We now know the victim of yesterday’s stabbing as Michaela Dunn, we should move to understand, not judge, and destigmatise the industry she worked in.
With the victim of yesterday’s stabbing rampage confirmed as Michaela Dunn, a 24-year-old sex worker, it’s easy to paint in broad strokes; to objectivise, demonise and assume.
We shouldn’t, as she was a person, one violently removed. Her vocation should not give us a platform to judge, or sensationalise. She deserved to be safe where she chose to work, whatever that work happened to be.
In 2017, Curtin University published their LASH (Law and Sex worker health) study, polling sex workers in Western Australia, noting that “sex workers adopt security protocols to protect their health and income wherever they work. Many participants mentioned harm reduction strategies to prevent exposure to violence and increase personal safety: “…in Western Australia when I do go to a private residence I do ask for, you know, a bill or a letter or something that has their name on it and their address. So it gives me proof of residence that this person lives there.”
“Screening procedures were mentioned frequently. This usually involved getting a sense of the client on the phone from how they talk about the booking and what they ask for. Some participants described getting much better at screening clients from experience and also learning from other more experienced sex workers.
Dunn’s death is a tragedy, but it should be an aberration.
“Like I can talk to them in — like for 15, 30 seconds, and I’ve generally got a very solid idea of how that booking is going to go. Like it’s very rare that I don’t sort of pick that – pick the way a booking will go sort of in 15, 30 seconds. And you just — like just learn off a lot of subtle cues, like judging from what people have done in the past.”
“Screening clients while doing street work could be more difficult, because due to the illegal status of street work the interaction could be brief prior to being in a potentially vulnerable situation. One respondent who predominantly did street work described jumping out of cars when she felt that she might be in danger.
“Yep. And I’ve also been in cars, got a weird feeling, and just jumped out at the lights.””
NSW was the first state in the world to decriminalise adult sex work. Since, the outcomes have been lauded globally. In 2016 report, the NSW government stated that decriminalisation is the best way to ensure sex worker safety and maintain transparency within the industry.
Yet, this safety is at odds with reality, a point echoed in the summary of the LASH study, with the researchers noting:
“…it is concerning that a little more than one-fifth of survey respondents reported having been assaulted at least once in the past 12 months.
This is higher than was found in the previous LASH Study in Western Australia, as was the proportion of respondents reporting being threatened by one or more clients. This difference may reflect the different study sample, as sex workers may be less vulnerable to abuse if working in a brothel setting compared to working privately or on the street.
In addition, a higher proportion of survey respondents reported being uncomfortable or very uncomfortable in reporting crimes against them to the Police compared to the previous LASH Study in Western Australia. As almost 50% of respondents reported feeling uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with reporting to the Police assaults and other crimes against them, this is something that must be addressed in order to reduce physical risk to sex workers.”
“It’s a shocking state of affairs,” Sex worker advocate Julie Bates told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “We should be able to call upon the police to protect us, but we can’t when the industry is criminalised.”
“The hidden nature of sex work, where you have to hide what you do to avoid the stigma and discrimination, is harmful,” Ms Bates concluded. “Decriminalisation does chip away at the stigma, and we need more of it.”
The salient facts are thus: Dunn had the right to work safely, as does anyone who holds the same vocation. Dunn and her contemporaries deserve our empathy, and our laws should continue to move to protect them. Dunn’s death is a tragedy, yes, but it should be an aberration.