Salus (work name used by a sex worker)

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS COUNCIL / NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS & HEPATITIS COUNCIL 2000-ONGOING

    "Nothing About Us Without Us"- the issues were and still are stigma and discrimination, access and equity to services, and the criminalisation of sex work.

    My work name is Salus, I’m really happy to be able to speak about NTAHC as an organisation, in particular, the SWOP NT program – and also my interest in the NSP as well.

    I first set foot in NTAC NSP in 2000. I was already aware of some sex worker history from NT that had crossed over into the national sex worker rights movement. There was once a co-convenor of Scarlet Alliance in the mid-80s who also was behind organising sex workers in the NT, (LeeC). There was a group that (LeeC) facilitated to form which was basically around union rights for sex workers and it was known as PANTHER – the Prostitutes Association of the Northern Territory for Health, Education and Referral – It was located in the NT Union offices on Wood Street. Around about the same time that PANTHER had formed, there was another really important component forming – and that was in sex workers overlapping in the response to rights based approaches to reduce stigma and discrimination, and support all of our communities to become a part of NTAC to respond to what was known as the AIDS epidemic.

    With the formation of PANTHER, Lee and other sex workers became very engaged in NTAC, and PANTHER by default fell under the first lot of funding with NTAC as well. PANTHER continued and then later in ’90s and early 2000, a group called SAINT formed, which was the Sex Industry Advisory peer group for the NT sex workers. SAINT, although incorporated autonomously as a group under NTAC did start to move a little bit more away from strategic kind of union-based work and into more health promotion. In 2000 to 2001, SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Program) NT formed, and by the end of 2001 it was cemented as a peer-based program.

    By the end of 2001, SWOP NT had proven to Scarlet Alliance that the project now of NTAC, was peer led and peer run. So between 2001 and 2002 I knew a bit about SWOP as they had just been accepted to become a member of Scarlet Alliance, just as PANTHER and SAINT had achieved before.

    This snippet of history brings me to when I first popped up here in NT, which was 2000. At that point in time, I was still a sex worker and I was still a sex worker who injected drugs as well. So I rocked into the NSP and was like, you know, I’m pretty out and proud on both levels. I’m a bit of a "Junkie Whore" and I’d like to be involved. "Junky Whore" is a term I used then endearingly as that was my life and many people use those terms to shame us, so taking those terms on in ownership, throws it back. And for whatever reason at the time, a lot of my previous activism down south didn’t come to fruition really here until about 2006, when I returned from South East Asia. Executive Director, Barry Horwood was at NTAC at the time and I quickly took a position on the Board for a period.

    I had popped in and out of Darwin around 2004 a couple of times touching base with SWOP projects. A SWOP officer during this period (AT) and another delegate from NSP (LS) come over to East Timor and they did a small activity scope for their programs within NTAC. At the time (AT) was also the president of Scarlet Alliance and the SWOP NT officer. (AT) was also in her role from Scarlet Alliance able to offer support in an area I was working on with sex workers there. I think NTAC has always had a little bit of involvement with East Timor, so there was a crossover , when Frank Farmer an Executive Director of NTAC/NTAHC 2004 was in the role.

    Returning to 2006 – 2007,  I remained on NTAHC board of management. In November 2007 the SWOP NT position became available for a short period of time, there was talk from some Board members at the time to consider opening up the position for a "Non Peer’, because in the past SWOP officer positions had at times been vacant for a few months previously. I was on the NTAHC Board - we could not put a non-peer in place, and of course, myself and a lot of other workers were like: "no way! no way, it’s got to be peer led and peer focused, we will loose our membership with Scarlet Alliance as well!"

    I think that’s why peer-based programs like some NSP's and the SWOP programs have maintained a really strong focus on policy and on lived experiences of populations to lead that policy development. It’s really best practice now around the world as well. Those shifts I think for drug users, particularly injecting drug users, and also for all sex workers who are linguistically and sexually diverse, and all different genders as well. To come together. The issues for sex workers many years ago was around legalisation, having a special legislation that noone was criminalised under. Now it’s about decriminalisation because any legal setting, by default, criminalises some part of the population – and we all know that criminalisation for sex workers is pretty detrimental to good public health outcomes.

    My first involvement in the sex worker rights movement was after I’d started first working opportunisically. But it was in the ’80s in Brisbane, I didn’t know the term sex worker but in hindsight opportunistically or not, there was a patten, it became purposely. In the mid-80s, I was in the ACT and I was fortunate to be around one of the Scarlet Alliance convenors at the time, (SM), They helped me work safely in my first brothel. I worked as an outreach officer at Workers In Sex Employment (WISE in the ACT), I volunteered my time also as an elected Chaiperson at WISE. The Scarlet Alliance office was housed within the WISE office at the time as (SM) was both the Convenor of SA and the Exective Officer of WISE. WISE had a NSP within, the organisation was perfect for building my understanding of "Nothing About Us Without Us", the issues were then and still are, stigma and discrimination, access and equity to services and the criminalisation of sex work. There were policies forming around that and although those issues are still the same, there was very strong solidarity with drug users, with gay men, the LGBTIQ community in general. A lot of sex workers identify as queer. We had a queer workers’ union at that point in time (QEWU) The Queer Esoteric Workers Union, based in Sydney with (AM) another previous SWOP NT officer at the helm, this was the period of strenghth of activism rising out of stigma and discrimination, bursting through the acedemics papers on us all who had never on a daily level themselves lived the life of knowing how it felt to be shamed. There were a lot of very militant activists. Act Up started as well. So we had all of these really strong groups everywhere across the country. I think our friends dying of an AIDS-related illness, who had been living with HIV and who had been dying very quickly, within five years sometimes, that was the really big difference. We nursed our friends, friends whose own blood families had rejected them. We at times had time to plan beautiful passing ceronomies as our friends knew the timeline to their death back then.

    Collectively everyone was really wild and angry but at the same time very motivated and really wanted to do reform. Like, we’d keep everyone safe ultimately, and try and get rid of this terrible stigma and discrimination and virus that was killing our freinds. And I think that’s changed. Even though the stigma and discrimination is still there, I think all of the communities that we’ve just talked about are not known as the "vectors of disease" anymore. I think it’s much more widely-known as best practice to listen to peers, endosing peer led intervention today. 

    The policy development that came and still comes from peers over that period of anger,  we still contribute to now, is known as best practice around the world. Harm Reduction, and the decriminalisation of sex work, drug use, same sex couples, or of people living with HIV for example.

    PANTHER was a very militant sex worker rights organisation. It was an education and referral organisation, but it was very focused on union rights for the sex workers – and it probably, along with the very beginning of the formation of Scarlet Alliance, had a very different focus to what SWOP NT does today because funding puts in place different challenges. So when I got here in 2000, I found that although we’d gone leaps and bounds in access and equity down south, to say that an organisation like NTAC was acessable for large populations such as sex workers and drug users was dependant on who was working within. Certainly there was less availability at that time for myself to be involved as an activist in NTAC. It was more about the way the department was looking at what the outcomes should be for programs. And also it’s an indicator of the amount of peers that are involved in programs too. So there wasn’t, at that point in time, peer meetings to go to, because NTAC unbeknown to them, but known to Scarlet Alliance had employed (K) who was not a peer, but then at other times there was the ability to be involved as all other SWOP NT officers were peers. Funny really in reflection, its not hard when we all get together to spot a non sex worker in a sex worker only meeting or other group of whores who is not, it only takes about 10 minutes and they are exposed as fake. That’s because non sex workers will never know the issues, the same as people who have never lived the life of a gay man, a sistergirl, transwomen and men, as a person living with HIV or (PWID) for people who inject drugs and understanding having a daily dependancy on injecting illicit drugs, etc.

    2006 – 2009 there was a small group called Ho-Down that had formed – a Sex Worker Reference Group (SWRG) that still exists today, that directs SWOP NT really and raises contemporary issues so that we’re really on the pulse with policy development and also to address better health promotion and human rights strategies. Ho-Down was a very interesting group that marched in 2006 May Day with a banner that said "My Body, My Buisness" a slogan taken from SA SIN a South Australian Sex Worker program also housed within an AIDS Council at the time. This was the first time that sex workers had marched in representation as workers in a May Day march for nine years, only PANTHER had previously marched with other workers for sex workers rights. During our march in 2006, we handed out little envelopes with "sex workers are safe sex experts" within envelopes condoms and lube sachets and workers rights messages, with stats around peer education being best practice with sex workers, and in Australia because of that diligence in peer education and peer-led health promotion, sex workers have maintained very, very low rates of HIV. In Australia it has been for pretty low about twenty years now, but we should not be complacent as our sex worker organisations from across every state in Australia are currently underfunded, peer education, skill sharing is the key to prevention. We need to dilligently concentrate on keeping that health promotion going though, not be complacent. I think that NTAHC is very strong on health promotion with its projects, NTAHC needs more money too as a whole.

    There’s that old saying "unless you’re living the life, you don’t really know the issues". Certainly at NTAHC there’s a crossover in lots of programs with people who access services, and there are those who crossover at different times as peers with staff who work in the programs. Certainly, I’ve crossed over into the NSP program, for sure. But I think the fight really has always needed to be maintained and funding is a very good example. There’s been times where SWOP NT has been fully funded at five days a week in Darwin and one day a week in Alice Springs, and then there’s other times where it’s gone down to three days in Darwin only. Now I am back in SWOP NT again, currently, it’s funded at four days, with an extra day just as a pilot to see how we go till June 16. I think unless our sex worker community really fights hard and shows evidence that we need this funding and we can do really good work with it, not much is going to change. We need to make change, and with adequate resourcing we can, what we do now is important and well done, but its not enough, even at five days a week to service and try to access sex workers across the whole of the NT, everyone knows that is impossible and less possible where we are now with funding, to support and have strong engagement in our SWOP NT programming.

    The Sex Worker Reference Group (SWRG) is still fairly strong,  even though there are transient sex workers in and out of that group as well, it’s open to every single sex worker who is a past or current that has worked in the Northern Territory. So for that reason, sometimes there’s new members there. At our SWRG meetings there are also old established members who maintain presence, and at times original members will come back when they are visiting Darwin and attend. Just recently there was one person who was involved from 2003 and stayed fairly solid until about 2010 who has recently returned again. 

    So there’s different periods of time where workers have energy to put in and out of the program on a variety of levels. The SWRG group participants work really hard,  if there’s a decision to be made in NTAHC for SWOP, SWOP says "no, we need to go back to the reference group and we’ll check about what needs to be the content". We don’t make decisions blind in SWOP NT and we are proud of that core peer leadership principal from PANTHER and from Scarlet Alliances fruition, which still continues on today. Recently what we’ve started doing, which we haven’t done for a number of years, is submission work on law reform. We’ve completed two law reform submissions to save decriminalisation in New South Wales and to implement decriminalisation in South Australia. The Sex Workers Reference Group (SWRG) wrote most of the submissions with SWOP NT officers, as an example of good peer-based policy and leadership. NTAHC is very keen to have really solid, strong, peer-based policy and leadership  with different programs, and so SWOP NT has been looking at all of the complexities of doing that. That again is further voluntry work for the reference group participants. But to do that, the group needs to work on long-term policy evaluation to make sure  it works well. So that’s a good example. Its always ongoing. 

    I mentioned (LeeC). There’s many people that have gone in and out of the sex worker rights movement as well who no longer want to be known as a sex workers. I can think of other very significant people who worked in the SWOP NT program who I would love to pay homage to that have worked as sex workers, but it’s not really my place anymore because they have moved in different directions, or have been uncontactable to endorse their names within this document. I have worked with sex workers in South East Asia, participated in Scarlet Alliance programs abroad as staff. Another SWOP NT officer before myself had been the International Spokesperson for Scarlet Alliance, another was Scarlet Alliance representatives on AFAO board,  a different person again was the Scarlet Alliance representative on AFAO HIV Educators Forum, There has been so much expertise over the years of input into the sex worker programs in the NT

    I think that NTAHC gives people, anybody, a space to go into to remain anonymous to access our services. Alice Springs, Katherine or Nhulunbuy sex workers, because of the stigma and discrimination across the Northern Territory, it is not so easy to cover the work. When sex workers travel through places like Darwin, interstate, into sex worker organisations, also in Sydney and Melbourne - sex workers meet other workers. SWOP NT supports workers regionally over the phone as best we can as possible without meeting face to face because we are unable to, we have to be very careful in checking settings of confidentiality, for example the space the worker is speaking within. We ensure we maintain links as best as possible for travelling workers and FIFO workers.

    Organisations like Scarlet Alliance are really good for maintaining those links because there is now individual membership too. Many years ago, Scarlet didn’t have that. Scarlet Alliance only had organisational membership. Now there is individual membership for sex workers, it’s enabled a lot more workers to talk to each other on a national level. The internet helps too. We didn’t have the internet before in the way that we do now.

    Communication in very remote areas is tricky, there can be somebody working by themselves but now they’re able to access through looking on the internet sex worker support from organisations like Scarlet Alliance or other organisations like SWOP programs, such as the one in Darwin information, then within the hour, there can be a worker on the end of the phone, and I think that’s pretty magic these days. For instance, two weeks ago we did from scratch how to put a condom on over the phone, how to check a client over the phone, how to use all the equipment, and they had the safe sex pack from our office in front of them and then we also were saying "okay, so can you see the way the condom rolls?, can you see what the rolled edge down does, you know, can you get a friend to practice on, bring them back tomorrow?". So we get on the phone again and we talk about how to check the client and lots of giggles, but it all works.

    On a political level, I think I’d like to just use the opportunity to think about the wisdom of NTAHC’s programs and the people that work within them and the people that access our programs, that volunteer their time and think about all of the amazing activism that has happened and the creativity around that activism. I think the resources that have been produced, and are still being produced, are in line with peer-led decisions. They’ve been peer focused tested and they work. And I think having peer-led programs works because having someone who has injected illicit drugs knows the complications around, for instance, how difficult it is to try and access equipment, safer injecting equipment at night and or understands the issues of why its important to get fairly good quality illicit drugs that aren’t going to harm your system as much as really heavily cut drugs. And at the same time, try and balance getting to work at a 9.00 am to keep at work till 5.00 pm day job. Or shift work. Sex work can fall into similar hours for hospitality staff, the hours of operation for pharmacotherapies is limited so therefore inhibits people choosing if they wish to not use illicit drugs and utilize the substitution programs.

    If there was decriminalisation of drugs, that would give better access to a known quality of drug in a way that the drug using community thought would would work, then people would be able to work and live better. There is a lot of myth busting to do,  certainly people who inject illicit drugs do work and there’s an assumption that they don’t. There’s an assumption that sex workers who inject drugs aren’t responsible as workers, either. I mean, sex work is work. And there’s people that may not pay taxes and there’s people that may not want to go through all of the different areas that they probably need to as sex workers. There sex workers who are investors and there are also sex workers who get by daily struggling to make ends meet. But all sex workers weigh up the options, there’s not actually access and equity for workers either, so its not surprising that some sex workers will not disclose sex work as a job publically because the same workplace benefits are not yet acessable. Certainly Centrelink, at different points in time, have not recognised sex work as work. There is still a long way to go to change that mindset, its work and nothing else. The decriminalisation of sex work is the way to go "Sex Work is Work" So I think I’ll just leave it with that.