Elena Jeffreys on whether the Left should support stricter regulation of the sex industry

Last month, Overland invited Elena Jeffreys, of Scarlet Alliance, to participate in a debate in our print journal that proposed that the Left should support stricter regulation of the sex industry. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the debate didn’t come to fruition. However, Elena gave us permission to publish her initial argument here on the blog. We invite comments below.

Over-regulation is the problem
Elena Jeffreys

There is nothing ostensibly more or less ‘wrong’ with sex work, porn, stripping, online web cam, phone sex or BD/SM that isn’t wrong with any other industry and workplace under capitalism. Except the over-regulation we face. Those who want to rescue the world from sex work, and the moving and still images that the sex industry produces, are essentially arguing that we, sex workers, should not work in this job. The argument for increased regulation, and the research it quotes, is based upon advocacy. The arguments for decriminalisation are based on evidence (Himel 2010).

To increase regulation the Left would have to criminalise clients (Sweden, now a honey pot for corruption), ban porn (like in Malaysia), give the abolitionists policy jobs in Government (like in the US), filter the internet (like in China), and ignore sex work organising. If you are not supporting decriminalisation of the sex industry, that is, a decrease in the regulation of sex work, then you are not supporting sex worker organising (Harcourt, O’Connor et al 2010).

Sex worker organising is as old as the profession. The current wave of formalised sex worker organising began thirty years ago and is conducted by funded and unfunded member organisations of the sex worker led and run peak body Scarlet Alliance (Saunders 1999). With sex worker organisations, groups and networks in every state and territory in Australia, their combined interactions with sex workers in any given year include over 20 000 individual interactions with sex workers in any given year. All of the staff and volunteers of these groups are sex worker peer educators; current or past sex workers who also do outreach and in-house information exchange and advocacy with members of their own community. This organising is credited for sex worker occupational health and safety, high condom use and the lowest STI and HIV rates in the world. Sex workers are organising for decriminalisation, conservative Governments prefer to install police into our (already) overregulated workplaces. The time is right to ignite the Left’s love affair with sex worker workplace organising – without political compromise or apology.

Marcia Neave in 1986 recommended decriminalisation of the sex industry in Victoria; regulation-heavy licensing was the political compromise. The very active Prostitutes Collective Victoria (PCV) had successfully organised criminalised sex workers; after licensing was introduced a key sex worker organiser moved into the Miscellaneous Workers Union intending to organise a more receptive legal sex industry. It didn’t produce massive numbers of union members and within 18 months the sex worker organiser was dumped by that union. The political compromise was the LHMWU still has demarcation over the industry.

Street-based sex work was almost decriminalised in 2002, with the proposed introduction of safe houses and removal of police from their workplace (AGSPAG, Attorney General’s Street Prostitution Advisory Group). The City of Port Phillip supported decriminalisation but political machinations at a parliamentary level baulked, fearing voter backlash. The political compromise was an arrest referral program.

Scarlet Alliance argued in 2008/09 to a Victorian Labor Government that regulation of sex work should leave the jurisdiction of the Justice Minister for the Health Minister, who should decriminalise, as all evidence shows this is the best system of regulation (Abel, Fitzgerald et al; Collaery 1991; McDonald 2008; Donovan, Harcourt et al, 2010; Harcourt, O’Connor et al 2010; Himel 2010; Jeffreys, Matthews et al 2010). The Labor Government in Victoria said no. The newly elected Liberal Government in Victoria have given the portfolio to the Police Minister.

Sex workers and allies have argued for thirty years that Mandatory HIV and STI testing is discriminatory, not in the interests of public health, not cost effective and should be abolished (Scarlet Alliance 2007; Wilson, Heymer et al. 2009). In 2010 the Labor Government suggested a political compromise of extending testing regimes from one monthly to quarterly. The Liberals have recently scuttled even that political compromise (Medew 2011).

Are you seeing a pattern?

The evidence-based approaches supported by sex worker organisers have been regularly compromised or opposed by political ‘concern’ about whether sex work is a good job or not, harmful or not, electorally safe or not. While sex workers SCREAM for human rights, the Left is confused and the Right hit us where it hurts. Michael Kirby in May 2011 stated the laws surrounding HIV were a paradox, reminding us that the ‘health of the uninfected is best protected by ensuring rights of the affected’. The Left has failed dismally to understand this challenge in relation to sex workers.

Brothel work is now (optimistically) only 50% compliant with the laws in Victoria (Chen, Donovan et al 2010). Many, including sex worker advocates, argue that licensing promotes non-compliance resulting in this two-tiered industry. Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) compliance officers demanded the same powers of entry as police during the 2009 review of sex industry laws and will probably get them. Over-regulation from an enthusiastic Business Licensing Authority (BLA) and CAV has resulted in mandatory HIV and STI testing for licensed brothel workers in Victoria. This is a health policy abomination and a breeding ground for corruption, including but not limited to, corruption by doctors (Donovan, Harcourt et al. 2010).

Migrant sex workers have attracted public ‘concern’ and have been the very worst hit by bad laws and barriers to sex worker organising. Instead of supporting migrant sex workers to organise, the efforts to jail one single case utilised all on the ground resources, spent years of time in court and millions of tax-payers dollars. Various informants from that case were eventually tried themselves. Everyone who was involved had their lives ruined. The sex worker witnesses became expensive objects, ‘helped’ by welfare agencies within an inch of their sanity, waiting, for years, for justice they had never personally fought for. Having been picked up in a raid where they stood to lose their substantive work visa if they didn’t become witnesses for the crown, they had every choice removed from their lives by our criminal justice system; their freedom of movement, their freedom to associate, their ability to simply be, all denied in the name of creating one single inmate. Their work conditions had not been fair. But neither was the way they were treated by the courts, nor the way that not one cent went into sex worker organising.

In 2009 the Victorian organisations that claim to ‘rescue’ sex workers demanded forced entry to sex work workplaces and increased police involvement in the shape of anti-trafficking laws that are Victoria specific. The current Victorian Government will probably deliver it to them. Support for sex worker organising has become a forgotten dream. Instead the focus is on mobilising police and rescuers against sex industry bosses. Meanwhile corruption is rife – like paedophiles volunteering for parish childcare duties, those seeking to exploit sex workers have taken up the anti-sex work trafficking rhetoric with vitriol that make sex workers’ skin crawl. The anti-trafficking head of the Swedish police was jailed for running brothels and assaulting sex workers in his ‘other’ life (Anthony 2010). One of Yarra Council’s supporters of the ‘rescue industry’ is now under investigation for his alleged role as the stand-over man profiting from Asian-run brothels in that area (Heard 2010). Increased regulation causes increased corruption and has decreased opportunities for formal sex worker organising.

Porn workers, strip club workers, private sex workers, small businesses – all face devastatingly over-regulation that is illogical and detrimental to organising. Sex workers are organising against bad workplace practises, but while the entire industry is treated as clandestine, criminalised and undesirable, who is listening? If the Left isn’t listening, who will?

Abel, G., L. Fitzgerald, et al. Taking the crime out of sex work : New Zealand sex workers’ fight for decriminalisation. Bristol, UK ; Portland, OR, Policy Press.
Anthony, A. (2010). Göran Lindberg and Sweden’s dark side. The Guardian. London.
Chen, M. Y., B. Donovan, et al. (2010). “Estimating the number of unlicensed brothels operating in Melbourne.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 34(1): 67 – 71.
Collaery, B. (1991). The sex industry in the Australian Capital Territory : a law reformer’s perspective. Sex industry and public policy, Canberra, ACT.
Donovan, B., C. Harcourt, et al. (2010). “Improving the health of sex workers in NSW: maintaining success.” NSW Public Health Bulletin 21(3-4): 74-77.
Donovan, B., C. Harcourt, et al. (2010). The Sex Industry in Western Australia: a Report to the Western Australian Government National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, The University of New South Wales.
Harcourt, C., J. O’Connor, et al. (2010). “The decriminalisation of prostitution is associated with better coverage of health promotion programs for sex workers.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 34(5): 482-486.
Heard, H. (2010). Senior council officer quits in sex raid. Sunday Herald Sun. Sydney.
Himel, J. (2010). Bedford v. Canada 2010 ONSC 4264. 07-CV-329807 PD1. O. S. C. o. Justice. Canada, Canadian Legal Information Institute.
Jeffreys, E., K. Matthews, et al. (2010). “HIV criminalisation and sex work in Australia.” Reproductive Health Matters 18(35): 129-136.
McDonald, A. (2008). Health experts want sex work decriminalised nationwide. City News. Sydney, Alternative Media Group of Australia.
Medew, J. (2011). Monthly sex worker tests are ridiculous, health experts say. The Age. Melbourne.
Saunders, P. (1999). Successful HIV/AIDS Prevention Strategies in Australia;
The Role of Sex Worker Organizations, Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association: 1-4.
Scarlet Alliance, A. S. W. A. (2007). “Mandatory or compulsory testing of sex workers for HIV and/or sexually transmissible infections in the Australian context.” from http://www.scarletalliance.org.au/library/briefingpaper_mandtest/.
Wilson, D. P., K.-J. Heymer, et al. (2009). “Sex workers can be screened too often: a cost-effectiveness analysis in Victoria, Australia.” Sexually Transmitted Infections(86): 117-125.

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  1. I want to commend Overland for running this and Ms Jeffreys for writing this. I whole-heartedly agree, think sex work should be de-criminalised, and think the Left and feminists should take a strong stand against Christian puritans who now pose as feminists who want to liberate sex workers, without bothering to find out what what they want or trying to support them.

  2. I can only agree with Elena & Michael. It makes me feel uncomfortable when the left and feminists take the puritan side. Women don’t need to be saved from themselves. We just need decent working conditions, whatever industry we work in.

  3. An excellent argument, which lays it all out, excuse the pun, which is basic common sense. And yet, people still intellectualise it, such as a recent argument at the Sydney Writers Festival (Porn Wars) which I think is still available on their site, where I thought some fairly right wing attitudes were being paraded about, masquerading as feminism and overlooking some basic facts such as workplace conditions. Let’s face, it ain’t going nowhere folks. And yet some issues need to be addressed. This is succinct and refreshing. Thanks for the article and for posting.

  4. I support sex workers organising. But I don’t see it as a job, more an exploitative occupation (whether sex workers say their not)carried out by many who cannot get or obtain other work for various reasons. This article never mentioned the context of oppression that many face under capitalism. And there are significant workplace issues ie, where prostitution takes place. This issue can have an negative effect on people who are not involved ie neighbours, esp in boarding houses; constant streams of people etc. These are not questions that can be ignored.

  5. kerry, regarding your disgust of living near a brothel, you are more likely to be in proximity of child abuse if you live near a church.

    sex workers say their work is not more or less exploitative than other kinds of work. Its up to the rest of the left to listen, and not judge.

    Being pro-sex work doesn’t make you a heartless capitalist.

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