WA prostitution law debated

Issue 

A bill legalising aspects of brothel operation is being debated by Western Australia's parliament. The Prostitution Amendment Bill 2007 would change the current legislative approach to brothels from one of "containment" (brothels, while technically illegal, are regulated by the police), to one where brothel managers and owners could be formally registered.

The proposed bill also introduces a number of rights and measures that have not previously been available to prostitutes, such as the right to withdraw their consent to taking part in a commercial sexual act, the provision of compensation entitlements, and the obligation of managers to adopt a range of measures to ensure the health and safety of sex workers and clients.

This bill was formulated by a working committee instigated by the WA attorney-general, Labor's Jim McGinty. The group included several ALP and Greens parliamentarians and a police representative, and was the result of lobbying by both sex workers and brothel owners, and of decades of campaigning for reform by sex-worker advocates, many campaigning from a feminist perspective.

In response to the bill, a 350-strong public meeting was called in September by the Prostitution Law Amendment Working Committee, led by the Australian Christian Lobby's Michelle Pearse. On November 15, about 300 people marched against the bill, at a protest organised by liberals for forests MLA Janet Woollard. The rally involved feminists, church groups and human rights activists, including the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women.

Some opponents of the bill argue that legalising brothels will increase both legal and illegally operating brothels and do nothing to solve the problems of violence facing sex workers.

Kat, a feminist activist who spoke at the rally, is a survivor of a very damaging experience as a prostitute. She argued that legalising brothels "normalises the industry. Legal brothels reinforce the perception that men have innate rights to be sexually serviced by women." She continued: "I don't believe that sex workers should be criminalised or harassed by police, but I do believe that men who purchase sexual services should have to face the consequences of their actions.

"Many women and young people have been damaged by being purchased by for sex by men. Studies have found high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst this group of people.

"No legislation will ever eradicate the harms of the sex industry but I believe that criminalising those who purchase sex is the only legislation that will achieve harm minimisation. This industry will only ever be eradicated when we achieve gender equality."

Most sex-worker advocates, including the Scarlet Alliance, an organisation advocating for sex workers' rights that is not open to those owning or operating a sex industry business, believe that the bill will make some positive changes to the current situation and have given it critical support. They believe, however, that it is extremely limited because it would not remove much of the current legislation. Because the proposed amendments to the Prostitution Act 2000 would not have the effect of decriminalising brothel work and the police would still have extraordinary powers to monitor and intervene in the industry, including the ability to enter premises and search and detain workers without a warrant. Sex worker advocates believe that workers would have no right to silence and no presumption of innocence.

Janelle Fawkes, the Scarlet Alliance's CEO, told Green Left Weekly that the group "supports decriminalisation as the preferred model of regulating the industry — the removal of criminal sanctions against the sex industry and police being removed from their role of regulating the industry". "In royal commissions, such as the Fitzgerald Inquiry in Queensland and the Woods Inquiry in New South Wales, there has been evidence of high levels of corruption when police regulate the sex industry. Western Australia has had successful prosecutions against police who demanded sexual services in exchange for not charging sex workers, as well as a Sexual Assault Referral Centre research project that found that of the sex workers interviewed who had experienced sexual assault, 50% reported sexual assault by police.

"Regulating sex industry businesses in the same way as other businesses is important to sex workers, as government bodies including WorkSafe have not taken up their role in ensuring the regulation of occupational health and safety in the sex industry. Also, the industrial rights for sex workers in sex industry workplaces in Western Australia are unclear within the current legal framework, resulting in government agencies being able to ignore the issues for Western Australian sex workers. Our right to superannuation, workcover and representation in industrial courts has been an important focus."

Many WA sex workers believe that the proposed changes ignore or exacerbate the significant lack of rights and protections available to prostitutes, including the lack of anti-discrimination protection. They believe that the new legislation would require brothels to keep employee records for three years, which might lead to unauthorised access of these records and blackmail, or access by Centrelink, resulting in discrimination against workers by current or potential employers, or work records being used against prostitutes or former prostitutes in Family Court hearings.

Fawkes believes that the improvements that have been achieved were a result of decades-long campaigning by sex workers, health and law professionals and human rights activists, and that this will need to continue. Fawkes observed that the bill "does not remove the current Prostitution Act 2000, which includes laws mainly covering street-based sex workers. We will continue to raise awareness and advocate for the removal of this legislation in an attempt to ensure all sex workers are decriminalised in Western Australia."