ACT committee misses opportunity to address harms: ‘normalises prostitution, cuts back on regulation, waters down health safeguards’
The chair of a committee appointed to review the ACT’s Prostitution Act took the significant step last week of attaching a 9-page appendix to the committee’s final report outlining her ‘dissent’ to its findings.
In this appendix, the Shadow Attorney General Vicki Dunne criticises her colleagues for ‘trying to depict prostitution as normal and inevitable’, and so missing an ‘opportunity to take a fresh look at the harms of prostitution and innovative ways to ameliorate those harms’.
Dunne notes her Committee colleagues held ‘media events’ with respondents to the inquiry who were supportive of the government’s current approach to prostitution, and she is critical of the fact they ‘chose not to seriously consider alternative approaches’ for the ACT.
Dunne’s exasperation with her colleagues’ inability to perceive of prostitution as anything other than ‘work’ for poor women is vividly apparent in her remark that ‘[i]t may come as a surprise to some that it is not a universally held view that prostitution has always been with us and there is nothing we can do as a society to address the apparently insatiable demands of, mainly, men for sex with, mainly, women’.
The ‘alternative approach’ that Dunne wanted Committee members to consider was the ‘Swedish model’ of legislation, which she describes as ‘an innovative, woman-centred approach‘ that is ‘demand’ focused in its criminalising of the purchasers of sex.
Dunne notes that Committee members ‘did not want to engage in…discussion’ about the Swedish model, despite the fact information about its successful implementation in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and South Korea was made available to them.
The Committee, she says, ‘specifically rejected any information campaigns targeting the purchasers of sex’, and instead took the opposite approach of making recommendations that would further ‘normalise prostitution; cut back on regulation; [and] water down health safeguards’.
It looks like members of the Committee approached their task of examining prostitution policy in the ACT with some lack of seriousness. The only recommendation they made on sex trafficking was to suggest posting multi-lingual warning signs in brothels. They heard from ACT Police that no check was done on any brothel in the ACT for a period of five years, but didn’t think to question the government’s ability to oversee the legal sex industry it created in 1992.
Dunne notes that Committee members ‘played down’ the ‘significant human rights problems’ that arise in relation to prostitution. They refused, for example, to recognise any criminality in the ACT sex industry, and were ‘unwilling to support…[an] extension of police powers’, even with the death of a 17-year-old girl in a legal Fyshwick brothel in 2008, and a sex trafficking case involving Thai women before the ACT courts.
Adherence to ideas about ‘harm minimisation’ in relation to prostitution appear to have led Committee members to believe any form of sex industry regulation to be injurious to women’s ‘right’ to become prostitutes. This line of thinking seriously underestimates the threat posed by the sex industry to the status of women and children, especially when government endorses a business sector that makes profits through organising society’s most vulnerable people to sexually serve men with money.
Dunne’s decision to stand up to the ACT government and its continuing legalisation of pimps has earned her international praise. Well-known anti-prostitution campaigner and researcher Melissa Farley has spoken publicly in support of Dunne, and the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Asia-Pacific, Jean Enriquez, has also endorsed her stand.
On the world stage, Dunne finds herself in good company in opposing legalised prostitution and advocating the Swedish model. A model of the Swedish legislation recently passed a first reading in the Israeli Knesset, and a similar bill is currently before the French parliament. Boston has also recently implemented a version of the law.
These developments come after successes in Sweden, South Korea, Norway and Iceland in reduced trafficking, and raising public awareness of the harms of prostitution.
Dunne’s dissenting comments represent a rare moment in having endorsement of the Swedish model in a parliamentary report.
Australian governments are generally hostile to any suggestion that prostitution might constitute a human rights problem. Advocates of the Swedish model are currently locked in battle with the Western Australian, South Australian, and Tasmanian governments over proposals to legalise the sex industries of those states. Most other Australian state governments have already given their endorsement to pimps.
This propensity of Australian governments to resign themselves to the ‘inevitability’ of prostitution contrasts starkly with the stance taken by governments in Europe. In December last year all political parties in the French National Assembly signed a resolution reaffirming ‘the abolitionist position of France, the objective of which is ultimately a society without prostitution’.
Different from Australia, France does not recognise prostitution as ‘sex work’, nor does it advocate legalising brothels and pimping. French legislators resolved that legal acceptance of prostitution is incompatible with French policies that promote gender equality.
The example set by Vicki Dunne last week affords the Australian government a similar opportunity to cast aside its former politics of resignation on prostitution, and begin to move towards a human rights-based approach to the world’s oldest oppression.
Dr Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University.
See also: ‘Adding Insult to the Injury of Prostitution’, Caroline Norma, Tasmanian Times