New Series – Winter 2021 Issue No. 142
Fiona is a member of the Victorian Parliament, and Australian Humanist of the Year in 2020. As leader of the Reason Party, she stands for a future-focused, evidence-based, consultative and pragmatic approach to achieving equality, sustainability and freedom.
I came into politics via the route less travelled. In the mid 1980’s my friends were contracting HIV and some of them died. It had a profound effect on me. I was also running a fashion business focussing on one-off designs. There was not a huge market for clothing at this price range during the recession we had to have. Sex workers were interested and from there I became involved with ACT’s Workers in Sex Employment (WISE). I also became a sex worker for a short while. This led me to heading up the national sex worker organisation the Scarlet Alliance with a stint on the board of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO). While working for WISEI had the privilege of being part of the successful campaign to decriminalise sex work in the ACT.
Jump forward a couple of decades I was again frustrated by the lack of government action on properly regulating the adult goods and services industry, which was partially why I formed my own political party in 2009 to redress these issues. And surprise, surprise? I called it the Australian Sex Party.
Most people thought it was a joke. Some took great exception to the name in the context of an election and lodged complaints and protests with the Electoral Commission. Most just thought that I had no chance of being elected and yet in 2014 the impossible happened and I was elected to the Victorian Upper House. People it seemed, did care about sex and sexuality issues after all!
In my maiden speech I called out the hypocrisy that exists in parliaments all over Australia towards sex workers by saying, I may be the first former sex worker to be elected to a parliament anywhere in Australia, however the clients of sex workers have been elected in far greater numbers before me. Many of the women in the chamber applauded while many of the men just looked at their shoes.
In November 2019 the Victorian Government announced a review into the decriminalisation of sex work and asked me to lead it. It was a brave move by Daniel Andrews’ government to ask a former sex worker to lead such a review. They could have asked one of their own from a conservative social background if they had wanted to appear cautious and politically safe on the issue. Banning sex work (whether by a straight up prohibition on workers having commercial sex or by the more circuitous, smoke and mirrors form of prohibition known as the so-called Nordic model whereby clients are criminalised) had only ever resulted in organised crime getting involved with the industry and this review had to address occupational health and safety issues for the sex workers actually doing the work. Who better to gather together the various sex worker groups in the state and to understand the extremely complex politics of the industry than an MP who was once involved in the industry at a number of levels?
This review has been a long time coming. The Sex Work Act was introduced in 1994, when it was called the Prostitution Control Act, and this name really betrayed its main purpose- to seek to control sex work in Victoria. Although it did not garner the full support of sex workers, it was a step forward in moving sex work from behind the criminal curtain into a legal, regulated industry. It built on the work of Marcia Neaves’ report in 1985, which was ground-breaking at the time, in recommending that the sex industry be regulated rather than suppressed.
Victoria became the first Australian jurisdiction to regulate and legally recognise sex work. However, the system as it currently stands does not work and is no longer fit for purpose. Onerous licensing and registration requirements have created a two-tiered system where many people feel compelled to work illegally, while those working legally are subject to a range of restrictive and intrusive requirements. The current laws barely recognise that there is the internet.
I was asked to consider all forms of sex work and the terms of reference were broad. They included workplace safety, planning, public health, discrimination and stigma. The focus of this review has been on achieving the decriminalisation of sex work in Victoria. It is not a consideration of whether we decriminalise sex work but how we do it.
At a minimum, decriminalisation involves the removal of criminal sanctions on sex work, which unnecessarily criminalises parts of the sex work industry and over-regulates others. This harms sex workers and reinforces social stigma and discrimination against them.
I see decriminalisation as removing the criminal laws that apply to consensual adult sex work and regulating the sex work industry under the same laws and regulations that govern other businesses and service providers. Sex work should be considered as just that, a legitimate form of work. Decriminalisation is about treating sex work just like any other industry, and having it regulated in the same way. Victoria has well developed regulatory systems in place for occupational health and safety, public health and other areas. These should be the primary tools for regulating sex work. During Melbourne’s Covid lockdown I managed to undertake some extensive consultation, all via zoom of course. These meetings included sex workers, business operators, representatives from the community, police, local government, health and workplace safety services and people with expert knowledge of Victoria’s sex work industry. I also accepted written submissions so there was lots to work with.
There were many views put forward and it was great to hear a wide variety of viewpoints. But of course I was particularly focussed on ensuring that the voices of sex workers themselves and their lived experience of the system in Victoria, were central in the formulation of my recommendations.
I have to acknowledge the decades of advocacy of sex worker activists and allies in getting us to this step towards decriminalisation. Countless individuals and groups have fought for sex worker rights and lobbied the state government for many years, and their voices have proven to be powerful and effective. We would not be where we are today had it not been for sex workers campaigning against the obsolete laws they currently operate under.
Discrimination and stigma against sex workers has wide-ranging impacts on their health, wellbeing and social and economic inclusion. It impacts every level of life and business and underpins attitudes that drive violence against sex workers. The majority of people I spoke to said that stigma and discrimination created a barrier to accessing healthcare, social services and housing, and limits educational and employment opportunities. Addressing this is fundamental as it will be crucial to any successful decriminalisation model that amendments are made to the Equal Opportunity Act.
Sex work is just that, work, and a modern approach to this will keep the industry and those who work in it safe and hopefully less stigmatised.