WA sex work bill no solution

SWOP NSW and Touching Base, float in Mardi Gras, Sydney, Australia. Photo: Doerthe Jansen

Liberal Premier Colin Barnett has proposed reforms to license and register some forms of sex work. And again people are referring to the bill as “legalisation” and “partial decriminalisation” when it is not.

It’s deeply concerning when big party politicians and mainstream journalists do not understand the proposed sex-work laws, and describe them as the opposite of what they are.

Most Western Australians seem unaware that Barnett’s proposed bill is unnecessary, perpetuates stigma towards sex workers and will result in worse working conditions.

The only legislation that is appropriate for sex workers is full decriminalisation — not the terrible licensing and registration bill being proposed.

Fails health test

The Liberals propose making it a criminal offence in WA not to use condoms for sex work. This is unnecessary, and WA health minister Kim Hames knows it.

Research shows that sex workers under any laws have better sexual health than the general population. Their bodies are their business. It’s not for the police to regulate. This law hasn’t worked in Queensland, except to give police the power to pretend to be clients and pressure sex workers for unprotected services.

Licensing laws also involve mandatory sexual health testing — another policy that is a proven failure.

Mandatory testing ignores the fact that sex workers are aware of how to take care of their sexual health, and also perpetuates the myth that sex workers are vectors of disease. It is proven in New South Wales that under decriminalisation, sex workers have access to the best health and support services.

Mandatory testing is expensive, doesn’t work, and puts undue pressure on the state’s health system.

Police should not regulate sex work

Licensing and registration gives power to police and creates more danger in WA, where police violence against sex workers is already a big problem.

One survey found that half of sexual assaults against sex workers were perpetrated by police.

Since WA Labor introduced the Prostitution Act in 2000, which criminalises the clients of street-based sex workers and allows police to pose as clients to entrap sex workers, street-based sex workers have been particularly vulnerable to police violence and harassment.

Corruption flourishes when the police force regulates sex work. This has been seen in Western Australia since the early days of prohibition when the police of the time took it upon themselves to implement the “containment policy”.

They decided who could operate and where. Individual workers had to be photographed and registered with the vice squad, right up until 2006, and a curfew in Kalgoorlie required sex workers to stay on sex industry business premises from 6pm to 6am.

The WA police made their own unwritten laws. The vice squad has officially been dissolved, but there is evidence that police still maintain a register of sex workers. Sex workers don’t know if they are still on the list or how to have their records removed. WA police won't confirm if it exists or where it is held.

Sex workers don’t need rescuing

This is bad enough, but Liberal MP Nick Goiran and other more hard-line Liberal politicians have said they do not think Barnett’s plan goes far enough.

They want nothing less than a full-scale crackdown on sex workers’ human rights. Some have proposed implementing the “Swedish model” — the criminalisation of all sex worker clients in Western Australia and an extension of the criminalisation of street-based sex workers’ clients in 2000.

Criminalising clients does not eradicate sex work. It drives it underground, undermining sex workers’ health and safety. Thirteen years of criminalising street-based sex workers clients in WA has already proven that.

Those who seek to criminalise clients along “Swedish model” lines insult sex workers by saying that they are helpless victims that need to be rescued. This is a simplistic view that implies that all sex workers are women and all clients are men.

This view attached a more dimension to sex. But if sex is viewed as a physical activity, then sex workers are being paid for manual and often mental labour.

If you view wage labour as exploitative, that’s fine, but don’t single out the sex industry. Sex work clients are of all genders, from all class backgrounds, and they have all kinds of different reasons for choosing to see a sex worker.

Some people say sex workers have “no choice” or “limited choices”. It is the case that some people have to make choices that are difficult or limited, particularly based on class privilege. The sex worker community acknowledges this.

If a person is marginalised and has limited options, it doesn’t help to take away their options — particularly if sex work is their income and source of survival.

Sex workers are campaigning for the enhancement and transformation of working conditions, not the eradication of sex work.

Goiran instead wants to build “re-training” centres for sex workers, modelled on “Linda’s House of Hope”, a WA Catholic Church endeavour that wants to rehabilitate sex workers because they believe they are all drug-addicted or money-addicted naughty girls that need to be saved.

It is an absolute affront to sex workers’ rights, and ignores the research that indicates drug-use among sex workers is about the same as the general population.

Barnett and Goiran are proposing laws that scapegoat sex workers and are unnecessary: coercion, theft, assault, rape, deprivation of liberty, sexual contact with a child — these laws already exist.

Sex workers aren’t selling ourselves, we are selling a service. Same as a masseuse or a hairdresser. We just use different parts of our body for the service.

Please support us in our calls for decriminalisation in both Western Australia and South Australia. Sex work is real work, and sex workers are here to stay, whether the Liberals like it or not.

[Rebecca Davies is a sex worker who has worked in the WA sex industry for seven years, and previously worked as a peer educator at the WA sex worker support service for two years. She is a member of the Scarlet Alliance National Sex Workers Association Executive Committee. Davies would like to acknowledge Socialist Alliance member Farida Iqbal’s contribution to this article.]

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