The Tasmanian Government has moved to legalise prostitution in the apple isle. The Tasmanian Government’s lazy line that prostitution is a ‘fact of life’ which should be legalised, reveals a defeatist attitude to law reform. The Government’s suggestion that legalising prostitution will minimise harm, protect health, and benefit society only appears progressive at a surface level. Deeper examination of the Government’s proposal raises serious concerns about whether these promised benefits of legalisation will ever eventuate.
The reality, if Victoria’s example of legalisation is anything to go by, is that legalising prostitution in Tasmania may increase social acceptance of an industry that is inherently harmful. Legalisation is a way to ignore and exacerbate the exploitation, violence and abuse suffered by sex workers. Legalisation suggests that we condone the infidelity of married brothel customers, and that we do not question men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, as long as they pay. Legalisation may also attract organised crime to Tasmania’s sex industry.
Rather than taking an ‘if we can’t beat it we’ll allow it’ approach, some serious issues need consideration. First, high on the agenda for discussion should be whether legalising prostitution increases tolerance and aceptance of prostitution in society. Does the legalisation of prostitution endorse it as a valid, acceptable practice? Prostitution involves the commodification of (mainly) women’s bodies and is often exploitative. If the Government legalises prostitution, it should also (at least) fund campaigns and implement policies to improve the status of women. The proposed reforms currently contain no challenge to the increasing male demand for exploitable female providers of sex and no measures designed to increase respect for women and women’s bodies.
Second, prostitution represents an income opportunity of last resort in a society where a lack of alternative opportunities outside the sex industries, should be addressed as a root cause. At the very least, law reform that will allow prostitution to flourish should be accompanied by comprehensive exit programs for people in the sex industry. Such programs should include education, training, employment, housing and counselling services to enable people in the sex industry to access choices outside the industry. So far, the Government’s proposal does not include this.
Third, legalisation may increase crime. To date (unlike Victoria), Tasmania has had few, if any, cases of sexual slavery. Legalisation of prostitution may make Tasmania another magnet for people traffickers who exploit enslaved prostitutes behind the veneer of legally licensed brothels. The global trafficking of women and children for prostitution nets billions of dollars annually for organised crime networks. There is a risk that if prostitution laws are relaxed, the real winners of Tasmania’s prostitution debate will be the people traffickers. Yet the Government’s proposed legislation fails to include specific laws against sexual slavery and sexual servitude, which Tasmania may need if traffickers creep across from the mainland to Australia’s newest legal sex industry.
Finally, if the Government does legalise prostitution, it should do so in a way that increases the safety and rights of prostitutes, rather than merely improving the convenience of brothel operators, pimps and customers. In Victoria, regulations require sex workers to have regular checks for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but there is no such obligation on brothel customers. This is unfair when you consider that most brothel customers are men, most brothel workers are women and STDs are more easily passed from men to women.
Will Tasmania take a similarly one-sided approach, or will legalisation take account of prostitutes’ health as well? The proposed legislation does include an offence for brothel customers to have sex without a condom. This is a step in the right direction. However, the legislation also requires brothels to keep a register of the names and addresses of prostitutes. There is no justification for such a register as long as customers are allowed to remain anonymous. Criminalising the purchase of sex but decriminalising the selling of sex is one approach that has been taken to prostitution in Sweden. While unlikely to be followed in Australia, the Swedish model illustrates that we can think about old problems in new ways.
Prostitution is not the oldest ‘profession’ in the world … farming is. Even if prostitution has been around for a while, so has smoking and infanticide, and as a society, we do not encourage either of those. Tasmania’s impending decision as to whether to give the green light to the red light district raises important questions. The Tasmanian Government’s proposed laws have not yet answered them.
Georgina Costello is a barrister and human rights advocate.