DECRIMINALISATION OF SEX WORK: Hon C Bonaros


The Hon. C. BONAROS (20:21): I rise to speak in support of the second reading of the Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work Bill) 2018. I note for the record that, given the nature of the bill, SA-Best, like other parties, has determined that the matter will be a conscience vote for the party.

As we know, the bill was introduced by the Hon. Tammy Franks and is a reintroduction of a 2015 private members' bill that was brought before this place by the Hon. Michelle Lensink while in opposition. On that occasion, as we have heard, the bill passed the Legislative Council 13 votes to eight, but lapsed in 2017 in the House of Assembly when parliament was prorogued.

Of course, there have been earlier attempts in the South Australian parliament at decriminalising sex work or reforming sex work. Those efforts, dating back to the 1980s, have proved fruitless. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the past efforts of former members, especially Steph Key, who made several attempts at passing reforms in this space, and also Gail Gago, the former minister for the status of women and a member of this chamber, for her support during her time here.

As the law stands in South Australia, the act of prostitution is not illegal; however, activities surrounding sex work are illegal. Offences involving those illegal activities are contained within the Summary Offences Act and the Criminal Law Consolidation Act. Part of the legislation dates back to 1907, and the common law offences are, as we know, even older. In my view, it is absolutely time for an updating of the legislation. For example, the new legislation, if passed, will ban minors from conducting sex work and prohibit the provision of services to children.

Due to activities involving sex work being a criminal offence in South Australia, the work at the moment is unregulated without industrial or workplace health and safety protections. The effect of this is an environment which works to prevent sex workers—predominantly women—from accessing health and associated support services and increases their risk of being victims of violence and/or abuse. It has also served to prevent sex workers from reporting to police incidents of sexual abuse, harassment or damage to property caused by clients.

In fact, where South Australian police have raised concerns about the bill, they have said that they are not actually interested in pursuing sex workers themselves but, rather, that they are more interested in the money laundering and organised crime associated with the industry. That said, the statistics reveal a very different picture.

It was reported last year that the number of people charged with sex work offences had tripled in just 12 months after a heavy-handed and unexplained police crackdown on prostitution. The Advertiser reported that police officers were raiding an average of one suspected brothel every two days, which resulted in 21 charges related to sex work in the 2017-18 financial year. According to police data tabled in parliament in 2017, the number of sex work related charges issued in a single calendar year had not exceeded 75 in the past 10 years.

I understand there is a briefing being organised by minister Wingard's office next week, when SAPOL will raise their concerns about the bill as well as answer questions in relation to some of these issues. I certainly look forward to attending that briefing to help work through some of the statistics that I have just alluded to. I am keen to hear from SAPOL members involved in Operation Patriot, the police task force investigating prostitution-related offences in South Australia.

While I understand this bill is based on the New Zealand model, which decriminalised sex work in 2003, I also note that the ability of police to enter brothels would be reined in under the proposed legislation. Of course, that is something that has been raised by other members and something that I am sure the Hon. Tammy Franks will speak to further in her summing-up debate.

I remain deeply concerned about any links between organised crime, violence and sex work. It is unequivocally clear that human trafficking in the sex work industry is part of its underbelly. We must do everything we can to stamp out human trafficking and prevent the exploitation of sex workers. That said, I refute the notion that sex work and human trafficking are one and the same thing and that sex work is not real work.

On that note—and I am sure I speak for others as well—I take exception to the moral aspersions cast by the Hon. Tung Ngo few moments ago in relation to what our position is if we support this bill. We talk about respect in the debate and having a respectful debate, and the sorts of comments that have just been made are precisely the sorts of comments that we do not need in this debate.

I would remind honourable members and I would ask honourable members not to use this as an opportunity to suggest that I am heartless or that I am shameless or that I somehow support the trafficking of women because I support this bill. Do not use this as an opportunity to take the moral high ground and suggest that if I support this bill I support any of the things that you have alluded to in your contribution.

Indeed, as one commentator has noted in a piece about trafficking published in The Conversation, and I quote:

It is disingenuous of our policymakers and anti-sex work proponents to claim that all sex workers are the victims of human trafficking or coercion.

As UNAIDS recently noted:

In reality, trafficking and sex workers 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.

I have met with sex workers who have families and who engage in sex work to provide for their families. I have also met with sex workers whose clients are people with disabilities who are fulfilling a need for intimacy. I do not know anyone who cannot be moved by stories like that of Tom, a 42-year-old man with cerebral palsy who has been a regular client of sex workers in South Australia since 2014. He said, and I quote:

Besides being nurturing and very informative guides to sex and intimacy—a part of life many people with disabilities often do not have the opportunity to explore—these wonderful people help me cope with feelings of loneliness and enable me to make a connection with another person, if only temporarily.

I do not have much confidence in or experience of forming close romantic relationships and at times feel very isolated.

I do not deserve to be prosecuted for paying someone to relieve me of that pain, nor should sex workers be stigmatised and criminalised for offering such a service.

It remains the case that sex work is illegal because it is largely viewed as immoral and degrading, but morality, of course, is objective and society's opinion on what is right and what is wrong is constantly shifting. Morality provides no sound basis for law, as people governed by laws cannot possibly all share the same moral beliefs.

I have taken the time to read through the literature regarding sex work and the positions both for and against decriminalisation. I have taken the time to meet with sex workers and hear their stories. Recently, I read with interest an article by a political editor, Jennifer Wright, who posed the very pertinent question:

But what if it was your daughter? Surely you wouldn't want to see your child do sex work.

Like the author, I do not have a daughter, but I have a son. As we all know, sex work is not limited to females; it also includes males and the transgender community.

I read the article with some interest, noting that I had a son who could easily fall into this line of work. The author went on to list a number of professions she would not want her fictitious daughter to enter into. They included professionally playing any sport that involves head trauma, being a war reporter, any profession that promises people a quick, easy and most likely ineffective way to solve their problems, like hawking untested diet pills or becoming a spokesperson for the alt-right. She went on to say:

You can agree or disagree with me that I'm right to not want a daughter to enter into those professions. The fact remains that, regardless of how I feel about them, my future daughter has a perfect legal right to pursue them.

People are allowed to enter professions that might be unsafe. People are allowed to enter into professions where their body is seen as a tool of the trade. People are allowed to enter professions that seem morally questionable. The only time that isn't the case is when a woman [sex worker, predominantly women] is having sex as her profession.

It is this message that resonates with me in this debate. But, as I said earlier, my job in this place is not to impose my moral beliefs, my personal beliefs, on others; there is no place for judging others and the choices that they make. It is certainly not my job to bring religion to the table, either directly or indirectly. There are many countries where sex work is legal, such as New Zealand, which I mentioned earlier, and the results of the Prostitution Reform Act have been beneficial for sex workers in that jurisdiction. A study from the Christchurch School of Medicine found that:

…90 percent of sex workers believe the PRA gave them employment, legal and health and safety rights. A substantial 64 percent found it easier to refuse clients. Significantly, 57 percent said police attitudes to sex workers changed for the better.

Prostitutes also reported being able to go to the police when they were hurt or threatened, and one sex worker successfully sued a brothel owner for sexual harassment.

I acknowledge that even in the literature there are mixed views as to the success or otherwise of the regulatory regime that exists in New Zealand and elsewhere. Indeed, for every person who supports decriminalisation of sex work there is inevitably another who does not, and that is clear in this place too. To that end, I note Julie Bindel wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian, stating:

Abolitionists do not consider prostitution to be about sex or sexual identity, but rather a one-sided exploitative exchange rooted in male power. They believe the progressive solution to the sex trade is to assist women to exit, and criminalise those who drive the demand.

Of course, the countervailing view from Kelly J. Bell, published in the Inquiries Journal, is:

Men do not own a prostitute when they are paying her for sex any more than a businessman owns his factory workers. If prostitutes are given the right to choose their clients and to stop sex at any point in which they feel unsafe or uncomfortable, prostitution is not a question of temporary ownership.

Again, as I have said, I do not consider it my role to pass judgement on the choices of others. Public policy on the regulation of sex work needs to be premised on a solid evidence-based foundation and participation from sex workers and sex work organisations, as opposed to the ideological, moral or religious beliefs of a few. What I hope we can do is empower those who work in the industry with rights under the law that they do not have now. What we are debating here is giving sex workers work rights. That is where our focus should be.

I note that the bill also amends the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 to include discrimination on the grounds of being, or having been, a sex worker in the criteria for establishing discrimination. In my view, it is absolutely imperative that sex workers' workplaces have high levels of health and occupational safety standards. Sex workers deserve benefits like health insurance and sick days. They have a right to demand clean and safe places to work, with the absolute right to refuse to engage in unsafe sex practices. They need access to training on sexually transmitted diseases and strategies for dealing with dangerous clients. They need protection—much better protection—by the police to enforce laws against physical and sexual assault, extortion and fraud.

I want to pause here again and reflect on some of the comments that have been made in relation to the location of brothels—not sex workers as such, but brothels. I know I could leave here right now and take a drive down to Hanson Road, down to Mile End, down Henley Beach Road, down Port Road, down Grange Road—my side of town, the Hon. Mr Ngo—and I could point you to any number of brothels. I know, because I have—

The PRESIDENT: Through me, the Hon. Ms Bonaros, not directly to the member.

The Hon. C. BONAROS: Through you, Mr President, yes. I know, because I have done that drive and I have located them myself. There are no big lights outside with blaring signs that scream out 'brothels', but they certainly do exist. So to suggest that somehow this bill is going to see an explosion of brothels opening up, when there are already so many around town that you would locate if you looked out for them, would—

The Hon. T.T. Ngo: Fix it then.

The Hon. C. BONAROS: It is not my place to fix it. I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can fix the problems that the Hon. Mr Ngo continues to allude to without any regulatory regime. If you want to empower councils to be able to deal with the problems that Mr Ngo speaks of, then you need to give them a regulatory regime within which to work, but we do not have that, because we have decided that we are not going to regulate sex work.

As I said, my view is that those who choose to work in this industry deserve to have adequate protection under the law. It does not matter what my personal views are on sex work; that is not what I am here to share. What matters is that those who choose to work in this industry have adequate protections under our law. That is the core focus of this bill, and that is what we are debating.

In the words of Gail Gago, I like to think that time has created a lot more opportunities for people to think carefully about these issues and to think of this more in terms of workers' rights. We can continue, as many honourable members have done, to bury our heads in the sand and oppose this bill with absolutely no alternative, despite overwhelming shifts in community expectations, or we can do something meaningful to ensure all our workers are protected, regardless of our personal beliefs, regardless of our morals, regardless of our values, regardless of our religious beliefs. I, for one, was not elected to this place to do any of that. I was elected to ensure all members of our community are subject to the same standards.

To those intending not to support this bill, through you, Mr President, I ask you this: what do you intend to do instead? What safety measures do you offer to the sex workers you have alluded to today? It is an important question because we all know you can reject this bill here and now, without making any suggestions as to how it could address the concerns that you have raised, but that will not do anything to help sex workers. It certainly will not do away with sex work.

It is not going to miraculously disappear. The problems you are speaking of—and I do not dismiss the problems that have been raised in this chamber—are not going to disappear, but the rights of sex workers, who go about their work willingly and consensually, will. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, sex workers will continue to work in an unregulated industry without any scrutiny, without any regulations, without any protections and without any recourse whatsoever if we choose to do absolutely nothing.