Early last month, Liberal MP Michelle Lensink’s radical bill to fully decriminalise prostitution in South Australia passed the Legislative Council.
This was an incredible feat, not because it was a long overdue victory for women in the prostitution industry, but because it was the exact opposite.
Indeed, it flies in the face of all the evidence showing the harms of decriminalisation and the inherently harmful, degrading, exploitative nature of prostitution itself.
Advocates of the Bill argue that decriminalisation is necessary to progress the rights and welfare of women in the prostitution industry.
They maintain, that it will enable a more trusting relationship with police as those in the industry will not be in constant fear of arrest.
As a result, other illegal activities are more likely to be reported.
Under a decriminalised model, prostitutes will have access to employment rights and will be protected by health and safety regulations like any other worker.
Stigma will purportedly be reduced and individuals’ autonomy and choice to work in prostitution will be respected.
However, if we look to the tiny handful of jurisdictions that have already decriminalised prostitution (including New Zealand in 2003 and New South Wales in 1995), a very different story emerges.
Five years after decriminalisation in New Zealand, a government report found that “the majority of sex workers interviewed felt that [decriminalising prostitution] could do little about violence that occurred” in the sex industry and few reported incidents of violence against them.
According to the report, “despite decriminalisation, the social stigma surrounding involvement in the sex industry continues”.
Street prostitution in New Zealand increased dramatically, with numbers more than doubling just a couple of years after decriminalisation.
Child prostitution also became rampant in some cities with girls as young as 10 selling sex.
As one community worker noted, “at least the old law kept a lid on the numbers, but with no law on the streets, the pimps and the gangs have moved in.”
In 2013 ex-prostitutes called for an introduction of the Nordic Model, where clients of sex workers would be prosecuted, saying the decriminalisation of the industry had failed them.
That same year, NZ Labour MP Georgina Beyer who had championed decriminalisation a decade earlier, admitted that they had been naive in liberalising prostitution.
Here in New South Wales, one police officer investigating legal Sydney brothels linked to sex trafficking and organised crime commented on the effects of decriminalisation stating “although the intention was to provide a safe working environment for sex workers the reverse has occurred in that pimps and brother operators were empowered and enriched.”
He noted that because of decriminalisation “police were cut out of the equation and crime infiltrated the brothel and massage parlour industry.”
In countries where prostitution is legalised, research shows that there is such a significant expansion of the prostitution market that human trafficking in those countries increases.
Ultimately the decriminalisation of prostitution has been unable to protect women and girls or reduce the abuses associated with prohibition because of the harmful and exploitative nature of prostitution itself.
Prostitution is the commodification of (mostly) women’s bodies by (mostly) men. Many of these women come from vulnerable backgrounds and enter prostitution as a result of childhood abuse, poverty, grooming or coercion rather than as a free choice.
Once inside the industry, they are subject to all manner of violence and indignities by both the men who purchase them and the men who sell them, often turning to drugs and alcohol in order to endure it.
A study conducted across nine countries in 2008 found that prostitution was multi-traumatic: 71 per cent were physically assaulted in prostitution; 63 per cent were raped; 89 per cent of these respondents wanted to escape prostitution, but did not have other options for survival. A total of 75 per cent had been homeless at some point in their lives; 68 per cent met criteria for PTSD.
The Nordic Model recognises that the existence of prostitution is rooted in gender inequality, that it violently commodifies women and that by its very nature, can never be made “safe”.
Pioneered in Sweden in 1999 and since adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland and France among others, the model addresses the demand for prostitution by criminalising the buyer only and provides exiting services for women wishing to leave the industry.
In the decade and a half since it was implemented, the level of prostitution has halved in Sweden and trafficking has declined dramatically.
When the South Australian House of Assembly gathers to vote on this Bill it has the opportunity to work towards truly protecting and empowering women and girls by following Sweden’s Nordic Model and introducing some of the most progressive prostitution legislation in the world. Alternatively, it can pander to pimps and johns and vote to decriminalise prostitution — fostering a society where buying, trafficking and abusing women and girls is acceptable because men can pay for it.
Originally published in The Advertiser, 2 August 2017