Push to reform WA’s sex work legislation

The red umbrella symbolises protection from the abuse sex workers may experience. Photo: Shannon Pearce.

The release of serial sex offender Edward Latimer and the murder of sex worker Michaela Dunn have reignited conversation around sex work and how it should be regulated in Western Australia. Dunn, 24, was killed in her Sydney apartment by 20-year-old Mert Ney in August. Latimer was imprisoned indefinitely in 2006 for multiple sex offences spanning over forty years. He was released in July under a 10-year supervision order with 52 conditions, one of which allowed him to access sex workers to reduce his risk of re-offending. These two events have caused outrage among WA sex workers and renewed calls for a change in state legislation.

The community is divided as to where to go next. Some members of the sex worker community are pushing for the decriminalisation of the industry, while others think that decriminalisation will make little difference. Some are advocating for the Nordic model, where buying or attempting to buy sex is illegal and selling sex is not.

Sex work in WA is largely governed by the Prostitution Act 2000. Under the Act, sex work itself is not technically illegal but most sex work related activities are. It is a criminal offence to run a brothel, solicit sex in public, and live off the earnings of sex work in WA.

Sex work is criminalised in WA, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and South Australia. A bill to decriminalise sex work is currently in SA’s parliament. It passed the states’ upper house last month. The NT is expected to follow in its footsteps.

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The Madame at Questa Casa, the last brothel in Kalgoorlie, says she welcomes a change in legislation but does not think decriminalisation will make much of a difference to their business. “All that will actually do is take us out of the criminal code. It will still be up to council’s to allow or disallow brothels,” she says.

Questa Casa was established in 1904 and is recognised as Australia’s oldest operating brothel. The Madame and her mother have owned the brothel for 27 years.

Questa Casa, located on Hay Street in Kalgoorlie, is the oldest brothel in Australia. Photo: Shannon Pearce.

Sex worker and author Taylor Tara says prohibition is detrimental to sex workers’ health and wellbeing. Tara released her second book Behind Closed Doors earlier this month, a follow up from her first book Memoirs from the Boudoir. “[Sex work] is by no means an easy job. These laws make it so much harder,” she says.

Tara says there are many different kinds of people who work in the sex industry and each provide their own unique service. “The ones I have met love their work,” she said. “We cater for a huge range of preferences throughout society and all deserve respect and acceptance.”

A room in Questa Casa. Photo: Shannon Pearce.

Tara believes all aspects of the sex work industry should be decriminalised. “The sex worker or the client should be able to conduct their consensual business agreement without fear of criminal charges,” she says. “It is a joke. Once we are accepted more by society, we will get a more positive shift in the legalities of it all.”

Former Perth sex worker Emily Jones says decriminalisation is the only way to stop the industry from being a haven for sexual abuse and other human rights violations. Jones worked as a sex worker for over a decade.

Jones says in her experience, clients often treated her like she was less than human because her occupation was criminalised. “I’ve had a guy that was the CEO of a major bank, a father, turn around to me and say, ‘you don’t have the right to say who goes down on you because you’re a prostitute,’” she says. “I am confident in saying there are a bunch of men out there that because they just want to ‘treat a girl like a ho’, they come to a prostitute.”

The 2017 Law and Sex Worker Health study, released by Curtin University, surveyed 354 WA sex workers about the state of the sex industry in WA. The study made seven recommendations, with the central recommendation being that sex work should be decriminalised in WA.

The study found that 1 in 5 sex workers had been abused in the past 12 months. It also revealed that nearly 50 per cent of sex workers felt uncomfortable reporting abuse or other crimes to the police.

Jones believes the police don’t care about sex worker’s safety because their industry is criminalised. “A very good friend of mine was being stalked for a while. Because she was a prostitute she wasn’t listened to,” she said. “As a sex worker, if I go into a cop shop and say I’m being harassed and I tell them I’m a prostitute, I’m flagged.”

Jones says she believes sex work should be considered a legitimate job as she has learnt a lot from the industry and takes pride in her work. “I treated my escort work professionally and always considered it to be a job,” she said. “I’m proud to say that I’m an experienced sex worker, a strong, independent, intelligent woman with a financially stable life.  Without prostitution I know 100 per cent that this would not be the case.”

Another option?

State director of the Australian Christian Lobby Peter Abetz says that neither prohibition or decriminalisation are the best models for sex work law. Abetz believes that sex work is about men with money exploiting vulnerable women. He says WA should adopt the Nordic model, under which pimps and clients are criminalised and sex workers are not. The Nordic model was first adopted in Sweden in 1999.

State director of the Australian Christian Lobby Peter Abetz. Photo: Shannon Pearce

Abetz says the laws have had a dramatic impact in Sweden. “The police said they knew, when the legislation came in in 1999, there was 500 brothels operating in Sweden and within a couple of years every single brothel was gone,” he says. “In Sweden, what’s actually happened is that the number of women involved in prostitution has plummeted and human sex trafficking, there’s just no money in it.”

Abetz says the Nordic model has become popular globally since it was first adopted in Sweden. “In the last probably 14 years, all the countries that have changed their prostitution legislation have adopted the Nordic approach because it works so well,” he says. “It’s the most effective way of reducing it. To reduce prostitution, most people recognise that would be a good thing.”

Survivors West Australia Against Prostitution is a group of current and former sex workers who advocate for the Nordic model. According to a SWAAP spokeswoman, prohibition leaves sex workers vulnerable to police and clients. “Sex buyers know that if they get busted, we will too. This leaves us vulnerable to both cohorts and pressure is exerted to cater to their demands,” she says. “But mainly it is easier for police to bust us because there are a lot more sex buyers than there are us.”

She says prohibition provides little to no support for those who want to leave the industry. “Under prohibition there is no comprehensive support to help us exit unless it is attached to punitive judicial outcomes, if at all,” she said. “As we are ‘criminal’ we are not offered help with housing, escaping pimps, abusive partners…we are not offered child care support and our children are at risk of being removed. We are fined and left to fend for ourselves. So, we end up back on the street or a brothel.”

The decriminalisation of all aspects of the sex trade has led to similar effects.”Except we are no longer criminals, but then neither are the men or the pimps,” the SWAAP spokeswoman says.

“Ostensibly we can be ‘independent contractors’. What this means is we pay for all our costs including room rental, laundry, fees for advertising through the brothel, drivers and so on,” she says. “Previously this was provided by the brothel or the massage parlour, even under prohibition.”

Like prohibition, decriminalisation leaves sex workers with no support if they want to exit the industry. “Under decriminalisation of sex buyers and profiteers we have no exit support because it is legally ‘just another job’,” she says. “It is legally like a retail worker saying she needs comprehensive support to leave her job at a restaurant or clothing store- the government has no impetus to help us if this is considered ‘proper work’.”

She says the Nordic model is the best option. “This way the entire state must uphold our right to sell sex with impunity and provide exiting support if we want it,” she says. “And we are treated as fully human.”

A study in 2004 surveyed 854 sex workers from nine different countries. It revealed that 89 per cent of those surveyed wanted to leave the industry all together, while only 34 per cent wanted sex work to be legalised.

Roe Street in Northbridge was once the location of Perth’s ‘red light district’. Photo: Shannon Pearce

Abetz says under the Nordic model, funding is put into exit programs that allow sex workers to leave the industry if they want to do so. “They keep on being part of the rehab program until they are capable of living on their own, no longer on the premises but in the open market, renting a place,” he said. “It generally takes about two years… some take up to four.”

According to Abetz, Canada and France have not put enough money into the exit programs. “It’s harder to get into the exit programs. If you take away their means of living, unless you provide them with a house and a way to get an alternative life happening, it creates other issues,” he says. “If you go down this path, the governments really need to make sure there’s enough money set aside for the exit programs and the rehabilitation.”