It is clear from jurisdictions that have decriminalised prostitution, that doing so does very little to improve the working conditions of women caught up in the industry, including reducing stigma, harm and violence associated with the trade. Despite this evidence, the Queensland Government is nevertheless proceeding with the decriminalisation model, and has tasked the Queensland Law Reform Commission (“QLRC”) with recommending an appropriate legal framework. The QLRC is seeking feedback regarding a proposed legislative model for the state and has released a consultation paper.
The approach taken by the Queensland government demonstrates a commitment to the decriminalisation model, in preference to the Nordic Model, which has been implemented in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Israel, Canada, France and Ireland. The Nordic Model “targets sex buying, pimping and third party profiteering, while decriminalising those in prostitution and providing robust social and economic support services.” The decriminalisation model instead treats prostitution (re-branded as ‘sex work’) like any other work and seeks to provide a regulatory framework to allow the industry to operate in a ‘safe’ way for women.
To this end, the Commission has stated:
“The aim of decriminalisation is to recognise sex work as legitimate work. This means regulating sex work, as far as possible, like any other business under existing laws (such as planning laws and workplace laws). Sex workers will have the same rights, protections and obligations as other workers. Some sex work-specific regulation might also be needed under the new framework to address particular risks or harms in the sex work industry.”
However, as Tegan Larin, public officer for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia, explains:
“Exploitation and violence persist despite full decriminalisation because prostitution is inherently harmful, violent and exploitative.
“Full decriminalisation is not only inadequate in minimising harms, it exacerbates them. Legitimising sex buying through decriminalisation bolsters the idea that men are entitled to sexual access at all times and that a group of women should always be able to provide it.
“Proponents of full decriminalisation frame prostitution as an issue of women’s choice, however, this is a red herring – women enter the industry out of lack of options to survive economically – what we should be scrutinising is men’s choice to buy sex from women who they know would not otherwise consent to sex with them.”
The consultation paper canvasses the existing laws in Queensland, the impact of the current regime, as well as the size and composition of the sex industry in Queensland, compatibility with human rights, what a decriminalised sex industry might look like, offences to protect against commercial sexual exploitation, workplace and planning laws, as well as public health and safety laws for workers.
The Commission has indicated that it intends to consult with “sex workers, brothel licensees, sex worker organisations, industry regulators, police officers, government departments, local governments, legal professionals, researchers and academics and other interested people and organisations”.
In the section discussing possible risks of coercion, trafficking, crime and corruption, the Commission draws upon the scant research undertaken in relation to the prevalence of trafficking and organised crime associated with decriminalised prostitution and conclude, based on this paucity of evidence, that a decriminalised model would not result in increased human trafficking or organised crime:
“The amount of human trafficking in Australia is contested. Not all trafficking is for sexual exploitation … The prevalence of organised crime in the sex work industry is also contested. Because of their hidden nature and practical barriers to reporting, these activities can be difficult to detect.”
“It does not appear that ‘forced prostitution’, trafficking for sexual exploitation or the involvement of other serious crime is widespread in decriminalised jurisdictions.”
The paper concludes that:
“A growing body of research shows positive effects on sex workers’ health, safety, access to justice and workplace rights in places where sex work is decriminalised. By removing the threat of arrest and prosecution for ‘prostitution’ offences, it is easier for sex workers to report crimes or abuse against them to the authorities, negotiate with and refuse clients, and enforce their workplace rights. Recognising sex work as legitimate work rather than a criminal activity can also help reduce stigma and discrimination and make it easier for sex workers to access health and other services.”
However, this ‘growing body of research’ is directly contradicted by the lived experience of survivors of the industry, whose personal stories of the abuse, intimidation, exploitation and violence experienced in the industry belie the argument that regulating and legitimising prostitution can somehow make it safe for women.
Carly, from New Zealand, who works in a large brothel in New Zealand, describes the reality of her own circumstances, where ‘rules’ regulating the industry are routinely disregarded:
“What’s the pimp going to do? He just charges the men more for unprotected sex because what they want, they get. Why anyone thinks that when you turn a pimp into a legitimate businessman that they will treat the girls better, I will never know. It’s made it much worse.”
A report commissioned by BaptistCare into the experiences of migrant women involved in the sex trade in New South Wales found that, despite the fact prostitution is regulated like any other work in the state:
“One in four workers said they are never able to choose their clients, while 42 per cent reported having encountered violent or difficult clients.
“At the same time, 50 per cent of the women said they sometimes felt safe at work; 36 per cent of sex workers surveyed always felt safe.
“About one in four workers were provided condoms by employers, despite it being a WorkCover requirement, while only two thirds used condoms with clients all the time.”
As Tegan Larin argues:
“Full decriminalisation legitimises, normalises and expands the sex trade, increasing profits for pimps and traffickers. Unfortunately for workers, more than 25 years of decriminalisation in NSW has failed to rid the industry of labour and sexual exploitation.”
We urge the Commission to seek the views of former prostituted women and sex-trade survivors (rather than lobbying organisations that claim to speak on their behalf), whose experiences and stories of working in this industry should inform the debate moving forward.
The Commission is seeking written submissions to the Consultation Paper by 3 June 2022, with a final report due to the Attorney-General on 27 November 2022.
Women’s Forum Australia will be making a submission, arguing that a decriminalised model is not empowering for women, and that it instead represents the legitimising by the state of the violent commodification of (mostly) women’s bodies, and by its very nature cannot be made safe.
In addition, the piecemeal regulation of this industry by states and territories warrants a unified approach being adopted by the Federal Government. Women’s Forum Australia is urging the Federal Government to implement a national model based on the Nordic Model.
It’s time for the chief law officers of our nation – the Commonwealth, State and Territory Attorneys-General – to bring in uniform legislation that protects women and girls, based on the experience in jurisdictions which have adopted the Nordic Model, whose citizens have received the message from their government that “prostitution is a human rights violation and that no man has the right to pay for sex”.