South Australia’s socially regressive sex trade laws need reform

By Chris Duluk (ON Line Opinion)

State Labor MP Stephanie Key has renewed the call to reform the legislation governing prostitution in South Australia. She has been backed by the Sex Industry Network, whose manager Ari Reid described the current legislation as outdated saying: "The laws governing sex work in this state haven’t changed in more than 60 years."

According to South Australia Police Commissioner Mal Hyde, the current state law (which makes the buying and selling of sex illegal) "is really quite archaic." Highlighting the outdated nature of the current legislation, Mr Hyde pointed to the fact that “it was illegal to receive money in a brothel, but you were able to pay with a credit card.” Commissioner Hyde supported reform but emphasised that “any new laws must be workable, and must prevent the exploitation of women.”

While Ms Key is pushing to decriminalise the buying and selling of sex, few parliamentarians have publicly contributed to this critical social debate. The silence of the Minister for the Status of Women, Gail Gago, on this issue has been particularly disappointing, as has been the indifferent attitude of the Liberal Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond, who said “there are far more important things facing the people of this state”, when asked to comment on the issue.

he debate regarding prostitution may not rate as a “priority” amongst economic or health issues; however, it is disappointing when MPs, particularly some female MPs, fail to contribute to the debate on this crucial social issue, considering the overwhelming majority of workers affected by the sex industry in SA are women.

Ms Key’s proposed reforms to decriminalise the sex trade would ensure prostitutes operate without fear of prosecution. However, in an industry so often characterised by exploitation, substance abuse, sexual assault and trafficking, the decriminalisation or legalisation of prostitution remains a vexed question.

In drafting legislative reform for South Australia, MPs should consider the experiences of the neighbouring state, Victoria.

In her analysis of the legislation governing prostitution in Victoria, Melbourne-based feminist Mary Sullivan an activist at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (Australia), states that the Victorian Government’s rationale for the legalisation of prostitution "to contain the rampant growth of the highly visible brothel and street prostitution trade” has in fact, had the opposite effect.

Rather than curbing the lucrative sex trade, Sullivan argues that legalisation in Victoria has “gifted” pimps with legal status as “respectable business entrepreneurs”, who subject women and girls “to be treated as commodities to be bought and sold like any other marketable product.” Furthermore, Sullivan states that legalisation in Victoria has seen the number of women involved in the sex industry rise to over 4,500 “in the legal sector alone”, on top of the estimated thousands of unregistered sex workers.

In What Happens When Prostitution Becomes Work? Sullivan concludes that in legalising prostitution the Victorian Government “made it acceptable for Victorian men to purchase women for sexual gratification” and that legalised prostitution has normalised “the violence and sexual abuse” sex workers experience.

Canberra-based women’s rights campaigner and writer Melinda Tankard-Reist, echoes Sullivan’s views regarding the Victorian “experience” of a legalised sex trade. Tankard-Reist argues that despite the Victorian Government’s claims that legalised prostitution would solve the many problems associated with the sex trade “such as drugs, crime and violence against women”, in practice, the opposite has occurred. Tankard-Reist has stated: “What did materialise…was millions of dollars of profits for the (Victorian) state and the Australian sex industry…the normalisation of prostitution…and social legitimacy of business activities that derive their profit from individual women being used for the sexual gratification of men”.

The issues that South Australian MPs must consider in legislative reform of prostitution are not only those of workplace safety and rights, but also of morality and justice. For the state to legalise or decriminalise prostitution outright would be to give legal sanction to the commoditisation and trade of human beings.

Given that the overwhelming majority of sex workers are women, legal regulation of “the trade” (like in Victoria) would only further reinforce the “status” of women in our society as sexual objects who can be purchased, consumed and disposed of by men. We must ask ourselves the question: is this just?

In considering legislative reform of prostitution, South Australian MPs should adopt the model successfully flagged in Sweden in 1999, which has been adopted in neighbouring socially progressive countries Norway and Iceland.

The rationale underpinning the “Swedish model” sees all forms of prostitution as violence against women. Rather than targeting the supply (mostly vulnerable women) the “Swedish model” targets the demand (mainly men) and sees the government fund “exit programs” for sex workers. The selling of sex is decriminalised but the buying of sex is a criminal offence.

The “Swedish model” is consistent with Ms Key’s call to protect sex workers from prosecution. However, unlike what occurs in jurisdictions where prostitution is legalised, the “Swedish model” avoids injustices, where the state gives legal sanction to and collects tax revenue from, the trade and sexual objectification of humans. This is also consistent with Commissioner Hyde’s plea that reforms must stop exploitation.

Prostitution is a reality and as the oldest profession (or oppression?) in the world, it won’t disappear anytime soon. However, the “Swedish model” would address two crucial aspects which current SA legislation fails to do. It would regulate the industry and protect sex workers from prosecution, but far more importantly, it would send a clear message to men that no dollar amount can ever be placed on the value of a woman.

Article edited by Jo Coghlan