Presented at Amnesty International, National Human Rights Forum, Melbourne, 5th July 2014
Zahra Stardust & Jane Green
We would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation, and pay respect to their Elders both past and present.
We would also like to recognise the sex workers, past and present, in the room today, including those who cannot be out.
Scarlet Alliance is the Australian Sex Workers’ Association. We are the national peak body representing individual sex workers, sex worker networks, groups, community-based organisations and projects around Australia, and we were formed in 1989. Scarlet Alliance is 25 years old.
We are a peer organisation, meaning that all our staff, volunteers, Executive and members are past or present sex workers. We have a policy to exclude owners and operators of sex industry businesses from our membership. This means we only represent sex workers. We do not represent any industry or business interests.
Each year we hold a National Forum and Annual General Meeting, and sex workers from all over the country attend. There we develop key policies, hold workshops and elect an Executive Committee, trans and gender diverse representatives, a male representative and an international spokesperson. Scarlet Alliance has the highest level of contact with sex workers in Australia of any agency, government or non-government. We have multicultural and culturally linguistically diverse project workers and a migration project. Our extensive consultation processes mean that our policies are evidence-based and reflect the core issues affecting sex workers in Australia. Decriminalisation is a policy supported by our membership.
There is a strong history in Australia of others speaking on behalf of marginalised people, particularly sex workers, and purporting to know what’s best for us. Academics refer to this as the ‘rescue industry.’ On the surface this may appear well-intentioned. But this has resulted in misguided policies that injure and endanger sex workers. Many of these organisations quote studies contaminated by ideology, with flawed methodology, by authors who have systemically vilified sex workers and trans and gender diverse people. Exit programs are funded at the expense of health promotion and service delivery. Criminalisation is prioritised instead of anti-discrimination law. Our clients are stigmatised while police harassment is celebrated. Moral agendas seek to invisibilise us and abolish our work. Non-sex workers are given speaking space to promote laws that will hurt us, while sex workers are forced to defend ourselves. This is not an environment that is safe for sex workers. It does not assist sex workers. We do not need rescue. We need rights. (You can follow the international sex worker hash tag #rightsnotrescue on Twitter).
In Australia, every state or territory has a different model of sex work regulation. There are 3 main types: criminalisation, licensing, and decriminalisation. This means that in Australia we are well placed to measure the success and failures of these models, and our assessment is that decriminalisation is best. As one sex worker said about NSW, ‘During the criminalised period, workers had to pay police officers money to make sure they didn’t get arrested. Decriminalisation meant an end to corruption.’
There is a concerted push in Australia to adopt what is referred to as the Swedish/Nordic model. Although it purports to criminalise the purchase but not the selling of sexual services, the Swedish Model effectively acts as backdoor criminalisation of sex work. It shifts focus away from rights-based approaches that actually assist current sex workers. It does not help sex workers, and it does not stop sex work.
The Swedish/Nordic model reflects the inaccurate assumption that clients are male perpetrators and that sex workers are female victims. This is untrue of the demographic of sex workers worldwide, and marginalises male, trans and gender diverse sex workers. Sex work is not inherently violent. Across the world, sex workers consistently report that the violence we face is overwhelmingly at the hands of police and governments, rather than clients.
The Swedish model criminalising the purchase of sex was introduced in 1999 in Sweden. It criminalises everyone around sex workers. In Sweden, it is illegal to rent a room to a sex worker, reducing sex workers ability to work independently. Adult children of sex workers living at home with their parents have been charged with living off the earnings of prostitution. Sex workers cannot work together or they risk being charged with pimping each other. Sex workers cannot advertise or hire drivers, receptionists or security. The model has driven sex work underground, increased harassment and displacement of street-based sex workers, forced people into more isolated areas, and reduced sex workers control over their working environments.
The Swedish Model has been completely ineffective in reducing the size of the sex industry. In 2007 the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare said there was no clear trend of development as to whether sex work had increased or decreased.The Swedish Government’s 2010 Official Evaluation notes that they have only limited information about indoor sex work. In 2001 the Malmo police reported that there was no evidence that the law had reduced violence, rather there was evidence it had increased.
It is impossible to criminalise clients and decriminalise sex workers. When you criminalise our clients, you criminalise us. Under the Swedish Model, police detection and surveillance is on both the client and the sex worker, but sex workers experience the brunt of corruption.
The wilful blindness towards evidence in Australia has led to four politicians recently taking a 3-week tax-payer-funded tour of up to $70,000 to France, Sweden and South Korea to study models that have consistently failed. They did not meet any sex workers on their tour and instead met with police and criminal prosecutors. They refused an invitation by Scarlet Alliance and SWOP to tour NSW and experience the decriminalised model.
Instead they have looked toward South Korea, who enacted anti-sex work laws in 2004 resulting in increased law and order crackdowns targeting sex workers, including police forcibly and violently shutting down workplaces. The Korean Government recently sent its special ambassador to Canberra with view to obtaining support from the Australian Government in tracking down Korean sex workers in order to prosecute them. Korean sex workers have reported being too afraid to go to work for fear of identification and prosecution. These models do not support the rights, health or safety of sex workers.
In comparison, sex work is decriminalised in NSW. Decriminalisation involves: Removing police as regulators of the sex industry; Repealing criminal laws specific to the sex industry; Regulating sex industry businesses through standard business, planning and industrial codes; and not singling out sex workers for specific regulation. Decriminalisation is a whole-of-government approach to regulation.
One of the catalysts for decriminalisation was the findings of the Wood Royal Commission that there was systemic police corruption when police were regulators of brothels. Sex work has been decriminalised since 1995 – nearly 20 years – and NSW is world-renowned as having a best practice model. The outcomes of decriminalisation in NSW are:
– Extremely low rates of STIs and HIV (recognised by Australia’s National Strategies and the Kirby Institute Annual Surveillance Report);
– Better access to health promotion (finding of the Law and Sex Worker Health Study, which compared the health impacts of legal frameworks across Victoria, NSW and WA);
– Little to no amenity impacts (recognised by Crofts and Prior);
– No evidence of organised crime (recognised by the Land and Environment Court);
– Better access to Occupational Health and Safety (WorkCover and NSW Health worked with sex workers to create Health and Safety Guidelines for Brothels, which have been translated to Thai, Chinese and Korean); and
– No increase in the size of the sex industry (Kirby Institute report to Ministry of Health).
Around the world, sex workers are advocating for decriminalisation. In 2013 experts from a dozen countries met in Sydney for a decriminalisation conference, including nearly 50 sex workers, community leaders, human rights activists, advocates and politicians from Africa, Asia Pacific, North America and Europe.
United Nations bodies recognise decriminalisation as best practice:
- Australia, as a signatory to the 2011 United Nations Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, has committed to protect and promote human rights and the elimination of stigma and discrimination for sex workers as a critical element in combating the global HIV epidemic.
- The UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work 2009 recognises that criminalisation poses substantial obstacles in accessing HIV prevention, treatment and support.
- The United Nations Population Fund, United Nations Development Fund and UNAIDS support the decriminalisation of sex work and note that legal empowerment of sex worker communities underpins effective HIV Responses.
- United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon calls for change in countries where discrimination remains legal against sex workers.
- Former Australian High Court judge the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG insists upon rights for sex workers as a matter of public morality.
- Australia’s National HIV Strategy recognises the protection of human rights to be ‘essential’ to the effective protection of public health.
Decriminalisation is not controversial. It is not even new. It makes sense – from a policy perspective, health perspective and human rights perspective.
Sex worker human rights are intrinsically linked to sex workers’ ability to negotiate with clients, and to access essential services and satisfactory workplace conditions.
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work. The International Labour Organisation’s Employment Policy Convention 122 provides that there is freedom of choice of employment and the fullest opportunity for workers to use their skills in jobs for which they are well suited.
Sex worker law reform should not be pitched as a polarised debate. There are not 2 sides to this issue. Sex workers are the key stakeholders. We are the ones who have most to lose. No situation is made worse by greater access to human rights.
Decriminalisation of sex work is compatible with and necessary to Amnesty’s campaigns to promote human rights and end violence. Violence against sex workers is enabled by criminalisation. It is enabled by the Swedish Model. It enabled by a lack of human rights and labour rights.
If we experience violence at work, we should be able to go to the police and access justice, without fear of arrest or deportation. If we experience unfair working conditions, we should be able to go to Fair Work Australia, and know that they will take our concerns seriously. We deserve to have Occupational Health and Safety protections in our workplaces. Decriminalisation is the only model to afford us human rights and labour rights as other citizens – we deserve nothing less.