Who Speaks For Sex Workers?


After the Greens’ recent defeat in the seat of Melbourne, plenty of articles appeared lamenting the fact and commenting on the role of the Sex Party. If you relied on the commentary, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Sex Party are a cohort of Labor-loving brothel owners, hellbent on deregulating the sex industry so they can sell your daughters into sex slavery.

Meagan Tyler wrote about the "dark side" of the Sex Party in The Conversation, criticising it for being reticent about "what is at the centre of the party’s very being; a push for the full decriminalisation of prostitution".  According to Tyler, the Sex Party is in it for power and influence: "scratch the surface and it is clear that the Sex Party is really just window dressing for a sex industry lobby group".

Guy Rundle had a go in Crikey as well. He too criticised the party for an apparent mismatch between its libertarian approach to sex and speech when "its main game is to enforce a strict line between the legal and non-legal sex trade, to the benefit of the former".

But, as usual, there was one voice absent from the commentary — that of sex workers themselves. Rundle and Tyler position sex workers as helpless victims who need someone else to do their talking for them.

As a sex worker and one of the founding members of Vixen, Victoria’s only active sex worker organisation run solely by sex workers themselves, I read this kind of commentary with the usual mixture of frustration and indignation. Sex workers are a diverse workforce with a multitude of different roles and experiences, yet we continue to be stereotyped in this negative, disempowering way. And in doing so, what should have been the main thrust of their articles has been largely ignored: does the Sex Party actually do what they claim to do — represent the rights of sex workers?

Depending on which state you work in, the law regarding sex work in Australia varies from decriminalisation, legalisation, to prohibition, Sex work is also covered by three jurisdictions — Federal, State, and Municipal. The reality of working under these conditions is that it can be confusing to navigate, especially if you travel from state to state for work, as many workers do.

In Victoria, sex work is regulated by the Sex Work Act (1994), a form of legalisation and licensing that demarcates "legal" sex work (for example licensed brothels, some private work, escort agencies) from everything else (including some private work, street sex work, and some stripping and peep show work). Sex work is covered by a horde of government regulatory bodies in addition to the workplace regulators that cover all other workplaces, such as Consumer Affairs, Department of Health, State and Federal police, and local councils.

Not only does this multi-layered system involve many different levels of compliance for workers to navigate, it also fails to recognise that many, if not most workers, move between different areas of the industry throughout their career, meaning they are working "legally" one day and "illegally" the next.

Vixen has long championed a shift of legislation to the decriminalisation model.

Rather than resulting in, as Meagan Tyler fears, an industry free-for-all that would see a corrupt few boost their profits through exploiting the helpless and vulnerable, this model has been proven, in places like New Zealand, to result in safer, healthier workers with more tools to manage their workplaces, and who feel more empowered to ask for help should they need it.

It would give individual workers the freedom to work in pairs or small collectives and to look out for each other, essentially taking control out of the hands of others and regaining more control over their individual workplaces. We believe that there is ample criminal and workplace OH&S legislation that can and should be applied to our workplaces, and that sex work does not need special legislation to cover breaches of health and safety in the workplace.

Both Tyler and Rundle favour the so-called "Swedish Model" of regulating sex work — whereby clients are criminalised, but workers are not. The sex workers I’ve spoken with do not see this model of legislation — which is currently undergoing a re-branding as the Nordic Model presumably due to the drubbing it has got from sex-worker organisations world-wide — as a useful one.

The model seeks to criminalise the clients of sex workers rather than the workers themselves, which seems stunningly simple and effective if you are seeking to eradicate sex work, but for those of us who wish to continue working in the industry, it offers us no help or protection — rather it stigmatises our clients, makes it harder for us to work safely, and — let’s face it — affects our pockets! It’s pretty hard to make a buck when your clients are criminalised.

The Sex Party’s policy on sex work in Victoria mirrors what Victorian sex workers are advocating for — decriminalisation. This is not surprising — after all, it was written by a Victorian sex worker. A sex worker, incidentally, who has also been a member of Vixen since 2005, a spokesperson for Scarlet Alliance, the national sex-worker organisation, and who is also a candidate for the Sex Party who is open about their sex work.

The Sex Party were the only party who consulted Victorian sex workers about sex work legislation and then built their policy accordingly. They were the only party who came to the rally around the decriminalisation of sex work organised as part of Vixen’s Festival of Sex Work earlier this year. And whilst I, like many sex workers I know, am suspicious about the political process and those who seek power through it, I cannot deny that the Sex Party are the only party that actually listens to sex worker voices rather than pandering to the loud and insistent voices of the anti-sex work intelligentsia.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.