By Stephanie Bastiaan
New South Wales model of decriminalisation and deregulation of prostitution has failed to protect workers in the sex industry while empowering profiteers and criminals, so why is Victoria going down the same path?
It is no surprise. The Victorian government’s decision to appoint a sex-industry lobbyist turned MP to lead the review into prostitution law reform, is the equivalent of selecting a lobbyist from the tobacco industry to review health policy.
It does not matter how often the Victorian government premises the legislative changes as progress towards improving the health, rights, and safety of sex workers. These reforms predominantly provide a licence for pimps, madams, and criminals to operate without appropriate scrutiny.
The sex industry is heavily tainted by systemic trauma, abuse, physical and sexual violence, murder, and exploitation. This is acknowledged by advocacy groups for workers in the trade, such as the Scarlett Alliance and Vixen Collective.
Deregulating prostitution under Fair Work and local government in line with other businesses turns a blind eye to the significant criminal elements that dominate the industry.
Sex trafficking within legal brothels in Victoria has been widely reported in the media. Yet, for every 100 legal brothels, an estimated 400 illegal operations are masquerading as massage or tattoo parlours, all largely unchecked. It is clear, many profiteers in this industry have little regard for the law.
Further deregulation will be a gift.
A 2015 enquiry into the regulation of brothels in NSW found that drug use, abuse, organised crime and sex trafficking, including minors, remain substantial problems even under full decriminalisation.
The NSW Deputy Commissioner of Police told the enquiry that this was primarily due to a regulatory void. Local Councils are inadequately resourced and trained to deal with organised crime. In many cases, councils found themselves powerless to prevent illegal parlours from opening alongside schools, learning centres, and within residential buildings.
Despite the enormous impact on local government, Victorian councils only received notice to provide feedback two days before the consultation period closed.
One mother told me of her confronting experience raising a young family near an illegal brothel in North Carlton, Victoria. She regularly found the men waiting outside for their appointments to have little regard for the residential environment, with some urinating in the street before going in for their appointments. Often clients would knock on her door by mistake, and her neighbour was left traumatised after a man entered her home thinking it was the brothel. She said the community lived in fear until the police shut it down.
The current review fails to adequately address why abuse is too often synonymous with sex work. The response is to blame public perception and social stigma.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the question of whether women will ever be treated equally while also commercial commodities to be purchased by men. You only need to read the degrading google reviews by customers on brothels to know buyers are not looking for a fun experience with an empowered woman who comfortably stipulates her boundaries.
Legalising sex work in line with serviced based businesses would, in theory, reduce crimes of sexual abuse and even rape to theft. After all, sex acts are just a service.
In normal circumstances, soliciting sex under false pretences is regarded as rape by deception. However, when a sex worker in Queensland filed a complaint with the police against a man who solicited sex in exchange for money and did not pay, the Magistrates Court only convicted him of fraud.
The priority for equality has driven liberal countries such as Sweden, Denmark, France and Canada away from the commercial interests of the sex industry by embracing the Nordic Model.
Recognising that most buyers are men and the majority of those in prostitution are women and girls, the Nordic Model sees prostitution as a form of violence against women and incompatible with equality.
The Nordic Model is successful because it removes the onus of responsibility from sex workers to buyers and third parties who profit from prostitution.
Its holistic approach means that sex workers are free from prosecution and incorporates comprehensive exit programs, including social and economic support, to assist people in leaving the industry.
It is time for Victoria to drive change and create a better world for the women and girls of tomorrow.
In an era where equality and sexual abuse are at the forefront of the national debate, Victorians should be sceptical about why their government has embraced an industry that trades in misogyny and violence.
Originally published in the Spectator Australia.