Experiences of Sex Workers with Disability in Australia


In 2019, the Australian Government established the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, known as the Disability Royal Commission or the ADRC. The Commission has wide scope to hear about the experiences of people with disability in all areas of life, and Scarlet Alliance (with support from SWOP New South Wales) conducted research with sex workers with disability to inform our submission.  The full report ‘Experiences of sex workers with disability in Australia’ was submitted in December 2022. From that report we also developed a report summary and detailed topic summaries.

While not included in our submission to the ADRC, we also wanted to find out how sex worker organisations can better support sex workers with disability, facilitate more inclusive spaces, and be better colleagues and allies. The following recommendations summarise feedback from our national consultation.

Improving access to your services for sex workers with disability

Create consultation mechanisms. 

This report is a starting point, but doesn’t stand in for the need to consult directly with sex workers with disability. This could take the form of establishing advisory groups for ongoing consultation or doing ad-hoc consultation through surveys, live or digital consultations, or other activities. You may also consider working in partnership with sex workers with disability to develop an action plan to improve access, specific to your organisation. 

Improve access to activities for sex workers with disability.

  • Some workers may need tech support or other assistance to access online spaces. This can include offering captioned audio, inviting people to use a chat function to participate, or providing some instruction or 1:1 assistance with the technology you’re using. 
  • Many sex workers with disability have compromised immune systems and feel vulnerable at in-person events unless there are strong COVID-19 precautions in place.
  • Use venues that are physically accessible and have quiet spaces available. 
  • Provide attendees with sufficient notice of online and in-person events. 
  • Offer a variety of ways for workers to engage or participate. E.g. for a consultation, offer opportunities to submit in writing, complete a survey, meet face-to-face, etc. 
  • Ensuring that texts and talks that may be challenging or triggering include content warnings where appropriate.

Hold regular peer spaces for sex workers with disability.  

We heard throughout the consultations that sex workers with disability feel isolated and alone and benefit greatly from opportunities to connect and network with other sex workers with disability. 

“It’s a benefit for me [to connect] with other disabled sex workers.”

“Unless it’s an all disabled worker group, generally other workers cannot relate to my experience.”

“I feel strongly that I [am] isolated from both the sex workers and disability community”

Employ peer workers with lived experience of disability and improve existing team members’ knowledge of disability and access issues. 

Peer educators or other staff with disability can provide specialised peer support and develop community among sex workers with disability connected to the organisation. Some sex workers expressed support for specialist positions (akin to other specialised positions like trans and gender diverse, multi-lingual and male peer educators). The overall need to improve sex worker peer organisations’ literacy on disability and access was identified by some of the participants. 

Include disability services in ‘sex worker friendly services’ lists

Ensure that peer educators are familiar with the services available for sex workers with disability, are familiar with applying for supports such as the NDIS and DSP, and understand the complaints and appeals processes for mainstream services.

“[…]having support who you can access who are familiar with supports and referrals would be so helpful. And there just isn’t.”

“I can see that real effort goes into this from peer organisations and I’m grateful. [What we need is] understanding that our hustle isn’t all the same and can’t be. It’s not a good or bad thing, it’s just different.”

“To be both a sex worker and disabled you are doubly systemically isolated within the community and the impact of that is immeasurable and effects all parts of your life and interactions. I don’t think there is a time when it doesn’t affect us.”

Sex workers with disability experience double stigma when accessing services, and often have to make a choice between disclosing their sex work or disclosing their disability. Sex workers with disability told us that having disability services (particularly occupational therapists/OTs) would be a great addition to existing sex worker friendly referral lists.

“If I could tell OTs now, it would change things – It was so hard to find the right attachments to my toys, without help, i need these things for work”

“Would be great to be able to tell my health workers about my work.”

Validate people’s experiences and ask what they need. 

Many sex workers live with invisible disabilities, and have had their experiences minimised, ignored or denied and have had negative experiences when trying to have their needs met. As a result, some sex workers with disability feel anxious about initiating the conversation. Sex worker organisations can address this by being proactive and including access information in promotional material and asking people what they need to participate. 

“I’ve been personally dubbed as an attention seeker or drama queen – also came from peers as well. Stigma and stereotypes – you don’t fit the mainstream image (of someone with a disability) therefore you don’t have it. If these things are invisible then it’s hard to gain support or reach out for it….. I am also afraid to initiate it  (conversations about accessibility) because I’ve been invalidated and put down. It’s really hard, it’s violent and it has made me unsafe in peer spaces.”

Improving access and representation in advocacy, campaign and policy work

Consider sex workers with disability in policy work

Work with sex workers with disability to update and develop policy documents and position statements that include the needs of sex workers with disability, especially policy on on sex work WHS policy and sex industry regulation. 

Improve the visibility of sex workers with disability

Provide opportunities for sex workers with disability to share stories with each other, the sex worker community, and with the public. This includes acknowledging strengths of sex workers with disability and the benefits of sex work for people with disability, as well as the challenges and harms they experience. It’s also important to highlight the role that sex workers with disabilities have played in the history of our movement. 

“Historically, disabled sex workers were always overrepresented. Marsha P Johnson was disabled and STAR, the organisation they started, was a safe space for “mad” sex workers. Unfortunately disability gets removed from history, even sex work history.”

Help change the discourse – it’s not just clients that have disabilities

Sex workers with disability expressed frustration that sex worker rights movement seems to be understanding of clients with disability, but often ignores the needs of disabled sex workers. Some workers critiqued narratives that suggest people with disabilities are not able to find sexual partners outside of sex industry transactions. This plays into stereotypes, implies that disability is ‘unsexy’, and hurts sex workers with disability. 

“[We] need to rethink the discourse around disabled people as clients only, as it hurts disabled sex workers.”

“I almost never hear it brought up or spoken on and our discourse around disability awareness and care is fully client-oriented in my experience”

“There is this narrative that sex workers are not disabled that the disabled person is always the client.”