Guest blog: Women in the sex industry and their experience of male violence in the home

The family violence sector is great at honouring the strength and resilience of the women in our communities and works tirelessly to ensure they are safe and able to live free from violence and abuse.

But when we listen to women in the sex industry, we hear a different story. Women who work in the sex industry report that they do not feel welcome at family violence services and, in order to protect themselves, often do not disclose their whole story.

A unique experience of violence

Women in the sex industry are a unique and high risk group and can experience types of violence and structural barriers that other women may not. For example, women in the sex industry:

  • report feeling judged by the community, including the community sector, and say this can be a considerable barrier in disclosing their work; therefore a risk assessment is likely to be incomplete
  • can face multiple and intersecting barriers as a result of gender, cultural background, income status, alcohol and other drug status, socio-economic status, criminal history, race, mental health status, disability and sexuality
  • report a strong link between working in the sex industry and the normalisation of violence perpetrated against them
  • are generally not included in regional family violence integration plans as a key population group
  • are not included as ‘vulnerable’ in the Family Violence Risk Assessment and Risk Management Framework (CRAF).

Targeting perceived vulnerabilities

In any group where there is a perceived vulnerability, there are specific ways men will target women, in order to dominate and control.

For example, women with disabilities report that abuse often targets their disability; immigrant and refugee women often tell us their immigration status, culture or isolation is exploited; and women with mental illness can be targeted in ways that exacerbate their illness and contribute to their feelings of isolation.

Likewise, women in the sex industry report that men perpetrate family violence against them in specific ways. For example, perpetrators may:

  • force her into the sex industry
  • not allow her to leave the sex industry
  • take her earnings from the sex industry
  • force her into sex work in their home
  • disclose or threaten to disclose that the woman has been in the sex industry to others as a means to discredit, demoralise and humiliate her
  • use verbal insults designed to degrade and shame her, for example, calling her a ‘whore’ or a ‘slut’
  • make accusations of infidelity or being sexually jealous, and then use this to justify their tactics of abuse
  • coerce or force her into having unwanted sex before or after work
  • punish and accuse her of wanting to have sex with other men but not him
  • force her to have sex with other men in her home or force her to engage in particular types of sex.

The RCFV showed considerable interest in documenting their unique experience of male violence, particularly family violence. The RCFV heard that many women in the sex industry are disproportionately impacted by family violence, compared with women who are not in the sex industry.  The report stated {women in the sex industry] often feel ‘invisible’ or overlooked in the broader family violence system in terms of both prevention and response.’

In their final report, the RCFV stated that ‘there is a need to ensure that sex workers who are victims of family violence can access the support of police, family violence services and other related services. These services should work closely with organisations that advocate for and assist sex workers’.

Unfortunately, this was not translated into a recommendation.

There are currently approximately 89 licensed brothels in Victoria, and over 600 operator-owned sex businesses. There is not, however, any reliable, up-to-date estimate of how many women are involved in the sex industry in Victoria. The lack of data about women and their experiences of violence may be attributed to both the stigma surrounding the industry and the lower priority placed on women in the sex industry.

There are very few services that specialise in supporting women in the sex industry, and the few that have been established in Victoria are suffering under funding constraints, isolation, siloing and stigma. Workers at these services are specialists in working with, and responding to, the unique needs of women in the sex industry and understand that their clients are not only a specific cohort, but a high risk group.

The RCFV reported that women in the sex industry:

experience high levels of family violence and other violence, they might be less likely to label these experiences violence because they have been exposed to and have normalised violence in their childhood, in previous relationships and in the sex industry. They commonly enter the sex industry as a consequence of family violence—including when they leave relationships with violent men—and in order to gain access to an income.

In light of this, it is important that they receive a specialised response that understands this desensitisation and helps to support women to accurately assess their own level of risk.

Given that we know women in the sex industry experience barriers to engaging with mainstream services, including family violence services, it is vital that we connect with the knowledge base of specialist services, all of whom actively (and crucially) work with and for women in the sex industry. These services offer secondary consultation, resources, training and professional development to mainstream services.

Improving responses

In their final recommendations, the RCFV stated that:

A comprehensive family violence policy must ensure better services and responses for all people who experience family violence, regardless of their background, identity or membership of a particular community.

How, then, might family violence services ensure that women who work in the sex industry know that they can come to them, disclose the whole story, and feel respected, believed and supported? There are many practical things the family violence service system can do:

  • The answer begins with training, but certainly doesn’t end there.
  • Integration is key—women in the sex industry must be included as a unique cohort in the regional integrated family violence services plans.
  • Ensure there are visible resources that let all women know they are safe in your service.
  • Include women in the sex industry as a unique cohort in the update of the CRAF.
  • Avoid making assumptions about women who work in the sex industry, avoid buying into stereotypes, believe them, support them and manage the risk she faces.

Stigma and politics aside, women in the sex industry have the right to be treated with respect and dignity, to be safe and live free from violence. The family violence sector has a strong framework and solid integrated service system to ensure a consistent response. This is something we can build on to ensure all women are included and provided support.


Ada Conroy is a family violence project worker, trainer, men’s behaviour change practitioner, consultant, and the deputy chair of Project Respect.