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Sex workers and brothel owners are divided on a new report outlining proposed changes to the industry. Here’s why.
Bethany Westwood  |  May 5, 2023 – 6:00AM  |  Townsville Bulletin

Emma Bennett is the owner of Onyxx Brothel, the only licensed brothel in Townsville.

Townsville sex workers are divided over plans to decriminalise sex work in Queensland after Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman announced potential reforms in April.
Many feel more work is needed on the Queensland Law Reform Commission report outlining 47 changes to decriminalise sex work.

Onyxx licensee Emma Bennett, the only licensed brothel in Townsville, said the reforms “need to be tighter” to protect the welfare of the sex workers and the community, suggesting the report may side too heavily with advocacy groups, such as Respect QLD, and needs to “look at the whole picture.”

Heidi, a sex worker at Onyxx, shares Ms Bennett’s concerns saying there has been a “historical rift” between independent sex workers, brothels and advocacy groups that “impacts every sex worker in Australia to a detriment”.

“Stop playing guesswork with my worker’s rights,” Heidi said.

Ms Bennett has been managing brothels for 16 years and believes decriminalising sex work in Queensland will lower licensing fees, which sit at around $40,000 a year, allow them to offer outcalls and provide those women with security, decreasing the violence against sex workers.

Ms Bennett also says the reform will benefit girls in the private sector as they will no longer be forced to work alone, but suggested a cap be introduced to avoid unregulated, unsafe brothels.

However, she says the Prostitution Licensing Authority Queensland (PLA) should not be abolished.

Ms Bennett says having a regulated brothel that is regularly audited ensures they’re doing “the right thing” by sex workers, staff and the community.

However, sex worker support group, Respect QLD, believe the PLA has failed the industry by only licensing 20 venues across QLD in the last 23 years, with licensed brothels believed to only make up 10 per cent of the industry.

Respect state co-ordinator Lulu Holiday said the abolishment of the PLA will not have a negative impact on safer sex practices in the sex industry.

“Voluntary testing is best practice and is recognised in Australia’s National Strategies as playing an essential role in the very low levels of sexually transmissible infections amongst sex workers,” Ms Holiday said.

“It is peer education, provision of condoms and access to free and anonymous testing that have resulted in the Australian sex industry workers having high levels of condom use and testing.”

Ms Bennett worries abolishing the PLA would discourage the use of prophylactics which would be “disastrous” to our “safe and healthy state”.

Erika, a sex worker at Onyxx, said abolishing the use of condoms would be “crazy.”

“We don’t allow people in restaurants to make our sandwiches without gloves, or the correct preparation policies. That is not socially acceptable. So why would we want to not use condoms?” Erika said.

Astrid, who became a sex worker in the Northern Territory before it was decriminalised in 2019, said the reforms would provide her with “better access to justice”.

Astrid said it was ”the right thing to do” to remove the PLA.

“It’s what sex workers collectively want,” she said.

According to Respect, independent sex workers make up 60 per cent of the sex industry in Queensland and for Eva, operating independently gives her more control over which clients she sees and didn’t require her to work mandatory 10-16 shifts or give up to 60 per cent of her profits to a brothel.

Eva said she was excited about the announcement and has been “hoping for it for a long time,” saying the PLA “don’t do anything that benefits the workers”.

Some independent workers voiced they still fear police entrapment, an issue that Eva says she “could really do without worrying about.”

Lulu agreed the reform would improve relations with the authorities and that when sex work is decriminalised, criminal activity is reduced stating “73.5 per cent of those who worked in licensed brothels” wouldn’t go to the police if they were assaulted.

Hayden has been a sex worker for 15 years and used to work at a licensed brothel in Garbutt before she was let go. She said licensed brothels in the area haven’t treated sex workers well enough, saying “they’ve got a real monopoly.”

Respect QLD weighed in on the matter saying “while we understand that licensed brothel owners are concerned about competition, 96 per cent of sex workers in our study said they would like more options for workplaces than licensed brothels or working alone.”

A spokeswoman for the Attorney-General said that “the Queensland Law Reform Commissions’ (QLRC) recommendations are subject to ongoing consideration by the Queensland Government” and decriminalising sex work will “remove criminal laws against operating an unlicensed sex work premises” and allow people to operate sex work businesses “subject to regulation and scrutiny under the same general laws that apply to other businesses.”

Article originally posted in the Townsville Bulletin, written by Bethany Westwood.