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?
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.
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”.