DECRIMINALISATION OF SEX WORK: Hon I Pnevmatikos


The Hon. I. PNEVMATIKOS (16:54): Today I rise to speak on the Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill (No. 2). This is a matter that has been debated many times in respect of how it should be governed. In fact, in the last 20 years there have been 12 bills introduced to decriminalise sex work and none of them has been successful. Why? Because it is a contentious issue, heavily cloaked in stigma. More oft than not, the moral values and personal beliefs of a few have drowned out the voices of the many and, in particular, those on the front line. Voices such as Scarlet Alliance, SIN, the World Health Organization and the workers themselves, who are willing to risk a great deal to be seen, heard and taken seriously.

I agree that this is fundamentally a moral debate. I am certainly not referring to any perceived morality of sex work. I am referring to the morality we have as a society to ensure that every person is afforded the same fundamental rights and protections. This must be our moral imperative, first and foremost. We cannot allow personal ideologies to overshadow the issue at hand, workers' rights and the views of the general public on this issue.

As recently as today, ABC Adelaide conducted a poll on whether sex work should be decriminalised. Out of over 5,300 votes, 93 per cent agree with decriminalisation, yet South Australia remains one of only three states in Australia where sex work remains criminalised. Our laws here are generally regarded as the most harsh and punitive. This must change because it is detrimental not only to sex workers' safety, health and wellbeing but also to the whole community. We need to end the marginalisation and discrimination. We cannot allow people in this state to continue to live without many of the legal and social protections afforded to the general population.

We on this side of the divide, as the Labor Party, have strong and important connections with the labour movement. This bill should be supported, like any other bill, for the benefit of workers and their families. All the studies support the fact that, as long as sex work is criminalised, sex workers often have to choose between safety and legality. We would not condone this in any other industry and we cannot continue to condone this for the sex work industry. Decriminalising sex work will provide a protection to sex workers and ensure that their basic human and labour rights are upheld.

As a society, we do not get to pick and choose whose human rights, working conditions or health and wellbeing we protect. These are fundamental universal rights and they must be afforded to everyone. It is no coincidence that organisations such as the World Health Organization and Human Rights Watch have all spoken out in favour of decriminalising sex work. In fact, for us to honour our commitments as a signatory to the UN Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS we need to enable decriminalisation.

We know that criminalisation poses substantial obstacles in accessing HIV prevention, treatment and support. We have seen in New South Wales and New Zealand that decriminalisation has had a significant impact on reducing HIV and other STI transmissions. In fact, more so than any other regulatory models.

There is no doubt that one of the biggest challenges in this debate is ignorance. Ignorance stems from relying on stereotypes and preconceived notions of sex work instead of factual information. In fact, it is ignorance that causes stigma. Sex workers, activists and experts alike agree that stigma is one of the greatest obstacles preventing sex workers from enjoying the same rights and access to support that the rest of us take for granted.

Rather than seeing and understanding the complexities, members' perceptions in this place have in the past been clouded by their personal beliefs of what is shameful, sinful or evil. I have read through previous transcripts, transcripts that hide behind religious arguments based on ideas that sex work is deviant and a source of moral decay, and arguments and fears that the model will threaten the very foundations of marriage and our society as we know it.

Let me just say that decriminalisation has occurred in other states and in New Zealand, and guess what? The sky did not fall. As put by a sex worker last Friday on the steps outside parliament, 'If you fear for your marriage, ask us if your husband or wife has been to see us. Criminalisation will not change the probability of infidelity.'

Concern with the profession becoming a more popular choice for children is another common concern raised in this place. This is purely a manipulative argument to support discriminatory attitudes. Take, for example, Roxanna, who has been both a sex worker and a PhD student in the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy. She provided me with a compelling thesis on sex work in the South Australian context. She would not fit the mould that many in this place would paint about sex workers.

On the note of children, let me make it clear that when debating this matter I do so with the focus on adult workers in the industry: women, men and those who are transgender. In no way do I condone exploitation of children, nor does this bill create an avenue for that. I strongly believe that criminality creates an us and them mentality, resulting in systemic and tolerated discrimination that can affect a person's access to housing and accommodation, employment opportunities and justice.

Stigma is socially isolating and shaming, and this makes sex workers vulnerable, because they are less likely to report violence or abuse or to seek help and support. Unfortunately, we will hear arguments in this place that through decriminalisation we will see more violence against women. This is a play on the stigma associated with the industry, and it also blatantly disregards the laws that are already independently in place to support violence against women. It is a facade to hide behind to protect religious and traditional morals. It is not a consideration of the contents of this bill.

We will also hear arguments that decriminalisation does not support the feminist agenda, that sex work is perpetrated on women. As put by Elena Jeffreys of Scarlet Alliance:

…sex work is feminist—being sexually active, putting a value on your sexual interactions, negotiating boundaries and making informed choices about your body.

Some may even argue that decriminalisation will lead to trafficking. Again, this argument blatantly ignores federal laws already in place to tackle this issue. If the existing laws fall short in any way, then let us look at those laws and strengthen them. They are not arguments that have anything to do with this bill. As I said earlier, stigma is dangerous and creates secrecy where what we need is exactly the opposite: dialogue and greater understanding.

Some in this place will argue for an alternative model which decriminalises the selling of sex but criminalises the client. I have given this model heavy consideration and, whilst on the outer layer it appears to be designed to protect women, there is empirical evidence that this model propels the idea that sex work is violent towards women and further marginalises women in the industry.

A major survey analysing this model, Sex in Sweden, also highlights that the model creates an environment where sex workers need to be less visible. It successfully displaces street-based sex work by placing sex workers in a position where they experience further difficulties with the authorities and law enforcement, and have less negotiating power with their clients, specifically regarding safer sex practices.

The bill currently before parliament will not only decriminalise sex work but will also prohibit discrimination against sex workers and ensure that sex workers can enjoy the same rights and protections as other workers. Importantly, it will ensure that when sex workers experience exploitation or violence in any way, including from clients, employees, the police or others, these crimes are dealt with promptly and justly, just like any other crime.

Decriminalising sex work will allow us to better understand an industry and its workers and ensure that safeguards and regulations are in place to protect all. It will also allow us, as policymakers, to ensure that the right measures are in place to better protect the health and safety of sex workers. I believe that it is important for any worker, regardless of the industry they work in, to have a legal framework where they can be an active participant in shaping both their rights and responsibilities. This is something I have long fought for in my professional and personal life.

Finally, decriminalising sex work is an important step in dismantling the stigma around this industry and its workers, and this can only be a good thing. I thank all of you in the gallery for being here today. Thank you, Tammy, for reintroducing this bill and Michelle Lensink for her ongoing support, as well as those who have attempted previously to see this matter through. I particularly wish to thank Steph Key for the important role that she undertook during her time in parliament. Thank you to all who advocated on this matter for your continued energy and effort in fighting for change. I very much hope to celebrate progress and positive change with you all soon. It is time that the laws in this state are finally changed to ensure that sex worker rights are protected.