7 July 2020: Does the law offer solutions?

Do criminal laws offer the best method of preventing violence against sex workers? The word ‘decriminalisation’ suggests changes to the law, but the Terms of Reference of Victoria’s Sex Work Review make it clear the Review will examine much more than just laws. The Review will also examine the state of sex worker advocacy and the support services available to sex workers.

Earlier this year we formed a partnership with the Michael Kirby Centre at Monash University in Melbourne. We wanted to bring together the lived experience of those in the sex industry with the specialised legal and acacemic skills of researchers. Not that academic skills are mutually exclusive from sex work experience. Many sex workers do possess academic and legal skills. This partnership resulted in a temporary project called Sex Workers’ Voices Victoria; a group consisting of the Michael Kirby Centre and various sex worker organisations (Sex Work Law Reform Victoria, Red Files, Rhed and Working Man). 

One of the tasks Sex Workers’ Voices Victoria set for itself was to conduct a series of sex worker consultation meetings via video link. We called these ‘Community in Conversation’. The feedback received, while not surprising, has highlighted the gulf between how sex workers and governments view effective solutions to improving health and wellbeing in the workplace. 

Governments, overwhelmingly, in Australia and overseas have an urge to assume, incorrectly, that more and stronger laws, preferably criminal laws, make sex workers safer. They also assume that such laws need to be enforced by lots of authority figures, preferably the police. 

Sex workers in Victoria tend to see the police as the source of their problems, and as contributing to the violence they might experience. The consultation sessions we conducted found that sex workers, in general, wanted more funded peer-led sex worker support services and education. Not that sex workers don’t want criminal laws that crack down on actual violent conduct that would harm sex workers. Victoria already has plenty of state and federal laws that criminalise violence against sex workers. But few sex workers know about these laws in detail, they don’t know how to report breaches of these laws, with even fewer actually using the laws to bring perpetrators to justice. 

The idea that sex worker peer-led support services and education are the most effective, most cost effective and most efficient ways to support sex workers is not new. The HIV Strategies have been saying this for years. The sex indusry has been saying it for decades. And Victorian community health service RhED published a report on the subject that confirmed such findings. Our job now is to convince the parliament and other key stakeholders to trust the evidence and in doing so, overcome their natural tendency to attempt to rely solely on legislation to solve the problems in the sex industry.