It was the 14th week of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, and so we communicated by phone.  Lily’s bright voice rang through the speaker – wary, but still kind and introspective.

“I’m creative, very chaotic, and I don’t know, just fun, because that’s a good word.  I like that word,” they said.  “I’m mentally ill, neurodivergent, that kind of energy.” They laugh, slightly nervous.

Lily began working in the sex industry just after their 18th birthday, when an online friend told them about working in New York as an escort.  They liked the sound of money, which they knew would provide access to the things they enjoyed, and loved the idea of socialising with people as a profession.

Lily, whose preferred pronouns are they/them, and whose name has been changed to protect them, is one of approximately 20,000 sex workers in Australia.  They have been in the industry for two years.  They mainly work as an escort, typically accompanying clients to dinner and going back to the client’s house or hotel room afterwards.

But they don’t work everyday, and in their personal life, have studied Fashion Design at TAFE, and they’re currently doing a Visual Arts course.  It’s not always easy, but they really want to learn how to make the clothes and art they love so much.

Anti-discrimination law must be reformed to ensure that ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ are named as protected attributes, and that protection must apply equally to past and present sex workers.

Despite it being 2021, like many sex workers in Australia Lily’s relationship with authority remains tense and they feel they can’t rely on the police for help and protection (The New South Wales, Queensland, and Victorian Police Force were all contacted for comment on this story but declined).

Australia and the sex industry have a long and complex history.  The laws, which are often confusing and strict, are different in every state, and crossing the border from New South Wales to Queensland for work could mean arrest.

In New South Wales, sex work has been decriminalised since 1995.  In Victoria, the government is moving towards decriminalisation, with the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 currently before parliament.  In Queensland, most forms of sex work are illegal, and it is operated by a licensing system, which only perpetuates stigma and discrimination.

For years, sex workers and organisations such as Scarlet Alliance, Sex Worker’s Outreach Project (SWOP), Respect Inc. (QLD), and the Vixen Collective have been campaigning for full decriminalisation and anti-discrimination regulations to be embedded into the law to provide protection from the stigma that pervades the industry.


Lily's work bag, lingerie in the centre, condoms to the right and lube and vapes to the left

Lily’s work bag is packed with condoms, lube, hand sanitiser, vapes, and lingerie. (Victoria Bassett-Wilton)


Social skills are extremely important as a sex worker, said Lily.  They also recommend seeking support and friendship within the industry and from peer sex worker organisations. Or, they say warningly, “if you don’t have anymore” it can be very difficult, and “you don’t know what to expect.”

Gala Vanting, National Programs Manager at Scarlet Alliance, the national peak sex worker organisation in Australia, said that there is a “unique and pervasive stigma about sex work and sex workers that exist in the Australian community.”

“Anti-discrimination law must be reformed to ensure that ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ are named as protected attributes, and that protection must apply equally to past and present sex workers,” she said.

Penny Crofts, Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, said that the best way to protect sex workers from discrimination is through the decriminalisation model, and to extend the same rights and responsibilities to the sex industry as any other business or profession.

Just because I’m making money, suddenly I’m tainted, or dirty.

Lily’s tone changes when they begin to discuss the discrimination they’ve experienced, and the impact it has had on them.  Their voice develops an edge to it, a mix of passion, and anger and annoyance at the perpetrators.

“People don’t tell you you’re gross, but they view you differently . . . it’s my job,” they say.  “And so many people do the same thing, but don’t get paid for it.  So just because I’m making money, suddenly I’m tainted, or dirty.”

They talk about the difficulty making romantic connections, and negative experiences with clients. In one instance, Lily had been talking to a man on Tinder throughout lockdown, sending messages back and forth for weeks, and they had plans to meet when restrictions eased.  Eventually, Lily felt comfortable enough to tell him about their job. Almost immediately, the man said he didn’t want to meet anymore. He said he was high risk for COVID-19.

“But really, I work once a week sleeping with one or two people.  A café worker interacts with more people than I do,” said Lily.

Just before they begin to share some of their stories about negative client experiences, Lily sighs.  It is a sigh filled with heaviness, hurt, and a sad acceptance.

There have been many times that Lily has gone unpaid or received inappropriate and offensive comments from clients.  There have also been many times that they have been sexually assaulted while unconscious.  But one of their most vivid memories is the time that a client “joked” about throwing them out the window.

One of the client’s friends had come over while Lily was at his home.  The client introduced the two and then pressured Lily into sharing their two work names with his friend.  After, the client, laughing, told Lily that if they hadn’t told his friend both their names, he would’ve thrown them out the window.

“He seemed to find it funny.  But joking about murdering me is not funny, I’m concerned for my safety,” said Lily.

But, said Lily, “I definitely would not feel comfortable going to the police.  100 per cent not.”

Anecdotally, Lily has friends who’ve been sexually assaulted and discredited by the police, who they feel have a victim-blaming mentality.

Ms Vanting said she believes this is because the police attach the same stigma to sex workers as the wider community.

“Criminalisation of any aspect of sex work, places police in the role of regulating the industry.  This creates barriers for sex workers who need the services of police from accessing them, as doing so may incriminate someone seeking support for a crime committed against them,” she said.

While Victoria is moving towards decriminalisation, it is currently governed by the Sex Work Act 1994 under a licensing system.  This not only creates a two-tiered industry, with only a small percentage of those in the industry able to comply with the laws, but places police in a regulatory role.

Dylan O’Hara, whose preferred pronouns are they/them, and who uses the honorific Mx, is a spokesperson for the Vixen Collective, Victoria’s peer-run sex work organisation.  The organisation operates under the principal that sex workers are the experts of their own lives.

They describe the relationship between police and sex workers as oppositional and unusual compared with those who do not work in the sex industry.  This is because of the role the police play in enforcing laws, licensing, and criminalisation.

“Of course, that really compromises the relationship and creates huge barriers to interacting with the police … and it means that for many sex workers, the concern is to avoid police detection,” they say.

In Queensland, Dr Elena Jeffreys, the state coordinator of Respect Inc, is concerned about the police’s ability to entrap sex workers while posing as clients, requesting and undertaking illegal activities, under the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000.

Tori Powell, Acting CEO of SWOP in New South Wales, expressed that many sex workers have had negative interactions with the police.

“A lot of people, when they have gone to report, have experienced police officers asking really inappropriate questions or treating them as though they’re the criminal and not the victim of a crime,” she said.

Tilly Lawless is a queer sex worker based in Sydney, New South Wales.  Activist, university graduate and writer, she has worked in the sex industry for eight years.  Her Instagram, a virtual album of her life, peppered with poetic-like captions, has amassed close to fifty thousand followers on Instagram.  Now 28, she has just published her first novel, entitled Nothing But My Body.

People think I’m more interesting to talk to because I’m a sex worker, not because of who I am.

It is not a memoir, but tells the tale of a sex worker navigating personal hardships, community, and love.  The words seem to leap from the page.  Deeply personal and filled to the brim with all the complexities of being human, the reader is able to draw parallels between Tilly and the central character.

A quote from her novels reads, “Inside is cold – the sun won’t make it through these old brick walls – and I feel as if I’m striding a solitary catwalk down the carpeted hallways, imagining it is them watching me on the other side of the world, not my doppelganger in this ornate mirror.”

Tilly Lawless wearing only underwear looks back and stares at the camera

Tilly Lawless posts regularly on Instagram (Photo courtesy of Tilly Lawless)


“I feel like sometimes I’m reduced or tokenised as a sex worker,” said Tilly, thoughtful.

“I feel like in queer spaces, there’s a social cache which goes with being a sex worker.  People think I’m more interesting to talk to because I’m a sex worker, not because of who I am.”

In a usual working day, Tilly will work six hours at the brothel, seeing between six to 10 clients.  Every day is different, meeting and socialising with various people, and no shift is the same.

When she was working full time, she describes feeling burnt out and having a desire to leave the industry.  But now only working a few days a week, Tilly feels she has a good balance between her work life and personal life, and can see herself doing sex work “indefinitely”.

Living and working in New South Wales, where sex work has been decriminalised, Tilly said her personal relationship with the police is almost non-existent.  Although generally, she does not trust them and each time she’s come across them, like the times they’ve pulled her over, she describes the police as being “awful” and treating her “terribly”.

Tilly also knows people working in states where sex work is criminalised.  She said that they are “more afraid” of the police than clients.

However, when asked if she would ever go to the police to report a crime committed against her, Tilly becomes contemplative.  She’s begun to learn about transformative justice, which seeks to address an individual act of harm without punishment, incarceration or policing.

“It’s changed my attitude,” Tilly said.  “If I no longer believe in gaol as a concept, would I go to the police if someone assaulted me?”

Photo taken from behind, only Tilly's back and hair visible, she stands waist deep in the ocean looking out at a boat

Tilly Lawless at the beach, staring out at a boat (Photo courtesy of Tilly Lawless)


A study conducted by Dr Zahra Stardust called ‘I Wouldn’t Call the Cops if I was Being Bashed to Death’: Sex Work, Whore Stigma and the Criminal Legal System investigates the sex work stigma that is entrenched in society and the effect this has on sex worker’s relationship with the police.

The study, which interviewed a total of 31 sex workers from all across Australia, found the vast majority of workers expected inaction from the police if they were to report a crime committed against them.

According to the study, this expectation means some sex workers would not seek police assistance at all, regardless of the seriousness of the event.

The study also reports that the police’s treatment of sex workers who interacted with them was noticeably different when they were made aware of the interviewee’s profession.  The article states that some of the sex workers were treated with no respect, exposed to inappropriate and unacceptable comments, and had their experience disregarded.

The first steps in improving this is to decriminalise sex work and ensure anti-discrimination laws are in place.

Eurydice Aroney is a journalism activist, who in 2018, was named the Scarlet Alliance Whore of the Year for her research and preservation of sex work in New South Wales.

While sex work was decriminalised in New South Wales in 1995, the process started almost two decades earlier, in 1979 when the penalties for street-based sex work were removed.

And although it was the Royal Commission into police corruption which spurred decriminalisation in New South Wales, Ms Aroney’s research shows that the voices and activism of sex workers is integral to law reform.

You can count on them (the police) having an opinion, but not on knowing anything.

The Australian Prostitutes Collective (NSW) which has since evolved into SWOP and Scarlet Alliance, lobbied for decriminalisation and submitted research to the Select Committee of the NSW Legislative Assembly on Prostitution in the 1980s.  This provided the foundation for decriminalisation.

But, said Ms Aroney, the government failed to have a public education campaign.  This leads to councils and police who are almost entirely uneducated on the industry, although they are the primary regulators of sex work.

“You can count on them having an opinion, but not on knowing anything,” said Ms Aroney.

This lack of education and stigma still exists today, rooted in the minds of non-sex workers.

Ms Aroney found that being able to put a face to a narrative is essential after she travelled to New Zealand to explore exactly what changed the minds of those politicians and police in decision-making positions.

“Meeting someone, face to face, who would say I’m a sex worker, here’s my story, this is why I support decriminalisation, and here’s why you should too,” she said.

Of course, decriminalisation and the removal of stigma is not an overnight process.

Mx O’Hara believes that because of the “structural discrimination” sex workers face, full decriminalisation alone will not immediately end stigma, which is why anti-discrimination protections are essential.  Stigma is “entrenched” in society, and the current laws in Victoria only perpetuate it.

While Queensland does have an Anti-Discrimination Act, Dr Jeffreys said that there is only “limited coverage” for sex workers.  This is because the protection covers “lawful sexual activity” and not specifically “sex worker” and “sex work”.  If these changes were made, it would be hugely beneficial, and a great step forward.  Sex workers would be able to report discrimination and offending parties would be held responsible for their actions.

Katrina Bean

Katrina Bean: “I started working in hospitality again.  I just thought, wow, I have gone my whole day without feeling like my safety or privacy is jeopardised and I feel completely enormous.”

Katrina Bean is 23 years old, and entered the sex industry when she was 18 and began to work at a strip club.  Within a few weeks, she transitioned to online sex work, partially influenced by her job at Honey Birdette, where part of the marketing strategy meant she wore the products and sold a fantasy.

With a calm demeanour and friendly smile, she makes anyone feel at ease, even across the Zoom screen.

“How would you describe me babe?” she asked, turning to her partner, her face warm and affectionate.

“I’m very liberal, very in touch . . . when it comes to social and political issues, especially being half Asian.” She laughed, still considering how to describe herself in just a few sentences.  “Very progressive, on my feet.  If I have something on my mind, I’ll absolutely say it.”

Working online is a lot less tactile and less socially demanding than working at the strip club, but it is a long day, and begins the night before.  She starts by tanning when the sky is dark, and the stars are out.  In the morning, she washes the tan off before studying the lighting and camera angles so she can get the perfect shot.  It needs to appeal to the clientele.

Later, she’ll use face tune and photoshop.  Everything is detail-oriented, and she is very focused on her beauty regime so that her content is just right.

Katrina left the sex industry a day before this interview.

“I started working in hospitality again.  I just thought, wow, I have gone my whole day without feeling like my safety or privacy is jeopardised and I feel completely enormous,” she added.

But she is thankful for the sexual liberation she received from sex work, which she began in an effort to reclaim her sexuality after she was assaulted at 14.  She never had a set quit date.  In fact, she didn’t know how long she’d be in the sex industry for until the day she left.

Bullying and sexual harassment were factors in her decision.

One subscriber on her Only Fans account swore at her, “giving (her) a hard time” when she refused to send him free content.

Screenshot of a text exchange between Katrina and a client. He asked for free pictures, she texted no, and he used derogatory terms and aggressive language in response.

One of Katrina Bean’s OnlyFans subscribers texted profanities after she refused to send him free content (Photo courtesy of Katrina Bean)


Katrina’s head rested on her hand, her tattoo of Studio Ghibli character ‘No-Face’ from Spirited Away is visible, the ink elegant and defined.  She said that one of her most memorable moments of sexual assault and harassment was when she worked at the strip club.

“An older gentleman walked in, and said ‘I want that one, she looks underage, she looks Asian’,” she said.

The client had had a lot to drink, and was known at the club.  Katrina felt he chose her because she was a compilation of “his fetishes”.  She was a young stripper at the time, and didn’t realise he viewed the relationship as completely transactional.  He wanted more than just a private dance for his money.

She also told of her disappointment in her co-workers who did not step in when he began to touch her “in all sorts of places,” eventually “slapping (her) across (her) bottom.”

Although it has been years, the shock at this display of disrespect is evident in her voice.

Katrina has been to the police to report sexual harassment before, but she doesn’t believe she’d go to them again.

“It was a good morning, I was making pancakes for my boyfriend,” she started to tell me about the day she went to the police, seemingly lost in the memory.

A client had been harassing her over the phone and Instagram for several weeks, but when her phone buzzed that morning, she just thought it was her Uber Eats driver and picked up the Facetime call.

“On the other side was this guy masturbating,” she said.  “So, I screamed and dropped my phone and called the police.”

His skin tone and body shape matched her client’s almost perfectly.

The man had used a VPN number that the police were unable to track.  Katrina said she told them she was a sex worker, and while the officer taking her statement reacted well, she said she felt “a bit of judgement”.

At the end of the day, said Katrina, although she told the police she suspected who it was, they told her there was “no proof” and they were unable to do anything.

“I don’t think they think sexual harassment is a big thing because it’s so normalised,” Katrina said, her eyes wide and her voice passionate.

While she said the police were quite good with her during that experience, Katrina doesn’t feel like the police, especially male officers, hold the perpetrator responsible.

“Sex work being freshly decriminalised, I do think they’re going to see it from the perpetrator’s perspective and subvert the actual issue,” she added.

Katrina describes that her position as a feminist and past sex worker is that the stigma around the sex industry is an extension of society’s tendency to brush women aside.

“I think that the anti-feminist outlooks may be predisposed into police ideologies.  So no, I am not comfortable going to the police at all.”

I’m sure there are people who are sex workers that don’t want to be sex workers, just like there are cleaners who don’t want to be cleaners.  But there are also a lot of people who do sex work because they really enjoy it.

Recently, NSW Green’s MP Abigail Boyd presented the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Sex Workers) Bill 2020 to parliament.  At its core, the bill aims to make it unlawful to discriminate against past or current sex workers.

Ms Boyd proposed the bill because she was “incensed” over the injustice of the “patriarchal, gendered stigma” surrounding sex work, and the fact that sex workers are not protected from discrimination.  This is what has led to the oppositional relationship between sex workers and police, as well as banks refusing services to sex workers, and sex industry premises being allocated to industrial areas by councils.

“The idea that sex workers don’t choose their profession is very outdated.  I’m sure there are people who are sex workers that don’t want to be sex workers, just like there are cleaners who don’t want to be cleaners.  But there are also a lot of people who do sex work because they really enjoy it and value it as a profession,” said Ms Boyd.

The Victorian government has stated that the move to full decriminalisation will include “anti-discriminatory provisions” for sex workers in the Equal Opportunity Act.

Mx O’Hara said it is extremely important the Victorian government fulfill its promise on this.  Anti-Discrimination protections provide access to services such as housing and sex worker health and safety.

Lily said that on a legislative level, they think that the Anti-Discrimination protections are extremely positive.  But they believe that there needs to be a “drastic” change in the way that society and the police view the sex industry.  This includes conversations and understanding the “intersection and overlap” of sex work with people of colour, queer people, poverty, homelessness and mental health.

Katrina was very contemplative, but still positive about the change of attitude and laws regarding sex work, and explained that she felt society was slowly coming to a “180” on what sex work was perceived to be.  Hopefully, she said, the stigma will die out.

Although, she questions the strategy of politicians in enacting these legal changes.  Decriminalisation and Anti-Discrimination laws are one thing, she said, confiding that she wonders how they will stop bullying and harassment in reality.

Ms Boyd agreed that the Anti-Discrimination Bill in NSW is a good step forward, and said it is about “raising awareness.”

Professor Crofts said the full decriminalisation of sex work is the best model to protect sex workers from discrimination.

“No-one is worse off under the model, and worst case, it’s neutral,” said Professor Crofts.

Katrina began to discuss the affect that sex work had on her experiences with sexual assault.  She was deeply thoughtful, and slightly irritated as she reflected on the harassment and bullying she had come across, and the police inaction too.

Working within the sex industry has helped Katrina in knowing how to overcome the aftermath of assault.  But it didn’t stop any of her clientele from repeating the same behaviours she first experienced at 14.  Comparing sex work to a transaction at a shopping centre, she cleverly showed that in any other workplace, the client’s assault of workers would not be accepted.

But in sex work, it’s expected.

Silver handcuffs on black background

Sex work decriminalisation and anti-discrimination laws are essential to improving the relationship between police and sex workers (Representative photo, Victoria Bassett-Wilton)


Ms Vanting said while peer sex worker organisations such as Scarlet Alliance “tirelessly” advocated for improved police understanding of sex worker issues in order to improve outcomes for sex workers, “police, criminalisation, stigma and discrimination” continue to negatively impact sex workers.

Ms Boyd said that in New South Wales, she hopes that anti-discrimination protections will improve the relationship between sex workers and the police.  She believes “part of the problem” is discrimination, and an acknowledgement that “our courts and laws won’t actually uphold the complaints of sex workers.”

This means that police are often reluctant to pursue the reports that sex workers make.  Ms Boyd strongly believes the police and courts have an “outdated attitude that you effectively can’t rape a sex worker”.

On October 20, NSW Attorney General and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Mark Speakman introduced a Bill in NSW Parliament which seeks to strengthen and employ consent reform in the Crimes Act 1900.

Ms Boyd suspects this will be helpful to sex workers, both in their relationship with the police and interactions with clientele.

“It will make it crystal clear that you need consent for every step of the process,” she said.  “You don’t automatically have consent because somebody is a sex worker.”

In Victoria, the current laws mean that there are “immense barriers” regarding sex workers’ access to police.  Mx O’Hara is concerned that the laws, which criminalise many aspects of the sex industry, create a “real deterrent” as sex workers fear self-incrimination, surveillance and discrimination, which “reverberates out into different parts of our lives.”

But, they say, as the Victorian government moves towards decriminalisation, embedding anti-discrimination protections into legislation, there would be a big change in the relationship between the police and sex workers as the police won’t have a “sex work specific role”.

Mx O’Hara highlights “the importance of full decriminalisation to ensure that all sex workers benefit from these vital changes.”

In order to support that, and increase police understanding, Mx O’Hara said it will require “co-ordinated work” with a sex work organisation.  There is also a need for “attitudinal change”.

To protect sex workers, the key isn’t to add laws which contain the industry, but to remove them, particularly in Victoria, said Mx O’Hara.

Dr Jeffreys said that the current Queensland laws are “not workable” and criminalise sex work premises and workplaces, which reduces the ability of sex workers to implement “safety strategies.” Respect Inc. (QLD) believes that full decriminalisation is the “best legal framework” for the sex industry in Queensland.

The current licensing system is a “failure” Dr Jeffreys said.  It only regulates “20 per cent of the industry, criminalising the remaining 80 per cent”

Importantly, she said, if sex work is decriminalised, it is essentially treated as any other business.  This means that the police do not have a role in the regulation of the industry, and there is no police unit specific to the sex industry.

Taking a deep breath, Katrina pauses for a moment to collect her thoughts.  She said that the road to acceptance of sex work and eliminating stigma is “more than a two-step process.”

Mx O’Hara said that a funded peer sex work organisation is essential to supporting sex worker health and safety, and ensuring sex workers have anti-discriminatory access to services.

Ms Powell expressed the need for police to receive sensitivity training regarding sex work.  She also referenced the need for a public education campaign around sex work stigma, anti-discrimination, and decriminalisation.

Public education campaigns, changes to legislation, and funded peer sex worker organisations are all pieces of the puzzle in shifting attitudes around the sex industry.

Lily feels that support from organisations, police, and society is essential.

Meanwhile, Tilly has begun to write a second book, which she’s excited to share with her many followers and the world.

Sex work is nothing more than a profession, and it is a place where Katrina has made “lifelong friendships”.

“I could honestly keep going forever,” said Lily.

If you are a victim of sexual assault or have been affected by anything you’ve read in this story, please contact on 1800 737 732.