Repeal of Sex Work Offences

Repeal of Sex Work Offences

I rise to indicate that I will not be supporting the Statutes Amendment (Repeal of Sex Work Offences) Bill for several reasons, and I will be voting against this bill at the third reading.

However, I would like to indicate that I am happy to support its referral to a select committee of this chamber to look into the policing of the sex work industry in this state. I would hope that the terms of reference of this committee would include investigating a variety of models of reform, including legalisation, decriminalisation and the Nordic model.

I would like to acknowledge the mover of the bill, the Hon. Ms Tammy Franks, and those who have moved similar, if not identical, bills in both this place and the other place. I think we are all here for similar reasons: first and foremost to improve the safety and wellbeing of those in prostitution. We are simply debating the method with which to do so.

With this, I believe this current bill will not give these women the protection they so deeply desire and deserve. In saying ‘women’, I also acknowledge that it is not just women. However, for the sake of this contribution I will refer to women, given they make up the overwhelming majority of the sex industry.

I also acknowledge that there are no quick fixes when it comes to protecting those who are most vulnerable in our society. Not all women in prostitution are vulnerable. I realise and acknowledge this. However, we do know that many vulnerable women enter prostitution due to reasons such as extreme poverty, lack of opportunity and drug addiction, to name a few.

Let’s be honest, brothels are predominantly cash businesses. The vast majority of clients do not want to leave an electronic payment record of their visit. In an era where cash use is declining and cash businesses are becoming not only a premium find but increasingly scarce, for illegal enterprises brothels provide the perfect opportunity for money laundering for drug traffickers and other gang-related criminal activity.

An example of this can be seen in Sydney in 2018, well after the passing of a similar bill that we are debating here today decriminalising prostitution. A young man was arrested after $1 million was seized from a sports bag hidden in the boot of his car after making daily trips to Sydney from Melbourne to visit Sydney brothels to recruit young women who could assist him in laundering money.

Even more recently, a man from Western Australia was arrested no less than a month ago when police found $95,000 cash and $10,000 worth of gift cards in the back of his Mercedes-Benz. Through this arrest, 10 sex workers have been referred to Australian Border Force as part of an ongoing investigation into an international money laundering scandal. The investigation has since established links between residential brothels in Western Australia and an Asian crime network, which is allegedly involved with sex workers from Thailand and China after information received from the ANZ bank regarding suspicious transactions.

I realise that the Western Australian government has not decriminalised prostitution. However, according to Australia’s number one online brothel platform, Veneev, where you can find, rate and review Australia’s best brothels on an unsecured platform, the website states:

‘Unlike Melbourne and Sydney, brothels in Western Australia are illegal. In saying that, the government and the business owners have an unofficial agreement in which brothels are tolerated. Great news for the local punters.’

It then goes on to list all the brothels in Perth. I would like to quote Detective Sergeant Matt Edmunds from the Proceeds of Crime Squad about the continued investigation into the organised crime element of residential brothels in WA. He says:

‘The involvement of established criminal networks in the operation of residential brothels causes great concern to police. Such involvement is known to lead to other serious crimes being committed, including money laundering.’

Sergeant Edmunds also adds:

‘While there are women who make a conscious decision to become involved in the sex industry, there are also many cases where young and/or vulnerable women are coerced into being involved, or who find it difficult to stop being involved in the industry due to the controlling nature of those involved in running the operations, particularly for workers who are in Australia on temporary visas.’

In a parliamentary select committee on an earlier version of this bill, South Australia Police argued the need for regulation that both protects the workers in the industry and prevents the infiltration of organised crime. They argued that a completely unregulated environment will only lead us to problems in the future. South Australia Police also told the committee that it is often the people behind the scenes, such as outlaw motorcycle gangs, who may be a silent partner providing funds or being paid protection money.

We know that SAPOL are experts in criminal organisations and those individuals that inhabit them in our state. A decriminalised sex industry removes police as regulators of the industry and regulates brothels by the same standard industry codes that are enforced on any other industry, such as the hospitality industry. I would argue that a SafeWork SA inspector does not have available to them the same knowledge, experience and resources that SAPOL does to be able to minimise criminal gang involvement in the sex industry. Therefore, it is a real risk that completely decriminalising brothels will provide ample opportunity for money laundering and other criminal activity in our state.

Following decriminalisation, the responsibility of brothels will also largely be transferred from law enforcement to local councils. In this way, councils will be forced to dedicate funds and administration staff to manage the industry without police authority or resources to investigate, penalise or shut down brothel owners. This puts an unfair burden on a tier of government that one could argue is not best suited to the complexity of the task.

The underlying aim of this legislation is to make prostitution another form of labour, and to incorporate it into the labour market as sex work. Liberal discourses of empowerment, agency and sex positivity advance the notion that sex can be labour, and hence exchanged on a market. This makes the large assumption that women in prostitution choose to be there. In fact, coercive labour relations have been common in many markets throughout history and, while it has since been abolished in most forms, the International Labour Organization estimates there are still over 12.3 million forced workers worldwide. Others estimate that about 600,000 are trafficked each year in the sex industry alone.

As we know from the basic free-market economy 101 theory, a saturated market results in lower prices, an increase in demand and increased acceptance of the merchandise. When we apply this to the sex trade, this means more women abused in prostitution, more men paying for sex and further risk of pressure to practice unsafe sex. This mantra of free choice exists only for a select few women, and distracts from the greater work that must be done to facilitate full societal inclusion of women with the least amount of choices.

If we decriminalise prostitution, I believe this will create a pathway for some of the less legitimate brothel owners to prey on the most vulnerable women in our society. If brothels are just like any other business, no different from a restaurant, this will mean that brothel owners will be able to present themselves as doing their employees a favour by giving them a job.

I find it concerning that some relatively privileged, mostly university-educated sex workers, who feel they have made a choice to enter the industry, are being held up as representatives of all women in the sex industry and applauded when they silence the growing survivor movement, who are calling for an end to prostitution.

I refer the chamber to an excerpt from a well-known Australian porn actress, Madison Missina, who spoke out about the abuses she witnessed within the sex industry. She describes sexual harassment, exploitation and rape as just part of the job she was expected to do, and speaks about the consequences of prostitution survivors speaking out, and I quote:

‘I have also experienced firsthand how when a supposed ‘happy hooker’ speaks out about the exploitation within the current Australian Sex Industry she gets excluded, ignored if she’s lucky. If she’s not well it will escalate to bullying, abuse and violence. The price I’ve personally paid for speaking out is the exclusion from the ugly mug list (which is a list of Johns who have been violent, committed crimes against women in the industry or refused to pay); I’ve had my legal name, personal phone number, and home address published. I’ve been stalked, verbally assaulted publicly twice, been threatened with physical violence, had the locks of my front door removed, and the front door of my building smashed in.’

Led by survivors, the prostitution abolitionist movement is growing. They are speaking out against the sex trade in all its forms and calling for the adoption of the Nordic model and exit programs.

Long-time Australian Indigenous abolitionist, Simone Watson, when asked about how it felt to tell her story, said:

‘It has definitely been empowering. Genuine empowerment. It gives me hope. I’d like to believe I’m opening people’s eyes to what is really going on. I’d like to believe I’m maybe giving some women still in the industry…maybe I’m getting through to some of them that there is life after this, you can get out and start changing things and bringing some light into your life. Some days it’s hard because it can start bringing some of the trauma back. Overall it has been a really positive experience despite anyone trying to silence me. It just fuels my fire and my passion to speak out more.’

Finally, I will speak about Sabrinna Valisce, who was a prostitute in support of decriminalisation in New Zealand until she experienced what a decriminalised industry looked like. She now argues that men who use prostitutes should be prosecuted. After her father suicided when Sabrinna was 12 years old, it changed her life completely. Within two years, her mother remarried and moved the family from Australia to New Zealand, where her stepfather was violent and she felt very isolated and alone. Within months, she ran away and found herself on the streets selling sex to survive.

In 1989, after two years working on the streets, Sabrinna visited the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective in Christchurch. She said, ‘I was looking for some support, perhaps to exit prostitution, but all I was offered was condoms.’ She was also invited to the collective’s regular weekly social nights. She remembered that they started talking about how stigma against sex workers was the worst thing about it, and that prostitution is just like any other job. To her, it somehow made what she was doing more palatable. She became the collective’s massage parlour coordinator and an enthusiastic supporter of its campaign for the full decriminalisation of all aspects of the sex trade. She said:

‘It felt like there was a revolution coming. I was so excited about how decriminalisation would make things better for the women.’

However, decriminalisation arrived in 2003 and she soon became disillusioned. The Prostitution Reform Act allowed brothels to operate as legitimate businesses, a model often hailed as the safest option for women in the sex trade. But Sabrinna said that in New Zealand it was a disaster and only benefited the pimps and punters. One problem was that it allowed brothel owners to offer punters an all-exclusive deal whereby they would pay a set amount to do anything they wanted with a woman. Sabrinna stated:

‘I thought it would give more power and rights to the women. But I soon realised the opposite was true. One thing we were promised would not happen was the ‘all-inclusive’ because that would mean the women wouldn’t be able to set the price or determine which sexual services they offered or refusedβ€”which was the mainstay of decriminalisation and its supposed benefits.’

There are countless stories about the abuse and hardship that women face within the industry. In the #MeToo era, where sexual harassment, sexual objectification and gender inequality are being called out everywhere, it beggars belief that it is not called out in prostitution. We cannot abandon the majority of women in the sex industry who would leave if they could.

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