Would you like sex with that?
By Philippa Stanford
Prostitution is once again in the media spotlight in South Australia. There are presently four prostitution law reform bills due to discussed by state parliament when it next sits, in March.
Increasing the interest in the issue is the possible candidature of local brothel owner Stormy Summers for the position of Adelaide Lord Mayor. Summers is campaigning for the legalisation of prostitution.
The four draft bills are the Summary Offences (Prostitution) Amendment Bill, the Prostitution (Licensing) Bill, the Prostitution (Registration) Bill, and the Prostitution (Regulation) Bill. Their proposals range from stricter penalties for prostitution to a form of loose regulation of prostitution businesses.
All four bills were developed by a cabinet committee of ministers whose portfolios relate to prostitution. The Liberal government ministers have not consulted with the sex industry, either with the Sex Industry Network (SIN), which works with prostitutes, or with the Sex Reform Association (SRA), which represents brothel owners, even although both groups support legislative reform.
Similar to the approach taken to bills regarding abortion, MPs will be allowed to vote according to their conscience, rather than party line.
The present law
While there is considerable disagreement over the proposed changes, it is clear that the current laws — the Summary Offences Act and the Criminal Law Consolidation Act — need reforming.
The laws are discriminatory, penalising only the prostitute, not the client. They don't differentiate in penalty between the people managing and taking the profits from a prostitution business and the employee, nor do they protect children from exposure to prostitution.
Offences are defined so broadly and vaguely that prostitutes' family members could be charged with an offence. The acts allow regular police raids on brothels.
SA police have resorted to using out-of-date search warrants to conduct raids. Late last year, police were forced to drop about 125 prostitution-related charges because the Department of Public Prosecutions determined that police had misused search warrants to gather evidence.
According to SIN, "The present legal situation has proven that sex workers will continue to work in ways that suit them, even in the face of harsh penalties. Law reform, allowing some to work legally and not others, is not going to stop everyone from having to work illegally. This also means the continuation of the evidentiary use of condoms and other safe-sex tools as common police practice, which endangers the health of sex workers."
Figures from SIN confirm that prostitution has not been curbed by current laws. Adelaide has about 300 prostitutes, of whom 25% are male. There are about 100 brothels, around 20 in the CBD and 60 within five kilometres of the city, with the larger city brothels having around 15 to 20 employees.
The four proposals
The harshest of the four proposals on offer is the Summary Offences (Prostitution) Amendment Bill. It is based on a "criminal sanctions model" — if passed, this bill will ensure that prostitution is more effectively criminalised.
Under the remaining three bills, prostitution will, to varying degrees, be lawful and regulated by special planning, advertising and public health provisions and will be subject to the same state and commonwealth regulation as any other lawful industry. In each of these bills, it would not be lawful to conduct or to take part in a prostitution business as a child or an incorporated body. Soliciting would be an offence, for which both the prostitute and the client are liable.
Under all the bills, the heaviest sanctions for unlawful prostitution are imposed on those who own or operate businesses, or who have a real interest in or influence over the business. This would make the people who actually control the industry responsible for the industry's management.
The Prostitution (Licensing) Bill would make it lawful to operate, participate in or use the services of a prostitution business if the business meets licensing and registration standards. The bill requires that both the business and operator be registered.
The least regulated option is the Prostitution (Regulation) Bill, which would make it lawful for an adult person who has not been convicted of a prescribed offence to operate or participate in a prostitution business. As a lawful industry, under this bill, a sex business would be subject to all the controls applying to other businesses, as well as some extra controls relating to advertising, planning and sexual health.
It would be lawful to use and pay for the services of a prostitute and the bill would guarantee workers in lawful sex businesses the same industrial and occupational health and safety rights as other workers.
This is clearly the best of the bills and is favoured by SIN. But while it is an improvement on the current laws, it is not as satisfactory as complete decriminalisation.
One of the most vocal on the issue has been Stormy Summers, who has been advocating legalisation of the industry. Summers is president of the Sex Reform Association (SRA), which also favours licensing.
Echoing the conservatives who moralise about prostitution in public places, Summers was quoted in the Adelaide City Messenger on February 2 as saying, "Licensing is the only way that owners can be vetted. It is only through stricter licensing, not loose regulation, that brothels can be kept in areas away from residents, schools and churches. Anything less means decriminalisation and 'open slather', allowing for street workers and brothels in inappropriate areas."
In the same article, Summers expresses her excitement about the prospects for legalisation, not because it will improve conditions for prostitutes, but because she plans to franchise her brothels. She told the Messenger, "My name is worth $1 million now. I would be worth $5 million if it [the industry] is legalised. I would franchise it like Hungry Jack's or McDonald's."
As SIN representative Serena Mawulisa points out, SRA represents owners with big business interests.
In contrast to the SRA and Stormy Summers, SIN wants legislation that will allow flexibility and choice for sex workers, whose safety and well-being should be maximised in any changes to the law.
SIN is concerned that members of parliament often try to mould the industry to fit their ideas on discretion, morality and security. The legislators then make laws favouring brothels or escort agencies because they want to keep individual prostitutes out of residential zones.
SIN would like to see small operators allowed to work from residential premises that are not necessarily their homes. Allowing solo operators to only work from home can jeopardise prostitutes' privacy and safety.
In Victoria, pushing private workers out of residential zones ultimately favoured larger brothels, such as the Daily Planet (now floated on the stock exchange), rather than individuals or collectives who might want to work from home. Under this system of heavily regulated, legalised prostitution, two-thirds of the sex industry still operates illegally. Obviously, this was not a law reform success story.
Alternately, legislators will make laws against the owning or managing of a business, except solo operators, because of fears of "pimps and madams" using exploitative stand-over tactics against employees. In Queensland, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption, prostitution laws were changed to allow only private individuals to operate. This was to prevent corrupt police from being involved in brothel management.
The result, however, was that prostitutes, barred from employing receptionists or security staff, were made totally vulnerable and there was an increase in robberies, bashings, rapes and murders.
The government has not indicated a preference for any of the four bills on offer and it is possible that parliament will split in four directions. This and the "conscience vote" reduce the chance of any bill getting through parliament. If this happens, prostitutes in SA will continue to face police harassment, fines and discrimination.