We need a less polarising debate about sex work laws

Sex work has always been a divisive issue, but women are not made safer by putting ideology over nuance, writes Jane Gilmore.

Sex work has always been a divisive issue, but women are not made safer by putting ideology over nuance, writes Jane Gilmore. Photo: Cherish Bryck/Stocksy

Last week France introduced legislation making it a crime to pay for sex, another enactment of the so-called Nordic model, which purports to combat the sex industry by punishing the men who purchase sex, rather than the sex workers themselves.

Anti-sex work groups claim this will reduce the risks of trafficking and men's violence against women, while sex worker unions fight back, saying any form of criminalisation will make sex work more dangerous and takes agency from the women who freely chose such work.

This debate heated up in Australia over the weekend, with the publication of a new book, Prostitution Narratives, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Dr Caroline Norma. The book was launched at an abolitionist conference in Melbourne, which included among its speakers activists Julie Bindel and Rachel Moran, and garnered strong support from the likes of Australian Christian Lobby executive Wendy Francis.

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The conference also attracted protest from sex worker advocates, and incited heated, often abusive arguments on social media.

Sex work has always been a divisive issue. The idea that there is inherent harm in commodifying women's bodies directly conflicts with the belief that criminalising women's choices takes away their agency.

There is unquestionably merit on both sides, but the complex causes and effects of sex work are lost in a discussion that has become far too polarised.

Speakers at the conference were vehemently arguing that all "prostitution" is violent and that women who claim to enjoy it, or at least consent to it, are deceiving themselves and everyone else:

I t is undoubtedly true that sex work can be dangerous. And, as Sally Tonkin, CEO of St Kilda Gatehouse, pointed out in her superb TED talk about humanising women who do street based sex work, it is not dangerous because they are working with wild animals, heavy machinery or toxic chemicals. It is dangerous only because they are working with men.

Speakers at the conference, who included former sex workers, were very clear on violence committed by men who think they have purchased the right to act out all their impulses; violent as well as sexual, when they pay for sex.

It is crucial in any debate about sex work that the voices of sex workers are heard, particularly those who have been traumatised or experienced violence in their work. It's laudable that so many such women were given a voice at the conference. The problem many current sex workers had with the event, though, was that it only presented one side of the argument.

Too often, speakers were conflating the valid experience of abused women with a simplistic call for abolition, either ignoring or vilifying the strong collective support Australian sex worker groups give to decriminalisation.

On the topic of criminalising the purchase of sex, the head of Sweden's trafficking unit Ann Martin said "..of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution, but that's also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law."

The negative consequences she is talking about aren't as simple as not being able to report violence for fear of endangering their livelihood. They include increased marginalisation, struggling to find accommodation, not being able to pay support staff like drivers, security, or admin, and even putting partners or adult children at risk of prosecution for "living off the proceeds of prostitution".

Essentially, Martin is justifying further disadvantaging vulnerable women in the interests of what she sees as a greater good.

This, despite the fact that prohibiting sex work has never yet proven effective in eradicating it. All it achieves to to take power from those who would act to minimise harm and hand it to criminal organisations interested only in profit.

Beyond just the rights of the individual, anti sex work campaigners also argue that all women are harmed by idea of sex as a thing men can purchase. It gives legitimacy to men who see women as objects, they argue, and sex as an entitlement that does not require a fully humanised partner. There is an undeniable connection between such attitudes and men's violence against women.

Again, though, the question is whether criminalising sex work would be an effective means of changing that mindset.

Last year, after considerable research and consultation, Amnesty International released a controversial policy recommending the decriminalisation of all consensual sex work, and concurrent increased protections from "exploitation, trafficking and violence".

The policy was widely supported by sex worker unions, because it recognised the dangers inherent in forcing sex workers to operate outside the law and avoided conflating illegal human trafficking with consensual sex work.

The policy also recognised the problematic nature of "consensual" sex work. While it is true that some people freely and enthusiastically choose to engage in sex work, it is equally true that for many sex workers, "choice" is better described as a lack of available alternatives.

Not all, but certainly many of the street based sex workers in Melbourne's red light district have long histories of addiction, poverty, abuse and social isolation. Women who have been sex workers since their teens do not have the option to simply walk off the street and get a "real job". They have strong connections to their community, and long experience of the world outside that community, which demonises and rejects them. Those complex and interrelated forces cannot be overcome by simply passing a law that further marginalises women who already feel they live outside mainstream society. Providing support for women who want to exit the sex industry, and safety for women who don't, requires a much more nuanced approach, and a wider understanding of the reasons women enter and remain in the sex industry.

These are the complexities overshadowed by a polarised debate. What happens to women engaged in sex work when their employment becomes a criminal activity? Does it prevent them seeking redress or assistance when they have been the victims of violence? What effect does it have on sex workers seeking medical or social services? Does the fact that some women are forced into sex work give legislators the right to act against women who freely and enthusiastically choose it? Does criminalising sex work address the underlying issues that put women in danger?

Ultimately, both sides are genuinely acting in what they see as the best interests of sex workers. But while I have no doubt the organisers of the sex work abolition conference have the best intentions, women are not made safer by further polarising debate and prioritising ideology over nuance. Perhaps a discussion based in a less heated middle ground, where the voices of all sex workers are heard, would be more effective in rectifying the issues they were trying to address.