Evidence not morality should guide sex work policy

The regulation of sex work needs to be based on solid evidence and with the participation of sex workers. AAP/Dean Lewins

The sexual revolution happened in the late 1960s, so it seems insane that so-called western liberal democracies still appear to have major hang-ups about sex.

This is especially true when it comes to commercialised forms of sex, whether that be sex work (or prostitution as some prefer to say), exotic dancing, lap-dancing or pornography.

On the issue of sex work and prostitution, various parts of the world appear to be suffering from a mix of moral panic and ideological myopia. That is to say, various governments including those of Western Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland in Australia and Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, France and Denmark internationally have recently conducted reviews on how to better control the sex industry.

In New South Wales, for example, where sex work has been decriminalised for almost 20 years, the current Liberal government has stated in an Issues Paper – Regulation of Brothels in NSW - that it is “committed to improving the regulation of brothels”.

So, what is the rationale for this new regulation?

Again, the government states in its Issue Paper that the objectives of the proposed regulatory system are threefold: the protection of residential amenity; protection of sex workers and safeguarding public health.

Similar policy objectives have been echoed in Western Australia, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. However, the primary aim in these three latter jurisdictions is to ban “prostitution”.

The drive to ban or heavily regulate sex work appears to be under-pinned by a near-sighted belief within political, religious and certain feminist circles that all sex workers are female and victims of human trafficking who need to be rescued.

Safeguarding public health

The idea that public health needs to be safeguarded from brothels conjures gross stereotypes about sex workers. It suggests that the various women and men – straight, gay, bisexual and transgender – who provide sexual services, whether they be brothel or street-based, are “vectors of disease” and social contagions.

This is Victorian-era view of sex workers, not a rational, evidence-based 21st century one.

Recent research by the Kirby Institute from 2012 and 2010 clearly demonstrated that the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among brothel-based sex workers in Sydney and Perth was “at least as low as the general population”.

STISydney (n=140)Perth (n=111)
Chlamydia2.8%2.7
Gonorrhoea00
Mycoplasma genitalium3.63.6
Trichomoniasis0.70.9
Table 1: STI Prevalence Amongst Sex Workers in Sydney and Perth. Kirby Institute, 2012 (Sydney) and 2010 (Perth)

Similarly, recent claims about the dangerous spread of STIs in regional and rural mining towns as a result of FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) sex workers cavorting with miners and local residents have also been dispelled.

In overall terms, it can be said Australian sex workers practice safe sex.

Protecting sex workers

Protecting sex workers from violence and exploitation in the workplace from clients, brothel owners or managers and even the police is an admirable and difficult to oppose policy objective. So too is ensuring that sex workers’ workplaces – indoor and outdoor – have high levels of health and occupational safety standards.

Recent government reviews of sex work here in Australia and internationally have wrapped up the idea of protecting sex workers in two main rhetorical discourses: first, the idea that sex work and human trafficking are one in the same thing; and, second, that sex work does not constitute “real” work.

Together, these two standpoints have given rise to what Dr. Laura Augustin calls the “rescue-industry” in her book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. In short, the “rescue-ists”, a panoply of feminist and Christian groups, see all sex workers as victims of trafficking or patriarchy.

As research scientist Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle du Jour, a former sex worker and blogger) also notes in her recent book The Sex Myth:

Labelling sex workers as victims is dangerous ground for anyone who claims to be in favour of women’s equality. It presents them as all the same and denies them a voice in the debate.

Protecting residential areas

If policymakers are sincere about protecting the health and safety of sex workers then they are likely to find themselves in a catch-22 situation if their aim is to also protect residential amenity - the “livability” of certain areas.

Protecting the amenity of suburbanites carries significantly more political currency than protecting the well-being of sex workers. Hence, the protection of sex workers is likely to become a second or third priority within this context.

Sex work – indoor and outdoor – runs the risk of being forced to locate in isolated and essentially unsafe spaces such as industrial zones, run-down parts of cities and other clandestine spaces. It is difficult to see how this outcome will protect sex workers.

Like all other land-uses,, brothels (and other sex industry venues) project outwards into their surroundings to an extent. The question is whether this is any more or less problematic than other land uses.

Recent research) on community attitudes to the effects of sex premises on local neighbourhoods in Sydney and Parramatta shows that “the majority of people living near a sex premise are either unaware of its existence, or regard the business as having neutral impacts”.

In fact, the majority (86.1% on average) of respondents considered brothels to have a neutral impact across a total of 13 types of effects.

Trafficking and sex work are not the same

It would be naïve to claim that the sex industry, or any other industry for that matter, is perfect.

It is also disingenuous of our policymakers and anti-sex work proponents to claim that all sex workers are the victims of either human trafficking or coercion. As UNAIDS has recently noted:

In reality, trafficking and sex work are two very different things. Trafficking involves coercion and deceit; it results in various forms of exploitation, including forced labour, and is a gross violation of human rights. Sex work, on the other hand, does not involve coercion or deceit. Even when it is illegal, sex work comprises freely entered into and consensual sex between adults, and like other forms of labour provides sex workers with a livelihood.

Ultimately, efforts to criminalise or over-regulate the purchase or selling of sex through the introduction of the so-called Swedish or Nordic model as suggested in Northern Ireland and Scotland, or strict licencing regimes, such as those contained in the recently prorogued Prostitution Bill in Western Australia, are likely to do more harm than good to the health and well-being of sex workers.

Public policy on the regulation of sex work needs to be premised on a solid evidence base and participation from sex workers and sex work organisations, as opposed to the ideological and religious beliefs of the few.