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Have you ever met a sex worker? Shall we do the math?  Lets say there is 1000 sex workers in South Australia working in any one year and 85% of them are female (an estimate shared by the SA Police, the local sex workers health organisation SIN and quoted in the media). That would mean 850 women have done sex work in any one year in SA. In June 2010 South Australia had 1.09 million people of working age between 15 and 64 years old (from the Australian Bureau of statistics) and roughly half of them (545 000) were women. Using these statistics 1 in 640 working aged South Australian Women have done sex work this year alone.

Now lets say their average length of time in the industry is 10 years (It was more like 5 years in research done with Australian sex workers in 1991 by Roberta Perkins some of which is published here and in a book called Working Girls) and your working life lasts 50 years (based on the ABS age range used above) I could take a leap and say that over a 10 year period all the current sex workers have left and a new 850 have entered (overall, on average, generally, based on these estimates). My sketchy brain (and dodgy calculator) work that out to mean that 1 in 65 South Australian women will do sex work at one point in their life.

Does this math add up? That seems like a lot! And I am using conservative figures. Any way you look at it, it’s a good proportion. Someone pull my math apart, because I just sent my brain into a gooey mess.

And while we wait for the judges to get back to us, I’ll tell you why I wouldn’t actually be surprised if my guess was close to accurate.

You may think you have never met a hooker (except the one you paid maybe) but a lot of my friends, family, lovers and even partners have thought they never met a hooker either. You see, most of us sex workers don’t wear a sign on our head, we don’t have a red light on our house and we don’t advertise our identifying details on a billboard.

Many of us hide our work from some, or most, or all the people we know and meet or maybe we just hide it just from you!

Many of us are only sex workers when we are at work. The rest of the time we are people’s friends and family members and community members. Maybe yours.

Some of us may want to suss you out before we make ourselves vulnerable by sharing our secret. It’s not that we are ashamed, but maybe we have reasons to hide from the discrimination. Maybe we are testing your values and your trustworthiness first to make sure our secret life is safe with you.

Some of us have detailed cover stories so when strangers ask about our work we easily talk about our job in telephone sales, converting stories about our clients into a story about an interesting call we took at work. Maybe we can’t be bothered doing a sexwork 101 class right now, or maybe we’re saving you the embarrassment that we suspect our disclosure would elicit.

Some sex workers will never tell a soul, taking their secrets to the grave. The only people knowing are other sex workers and their clients. They have decided that the risk is not worth it. Perhaps they are a student who is scared about jeopardising their future career, a single mum who is only working for a few years to set herself up. For many of us, sex work is just a job that is meeting our needs. Sometimes its only a temporary plan and we decide that coming out and fighting the stigma for the sake of a short term job is just not worth it.

I feel privileged to receive emails from people sharing their own experiences of sex work with me, stories that they have never told anyone else. If you have never met a sex worker, you are missing out.

I had a partner for three years and I never told him that I was a part-time sex worker. I guess the thought of me in that line of work never occurred to him, because he never suspected. I didn’t find it difficult, I just went to work as per normal, did my job and came home. He even met other sex workers who I worked with, but he presumed they were co workers from my “straight” job. It wasn’t a big deal to me, and I didn’t want to make it a big deal to us so I kept it to myself.

If a client complains about the lack of sexual attention they receive from their wives or girlfriends I will often make the joke “maybe she is just too tired from working at the brothel all day”. Everytime he will laugh heartily assuring me that for whatever reason this is a ridiculous suggestion. And I giggle as I respond with “yup, that’s what my partner thinks about me too”. Then I sit back and watch them consider my words.

Have you ever met a hooker? Maybe you’re married to one, or maybe your mum is one. Maybe one of the people in your class is a hooker, or maybe your best friend has done sex work. Maybe the person on the bus, or at the party, or your mates partner or family member or the person that helps out at the canteen or maybe even your child has done sex work. If my maths is right, its likely nearly everyone has met a sex worker at some point. Some of you might love one.

Maybe we havent told you because we don’t trust you. Or maybe we trust you, but we don’t know if we will be able to trust you next week. Or maybe we don’t trust your friends.

But  mostly we don’t know who we can trust.

Don’t let your friend or loved one be the ones who dies with their secrets. Or the one who emails a stranger with their amazing stories but can’t tell anyone in their lives.

If you want to spot a hooker:

Don’t presume you are not talking to a sex worker when you make that nasty comment about us.

Don’t presume there are no sex workers in the room feeling uncomfortable or unsafe when you pass judgement about us.

Don’t presume that you are not talking about someones loved one or family member when you discuss stereotypes and misconceptions about sex workers.

We are not just in the brothels, we are everywhere. Perhaps even in your home.

Don’t fail our test.

If you haven’t heard stories like mine before, you haven’t been asking the right questions.