What to do about the sex trade

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.

SJ Finn

SJ Finn is an Australian writer whose fiction and poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and Australian newspapers. Her latest novel is Down to the River. She can be found at sjfinn.com.

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  1. Thanks for this post – very disturbing (and angry-making) “I am so opposed to the exclusion of the sex workers’ voices from the process – ” Yes.

  2. I’m glad that you think that, really. Such a serious topic after such a high from the last post. And you’ve picked out the exact point of it.

    1. I think the two posts go very well together and are deeply connected. I’m of the understanding that long, long ago sex-workers were perceived as healers: serving humanity on a deeply spiritual level. These issues are very human and the diversity of the ‘punter’ also seems to be ignored (and not just that they’re ‘all men’). Humane, not punative, answers need to be found. I don’t have any of them … but some of the men and women truly involved, just might.

        1. Absolutely Clare, and it can’t just be a tokenistic consultation, their voices have to be taken on with the appropriate weight. There are answers. The Scarlet Alliance holds many of them. So hopefully in Australia this issue will not be hijacked by those from the ‘outside’ who often have different agendas and are under different pressures, like politicians, who may be appeasing their electorate.

  3. Thanks Finn, great post. Nothing could be more damaging to prostitutes than laws that send prostitution underground. And I agree, it’s utterly absurd and shocking to think that prostitutes can’t speak on their own behalf.

    But here’s a stat that shocked me a couple of years ago… still does today:

    Victoria’s legal sex industry is one of the busiest in the world. In 2005, there were 60,000 visits to legal brothels a week adding up to 3.1 million a year (WHIN)

    1. When I was doing the reading for this post the point that came up again and again was that the opinion of the average person, not to mention those who employ the services of the sex workers, think even less of those providing the services, now that, certainly in Sweden, they might get charged with an offence. As for going underground, there’s also the phenomenon of displacement. There are reports of sex services opening up in Finland that are set up specifically for Swedish males.
      Basically from what I can gather, the laws, while appearing to have made some difference on the surface (sex shops have closed and there are fewer prostitutes on the street) nothing has really altered. In fact many are of the opinion that the industry HAS gone underground, as you suggest, and that sex workers are worse off.

  4. A couple of years agi I was researching a uni Politics assignment about colonisation. While slavery was officially abolished in Britain in 1807, the movement from historical to contemporary forms of slavery has been supported by corruption, “…concealment and official denial.”(1). One result has been the billion dollar growth industry of people trafficking which “…increases the vulnerability and desperation of the poor, refugees and migrants, and women and children.”(2).

    (1) Edkins, Jenny and Zehfuss, Maja (eds) Global Politics: An introduction (Oxon: Routledge, 2009). p. 246.
    (2) Catholic Relief Services| http://crs.org/public-policy/in_depth.cfm Accessed 17 August.

    It would be great to find a way to get this issue out in the open with all voices being welcome at the table.

  5. Thanks for the link and reference, Olga. Good to see Catholic Relief Services are trying to do something. The Salvo’s have also put their hands up to at least raise awareness about the issue. There’s been connections made between the end of official slavery and the new unofficial trafficking of slaves that seems exponentially to have blossomed since then. But being aware of it is one thing, stopping it however, means a determined effort by all, almost a total change of consciousness you could say. As far as bringing all voices to the table, that is certainly the first step and one we should call for if any debate were to occur.

  6. Thank you for writing this and for pointing out (what should be) the bleeding obvious – sex workers MUST be consulted on sex industry issues. It seems such a simple concept, but thanks to age-old myths and stereotypes, and people like Sheila Jeffreys discrediting and silencing sex worker voices, individual sex workers and groups like Scarlet Alliance are being actively ignored. For example: the WA Attorney-General, currently considering sex industry law reform, stated in the media that he would NOT be taking into account the needs of sex workers and that “the wishes of the prostitution industry are not [his] primary concern”. In what other instance of industrial reform would the workers of that industry be excluded from the consultation process? Grrr.

    I do have to nit-pick something in your piece, though. You quoted Bob Wallace on the dangers of “holding sex workers out as victims”, but comments like “[the need to be] offering pathways for them out of that work” and suggesting sex workers have only a “small morsel of control” reinforce the myth that sex work is something sex workers are trapped in and want/need to escape. While there are certainly sex workers who would rather be doing something else (as is the case for many employees in many other occupations), there are also sex workers who find great satisfaction in their work and resent being effectively told to ‘get a haircut and get a real job’. Also, the idea that sex workers need specialised assistance to find alternative work is quite patronising and denies their intelligence and agency.

    In advocacy for sex workers, as with other marginalised groups, there are two very distinct ‘sides’… those who SUPPORT sex workers and those who want to HELP sex workers. Wanting to HELP is a noble gesture, but it suggests those advocates haven’t actually listened to sex workers, because sex workers are not asking for help. Offering SUPPORT – taking the lead from sex worker activists, acknowledging the political/industrial expertise of sex workers and demanding that their choices and voices be respected – is much more ‘helpful’.

    Not that I am criticising you, personally! Just raising the issue for your readers. Thanks again for your piece. Apologies for waffling on. 🙂

  7. No need for apologies. Great comment. And, yes, despite my gauche language, I’m definitely in SUPPORT of sex workers and aren’t out to help them. I won’t shy away from the fact that my job where SOME of the sex workers I see want such options as ‘pathways out’ available to them has probably had some part in my lapse. The thing about that is though, they are often grappling with other issues in their lives and make up only a small proportion of sex workers. I need to pull myself up on letting my language stray.
    I’m appalled at the WA Attorney General, but have the awful feeling that there is more of the same to come in other states. Very nice of you to jump in here, Ashkara. You improved the discussion markedly.

  8. I think it is vital that prostitutes and others in the sex business have a strong voice.The hypocrysy of this society towards this group is a travesty that all adults in this culture are in some way responsible for.The parcel of rogues that we call politicians will never have the courage to bring in legislation that is of benefit to the workers as well as their clients who are often portrayed as monsters. Sex is not going to go away and it’s about time we grew up as a community and left the men in frocks in their draughty domains to sing their praises to each other and keep well away from the private lives of the people. I have attempted on a number of occasions to open the topic and usually only a heavy silence is the response. Well done all of you who are interested and attempting to highlight the situation of these workers.

  9. Love: “it’s about time we grew up as a community and left the men in frocks in their draughty domains to sing their praises to each other and keep well away from the private lives of the people.” Couldn’t agree more, especially as I think there’s a lot more going on than singing in those draughty domains.
    But, yes, on a serious note the level of hypocrisy in regard to sectors of the community lording-it over others is almost too much to bear sometimes. I’m not sure how in the near future – like many things deemed immoral – there is going to be any truly representative discussion.

  10. Finn: “I won’t shy away from the fact that my job where SOME of the sex workers I see want such options as ‘pathways out’ available to them has probably had some part in my lapse”.

    No, it was me who had the lapse there! Sorry about that. My snark was directed at exit and re-training policies applied to the whole sex industry, where no distinction is made between those who want help and those who don’t. In some jurisdictions, sex workers are even forced to choose between prison or ‘rehabilitation’. It’s incredibly insulting and treats sex workers as one big homogenous group, with identical support and education needs.

    But I didn’t mean to suggest that *no* sex workers need help. It’s great that there is assistance out there for individuals who ask for it, and even better than there are supportive, non-judgemental people like yourself to provide it.

  11. Any meaningful dialogue or dignified approach in regard to sex workers here in Melbourne is in its infancy and hampered by the sort of overarching views and approaches that you’re alluding to. I’m not sure where you’re situated – perhaps in WA? – but something that’s been a step forward, albeit tiny, for street sex workers here has been the establishment of a special court. The court sits exclusively to hear the charges against these workers and while the outcomes may not be all that different to normal proceedings, there is less innuendo and disrespect ‘thrown’ around when appearances are made. The magistrates presiding are better educated about the reality of some of the issues surrounding the workers’ charges and, generally speaking, don’t want to make their experience of being charged more unnecessarily painful than it has to be.
    That being said, the fact we need such a count, or that sex workers are even in such a court only indicates how upside down our whole system is. Moralistic and judgemental assertions have only ever led to blind and dangerous outcomes for those accused of creating whatever is being condemned. Yet we continue down that path calling, even more absurdly, our actions civilised.

    1. Interesting thread, thank you. The idea of this court and the fact that it has even been conceived & is necessary reflects the age-old oppression-tactic of ‘reputation’ and ‘the fall’ – the curse of The Church. Maybe rape-cases could be heard there as well?

      Again and again I come back to the idea that the Women’s revolution needs to be taught and addressed just like the French/Russian/Chinese/Industrial etc. Grr.

    2. Yeah, I’m in WA, but I’m aware of Victoria’s special court. The court is an excellent example of what you talked about in your post – working closely with sex worker groups to identify needs and address issues that are specific to sex workers. Very sad that they are still being dragged into court at all, though.

      Unfortunately, as in many Australian states, Victorian sex industry representation is being diluted by non-peer employment policies in sex worker projects and the rise in funding/influence of abolitionist groups. Where sex worker voices are silenced, Governments will continue to make unworkable laws based on stereotypical ideas of what sex work entails, rather than addressing the problems that actually exist.

  12. Yeah, kind of absurd that we have to pick out people from a group of educated professionals who can understand the sort of prejudices others may live under. And I couldn’t agree more in regard to the teaching of the Women’s revolution. In fact I think it should be on the curriculum in schools. A few of the misconceptions about women having equal rights, not to mention the term post-feminist era, might be sorted out.

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