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Mining, sex work and STIs: why force a connection?

Can the mining boom be blamed for the rising rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in some states? The Australian Medical Association thinks so, with its Queensland president Dr Richard Kidd…

FIFO sex workers shouldn’t be blamed for rising rates of HIV and STIs. High heel image from www.shutterstock.com

Can the mining boom be blamed for the rising rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in some states? The Australian Medical Association thinks so, with its Queensland president Dr Richard Kidd attributing rising rates of gonorrhoea, syphilis and chlamydia in Queensland and Western Australia to bored and cashed-up miners.

Kidd is not an isolated voice. Queensland Health Minister Lawrence Springborg recently blamed sex workers operating in mining regions for the doubling of HIV diagnoses in Queensland – from 2.7 per 100,000 population in 2001 to 5.4 in 2010.

These claims have been disputed by sex industry advocates who say commentators have got it wrong. Fly in fly out (FIFO) sex workers aren’t contributing to the problem – they’re part of the solution.

So who should you believe: the medical professionals and politicians or the sex worker advocates?

Double standards

Concern over sex workers and the spread of STIs has historically climaxed in periods of national crisis. During the second World War, for instance, the spread of venereal disease from sex workers was deemed “race suicide”: a threat to national security because of its capacity to diminish pools of fighting men.

Allan Rostron

Sex workers have since been regulated and punished in order to prevent the spread of STIs, while their clients escaped scrutiny. At the height of public concern over the HIV epidemic in 1985, the Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline “AIDS spread linked to prostitutes”. These claims were supported by some health professionals and resulted in widespread public concern and legislative changes, despite research at the time indicating most sex workers used condoms.

The latest available data (from 2005) shows HIV has not transmitted in a sex industry setting in Australia. In fact, Australian sex workers have very low rates of HIV and STI infection and high rates of condom usage.

Fit in, or f**k off

Fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) work has been blamed for a range of social problems in rural communities, ranging from increased littering, to violent crime. The social impact from the current mining boom appears to be mixed, however, with official crime rates falling in some communities.

But if offensive behaviour or crime has not increased, concern and fear has. FIFO workers often present as an outsider population, who have invaded once peaceful and harmonious rural communities. Worse still, they appear to contribute little to the community and make no effort to integrate. This situation is no better captured by the inversion of FIFO by locals to the slogan “fit in or fuck off”.

The open presence of sex in the neighbourhood represents a potential challenge to the moral fabric of generally conservative communities. In many ways, female sex workers come to symbolise a range of concerns associated with rapid change in regions affected by the mining boom. Concern is only furthered by reports that some FIFO sex workers may be based in foreign locations.

Australian sex workers have low rates of HIV and STI infection and high rates of condom use. Flickr/coolhuntingtapas

Rural sex work

When we think of sex workers we tend to think of urban settings. Despite this, sex workers have a strong association with mining communities.

When largely male populations first settled the frontiers in places such as Australia and the United States, sex workers were with them or closely followed them. As these places became more settled with the establishment of families and long-term residential patterns, the sex industry became less visible, moving from the main street to the margins of the community, becoming less visible in rural settings.

While brothels were the mainstay of the rural sex industry up until the 1990s, the introduction of the mobile telephone increased numbers of escorts working in rural locations as this technology allowed for sex workers to live outside of the small communities where they worked. The ability to work in diverse locations at relatively short notice, such as motels, mobile vans, also appealed to a small town clientele to whom discretion and anonymity were important.

Few sex workers conform to the stereotype of exploited, drug-addicted opportunists who work the streets. Those working on the streets account for approximately 10% of the sex worker population, with escort and brothel workers making up the bulk of the market.

For those entering into sex work on a full-time or long-term basis, contracting an STI or HIV is bad for business. Discretion is also important to success, especially in smaller regional communities.

Rising rates of STI and HIV

Increases in rates of STIs and HIV often pre-date the current mining boom and are not restricted to regions with mining growth.

Flickr/ohsarahrose

Research shows safe sex compliance among both gay and heterosexual populations began to decline in the last decade, a phenomena witnessed in a number of western countries, with or without the mining boom. After twenty years of safe-sex education, researchers have noted a sense of information fatigue in some communities and disillusionment with safe sex cultures.

The growth of the internet also saw an explosion of subgroups seeking partners to intentionally engage in unsafe sex, a practice referred to as bare-backing. Such phenomenon has led researchers to re-evaluate traditional public health strategies.

Reversing the trend

Sex workers in regional and rural areas face a number of challenges due to isolation, occupational discrimination and confidentiality.

Sexual health clinics, if they exist at all, are likely to have highly restricted hours of operation. Access to condoms can be restricted by lack of an all-night chemist. Seeking help from a health professional might also be difficult because of a desire for discretion among both sex workers and their clients.

So it’s important not to stigmatise these sex workers, which may result in them being further isolated from resources and support services.

Of course, isolation, discrimination and confidentiality aren’t restricted to sex workers; these are problems for all members of the community. We need to be wary of presenting a narrow view of sexual health, which isolates broader community problems to subgroups within the population.

Join the conversation

7 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. Ossi Larikka

    Personal Trainer and Remedial Massage Therapist

    From anecdotal reports from a number of friends working FIFO (in both the sex and mining sectors), I would say yes to your question "Can the mining boom be blamed for the rising rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in some states?"
    But I would not blame the local FIFO (and local) sex workers for the increase as they, as you pointed out, practise "safe sex"... using condoms and checking for apparent signs of STI's.
    I would blame the FIFO (mining) workers themselves as an increasing number of them fly out to other countries for their pleasure where the sex workers (and their clients) might not be so fastidious about their sexual cleanliness.

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  2. Eric Glare

    HIV public speaker and volunteer

    You focus directly on sex workers despite the lack of evidence in your links and then seemed to express surprise and frustration that sex workers are being unjustifiably targeted. I think what was required was a synthesis of rising STI rates in miners and their partners but no evidence that it was coming from known declared sex workers (which in VIC at least require regular STI testing - QLD & WA?) - such synthesis would suggest those infections must be coming from other sources than officially recognised…

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  3. Trent Yarwood

    Infectious Diseases Physician, Associate Lecturer at University of Queensland

    Apart from the evidence-free comments of the Health Minister, none of your links support the supposition that anyone actually thinks that Australian sex-workers are associated with the increase in STIs. Richard Kidd from the AMA specifically states (second link in the first paragraph) that:

    "Certainly cashed up people, who may well be young miners, are going to Thailand and in many cases they come back and they didn't have safe sex. I know that happens, I've seen it myself."

    This is my clincal…

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  4. John Scott

    Professor, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at University of New England

    Thanks for your comments Trent.

    I provide, below, a link which was not included in the article, to an ABC Radio National Interview in which AMA QLD President, Dr Richard Kidd, does make his views more explicit. He argues that it is not 'our own Australian sex workers' who are responsible for rising rates of STIs, but sex workers 'flying on from other countries', especially Asia. He also blames 'local people' or what is referred to in the interview as 'opportunistic sex workers'. These views are in keeping with historical claims that foreigners or 'clandestine prostitutes are to blame for the spread of STIs.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bushtelegraph/past-programs/?page=5

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    1. Bruce Moon

      Bystander!

      In reply to John Scott

      John

      Isn't it sad when prejudice pushes policy.

      The authors of this article assert "Australian sex workers have very low rates of HIV and STI infection and high rates of condom usage." This suggests some credence to the AMA view that foreign sex workers are the cause. But, where are the facts to so support?

      However, neither this article, nor the one you cite, point to research undertaken with newly STI infected people to ask where they thought they caught the disease.

      Until or unless there is reasonable evidence as to where the infected people cite as the cause, we can keep on demonising those groups outside our moral boundary.

      Evidence, not prejudice will solve this dilemma.

      Cheers

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  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Mining operations Australia-wide, historically and currently, have never been hosted by conservative, otherwise moral, stable and sedentary communties.

    Kenneth Cooke's 'Wake in Fright', made into a ground-breaking film by Ted Kotcheff who went on to make the first Rambo movie, is rather more typical than the exception.

    There is neither much point mentioning FIFO 'sex workers' in the context of discussion on increasing incidence of STIs among those blokes. Significant numbers of them do not…

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  6. Victor Minichiello

    Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean, Faculty of The Professions at University of New England

    Been reading the comments and agree that we need more data and research to better inform this debate. It is not easy to get all of the necessary data to shed light on this complicated topic. Studies on the attitudes and practices of clients who use the services of the sex industry are not readily available, nor are such studies easy to carry out, for example. The one thing we do know is that countries, like Australia, that openly discuss such issues and invest in the development of informed policy and services in sexual health (including the sex industry) usually display lower STI incidences.

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