Last year a friend invited me to what I thought was going to be a lecture by the outspoken feminist Professor Sheila Jeffreys titled: ‘Prostitution in St. Kilda, How The Law Has Failed Sex Workers.’ Given I see many of these sex workers through my job at St Kilda Crisis Centre – not to mention my interest in the topic – I jumped at the chance to hear what I thought was going to be a dissertation on our inability to run a proper and tightly regulated sex industry; one that provides protection for women and men who work in it and offers pathways for them out of that work. What was delivered, however, by a PhD student (Professor Jeffreys sitting stolidly beside her) turned out to be in utter contradiction to that, and infuriated me to the point of explosion – not a great place to get to when a cool head is required to provide a counterargument. The young female PhD candidate presented information on her nascent paper about trauma caused to the residents of a certain street in St Kilda, a street I myself had lived in for 12 years, that has what you could call a vibrant street-sex trade. Her premise was that residents had reported such trauma from witnessing the activities of the trade in their street; it was reason alone for prostitution to be outlawed. She cited interviews she’d done with these residents, including a husband who had lost his sex drive and a child who grew into a delinquent because of what he’d seen.
Apart from the dubious nature of claiming such interviews with aggrieved people as research, there was little theorising in regard to phenomenological methodology that might make them worthy of being held up as research in the first place. Still, with almost self-righteous aplomb, she asserted that they should be added to evidence that meant the only way to proceed in regard to the sex trade was to follow Sweden’s example and make it illegal to allow punters to buy sex. Indeed, until 1999 it was legal both to buy and sell sex in Sweden, although brothels were banned, as was profiting from the sexual labour of others and the advertising of sexual services. Since January of that year however, it also became a crime to pay for sex. Casting prostitutes as the victims of the sex trade, the idea of the law is that it shifts the blame onto those who pay for sex. (In the literature about the law, they’re all deemed to be men. It seems, in Sweden at least, women don’t buy sex.) Supporters of the law, currently leading to about 50 convictions a year, say the legislation is about handling demand. But to claim these laws have led to successful outcomes is a naive and problematic assertion. This blanket approach has many critics, including prostitutes themselves, who say that any claim stating there has been a fall in the number of prostitutes, is a mistaken reading. They say the trade has merely gone underground and online, putting sex workers in greater danger. Meanwhile, back home, because of negligence and corruption, the sex trade is booming. Like other countries around the world, it’s associated with human trafficking and gross exploitation of individuals. So how do we proceed at this point in regard to the question of the sex trade? In the introduction to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into human trafficking for the purpose of sex work, Judy Maddigan states:
The majority of Victorians would be horrified if they knew that women are trafficked to Australia for sexual purposes. However, little investigation has been done in this area; evidence in this field is scanty and the victims are often unwilling to speak because of fear of deportation.
The reality is that human trafficking is happening, at rates impossible to estimate, all over the planet, including in countries such as Sweden. On both ends of the scale, from blanket-approach laws to no laws at all, the option of knowing what’s going on and having control over it becomes more and more distant, as with most things we legislate against. Following the case of a 12-year-old girl being prostituted to 100 men in Tasmania, it’s perhaps understandable that a Christian lobby group is urging the Tasmanian Premier to review the Sex Industry Offences Act 2005 in an effort to push for the Swedish laws to be taken up in Australia. But to do so without considering the experiences and situations of sex workers is irresponsible. I am so opposed to the exclusion of the sex workers’ voices from the process – something that Professor Sheila Jeffreys ostensibly considers they are incapable of giving because of their conditioning – that I view it as absolutely against every feministic tenet around. Swedish feminist and author Petra Östergren agrees:
If equal rights for women is important, then the experience of sex workers themselves must surely be central to our discussion, regardless of what position one takes on prostitution.
You might as well know: I neither made my points well that night around the table at Melbourne Uni, nor did I behave graciously. My only excuse is that I was appalled to think that the small morsel of control a woman living a difficult and marginalised lifestyle had was being further ignored and marginalised by one of the so-called leaders in the feminist field. To get some of the good oil on all this, I’d direct you to an expansive report commissioned by the Queensland State Government discussing the Swedish Approach and citing much about its greatest Australian supporter, Professor Sheila Jeffreys. In which, Mr. Bob Wallace, principal policy officer of the Prostitution Licensing Authority, wrote:
Holding sex workers out as victims is not only inherently disempowering, but reinforces community stereotypes about sex workers being drug dependent and forced into prostitution by ‘pimps’. This only contributes to the further marginalisation and alienation of sex workers from society and to the stigma and discrimination that they experience
Well worth a read.