Canberra needs to follow the Swedish model and provide exit programs for prostituted women.
Caroline Norma, a valued contributor to the MTR blog, wrote this piece in response to an article in The Canberra Times March 6 (‘Sex trade eyes the suburbs’) about sex industry pressure for less regulation and more brothels to expand Canberra’s sex trade. The Canberra Times didn’t seem to think it worth publishing. Fortunately ABC Drum Unleashed did - I reprint here with permission. Caroline is a lecturer in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University in Melbourne and a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. She will also have a chapter in the forthcoming Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry (Spinifex Press), which I’m co-editing with Dr Abigail Bray.
Review into prostitution must benefit women not business
The ACT government is currently reviewing its 1992 Prostitution Act, and has called for public submissions. Not surprisingly, the sex industry has been quick to submit its wishlist on prostitution, and Phillip Thomson’s article in The Canberra Times nicely summarises the demands the industry is currently making of the ACT government. These include:
- Normalise prostitution as a legitimate business activity by removing zoning restrictions on brothels that are currently relegated to industrialised areas
- Open up more opportunities for organised escort prostitution networks by lifting the one-person ‘sole-operator’ restriction for prostitution businesses operating outside of industrial areas
- Remove official registration requirements for one-person ‘sole-operator’ prostitution businesses
Through lobby organisations like the EROS Foundation and ACT SWOP in Canberra, the sex industry pursues its demands under the rhetoric of ‘safety for sex workers’. This rhetoric runs along the following lines:
- Women risk danger if they must commute to brothels in industrial areas, because these areas are ‘dark’ and unpopulated at night
- Women risk danger if they must operate prostitution businesses as one-person ‘sole-operators’ from home, because they can’t employ drivers to act as security guards
- Women risk exposure and social discrimination if they must register with government as ‘sex workers’
While the sex industry pursues its business aims under the rhetorical guise of ‘safety for sex workers’, its profits are derived from the sexual degradation and exploitation of society’s most vulnerable people. Research shows overwhelmingly that people in prostitution suffer rates of post-traumatic stress disorder equal to that of war veterans. So, it’s unlikely the industry gives a damn about the personal security, integrity and individual growth of the women it sells as live sex dolls. Notably, the industry is not lobbying the ACT government to set up ‘exit’ programs to assist women to leave prostitution if they wish. The industry’s real agenda is obscured by its ‘safety for sex workers’ rhetoric, but understanding this agenda is important if any changes are going to be considered for the ACT’s Prostitution Act.
The business logic behind the sex industry’s first aim—to remove planning restrictions on brothels—is fairly obvious; the more prostitution is integrated into mainstream Australian society, the greater profits the industry will earn through customers who are no longer inhibited by the social condemnation of their peers. But the reasoning behind aims 2 and 3 might be less clear to the general observer.
To understand these two aims, one has to be aware that a big growth market for the Australian sex industry is escort prostitution. Escort or ‘outcall’ prostitution currently contributes over half of the industry’s earnings. This model of prostitution is profitable because it runs with few overheads, falls under the radar of most government regulation, and operates flexibly over large geographical areas and in response to movements in male populations (e.g., toward mining areas).
If the ban on one-person ‘sole-operators’ operating in conjunction with another party is lifted, Canberra’s sex industry will be able to tap into a large population of poor and vulnerable women (often living with small children) who are currently bought for prostitution through rented suburban flats. The head of the Adult Entertainment Industry in Victoria was quoted recently as saying that as many as 7000 ‘sole operators’ in that state are currently being organised into networks by criminal groups who, he speculates, might be drug dealers. They could be involved in abuse of the migration program, including the trafficking of women. They might be engaging in inducing under-age persons into the sex industry.
Canberra’s sex industry is lobbying to have restrictions on sole-operators lifted so that ‘legal’ prostitution businessmen, too, can start to profit from these women. Large-scale escort prostitution businesses aim to recruit these women into their networks by offering them ‘drivers’ (for the sake of their safety!) and free mobile phones. This will allow escort business operators to expand the number of women they have on their books, cater to a geographically expanded male population, and recoup overheads and licensing costs incurred in running legal and ‘legitimate’ brothel businesses. Lobbying for the lifting of restrictions on ‘sole operators’ is therefore an important task of the industry, and one tied to its future profitability.
The industry that seeks to profit from prostitution is a business that has devastating consequences for women used within it, as well as Australian society at large. It is an industry that preys on young women who have been made socially vulnerable through childhood sexual abuse, poverty, mental illness, drugs, and homelessness. It is an industry also renowned for prostituting underage girls. Janine Cameron was found dead in a Canberra brothel (‘Death of innocence’, 1 November 2008). She was 17. Women are trafficked from overseas to meet the demands of the domestic sex industry. The lives of so many women and girls are destroyed by this industry. Violence and abuse is just part of the job. And Fiona Patten, representing a voracious industry, only wants to expand it into Canberra’s suburban backyards.
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australian (CATWA) argues the sex industry needs to be properly understood as imposing on Australian society an unacceptably high level of harm. Like the approach taken toward the tobacco industry, we believe state and territory governments should begin to introduce legislative measures that have as their ultimate goal the industry’s demise. CATWA supports the “Swedish Model” of sex industry legislation which sees all forms of prostitution as violence against women. The purchaser of sex is penalised, and women are offered éxit’ programs to help get them out of the industry and find non-harmful ways of supporting themselves and their children.
We find it disturbing that the ACT’s sex industry is using the current Prostitution Act review to call for more brothels in the territory when there is not one exit program in place for prostituted women in Canberra. As the ACT government accepts submissions on its Prostitution Act, it should be aware that a profitable and highly sophisticated sex industry with its own lobby organisations is making demands that are wholly aimed at expanding the industry’s profits. If the government listens to these demands it abrogates its responsibility to its most vulnerable female constituents, and permits the sex industry even greater reign to damage the wellbeing and social status of women in Australia’s capital.
Published today on ABC’s The Drum Unleashed.