Victorian Sex Workers Angered by Overturned Court Ruling

Sex workers in Victoria, Australia, are speaking out for the second time to highlight the ways they are blocked from or denied justice.

On the 26th March 2015 serial rapist and murderer, Adrian Bayley was convicted of the rape of a sex worker that he had committed in 2000. However, on the 13th of July 2016 the Victorian Court of Appeal overturned it. The decision was labeled “disgusting” by Crime Victims Support Association President Noel McNamara who echoed statements made by sex workers, explaining how a message is being sent that crimes against sex workers will not be taken seriously.

When Bayley was convicted of the rape and murder of Jill Meagher in 2013, public attention was drawn to the fact that Bayley had committed a number of violent crimes towards sex workers in the past. These crimes were not treated as seriously as the crimes he committed against non-sex workers. Coroner Ian Gray found that Bayley should not have been on parole in 2012, and that Ms. Meagher’s murder was “preventable.”

Following media surrounding Bayley’s murder of Jill Meagher, the sex worker who had been raped by Bayley in 2000 saw a picture of him on Facebook, and identified him. “I always thought I’d find him one day and that’s him 100 per cent,” she later told the jury. “As soon as I saw his face it brought it all back. I still have nightmares. You never forget the face of someone who gave you so much terror. You remember that forever.” She did not contact police at the time because she feared she would not be believed.

Sex workers’ concerns and fears about reporting crimes are well founded. Vixen Collective have thoroughly documented the many reasons why reporting a crime as a sex worker in Victoria is a difficult process with many risks. In the court of appeal on the 13th of July, Bayley’s defense argued that the woman knew when she saw the photo that Bayley had been charged with raping and murdering Ms Meagher. The Age reported “Without the identification evidence, the appeal judges found it would not have been possible for the jury to find Bayley guilty of raping the woman, and he was acquitted.”

In an Op Ed endorsed by Vixen Collective, Jane Green drew attention to the fact that in Victoria, “If we are working as street based sex workers or outside the licensing system, we can be charged for this when we report crimes committed against us.” The fact that sex workers can be charged themselves while attempting to report crimes is a serious issue. As Green describes,  “In the Adrian Bayley case alone there were at least ten other sex workers who did not trust police enough to give evidence.”

Discrimination against sex workers goes beyond this for workers in Victoria. Victorian case law exists that supports reduced sentences against perpetrators who target sex workers.

The case of Harris, in 1981, set a precedent in considering rape committed against sex workers, with the Judge stating that the rape, which was committed against two sex workers, would not cause the “… reaction of revulsion which it might cause in a chaste woman.”

Ten years later, in 1991, Heros Hakopian was convicted for the kidnapping, aggravated indecent assault, and aggravated rape of a St Kilda street-based sex worker. In sentencing, the Judge declared that due to her sex work, “… the likely psychological effect on the victim of a forced oral intercourse and indecent assault is much less a factor in this case and lessens the gravity of the offences.”

In the wake of the Hakopian case, Victoria’s Attorney General Andrew McCutcheon made a verbal reference to the state’s Law Reform Commission to inquire into issues arising out of the case. In 1992, the commission recommended that the principal underlying Hakopian be overturned, arguing that:

“If sentences are to be differentiated on the basis of the psychological effect of the crime on the victim, these assessments must be based on information about the actual impact of the offence on that particular victim, not simply on the fact that the victim comes from a particular social or occupational group.”

However, this recommendation was never enacted and Victoria’s Sentencing Manual still allows for Judges to consider an individual’s sex work in discriminatory ways. Advice to judges still includes statements such as “… where the victim of a rape is a prostitute, the victim’s sexual experience may be relevant to sentence.”

As stated in Vixen Collective’s submission to the Inquiry of Victims of Crime, “It has been indicated by sex workers that cases of physical and sexual assault against sex workers are sometimes not proceeded with by prosecutors, due to a perception that it is more difficult to gain a conviction against someone who assaults a sex worker.”

While the justice system has many flaws, Vixen points out “right now sex workers are shut out from even the limited justice on offer to other survivors.” In the face of this, sex workers have vowed to continue demanding and agitating for change, stating “its time for the Victorian Government to start listening to sex workers”