Australia: The fight to decriminalise prostitution

While other states have legalised sex work, South Australia still has some of the most repressive laws on the books.

Australia sex workers
The South Australian Sex Workers Industry Network and the Scarlet Alliance held a rally to mark the 40th anniversary of International Sex Workers Day [Royce Kurmelovs/Al Jazeera]

Adelaide, Australia – It is getting late on a weeknight and “Honey” has just finished work when she agrees to meet at a nearby coffee shop.

Outside it is cold, but over a large iced coffee the 26-year-old says she believes in what she does and that it helps people.

“And you know, sex is the least thing I do,” she says. “Though I am a sex worker and sex does come into it, sex isn’t always the priority. It’s something that happens in about 40 percent of my bookings – sometimes not at all.”

Honey is a “sex worker, companion, therapist, muse, and courtesan” who runs a thriving business advertising to clients online, despite laws criminalising the sex industry in South Australia state. She asked that only her nickname be used to protect her privacy.

'Honey', 26, an Australian sex worker
‘Honey’, 26, an Australian sex worker

Through her business, she says she makes enough money to comfortably support herself and her disabled, 65-year-old mother for whom she is the primary caregiver.

While Honey has to be careful who she tells, she says close friends and family know about her work and all have been incredibly supportive.

Asked how she got started in the industry, Honey says it was the same as any sector, as she had friends who were sex workers. She is quick to reject stereotypes.

“No, I was never abused,” she says. “No, I don’t take drugs. I have never been assaulted by a client. I have never been degraded by a client. I have never been arrested.

“Really, I’m just a normal girl.”

Little debate

With no centralised laws regulating the sex industry, Australia’s current approach is patchwork with different states taking vastly different approaches.

Of them all, New South Wales is the most liberal and the only Australian state to entirely decriminalise the industry.

While most other states have legalised sex work over the last few decades, allowing some regulatory control, South Australia stands out as the state with some of the most repressive laws still on the books.

But that may change. The South Australian Sex Workers Industry Network (SIN) and the Scarlet Alliance recently held a rally on the steps of parliament house to mark the 40th anniversary of International Sex Workers Day.

There it was announced that a reform bill would be reintroduced to state parliament in the coming weeks, representing the latest salvo in a decades-long fight for reform.

Over the past 20 years, there have been 12 attempts at reform, with only seven making it to a vote in parliament. The other five, including a bill introduced last year by Labor backbencher Steph Key, were stalled by parliamentary procedure and never debated.

This time, however, may be different after the brutal New Years’ Day murder of a sex worker in an Adelaide hotel room.

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Still, for activists such as SIN’s manager Sharon Jennings, this reluctance to move on the issue is vexing.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Jennings says. “We don’t even get to the point where we can negotiate, where we can explain our standpoint. We don’t even get there.”

Let’s talk about sex

Elsewhere, Northern Ireland became the latest country to subscribe to the “Nordic model”, when it passed laws decriminalising the sale of sex, but criminalising the buying of sexual services.

The Nordic model began as a package of laws first passed in Sweden and has since become the focus of European debate over how to regulate the sex industry.

Since then, similar laws have been taken up in Norway, partially in Finland, Iceland, and now Northern Ireland, though exactly how successful the model has been is unclear.

Professor Meaghan Tyler of RMIT University in Melbourne told Al Jazeera she believes it is the “least-worst” model available.

“It’s the one that seems to reduce harm for women, reducing the number of women working in the industry, and reduces the number of trafficking inflows,” she said.

Tyler, who is also involved with the Coalition Against Trafficking Women Australia, calls it a more “holistic” approach to the issue and says where legalisation or decriminalisation has been implemented, sex trafficking of women has increased.

But Janelle Fawkes, CEO of Scarlet Alliance, says the model only works to perpetuate stigma and creates other problems for sex workers.

“Sometimes people refer to it as just criminalising the buyer, but in fact, what the model criminalises is anyone who benefits from the income of the sex worker,” Fawkes says.

In some cases, this may include those who rent to sex workers, making it hard to work independently. The problem becomes more severe as police move to stake out work places in order to identify clients.

“It means clients don’t want to come to your space, they want to meet you in a public space,” she says. “So you’re removed from the environment that you’ve set up to provide that service.”

Steph Key from the Labor party addresses a crowd at a rally for the decriminalisation of sex work [Royce Kurmelovs/Al Jazeera]
Steph Key from the Labor party addresses a crowd at a rally for the decriminalisation of sex work [Royce Kurmelovs/Al Jazeera]

“But I think the worse thing is that the Swedish model sends very negative messages to the community that sex workers can’t make very good decisions, that these women are in some way damaged and unable to make good choices,” says Fawkes.

New Zealand model

While the European focus has been on the Nordic model, New Zealand’s 13-year experience of decriminalisation has given sex workers the rights to sign contracts, sue their bosses, and report incidents of violence to the police.

A 2012 UN report on sex work in the Asia-Pacific region even cited New Zealand as an example to follow when it recommended decriminalisation as a policy approach to help slow the spread of HIV.

Catherine Healy, national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, says though issues persist, most are now procedural and bureaucratic in nature.

“Before it wasn’t legal, so you had no labour rights and you couldn’t address other rights as well,” Healy says.

“I sat there once and watched a sex worker be told by the police that yes, they empathised that she had had a sexual assault. But then she was asked whether she really wanted to press charges, given that her activities were illegal, and they could really press charges against her because of what she was involved in.”

That is no longer the case, and despite two attempts to roll back elements of the reform, New Zealand’s parliament has so far remained committed.

“It’s one of those big issues, one where the world is divided,” Healy says. “And it’s really disrespectful, really, because it doesn’t listen to the sex worker who is just saying give me my rights.

“You can hear this being said in Kolkata and Thailand. Sex workers everywhere are saying ‘for goodness sakes, it’s not that I’m asking you to rescue me from sex work, I’m asking you to support my rights’.”

Taking risks

Unless something changes for the 1,000 or so sex workers in South Australia, of whom only a small fraction are street-based, the threat of arrest will remain constant.

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What this exactly means for each individual depends entirely on their work and circumstances.

For Honey, being arrested may mean her disabled mother could also face charges for living on the earnings of prostitution, a criminal offence in South Australia.

“Neither of us are on a government pension, because I can provide for her better than a pension can,” she says. “However, if there was ever to be any criminal charges laid, she would be punished far more than I would.

“My disabled mother, because she lives off the proceeds of prostitution, she is a criminal.”

More than that, Honey knows her biggest asset, her independence, is also a source of vulnerability.

While she works as a self-employed independent, operating in a private environment where she decides who to meet, when and under what circumstances, her isolation also makes her vulnerable.

“If someone did choose to steal from me, or assault me, what am I going to do?” she says. “Call the cops?”

Source: Al Jazeera