Tough deal for sex workers

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Tough deal for sex workers

By Alison Dellit

On June 20, the Queensland Labor government introduced what Premier Peter Beattie called "a tough package of prostitution law reform".

The "reforms" will legalise and regulate brothels, while increasing penalties for street workers and escort agencies. Only brothels with fewer than 10 workers and fewer than five rooms will be legal, and they must be in industrial and commercial zones.

Cities (presumably their local councils) with a population of less than 25,000 would be able to "veto" a brothel, and larger cities could veto their licence in a commercial area, though not in an industrial area.

A licensing authority, with representatives of the police, the Criminal Justice Commission, local councils and the sex industry, will be established to monitor brothels, and close those that contain drugs or alcohol. The legislation will come into force in July 2000.

The laws are similar to those in the southern states, which have significantly worsened the working conditions of sex workers. Impossibly strict criteria for brothels have developed a two-tier system of legal, regulated brothels and illegal, unregulated brothels. Penalties for those working in illegal brothels, on the street or in escort agencies have massively increased, along with all the perils of working outside the law.

The Queensland legislation will increase fines for street workers from $300 currently to $1000. This will lead to a massive increase in those serving jail terms. The limitation on the number of workers in a brothel means that brothels are less likely to hire security or support staff, significantly worsening occupational health and safety for sex workers. For these reasons, the proposed legislation has been described as "unworkable nonsense" by Linda Banach from the Law Reform Coalition.

Feminists who argue for the legalisation and regulation of sex work ignore the realities of such regulation, which places the state in control of the industry. The state is not interested in the working conditions of sex workers. It profits from the high fines imposed on sex workers and made possible by their persecution. Numerous royal commissions have pointed to the huge pay-offs amassed by corrupt police officers thanks to the restrictions on sex workers.

The criminalisation of sex work serves the needs of the state as well. Capitalist society attempts to divide women into rigidly sexually defined roles: wife, virgin, whore. This division serves to reinforce the monogamous family as the only valid way to bear and raise children.

Monogamy is almost hysterically praised through all channels — from school "health" courses through to Cleo articles. Monogamy for women, within the family unit, assures that the parentage of every child is known and property can be passed on accordingly.

The nuclear family provides an economic unit that shoulders the burden of caring for and raising children. This economic unit is justified ideologically by the argument that extramarital sex is evil and by the notion of sex as a sacred, inviolable contract.

The double standard is that women who do not follow this rule are ruthlessly attacked, while it is accepted as "inevitable" that men will "stray". In Europe in the middle ages, with a rigid system of land ownership and no contraception, adultery for women was punishable by being flogged, hung until almost dead, then revived and publicly disembowelled. No punishment existed for men.

The existence of sex work enables men to seek sexual pleasure outside the family without affecting the parentage of children within it. It is based on the inevitable distortions created by forcing one model of acceptable sexual behaviour on the entire population. Limiting such sexual encounters to a small section of the female population maintains the rigid monogamous framework for the majority.

Sex workers are blamed for "illicit" sexual activity, obscuring the real distortions created by the organisation of society in monogamous family units.

Feminists who argue that sex work can be "reclaimed" by feminism, because it challenges the nuclear family unit, miss the point. Sex work doesn't challenge the nuclear family — it reinforces it. A system of sexuality based on controlling women's reproduction — bolstered by illicit sexuality based on the commodification of women's bodies — is not feminist.

Sex work reduces a body (primarily women's) to a commodity which is sold for the pleasure of another (overwhelmingly men's). Sex work thus reinforces the concept that women's bodies are not theirs, existing for their own health and pleasure, but the property of others.

The idea of "reclaiming" sex work ignores the reality that, for most sex workers, there is no choice. In First World countries like Australia, many sex workers enter the industry to fund an illegal drug addiction or to escape desperate financial circumstances. In the Third World, most sex workers do not have the choice to leave the industry, either financially or practically. Most sex workers are not attempting to "reclaim" sex work; they are in the industry because they are attempting to survive.

Feminists should not take a disparaging or patronising attitude towards sex workers. Feminists need to support all struggles by sex workers to improve their working conditions, including the right to form unions and associations, and the right to work free from police harassment. We must fight for the repeal of all laws that victimise sex workers. Most of all, we must fight against the economic system which exploits and distorts every aspect of human sexuality.