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Sex in the ACT: Part II

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PART I: Size matters for the capital's once-thriving porn industry

''I don't need saving,'' Lexxie Jury declares, her blue eyes flashing. ''I wasn't brainwashed, and I don't need saving. I chose this. I enjoyed my job. I liked it.''

Ms Jury, a striking and engaging sex-industry veteran, knows that most people have a view about the industry she has worked in for more than a decade, and that many of those views are negative.

And renewed debate about the ACT's sex laws have brought many of these views back to the fore.

Last month a Legislative Assembly committee reviewing the territory's Prostitution Act voted to give itself more time to consider how to reform the system. It will now hand down in February, rather than this month, its report recommending a raft of changes to the way the territory's sex laws should operate.

But one likely outcome will be that the laws governing the legal sex trade be re-named to remove the word ''prostitution'', which the Government argues is pejorative, and replaced with the term ''sex work''. The word ''prostitution'' covers the breadth of sex work, from willing workers to trafficked women, but most women involved in the industry prefer the supposedly more empowering term ''sex worker''.

There were 58 submissions to the review, from individuals, legal and church groups, feminist organisations and anti-trafficking groups. Many professed concern for women involved in the sex industry, and many expressed disbelief that women could choose to enter the sex industry of their own free will.

One submission, from the Australian Christian Lobby, offered a familiar perspective.

''Many of those who 'choose' prostitution do so out of financial desperation, drug dependency or due to coercion,'' the submission read. ''Regardless of the reasons for choosing it, the choice is one that will be harmful to a woman's physical and mental health, and detrimental to communities.

''As such, the Government should not tolerate the purchase of women's bodies by men and avoid the growth of a culture that views this as an acceptable part of life in the ACT.''

Ms Jury offers another perspective. ''Women don't need to purchase sex; we can get it when we want it. But let's face it, we all crave that skin-to-skin contact from the moment we're born. We're raised on it, and we spend our whole lives trying to get it back. Sex work is just naked counselling. Admittedly we're a little bit more expensive, but we're naked.''

Ms Jury is the AIDS Action Council's sex worker outreach program co-ordinator. She visits women who work in brothels, offering advice, support and referrals. The program has been running in its current form since 2000, offering Canberra's sex workers medical advice and workplace tips.

''A lot of it's around how to deal with clients, especially among the newer [workers],'' she says.

Peer support is crucial in this game; sex workers share tips on checking a client's genitals for signs of sexually-transmitted infections, proper use of condoms and sponges (to allow sex workers to work through their menstrual cycles), and help with relationships and housing.

Ms Jury says that before she started sex work her peers had taught her everything she needed to know. ''But ... with the downturn of money there's less of that sharing.''

The economic downturn has also impacted on the brothel industry more broadly.

Ms Jury says workers tell her that clients are now tighter with their money.

The typical service in a brothel is a massage, followed by oral and vaginal sex. ''Extras'' like anal sex used to cost more, she says, but now clients are expecting them to be ''thrown in'' for free. ''And it's much harder for workers to get a booking - it's not uncommon to sit in a parlour for 10 hours and not get a booking.''

There are 13 brothels registered with the ACT's Office of Regulatory Services, two fewer than last year. An ORS spokesman says one brothel owner surrendered their licence on November 1, and another failed to renew their licence and will be referred to ACT Policing. The number of brothels may have fallen, but many women work from their homes and under the radar.

Estimates of how many sex workers operate in the ACT vary, and Ms Jury says it is because the industry, and its workforce, are intrinsically transient. For one thing, most women spend about nine months ... in the industry.

''The majority of our workers already have full-time employment. This is part-time.''

She knows of women who have turned to sex work for a few months to pay off debts, and one who worked nights to save enough money for an overseas trip with her daughter.

This reporter is on Twitter: @_biancah

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