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Decriminalising sex work fails, it’s time for an alternative approach

In Australia, we know that Asian and migrant women are overrepresented in the sex industry. A group vulnerable to exploitation because of significant factors of marginalisation including poor English language skills, limited education, uncertain visa status, owing large debts and supporting dependents.

We also know that Australia’s sex industry, legal, illegal or decriminalised, is the destination for those who have been sex trafficked. Legitimised sex industries expand, the increase in demand is met in part with an increase in human trafficking.

Indeed, Australia consistently fails to reduce the demand for prostitution, which is an obligation under the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, in an effort to deter sex trafficking.

Despite serious harms of the industry and the failures of decriminalisation to reduce them, in 2019, without public consultation, the Victorian government decided they would implement full decriminalisation of prostitution. How or why the government selected this model over other models remains unclear.

Further, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten – a long-time sex trade lobbyist – was hand-picked to head the review. Patten founded the Eros Association, a professional lobby group for the sex trade, with partner Robbie Swan in 1992, recently described as Australia’s best-known pornographer, and consultant for Eros.

Full decriminalisation legitimises, normalises and expands the sex trade, increasing profits for pimps and traffickers. Unfortunately for workers, more than 25 years of decriminalisation in NSW has failed to rid the industry of labour and sexual exploitation.

While the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia participated in the review, excluding survivor groups ignored women who have experience working under full decriminalisation, in places like New Zealand – the model Victoria’s approach aims to emulate.

Reason Party MP Fiona Patten with her partner Robbie Swan.

Reason Party MP Fiona Patten with her partner Robbie Swan. Credit:Justin McManus

An alternative model of asymmetric decriminalisation, not considered by the Victorian government, the Nordic model, is increasingly adopted all over the world, including in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Israel, Canada, France and Ireland.

The Nordic model recognises that prostitution occurs because of, and reinforces, inequality between men and women. The model targets sex buying, pimping and third-party profiteering, while decriminalising those in prostitution and providing robust social and economic support services. This is because the model recognises that prostitution enables men to abuse their social, economic and political power over women.

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The Victorian government’s commitment to gender equality and combating violence against women is incongruent with full decriminalisation of the sex industry. Full decriminalisation hasn’t worked, the Victorian government should consider an alternative approach.

Tegan Larin is the public officer for Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia.

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