The case to decriminalise sex work

Issue 

Sydney is the “sex capital” of Australia, said an article in the November 12 Daily Telegraph, which called the city the “Amsterdam of the South Pacific”.

The article reported recent figures from the Government Interagency Brothels Taskforce that showed 271 legal brothels in the state, as well as claims that “the industry is being infiltrated by organised crime”. The figures, which were labelled “shocking”, were blamed on “dysfunctional planning laws and legislation” by one figure quoted.

What the Telegraph didn't cover, however, is a recent survey by Basil Donovan, an academic at the University of New South Wales Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research. The survey showed sex workers in Sydney enjoy the best health and welfare compared to the other Australian cities.

Sydney is the only city where brothels are decriminalised and street prostitution is legal; in Melbourne, the industry is heavily regulated.

In Perth, the Barnett Liberal government is debating laws allowing limited and heavily regulated legal brothels. Prostitution is currently legal, but brothels exist in a legal grey area.

The Carpenter ALP government introduced reforms in 2007 that would have decriminalised brothels and required certification; these narrowly passed the parliament, but did not come into effect before the 2008 state election, and so remain inactive.

Despite these different regulation schemes, Professor Donovan said in the October 6 Sydney Morning Herald: “On a per capita basis, the number of brothels was broadly comparable between the cities. This suggests the legal climate has no impact on the prevalence of commercial sex.”

But the legal status of sex work does affect rates of sexually transmitted infections, regular contact with health workers and access to support services. The rate of chlamydia infection among Sydney sex workers surveyed by Donovan was about 1-2%, significantly lower than other cities.

The rate of gonorrhoea was “about as close as you can get to zero”.

Some politicians have backed an alternative legal framework for prostitution — the “Swedish” or “Nordic” model, where the act of buying sex, rather than prostitution, is criminalised.

Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey has supported the “Swedish model”. He told the December 19 Sunday Times: “Instead of harassing prostitutes, it treats them as victims in a lopsided and abusive relationship and makes customers responsible for what is effectively a form of abuse of women.”

Sweden noted a 40% drop in prostitution from 1998 to 2003. But a government report released in 2007 showed an increase in street prostitution over the past 10 years after an initial fall, and a corresponding rise in violence against sex workers. Most Swedish workers in the industry have reported feeling less safe since the law was introduced.

Swedish politicians from the Centre Party Youth, Liberal People's Party and the Left Party have all called for the repeal of the law.

Defenders of the Swedish model have argued it reflects the fact that sex work is an expression of male dominance over women. But is prostitution always abusive or exploitative?

Some workers say they find sex work personally empowering and liberating, but this is not the experience of most sex workers worldwide. Most sex workers are women and many come from already marginalised communities. Becoming a sex worker is often a last resort.

But attempts to criminalise prostitution usually just end up driving the industry underground, making access to health services and protection from violence more difficult.

A Scarlet Alliance statement on a recent Victorian Inquiry into people trafficking for sex work said: "A focus on regulation, inspections and police alone will potentially marginalise sex workers even further and reduce rather than expand their human rights."

Decriminalisation of sex work is the best way to protect the rights of sex workers and ensure easy and safe access to health and support services.

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