Appearing before a parliamentary committee on the Repeal of Sex Work Offences Bill this week, Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier expressed her support for decriminalising prostitution in South Australia and criticised the current law for not providing adequate protections to those in the industry.
She said the current law is “creating barriers” for those in prostitution to access health care due to a fear of being turned in and/or being discriminated against by health care providers. According to members of SA Health’s Communicable Disease Control Branch, those in the industry are also deterred from carrying condoms because police can use them as evidence against them.
Spurrier argued that the existing framework increases the risk of disease spreading in the community, including COVID-19, undermining SA Health’s infection control procedures.
“It creates barriers for sex workers to use safe sex practices, and also to be able to be provided with effective peer education and health promotion resources,” particularly with regard to the pandemic, Spurrier said.
“The result is that we’re at risk of increasing what I believe are preventable diseases – HIV and sexually transmissible diseases – in this state.”
If we look from a purely biological perspective, bacteria and viruses do not discriminate on whether sexual activity is paid or unpaid,” she said.
“And to stop the transmission of sexually transmissible diseases across our whole community, safe sex practices need to be maintained in every setting regardless of whether it’s paid or unpaid.”
Spurrier’s push for the legalisation of prostitution to promote health would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.
It’s true – bacteria and viruses do not discriminate on whether sexual activity is paid or unpaid, but when a person’s “job” involves sexual activity with multiple partners day in and day out, this automatically puts them and the wider community at increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms are not foolproof nor do those buying sex always agree to wear them.
In addition to the heightened risk of sexually transmitted diseases, research has shown that prostitution is multi-traumatic. A 2008 study conducted across nine countries found that 71 per cent were physically assaulted in prostitution; 63 per cent were raped; 89 per cent of these respondents wanted to escape prostitution, but did not have other options for survival. A total of 75 per cent had been homeless at some point in their lives; 68 per cent met criteria for PTSD.
Genuine care for the health of those in the industry and in the community would not involve advocating for the sexual exploitation and traumatisation of vulnerable persons – mostly women – to be legitimised as “work”. Instead, any law reform would be geared towards truly protecting and empowering prostituted persons.
The Nordic legislative model facilitates this objective, recognising that the practice of prostitution is both rooted in gender inequality and inherently exploitative. Pioneered in Sweden in 1999 and since adopted by countries like Norway, Iceland, Canada, and France, the model addresses the demand for prostitution by criminalising the buyer only and provides exiting services for women wishing to leave the industry.
We agree with Spurrier that the law should not punish prostituted persons, but neither should it facilitate their sexual exploitation – especially under the guise of “public health”.
Read more about our opposition to the bill and our support for the Nordic Model in our submission to the South Australian Select Committee on this issue.