Who are the big winners of the Victorian government’s prostitution laws?

Who are the big winners of the Victorian government’s prostitution laws?

Did the Andrews Government consult with sex industry survivors before enacting laws to decriminalise prostitution in Victoria?

It’s a good question with no clear answer. Despite a review being commissioned by the government and led by Fiona Patten MP, a leading advocate in the Victorian parliament for the adult industry, there does not appear to be any public report available on which the legislation is based, and no record of which stakeholders, groups and individuals were consulted as part of the review. The website outlines the number of submissions made and the outcomes of the review, but little else.

Last week, the Victorian Parliament passed laws to decriminalise prostitution fully in the state after the review by Ms Patten.

The Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 comes into force in two parts, with the first stage commencing on 1 March 2022. Offences for consensual sex work will be removed, including those related to street-based work. Licensing and zoning regulations will be dramatically changed and STI testing mandates are set to be scrapped for sex workers.

The remainder of the bill, which will involve repealing the sex work licensing system currently in place in Victoria, will come into effect in December 2023.

Prostitution was already regulated under a legalised model in Victoria under the Sex Work Act 1994, providing that sex work was lawful ‘if it takes place under conditions set out in the Sex Work Act 1994’.

Any sex-based work that occurred outside this system, including street-based work was unlawful under the previous laws. These laws were criticised by the group ‘Sex Work Law Reform Victoria’, which describes itself as ‘a non-partisan volunteer group led by sex workers’ who stated that the previous laws created a ‘two-tiered industry’ with about 80 per cent of workers operating outside the law.

Patten, in promoting the Bill, has stated that the effect of the new laws will be to treat ‘sex work the same as any other work’.

While the ‘sex industry’ has been effusive in its support and praise for the bill, the reaction of survivors of sex trafficking, prostitution and pornography, as well as women’s and human rights advocates from around the world, has been one of distress, saying it will be a regressive move for women harmed by the industry.

Ahead of the parliamentary debate, a group of more than 200 signatories wrote an open letter to the Premier, urging the government to stand with survivors, rather than sex industry profiteers and to consider the Nordic Model. They called on the Premier to “address the harmful cultural practice of bestowing men a customary right to purchase sexual acts with human beings who would never, but for myriad forms of coercion and an absence of choice, engage in sexual acts with them.”

“We are expressing our collective horror that the Government of Victoria is proposing a law that would decriminalize the sex trade as a solution to the reported disastrous failures of your legalized system of prostitution.

“Prostitution is in fact a system of complex exploitation for the profit of brothel owners and other exploiters enriched by sex buyers. Solving your failures of legalization with a worse form of it – decriminalization – will exponentially increase the stated harms and violations. 

“You cannot control the sex trade, a multi-billion-dollar global illegal enterprise, through decriminalization, Mr Premier – it controls you.

“The women in your legal and illegal brothels are under the control of third-party exploiters. Their journeys into prostitution include histories of childhood sexual violence, poverty, state residential homes, displacement, intergenerational abuse, and systemic inequalities, all vulnerabilities that lead to sexual exploitation. And regardless of prostituted persons’ race, sex, gender or ethnicity, sex buyers reduce them to commodities for sale.  

“Society avoids addressing these abuses by weaving narratives of ‘consent’ which even if rarely true, is irrelevant under the law and human rights principles in situations of exploitation or sexual violence. 

“You can fix your failed 1994 prostitution law with ease by enacting progressive legislation that will protect people in prostitution and keep the sex trade profiteers at bay.”

Julie Bindel has been researching as a feminist campaigner against male violence for decades. Her examination of many jurisdictions where prostitution has been decriminalised has uncovered what really happens as a result of decriminalisation and the nature of the campaigns mounted by those representing brothel owners and pimps.

“The biggest obstacle I faced was the well-oiled propaganda machine that takes the truth about the sex trade and represents it to the world in the form of sanitised sop,” she has said.

New Zealand decriminalised their prostitution laws in 2003. Bindel makes the following observations about arguments made at the time in support of the changes to the law:

“The argument, led by the New Zealand Prostitute Collective (NZPC), was as persuasive as it was misleading: removing all criminal laws from all aspects of the trade would lead to ‘worker’s rights’ and safety for the woman. Handily for sex trade entrepreneurs, this resulted in pimps and brothel owners being rebranded as ‘businessmen’.

“One of the many survivors of the sex trade I met during my research is Sabrinna Valisce, who volunteered with the NZPC over a 25 year period. Valisce campaigned alongside her colleagues for blanket decriminalisation, but now regrets doing so. ‘I thought it would give more power and rights to the women,’ she told me, ‘but soon I realised the opposite was true.’ 

“According to Valisce, decriminalisation benefited the punters and brothel owners rather than those selling sex within them.” 

“Across Holland, women have been imported by traffickers from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to meet the increased demand. There has been little or no support for women to exit prostitution, and the innate murkiness of the sex trade has not been washed away by legal benediction. As in Germany and Nevada, the close links between organised crime and prostitution has not been disrupted, and women are still being murdered by pimps and punters at an alarming rate.

“A 2012 article in the journal World Development reported that ‘countries with legalised prostitution have a statistically significant larger reported incidence of human trafficking inflows.’

“During the time I spent in legal brothels in Australia, Holland, Nevada and Germany, the so-called street ‘tolerance zones’, I found that the most pernicious effect of removing criminal sanctions from pimps and profiteers is the way it reframes prostitution as a straightforward commercial transaction, which in turn, serves to hide the truth about the harm and abuse at the heart of the global sex trade.”

As Tegan Larin, researcher at Monash University has commented:

“We are going backwards when policy that normalises and expands a harmful and exploitative industry based on gender inequality is seen as best practice.”

Spokesperson for Sex Work Law Reform Victoria, Matthew Roberts, has explained that now these laws have passed at the state level, the next frontier is local councils.

Likely flow on effects from consequent changes to anti-discrimination laws via the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 are that taxpayer funded grants will not be able to be refused to escort agencies and brothels. In 2020, Melbourne City Council refused a small business grant to an escort agency because the council, in its own words, ‘does not entertain funding escort agencies or other sex related services’. In that instance, Roberts intervened, and the decision was reversed.

Following the passage of the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021, decisions such as that taken by the Melbourne City Council will likely be in breach of anti-discrimination legislation and therefore illegal.

Escort agencies and pimps must now be treated like any other business owners and taxpayer funds must be equally distributed to such businesses.

It’s pretty clear who the winners of Victoria’s new prostitution laws are and it’s certainly not women.

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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