Sex workers want South Australia's prostitution laws rewritten to decriminalise their business. At present, whether they are committing a crime depends on where they are selling sex.

First published in SA Weekend magazine, cover story, May 17, 2014.


GRACE Bellavue had only slept with two boys in her whole life the day she walked into an Adelaide brothel, aged 17, and had sex with 13 men in one night.

Fresh out of school, she had landed the job just hours before, after an interview in which she’d naively turned up in a business suit and presented her resume, along with a fake ID.

Clocking on for her first shift with her hair and make-up done, and wearing an outfit she’d bought especially for the occasion, the wide-eyed teen hoped to emulate the glamorous characters in her mum’s erotic novels, or the adult films she secretly loved watching. She tried to act sexy, alluring, confident: every man’s fantasy. In fact, she was terrified.

“I had this black Supre dress on, because I thought I had to wear something ‘skanky’, something ‘hookery’,” she laughs, taking a drag on her cigarette as she recalls the memory.

“I had these black velvet pumps on that I’d gotten from Betts and Betts at Marion. I think I was wearing the one decent bra I had at the time — you know the one sexy bra you had when you were a teenager? Some black lace thing. I must have just looked like fresh meat.”

Nine years later, sitting in a trendy North Adelaide pub in a fitted black dress and jacket with her long, dark hair twisted into a tight bun, the 26-year-old looks like any other office worker on her lunch break.

Apart from her 14,000 plus followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, who frequently recognise her in the street, most would never guess the voluptuous, blue-eyed beauty is one of Adelaide’s most prominent and sought-after escorts, earning a small fortune each night for her sexual services.

Not many would pick Bellavue — her working name — as a criminal either, but thanks to that first night in the brothel and the eight months that followed it, she is. At least in South Australia, where brothels — loosely defined as “anywhere sex work takes place regularly” — are illegal.

Now self-employed, Bellavue skirts around the law by operating out of luxury five-star hotels or clients’ homes, and has never been charged. But one false step and she could be — just by willingly selling her body in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A life of sex and crime wasn’t exactly what her parents wanted for her, Bellavue admits. Even she isn’t quite sure what drove her into the sex industry, other than a fascination for pornography, boredom with her nine-to-five desk job and a feeling that sex work would be a thrilling way to earn a living.

Mum and dad however, were not thrilled. A nurse and a business executive, they were “disgusted” to discover their little girl — who they’d put through private school and taken to church every Sunday — was a prostitute, and kicked her out of home. It didn’t deter her. Neither did that very first night in the brothel, which Bellavue admits was “horrible”.

“I felt like I could cry,” she says, matter-of-factly. “My first client … I was like ‘what do I do? Do I get naked? Do I get in bed? How do we have sex? I don’t know what to do’. I was actually terrified.

“My second client was quite rough. I came out and I was sore. I think I felt I’d stepped over a precipice, and that I couldn’t go back. I’d jumped from zero to 100, gone right in the deep end. But ultimately I felt ‘OK, this isn’t amazing but I don’t mind it’, so I thought I’d go back and see if it was any different the next time. And yeah, I slowly slid into the lifestyle.”

Money was a factor, of course; Bellavue earned $1000 for that first shift in the brothel. Now as a self-employed private escort she regularly makes more than that from a single client, with her fees starting at $600 for an hour and going up to $3500 for an overnight stay.

Her prices aren’t the only thing that have changed.

Her parents, since divorced, now fully support her career choice — even showing up to stand by her side at rallies for prostitution law reform on the steps of Parliament House.

Importantly though, for Bellavue sex work is no longer terrifying, but liberating, exhilarating, satisfying. Addictive.

Her bookings are often more than just a financial transaction, she says; some of her clients have been seeing her on a weekly or monthly basis for as long as four years and have become friends.

She is unashamed about her love for the job, speaking openly and frankly about the services she provides. She wants you to know she isn’t a victim.

“Some of my client relationships have lasted longer than most of my actual relationships,” she laughs, her red fingernails flashing as she reaches for her mobile phone, buzzing with yet another text message requesting to book her services.

“You can develop a friendship and you develop a sort of relationship where you know each other’s lives. It can be very personal.

“I feel I get energy from my clients. They are giving too … they want to give you pleasure, they’re excited to see you.

“It gives me a really nice rush to know that I’m with someone who’s sexually into you and also wants to be in your company — and they’re paying for that privilege.”

But she admits it’s not always fun. She’s slept with men as young as 18, as old as 84. She’s had athletic men, fat men, handsome men and some ugly as sin. All of them have to be treated the same way: as though they’re her number one fantasy.

“When you do have a really fat, old dude on top of you, who is basically squashing you, and basically humping your leg ... that’s not glamorous,” she laughs.

“You just tune out. I’ve had clients where I’ve thought ‘has nobody taught you how to brush your teeth properly? How to shower properly?’.”

Smelly clients are one thing, but violent ones are a bigger concern.

Bellavue has a variety of methods for screening clients to help ensure her safety — none of which she will elaborate on, for fear of tipping dodgy customers off. She has a list of friends and staff she checks in with when she goes to and from a booking. Some girls, she says, carry pepper spray.

But the system is far from foolproof.

In 2012 Bellavue had her most frightening day on the job, a narrow escape from a man who booked under a false name, then assaulted and tried to rape her. She later discovered he was on parole for repeatedly raping a woman at knifepoint for 48 hours, and had targeted other sex workers.

It’s one of the many pitfalls of working in an industry that’s criminalised, she says.

“People think they can get away with (assault) because of your job, the fact that it’s criminalised and people know … girls possibly won’t report to police,” she says.

“So criminals budget on that, on our increased vulnerability. It’s frustrating.”

That increased vulnerability is just one of the reasons SA sex workers like Bellavue and their supporters are pushing for decriminalisation.

Unlike all other states and territories where prostitution has been legalised to some degree, SA stands alone in having not ever updated its legislation, some of which dates back to 1935.

There have been a number of attempts to reform the laws over the past 30 years; all have failed due to the divisive nature of the debate.

But for Ari Reid and Sharon Jennings of SA sex workers’ advocacy organisation the Sex Industry Network (SIN), there is no debate.

“Let me be very clear: sex workers around the world know what we need, and we all want decriminalisation,” says Reid, who is also involved in leading national advocacy group the Scarlet Alliance.

“We are so certain of it. It’s everybody else who’s arguing amongst themselves.”

This is an extract from the full article. CLICK HERE to read the full article online.

First published in SA Weekend magazine, May 17, 2014.