South Australian MP introduces bill to help vulnerable women exit the sex industry

South Australian MP introduces bill to help vulnerable women exit the sex industry

By Stephanie Bastiaan

On the 30th of August, Upper House Liberal Leader Nicola Centofanti introduced the Summary Offences (Prostitution Law Reform) Amendment Bill 2023, making South Australia the first state to debate prostitution reforms based on the Nordic Model, also known as the Equality Model. Following the failures of ‘regulated’ or decriminalised legislative models rolled out in other states across Australia, it is a welcome development. 

“It is by far the case, not the exception to the rule, that many women who find themselves in the sex trade do not do so by choice...This bill challenges the power inequalities found within the sex trade,” said Ms Centofanti during the introduction of her bill.

The Nordic Model is not a legislative framework that seeks to ‘ban’ prostitution. It is a holistic model that encourages a culture change against the buying and exploitation of people, overwhelmingly women, as sexual commodities. It criminalises the buying of sex, while protecting those in the sex industry from prosecution and mandating support systems to help them exit the industry. 

Proponents for the decriminalisation of prostitution argue that the Nordic Model will drive the sex industry underground and provide fewer protections for those in the industry, but looking at the evidence in Australia, this simply isn’t true. Legalising the sex industry creates demand and increases widespread criminal activity, particularly human trafficking, drug smuggling and money laundering. 

While New South Wales, Victoria and Northern Territory have gone down the path of decriminalisation, Queensland, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory operate under a limited ‘regulated’ legislative model not dissimilar to Victoria before 2022. Prostitution is illegal in South Australia and Western Australia.

For clarity, the difference between regulated and decriminalised prostitution laws is that under a regulated model, prostitution is legal with restrictions or mandates about where and how the industry operates, while under a decriminalised model, prostitution is only subjected to standard business laws. A decriminalised model may outlaw certain practices, such as coercion. 

To understand the failures of both decriminalised and ‘regulated’ models of prostitution law reform, one only needs to look at NSW and Victoria as an example. The sex industry in NSW has been decriminalised and deregulated since 1995, while Victoria operated under a ‘regulated model from 1994 until they opted for full decriminalisation in 2022. Organised crime syndicates have flourished under both models. 

A NSW Parliamentary Inquiry in 2015 found that sexual servitude had increased, a large number of brothels were operating illegally, and organised crime was rampant. As the industry falls under business regulations, it is up to local government to oversee it. Unsurprisingly, the inquiry found councils were ill-equipped to combat criminal activity, including prosecuting enterprises operating illegally. The report also found that the model failed women, particularly those on a working visa with limited English. In brothels, women were found to be forced to work long hours under duress; there were reports that up to two-thirds of their wages were garnished for minor discrepancies and that women working in establishments and on the street were found to be living with high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance addiction. Despite the horrendous failures of NSW’s laws, they could worsen if Alex Greenwich’s Private members bill – the Equality Legislation Amendment (LGBTIQA+) Bill 2023 – pass. All remaining restrictions will be lifted under Schedule 18, allowing sex to be bought anywhere and permitting pimps and profiteers to exploit and coerce prostituted persons freely.

In 2010, a Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into human trafficking acknowledged the clear and close connection between the sex industry and forced sexual servitude; however, the only review by Victorian legislators into the sex industry focussed on current laws and resulted in full decriminalisation in 2022 despite years of media investigations exposing ongoing crimes of human trafficking, and drug and money laundering. Police estimate that over 400 brothels operate illegally in Victoria. It is worth noting that the 2022 inquiry was chaired by then MP Fiona Patten, a former self-described ‘sex worker’ and founder of the Eros Association, Australia’s primary adult industry lobby group. There is no doubt a proper inquiry into Victoria’s sex industry would have resulted in findings similar to those in NSW. 

What is very clear is that any form of prostitution law reform that legitimises prostitution results in increasing demand for prostituted persons, which is inevitably filled by human trafficking and also creates opportunities for criminal enterprises to operate through brothels and massage parlours.

According to the Australian Federal Police, Australia is a known destination and source country for victims of human trafficking, and for every victim identified, four go undetected. This is a blight on our nation.

Last week, Germany made headlines after being dubbed the ‘brothel of Europe’. Germany decriminalised the sex industry over 20 years ago on the premise it would give prostituted persons more rights and recognition under German law. Compared to their European neighbours like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, who have adopted a form of the Nordic Model, Germany has now found that while demand for buying sex has increased exponentially, to meet that demand, the majority of prostituted persons in Germany are foreigners at the mercy of human traffickers and pimps with no papers and no rights. 

The Daily Mail reported that German MP Dorothee Bär said the biggest beneficiary of the legalised sex industry are human traffickers and pimps.

'There can be no real equality as long as we accept that hundreds of thousands of women are treated like slaves. It is an offence against human dignity that we urgently need to end,' said Ms Bär.

Exactly. There is no equality for women, while it is accepted that their bodies can be traded for profit. 

The sex trade needs to be abolished. 

The Nordic Model is the only model that can do this as it recognises that prostitution is inherently abusive and exploitative, and that societal tolerance or acceptance of prostitution enables this abuse to continue. 

Women’s Forum Australia commends Nicola Centofanti’s bill and urges South Australian members of Parliament to support it. 

Stephanie Bastiaan is a Research Fellow with Women’s Forum Australia

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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