Prostitution Issues: REDLIGHT RADIO: FOLLOW-UP
Red Light Radio

The Pros and Cons of "Consorting on the Airwaves"

Red Light Radio Collective and Sex Industry Network

(July, 1996)

Sex workers have a sexual health record of which they can be proud. Throughout Australia, sex industry workers experience lower rates of STDs than the general community and no cases have been recorded of transmission of HIV between a sex worker and a client or vice versa.(1) However, the maintenance of the good sexual health of sex workers relies on a number of factors which include the legal regime in which they work, the nature and structure of the local sex industry, occupation health and safety issues, and peer education strategies. 'Peer education' can occur formally through the activities sex worker organisations and informally via the day to day networking and interaction between working women and men 'on the job.'

Unfortunately in South Australia both types of peer education are hampered by the current criminalisation of prostitution. Prostitution which occurs 'in a brothel' is illegal and the definition of a brothel is broad enough to routinely encompass premises where sex is exchanged for money, 'massage parlours' where masseuses and clients engage in erotic massage and 'hand relief', and hotels which book rooms for short terms stays and/or are frequented by prostitutes. Sex workers and agency owners face the possibility of continual police raids and associated heavy fines and court appearances should they work in, or manage, these locales. Consequently many workers choose more isolated forms of work such as escorting. Workers who are employed by an escort agency often work from home or do not have the opportunity to mingle with other workers as they might in a parlour, share information and catch up on tricks of the trade. On premises peer education work can also be hampered by the law: the Sex Industry Network or SIN has its work undermined when Operation Patriot, the police division which enforces prostitution law, confiscates HIV prevention materials including pamphlets, magazines, condoms and other safe sex tools so that they can be used as evidence in the courts.

It was in this environment that SIN and the Prostitutes' Association of South Australia (PASA) joined together in late 1995 to plan an innovative peer education strategy: Red Light Radio (RLR). The magazine format radio show, which was aired once a week on Community and University Radio Station 5UV for 13 weeks during the summer, had several goals which included: breaking down the marginalisation experienced by sex workers in Adelaide; the creation of an alternative 'culture' based on sex workers own experiences and shaped and represented by themselves; HIV and STD prevention education to the general community drawing on the notion of sex workers as 'safe sex experts'; training and skilling of sex workers in radio work; public education about sex work; and to add impetus to the struggle for the decriminalisation of prostitution. Despite the HIV prevention message and general discussions of sexual health which included guest appearances by Family Planning staff, it seemed inevitable that Red Light Radio would become controversial within the general community (2). Unfortunately, the Red Light Radio Collective was unprepared for the ways in which it would spark highly charged issues for participants in the shows production. Not all was negative, of course, and the collective stands by the creative venture that was, and one day will again be, a radio show run by sex workers for sex workers and hopes that other sex worker and community organisations will consider using radio and similar media like television to further their goals. However, it is important that others learn from our mistakes.

Throughout the show's 13 week run one of the most painful experiences for sex workers involved were breaches of confidentiality. The collective had discussed the importance of maintaining participants' identities confidential but serious slip-ups occurred. The show was for the most part live to air and, given our inexperience with radio, even when we used false names they were forgotten in the heat of the moment. Sometimes this led to hilarious results, though unfortunately some sex workers found themselves 'outed' to family and friends who by odd coincidence were listening to the show. Additionally because RLR created its own local media storm, individual members were contacted by mainstream media which resulted in further confidentiality compromises. Solutions for future radio productions could include a greater focus on pre-recorded segments, confidentiality workshops and agreements before production begins, and the nomination, training and support of a media spokesperson.

Since the show's completion I have interviewed 8 of the collective's members including the show's producer. Sex workers' primary complaints were that their existing skills were not recognised and new skills were not taught to other sex workers. Of course part of this failure was linked to the fact that Red Light Radio did not receive enough funds to realise the formal training of sex workers in media skills. However, my own observations of the production process indicated a deeper problem. Non-sex workers with whom the collective worked were to some degree prepared to capitulate to the notion that sex workers are 'safe sex experts' but because clear collaboration guidelines were not set between SIN, PASA and Radio 5UV it often was the case that sex workers skills were not respected and that stereotypes prevailed (ie "oh, those sex workers, they're always late!"). It is not surprising, then, that six of the collective members who spoke to me about the project recommended that in order for it to fulfill its goals 'good process' was the (missing) key. 'Good process' for these sex workers included clearly formulated written guidelines which would be accepted by all parties involved in the collaboration, regular report back meetings, structures which allowed the majority of decision making to be carried out by sex workers, and regular production meetings which facilitated creative group work. As one sex worker commented:

"It's our project and we call the shots... this project can work successfully with a small group of interested, committed sex workers (and ex sex workers) who are passionate about good process and representing their rights!"

Apart from the problems RLR was a special and unusual experiment with sexual health education by radio. Sex workers shared their professional tips about sexual health and sexual behaviour that could keep listeners, and their sexual partners healthy and reduce the transmission of STDs and HIV. In this sense the show explored the feasibility of using radio as an inexpensive and innovative way of communicating with a large number of sexually active people to inform them of both simple and sophisticated safe sex techniques. Additionally RLR allowed sex workers in South Australia their first chance to consort on the airwaves and challenge the marginalisation and isolation that is underpinned by this state's repressive and unnecessary laws.

For further information about Red Light Radio visit the World Wide Web Site


1 Harcout, C, 1994, "Prostitution and Public Health in the Era of AIDS." In Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia, edited by R. Perkins, G. Prestage, R. Sharp and F. Lovejoy, University of NSW Press, Sydney: 218-219.
2 For example, the fact that the South Australian Health Commission provided Red Light Radio with funding of $500 was repeatedly portrayed in the media as 'government sponsorship of prostitution' and Radio 5UV also found itself under attack for associating with prostitutes ('Red Light Radio', Sunday Mail, 14 January, 1995).