‘I Wouldn’t Call the Cops if I was Being Bashed to Death’: Sex Work, Whore Stigma and the Criminal Legal System


Discourse on sex work is replete with narratives of risk and danger, predominantly focused on violence and disease. However, the risks instigated by police, maintained by the criminal justice system and sanctioned by the state—criminal laws, licensing laws and targeted policing—receive far less attention. This paper responds to this gap in three ways. First, we examine how stigma manifests in sex workers’ experiences of Australian policing, which act to disincentivise sex workers from accessing criminal legal mechanisms. Second, we illustrate how sex workers are denied victim status as they are seen by law as ‘irresponsible citizens’ and blamed for their experiences of crime. Third, we argue that these factors create conditions in which sex workers must constantly assess risks to access safety and legal redress while structural sex work stigma persists unabated. We conclude that ‘whore stigma’ is entrenched in the criminal legal system and requires a systematic response that necessitates but goes beyond the decriminalisation of sex work.

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Published: 2021-09-01
Pages:142 to 157
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How to Cite
Stardust, Z., Treloar, C., Cama, E. and Kim, J. (2021) “‘I Wouldn’t Call the Cops if I was Being Bashed to Death’: Sex Work, Whore Stigma and the Criminal Legal System”, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 10(3), pp. 142-157. doi: 10.5204/ijcjsd.1894.

Author Biographies

Queensland University of Technology

Zahra Stardust is a socio-legal scholar working at the intersections of sexuality, technology, law and social justice. She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Automated Decision-Making and Society at Queensland University of Technology and a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Her doctoral research examined the regulation of queer and feminist pornographies through criminal laws, classification codes and platform governance. Over the last 15 years Zahra has worked in policy, advocacy, legal and research capacities with community organisations, NGOs and UN bodies on human rights in Australia and internationally. Zahra has taught in law, criminology, public policy, social research, gender studies and politics at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales. Recently, she has worked on ARC funded projects exploring intoxication evidence in sexual assault trials, the policing of public order offences and the criminalisation of homelessness. Zahra's current work explores the infrastructures, data practices and governance of sex tech in an age of surveillance capitalism. 


Scientia Professor Carla Treloar is Director of the Centre for Social Research in Health and the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW, Sydney. Her work crosses disciplines of health psychology, sociology, public health and health services research in the fields of drug use, hepatitis C, experience of incarceration, and in Aboriginal health. She has been a member of more than 50 advisory committees for government, health agencies and non-government organisations and is committed to the effective translation of research into policy and practice and to ethical and respectful conduct of research in close collaboration with affected communities. She is a member of the Academic of Social Sciences in Australia, a Senior Editor for Addiction and an Associate Editor for International Journal of Drug Policy.


Elena Cama is a PhD Candidate and Research Officer at the Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW. She has a background in criminology, social sciences, and public health. Much of her research to-date has focused on the nature and impacts of stigma and discrimination among people affected by blood borne viruses and sexually transmissible infections. Her PhD research examines the nature, impacts, and responses to sexual harms facilitated or perpetrated in the context of dating and hook up platforms.

Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association

Jules Kim is a Korean/Australian sex worker and the CEO of Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association -the peak national organisation that has been representing sex workers and sex worker organisations, collectives and projects throughout Australia since 1989. She is the Chair for the regional sex worker network, Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) and is the UNAIDS Program Coordinating Board (UNPCB) NGO Delegate for the Asia Pacific for 2019-2021. She is a representative on the Multistakeholder Task Force to the 2021 High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS (HLM). Jules represents sex workers on a number of government committees and advisory mechanisms and has provided testimony and expert advice to parliamentary hearings and inquiries in relation to sex work, migration, trafficking and law reform. She has over 20 years experience in sex work, advocacy, community development and representation.