Each and every year, young women will chat to me about their hopes and plans for the future. And each and every year, some of these young women will tell about their part-time job. They've chosen to be sex workers while studying. The money is excellent, the hours are flexible, quite unlike either hospitality or retail.
When I heard the news about Michaela Dunn, before we knew her name, I had a prickle of fear. Was it one of the young women I'd spoken to in the past?
Michaela Dunn was very much loved. Bright, bubbly, done a lot of travelling, adored cats. Her parents and friends clearly doted on her. Like Michaela, each and every one of the young women I've spoken to over the years are ordinary young women. They go to uni, maybe they are just about to finish their degrees and are saving for a trip (Mikki Dunn had finished her studies). They are bright, cheerful, good students. Their families love them. Some have told their mothers (and then their fathers) about their jobs. The parents will often fear for their safety. One told me she was planning to apply for a job with DFAT when she finished her degree. Did I think that her job would impact on her ability to become part of the graduate intake?
I would have loved to respond by saying no. But I know how people talk about sex workers and sex work. This is a group of workers who are demonised and demeaned, even though they are part of our society and part of our economy.
There are about 20,000 sex workers in NSW alone and fortunately, it's mostly safe. Sex worker activists have done a brilliant job of promoting safe sex and diminishing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. But they are also some of the most vulnerable workers in our communities. They often work alone and if they do have problems with clients, police are often reluctant to take their concerns seriously.
Four years ago, Jules Kim took on the job of chief executive officer of Scarlet Alliance, Australia's sex workers' association. She says sex workers are still maligned in the media, still a tendency to describe sex workers as if they have no autonomy, all trafficked women.
"Sex work needs to be recognised as a legitimate job where workers have the right to feel safe at work, for criminals to be prosecuted in the same way as if the crime happened in any other workplace, in any other industry. Michaela was an innocent woman in a legal profession."
Cameron Cox, who runs the Sex Workers Outreach Program, agrees. He summarised the police response to the death of a sex worker as "let's keep these poor women safe".
"Would they say that about keeping accountants safe? Isn't it about keeping everyone safe, mate?"
Zahra Stardust, a sex worker and teaching fellow in the faculty of law at the University of NSW, with a PhD on sex work regulation, has been conducting research with Scarlet Alliance and the Centre for Social Research in Health on sex work stigma around Australia. She believes safety for sex workers depends not only on decriminalisation of sex work, but the destigmatising of legal, cultural and social attitudes towards those who work in the industry.
"Sex workers have long been targets of violent crime because perpetrators have had expectations of impunity due to the cultural and historical positioning of sex worker lives as more expendable.
"They deserve to be safe in the workplace, to access peer methods of screening clients, to access health and social services without discrimination, to access industrial rights mechanisms without deportation, and to access justice avenues and be taken seriously by police."
We need to rethink the view that domestic violence - of any kind - is unremarkable.
Cox, Kim and Stardust all agree that police must respond to gendered violence in private spaces more seriously. Are women's lives less valuable than men's? It was devastating to hear NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller say on Wednesday that the perpetrator "had some domestic violence issues linked back to his family, that again, were not significant or serious injuries ... but if you look at his spreadsheet from a criminal history perspective, it remains unremarkable."
Cox tells me that a number of sex workers have shared with him how upset they were about those remarks. We need to rethink the view that domestic violence - of any kind - is unremarkable. A 2017 study from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research revealed offenders are much more likely to commit another violent offence if one of their previous offences carries a domestic violence flag. We know domestic violence is a risk factor for other forms of criminal behaviour.
Gala Vanting, the president of Scarlet Alliance, says sex work is not more dangerous than any other profession. She says it's the way we position it in our culture, the way we talk about it, the way we represent sex work in media.
"The onus is on us as a culture to change our attitudes towards sex work," she says.
There were many reasons for Michaela Dunn's death. The way we deal with those with mental health issues. The way we deal with domestic violence. It isn't sex work which killed Michaela Dunn. Let's stop thinking it is.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.