Queensland’s futile push to make prostitution ‘legal’ and ‘safe’

Queensland’s futile push to make prostitution ‘legal’ and ‘safe’

“[The] politics of pessimism defines the liberal consensus that prostitution should be regulated rather than abolished. This attitude is the antithesis of feminism. ‘We do not say, poverty will always exist, let’s build more poor houses,’ one survivor activist told me during the research for my book on the global sex trade. ‘Or ‘there will always be rape, so let’s focus on patching up victims,’ but we do say that about prostitution.”

Feminist campaigner and researcher Julie Bindel has spent decades fighting for the abolition of the global sex trade. Her work in examining the regulatory regimes surrounding prostitution and interviewing thousands of survivors of the sex trade has been instrumental in exposing the inherently violent and exploitative nature of prostitution and its effects on the (mostly) women trapped in it.

Instead of taking an approach that prioritises women and their safety, the Queensland government is opting to regulate the industry and treat it like any other work place requiring regulation.

The Queensland Law Reform Commission (QRLC) has been tasked with examining ways to enact laws to decriminalise prostitution in the state. The QRLC will consider, amongst other things, “appropriate safeguards to deter the exploitation of vulnerable people in the sex work industry.”

The terms of reference state as follows:

“In referring the matter of a decriminalised sex work industry for Queensland to the QRLC, the Government intends that sex work will be lawful when conducted in accordance with the recommended regulatory framework. This approach will ensure better public health and human rights outcomes for sex workers while reducing barriers sex workers face in accessing health, safety and legal protections.”

However, the assertion that decriminalising prostitution in the state will result in “better public health and human rights outcomes” for those working in the industry is not supported by the evidence from jurisdictions which have gone down this path. We urge the Commission to examine in detail the evidence from jurisdictions which have decriminalised prostitution, and compare them with those that have instead opted for the ‘Nordic Model’, a progressive, woman-centred approach which criminalises the buyer only, while decriminalising the women trapped in this life-destroying industry.

Those pushing for decriminalisation argue that the law in Queensland currently punishes prostitutes (referred to as ‘sex workers’) and criminalises safety strategies employed by them.

“Currently sex workers cannot operate in pairs, check in with a colleague before or after calls, work with another person providing them security, or employ another person to screen or book clients.

“Feedback shows the criminalisation of these things can have a negative effect on the safety of sex workers, who are sometimes forced [to choose] between working legally or safely.”

Similar arguments have been used time and time again as part of the push to decriminalise prostitution in other jurisdictions. For example, in New Zealand, ahead of their laws which decriminalised prostitution in 2003, proponents argued that women would be better protected if the industry were regulated, just like any other workplace.

The problem is that these happy predictions are not borne out in practice. Bindel observes that:

“The promises from the government – that decriminalisation would result in less violence, regular inspections of brothels and no increase of the sex trade – have not materialised. The opposite has happened. Trafficking of women into New Zealand into legal and illegal brothels is a serious problem, and for every licensed brothel there are, on average, four times the number that operate illegally. Violent attacks on women in the brothels are as common as ever. “The men feel even more entitled when the law tells them it is OK to buy us,” says Sabrinna Valisce, who was prostituted in New Zealand brothels both before and after decriminalisation. Under legalisation, women are still murdered by pimps and punters.”

“Any government that allows the decriminalisation of pimping and sex-buying sends a message to its citzens that women are vessels for male consumption.”

A similar picture emerged after prostitution was decriminalised in New South Wales. One NSW police officer investigating legal Sydney brothels linked to sex trafficking and organised crime commented on the effects of decriminalisation stating that “although the intention was to provide a safe working environment for sex workers the reverse has occurred in that pimps and brothe[l] operators were empowered and enriched”. He noted that because of decriminalisation “police were cut out of the equation and crime infiltrated the brothel and massage parlour industry”.

The logic that treating this industry like any other workplace will result in better outcomes for women is foundationally flawed because prostitution is inherently violent and exploitative and thus cannot be made safe. There is also less incentive to help the women trapped in the industry:

“When prostituted women become ‘employees’, and part of the ‘labour market’, pimps become ‘managers’ and ‘business entrepreneurs’, and the punters are merely clients. Services helping people to exit are irrelevant because who needs support to get out of a regular job? Effectively, governments wash their hands of women under legalisation because, according to the mantra, ‘It is better than working at McDonald’s’. As one sex-trade survivor told me, ‘At least when you work at McDonald’s you’re not the meat.’”

As one columnist recently argued, “[d]ecriminalisation increases the overall extent of prostitution in a country without decreasing its harms or delivering any of the promised benefits of regulation.”

If the Queensland government is serious regarding its stated goal to protect women and children caught up in the industry, it would do better to enact legislation to implement the successful ‘Nordic Model’. This model works to “deter punters by the threat of criminalisation, and at the same time, [decriminalises and supports] the women in prostitution by offering exiting programmes.”

Countries such as Spain are now seriously considering implementing this model, after recognising that its attempt to decriminalise the industry is a complete failure:

“Since Spain took the disastrous decision to decriminalise its sex trade in 1995, prostitution has boomed, with at least 300,000 prostituted women in the country being bought and sold. There is copious evidence to show that legalisation and its close cousin decriminalisation exacerbates rather than solving the problems inherent to prostitution. As one major study concluded, trafficking of women across borders, violence, HIV transmission and associated crimes all increase under this regime… Prostitution cannot ever be made safe, as history confirms; therefore it has to be eradicated.”

By way of contrast, where the Nordic model has been implemented, its effect on both the industry and women’s well-being have been far more positive:

“Currently, a number of countries around the world, including Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Israel have their own version of the Nordic Model in place. Evaluation shows that this approach has reduced numbers of women and prostitution, and that it challenges the culture of acceptability when it comes to men paying for sex. There are calls from abolitionists, including many survivors of the sex trade, to introduce this model globally.”

In the course of her research, Bindel has uncovered which groups are really behind the calls for ‘decriminalisation’:

“What I have discovered, while researching campaigns for the legalisation or decriminalisation of prostitution in the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK, is that sex industry bosses have an influential voice in such campaigns, often providing funding; and that groups claiming to represent ‘sex workers’ are just as likely to be a voice for pimps as they are to represent the women who earn their living selling sex.”

It is clear that the decriminalisation approach proposed in Queensland and already implemented in other Australian states is failing women. Women’s Forum Australia is calling on Federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash to implement new nationwide laws based on the successful ‘Nordic Model’ to protect women. Australian women deserve much better than the exploitation and violence inherent in the prostitution industry. Add your voice to our campaign here.