Proposed reforms to the sex industry in Victoria intended to help women are likely to have the opposite effect, Tegan Larin writes.
The Andrews Labor Government recently announced it will conduct a review to consider the full decriminalisation of sex work in Victoria. Apparently, there has not been a significant review into the sex industry in Victoria since the 1985 Inquiry into Prostitution headed by Marcia Neave.
The Neave report was a thorough examination of the social, economic, legal, and health aspects of prostitution at the time. The reason for the inquiry then, as it is today, was public health, the flourishing massage parlour trade, organised crime, women’s safety, and sexual exploitation. In 1985 Neave made 91 recommendations to the government to improve the situation for people working in the sex industry, mostly women, while at the same time minimising the size of the industry and the harm caused by it.
Many of Neave’s policy recommendations were, and are still, progressive, and they were based on ideas of gender equality and an understanding of sexual objectification and exploitation.
These included an increase in social services such as public housing, welfare, health care, child care, alcohol and drug treatment, community outreach, mental health, employment training, and education. In particular, there were measures to focus on youth, homeless, and other at-risk communities and, importantly, support services available to those who wish to leave the industry.
Neave’s recommendations heralded many of the elements of the legislation later adopted in Nordic countries that decriminalises prostituted people but criminalises purchasers and profiteers.
Unfortunately, the government ignored many of Neave’s recommendations, prompting her to deliver a lecture three years later titled The Failure of Prostitution Law Reform. She criticised the government for making things worse for prostituted people while empowering those who profit from them by making them lawful business owners and sex buyers.
The government continued on its path of prostitution law reform failure when it legalised prostitution as work with the Sex Work Act in 1994. It was recognised that harm and exploitation were rife in the industry and it was thought that regulating prostitution as work would grant sex workers rights, protections and entitlements. The same rights that came with other jobs. This didn’t work.
Prostitution has been regulated as work in Victoria since 1994, and in New South Wales since 1995, yet there has been little to no improvement. Studies of the sex industry in Australian jurisdictions where it is legalised and decriminalised consistently show unacceptable levels of violence and exploitation. Women working under a decriminalised model in Sydney consider murder to be part of the job and regard rape and assault as commonplace.
Some 34 years after the Neave report, the Victorian government finds itself scrambling for solutions, and is now considering the full decriminalisation of the sex industry. If the model being proposed here is anything like that adopted recently in the Northern Territory, then prostitution will be treated as work like any other.
This means that all restrictions on all types of prostitution businesses will be removed. Treating prostitution as work in other jurisdictions has led to the sex industry’s expansion in size and variety, including 12-story mega-brothels and drive-thru sex boxes, and has meant that jobseekers on unemployment benefits have no legal right to refuse work in a brothel.
This year, in a bizarre regression, instead of reducing demand for sexual services by reducing the sexual objectification of women and increasing awareness of the oppression involved in the transaction of commercial sex, as Neave suggested more than 30 years ago, some feminists are siding with pimps and sex industry profiteers.
The few relatively privileged, mostly university educated and white sex workers who feel they have made a free choice to enter the industry are being held up as representative of all women in the sex industry and applauded when they silence the growing survivor movement who are calling for an end to prostitution.
In the #MeToo era, sexual harassment, sexual objectification and gender inequality are being called out everywhere, except for in prostitution. We are abandoning the majority of women in the sex industry who would leave if they could.
Prostitution reform in Victoria failed when the government ignored key recommendations made in the Neave report, it failed again when the government legalised prostitution as work, and it is set to fail once more with the government now considering full decriminalisation.
With human trafficking for sexual exploitation rife in Australia’s sex industry, an estimated 500 illegal brothels in Victoria, as well as the extreme violence that is considered just a part of the job, it is time to return to Neave.
Rather than accepting prostitution as inevitable, Neave urged the government to implement policies that reduce economic and gender inequality and expand employment opportunities for women in order to contract the size of the prostitution industry.
Neave recognised that prostitution “will continue to exist until […] men abandon the view that they are entitled to sexual release at all costs”. We are going backwards when policy that normalises and expands a harmful and exploitative industry based on gender inequality is seen as best practice.