put in the back of a paddy wagon and driven way out past Parramatta and dropped off in the middle of nowhere and told to find our own way back to Kings Cross.
‘We were never going to have a voice in that turbulent environment. Prior to 1995, we only had each other on the streets. Our strong camaraderie was unbreakable; however it wasn’t enough to save some of us from suicide or overdose.
‘The heavy burden of being outcast by family, told never to return: “You are no longer my child”; plus the added dilemma of having no home, no security and no one to protect us, was just too much for some. Suicide often became the only alternative.’
However a big change was coming for the street-based sex workers of NSW. First there was the 1994 Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service. Then, in 1995, NSW became one of the first global jurisdictions to complete the process of decriminalisation.
The implementation of the decriminalised framework, driven in part by the desire to remove police as the regulators of the sex industry, reduced the corruption that had come to light during the Inquiry.
One of the key effects of decriminalisation was that it allowed sex workers to go to the police with complaints or allegations about their work, without fear of being punished for being a sex worker.
Of course, this didn’t happen straight away. It took the work of a visionary Commander to improve the relationship with transgender sex workers and NSW Police to the point where reporting crime was more than just possible in abstract terms.
Chantell explains: ‘To build and create a better relationship between sex workers and the police, a brilliant Commander from the Kings Cross Police would come down on to William Street (the main street-based working area for transgender sex workers) and introduce himself, and his officers, to us all. He did this once a week in person and his officers did the beat every night, for months.
‘At first this confused us,’ continues Chantell, ‘as we were so use to being hurled nasty names from the police as they drove passed us while on patrol. They’d say: “Evening boys” to which we would reply: “Evening girls”. The Commander put a stop to that – no more were his officers allowed to verbally abuse us.’
Chantell explains that the same Commander also initiated monthly meetings with sex workers in a William Street café called PJ’s, run by St Johns Church.
‘At that meeting, the Commander would talk to us about any updates and feedback from the residents in the area and he would ask us how his officers were treating us,’ Chantell says.
‘By involving sex workers in the conversation as valued stakeholders in their local area, this Commander began to shift the dynamic between sex workers and police.
‘Within a year, our relationship with the police had become a lot better than it had ever been in the past. If we had problems with yobbos from out west giving us a hard time or throwing bottles at us, all we had to do was let the police know when they did their rounds and that would be the end of the yobbos.
‘We ended up by working together to maintain safety, not only for sex workers, but for the whole community in that area.’ Chantell explains that such successes also eventually led to Kings Cross Police assigning a particular Crime Prevention Officer, (unofficially) dubbed the ‘Sex Worker Liaison Officer’, with whom sex workers could more easily converse when there was a problem.
Today NSW is in its twenty-first year of sex work decriminalisation. To this day, decriminalisation of sex work remains the best regulatory system for sex workers because it allows sex work to be treated as what it is: work; and it removes the barriers to engagement with regulation and regulatory bodies that are produced by alternative systems of legalisation, licensing, regulation and criminalisation.
In 2012, The Kirby Institute’s report to government, The Sex Industry in New South Wales: A Report to the NSW Ministry of Health2, declared the NSW sex industry ‘the healthiest sex industry ever documented,’ and advised the government to scrap the few remaining laws related to the industry.
The report stated that sex work decriminalisation has: ‘… improved human rights, removed Police corruption [and] netted savings for the criminal justice system … International authorities regard the NSW regulatory framework as best practice.’
The decriminalisation of sex work in NSW is held up as an example of world’s best practice. This framework for regulation is evidence-based and backed by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), literature cited in the leading medical journal The Lancet3, and most recently, Amnesty International4. Aside from NSW, New Zealand is the only other jurisdiction globally that has a decriminalisation framework in place for the regulation of the sex work industry.
Condoms are now used in over 99% of anal and vaginal sex undertaken in the NSW sex industry.5 The rates of STIs among female sex workers in NSW are lower than that for other sexually active females in NSW. Demand and pressure to perform unsafe sex has also fallen.6
Even more significantly, there has not been any recorded case of HIV transmission due to commercial sex work in NSW. This, along with the low rates of STIs among sex workers has only been achievable since decriminalisation, representing a positive public health outcome that is acknowledged internationally as being world leading.
Decriminalisation is also a fiscally sensible practice. According to evidence presented by The Lancet at AIDS 2014, the decriminalisation of sex work would have the greatest impact on the HIV epidemic globally, reducing HIV by up to 46% in the next decade, and would result in cost savings of tens of millions of dollars.7
However with The Lancet HIV & Sex Workers July 2014 edition emphasising that ‘police harassment (without arrest) can directly influence HIV acquisition risk’8, it’s clearly not enough to simply rely upon a change of legislation, even one as significant as decriminalisation, to ensure the relationship between marginalised communities and law enforcement remains strong.
Sex worker peer organisations play a key role in advocating for the needs of sex workers and ensuring such legislation is respected. Building upon the work begun by the visionary NSW police Commander, SWOP maintains a focus on strengthening the relationship between sex workers and police to prevent HIV.
The informal meetings held in cafés during the early years of decriminalisation have been replaced with official community meetings, like the Kings Cross Community Safety Precinct Committee (CSPC) hosted by Kings Cross Police, and interagency meetings like the Kings Cross Police Interagency.
By sitting on the Kings Cross Police Interagency, alongside health agencies like Kirketon Road Centre and legal services like Inner City Legal Centre, SWOP is able to ensure that issues raised by sex workers, including transgender sex workers (who make up 7.93% of sex workers SWOP saw in 2013–14), are dealt with appropriately.
By attending meetings in traditional sex working areas across the state, where NSW Police are present, SWOP is able to take the voices of sex workers and our service users into these high level conversations. SWOP Outreach Officers, such as Chantell, represent street-based sex workers on a range of issues from unjust move-on orders, to the poorly thought out locations of Random Breath Testing (RBT) vehicles in traditional sex working areas, which scares away clients.
SWOP has also designed and presented training to help ensure effective communication between the police and the sex industry at a number of Local Area Commands, in locations that regularly see street-based sex workers. SWOP has offered to roll this training out to all Crime Prevention Officers across the state in 2016.
The twenty years of decriminalisation has seen the gradual but steady improvement of sex workers’ health, capacity and working conditions. The ripple down effect of police treating transgender sex workers with respect, starting with that initial Commander, was enormous.
By being treated as worthy of respect, transgender sex workers saw themselves as worthy of respect, and became better able to advocate for that respect in all aspects of their lives.
Chantell explains that this respect was also reflected in the attitudes of health care service providers: ‘Trans sex workers were also given full access to health services without being discriminated against because of gender, or what we do for work.’
She says that the health and safety of sex workers immediately improved as a result of sex work decriminalisation, and workplace environments improved too: ‘Sex work became better because I no longer had to fear being bashed by the police whenever I saw them. My health improved because I was able to access more help from the health clinics in the area. And [when I] report sexual assault to the police today, they seem to be a lot more respectful to transgender sex workers.’
These human rights gains are incredibly significant, and form the cornerstone of our shared goal to end HIV transmission in NSW by 2020. Such achievements also illustrate why we must never be complacent about the key relationships between sex workers and the police.
1 Daniel, A. (2010). The sexual health of sex workers: no bad whores, just bad laws. Social research briefs. Number 19, 2010. National Centre in HIV Social Research, Sydney. Retrieved from: csrh.arts.unsw.edu.au
2 Donovan, B., Harcourt, C., Egger, S., Watchirs-Smith, L., Schneider, K., Kaldor, J., et al. (2012). The Sex Industry in New South Wales: a Report to the NSW Ministry of Health, 2012. Retrieved from: www.kirby.unsw.edu.au
5 Donovan, B., Harcourt, C., Egger, S., Fairley. (2010). Improving the health of sex workers in NSW: Maintaining Success. NSW Public Health Bulletin, 21(4), 74–77. doi: 10.1071/ NB10013
6 Pell, C., Dabbhadatta, J., Harcourt, C., Tribe, K., O’Connor, C. (2006). Demographic, migration status, and work related changes in Asian female sex workers surveyed in Sydney 1993 and 2003.
7 The Lancet. (2014). HIV and sex workers. July 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.thelancet.com/series/HIV-and-sex-workers
Jackie McMillan is Media and Communications Officer at Sex Workers Outreach Project NSW (SWOP NSW).
Chantell Martin is the Transgender Outreach Worker at SWOP NSW.