Victoria’s last consideration of its laws on sex work began in 1985 with a Planning Department Working Group followed by the Neave Inquiry into Prostitution which resulted in the Prostitution Regulation Act 1986 and later, the Sex Work Act 1994. Indoor sex work became legal for registered sex workers and in licensed brothels.
At the time I was coordinator of the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, the PCV. It was originally formed as a lobby group for sex workers rights, but by 1985 the PCV had developed into a shopfront service providing health education and support services to sex workers in brothels, streets and escort agencies. Based in Inkerman Street St Kilda, our nascent organisation was pioneering rights based harm reduction and peer support services that have since become standard. This was happening in the context of HIV/AIDS as a frightening new reality. Because education, clean needles and condoms were the only ways to prevent HIV it was both crucial and urgent to get these tools to the people who would need them most. By funding organisations of gay men, people who use drugs and sex workers to do this important work despite the inevitable moral objections, Australian governments prevented a much larger HIV epidemic. By 1987 there were sex workers rights organisations in all states. Fiona Patten led the one in Canberra. In 1988 we came together as the Scarlet Alliance.
In this challenging environment the Neave Inquiry threw open the ‘question’ of ‘prostitution’ so that every possible opinion about how to stop or control it poured in from churches, feminist groups, medical associations, residents groups and others. The PCV submission was among them. It set out sex workers’ arguments for decriminalisation which remain relevant today. It argued against law that organised the sex industry into two tiers – registered sex workers/licensed brothels that are legal and unregistered premises which are illegal. On strong authority we argued that registration and mandatory STI and HIV testing of sex workers is both a human rights violation and bad public health policy. We said it would simultaneously lead to over testing of those who don’t need it and alienate those who do. Sadly that was exactly what emerged from the political process following the Inquiry. While some brothels were made legal, most forms of sex work remained criminal and requirements that sex workers register and submit to regular medical examination were introduced.
Our work at the PCV with sex workers of all genders who were using drugs, migrants, queer, or indigenous informed our warning that ‘vulnerablity will cluster in the illegal sector’. I also remember accurately forecasting that the illegal sector would expand quickly because sex workers would ‘vote with their feet’ against the repressive conditions and low pay that would emerge in legal sector where bosses held all the power thanks to the new law.
Nevertheless, round one of sex work law reform in Victoria felt like a bit of a victory, or at least a move in the right direction. Soon after I left Australia to work in global health on sex work programming and policy in developing countries.
Fast forward to 2020. I’m in Melbourne for summer at the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University. COVID arrives and I can’t leave the country but I am thrilled to hear that Victoria will review its sex work legislation and the reasons to believe that Victoria will finally get it right occur to me immediately. These are my reasons for my optimism.
- The Labour Party has adopted policy that sex work should be decriminalised. The terms of reference are to consider how sex work should be decriminalised not whether it should be.
- Fiona Patten. Over the years quite a few sex workers and porn stars have been elected to parliaments and some have even introduced law reform bills on sex issues. However few have sustained successes. Fiona’s career and parliamentary record show her to be both respected and effective.
- Thirty years of legal brothels in Victoria has eroded stigma which should avert the public alarm that sex work law reform can set off.
- A great deal of history has unfolded since the 1980s that means that much more is understood about sex work. The factors that link sex work with violence, poor health, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and substance abuse are known. Strategies for de-linking them have been tried and tested in New Zealand and New South Wales and some other more distant countries.
- HIV is now both preventable and manageable and Victoria has a very small and contracting HIV epidemic.
- The political tide has turned globally with organisations such as Amnesty International and United Nations agencies formally supporting decriminalisation of sex work.
Of course there are still significant barriers. Decriminalisation should mean the end of mandatory quarterly HIV and STI testing of sex workers. However despite very low incidence of HIV or STIs among sex workers, governments forcibly testing sex workers (particularly women) remains popular.
People are rightly concerned about trafficking and sexual exploitation. However there is strong evidence to support sex workers rights activists’ claims that criminal laws against sex work exacerbate trafficking rather than providing any protection from it.
Certainly there is no suggestion that decriminalisation will erode the power of police to identify genuine trafficking victims or abused minors in any setting.
There can be a misconception that decriminalisation will make the sex industry a ‘free for all’ – that there will be soliciting and pornographic ads in streets, brothels opening up wherever they like and jobs as a sex work on offer at Centrelink. This is absolutely not the case. In fact the main task of the Review is to find which regulations will fit the sex industry. This is not straightforward at all. Inappropriate regulations can be as counterproductive as criminal law. It is essential that the Review’s recommendations on regulation are informed by very careful listening to sex workers from all sectors of the industry.
It was a bitter pleasure to be able to say ‘we told you so’ as the predicted mess of Victoria’s two tier legalised sex industry emerged after the reform that began in the 80s. Hopefully in decades to come current sex worker rights advocates will be able to say ‘we told you so’ when it is clear that decriminalisation circa 2020 has meant sex workers living and working without stigma, discrimination and abuse.