5 December 2020: The Coalition of Independent Women

Coalition of Independent Women

Fiona Patten and independent MP Ali Cupper have just announced their “coalition of independent women”. What will this mean for the prospects of sex work decriminalisation in Victoria?

Long time sex industry lobbyist Fiona Patten has been clear about her support of the decriminalisation of sex work. Ali Cupper holds the regional seat of Mildura, not a part of Victoria associated with a strong sex workers’ rights movement. Geographically speaking, Mildura is about as far away from Melbourne as you can get: 542km by road from the CBD. 

The Victorian Government, currently held by Labor, has a clear majority in the Lower House and can easily pass legislation there, despite resistance from the Opposition. However, in the Upper House, Labor only has 17 of the 40 seats and needs additional votes to pass legislation. Decriminalisation in Victoria requires new law, a bill, and requires a majority vote in both houses of parliament. If Fiona Patten can convince Ali Cupper to vote for sex work decriminalisation, it means one additional guaranteed ‘yes’ vote in the Upper House.

Reflecting the conservative nature of her electorate, Ms Cupper said “[Fiona Patten’s] Reason [Party] takes the best conservative ideas and the best progressive ideas and melds them together.”

The ABC’s political reporter Richard Willingham covered this story on 4 December, 2020.

16 October 2020: Review now in Minister’s Hands

Melissa Horne, sex work decriminalisation

Melissa Horne takes over from Fiona Patten in a new phase of the Sex Work Review.

Fiona Patten has spent close to a year conducting a Review into the best way to decriminalise sex work in Victoria. Fiona was tasked with conducting the Review on behalf of the Minister, and she consulted with dozens of sex industry and other stakeholder groups in the process.  This week Fiona handed her much anticipated recommendations to Melissa Horne, the newly appointed Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation.

Fiona Patten has been lobbying for the sex industry for decades – she is the founder of Eros, and the Australian Sex Party, which became the Reason party. She knows the industry inside out, having spent countless hours publicly defending brothels, porn and sex work more broadly. She worked in the industry herself and is clearly comfortable and fluent when discussing sex and sex work publicly. 

Most politicians are nothing like this. They shy away from discussing sex, or sex work. Sex work is not a subject that comes naturally to them. They avoid it, like most people. And when they’re forced to confront it, the most common reaction is discomfort, silence, awkwardness. Melissa Horne will face a sex industry desparate for reform, impatient and tired of decades of suffering under our wretched sex work licensing system that threatens the majority of sex workers with prosecution

Melissa Horne is in many ways very different from Fiona Patten. Familiar with ministerial portfolios, she is new to the role of Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation. Navigating a way to implement law reform during a global pandemic, while her party is under fire over the response to coronavirus, and with the competing narratives surrounding sex work, was never going to be easy. In fact, sex work decriminalisation is notoriously difficult. Which is why only three jurisdictions in the world have decriminalised sex work. It seems logical that some kind of bill will be tabled in 2021, but the government hasn’t yet confirmed anything. 

We don’t yet know if the list of groups who made submissions will be made public. We also don’t know whether the Minister will choose to publish Fiona Patten’s final report.

What we do know is that now the ball is now firmly in the court of Melissa Horne. She’ll decide what happens next. 

Listen to Fiona Patten interviewed alongside Lisa from Sex Work Law Reform Victoria representative on 16 October 2020. Interview aired on Australia’s sex work radio show, Behind Closed Doors.

Listen on Apple Podcasts: Fiona Patten: Victoria’s Sex Work Review update

Stream on website: Fiona Patten: Victoria’s Sex Work Review update

14 October 2020: Fiona Patten’s Deadline

Review to make recommendations for the decriminalisation of sex work

Today marks Fiona Patten’s deadline – the date by which she must hand her recommendations regarding sex work decriminalisation to the Victorian Government. 

We know Fiona personally endorses sex work decriminalisation. The Victorian Government has already decided to proceed down this path. The questions lie in the details – there are different ways to shape the laws that achieve the broad goal of sex work decriminalisation. Which model will Fiona recommend? Decrim as exists in New South Wales, a New Zealand-like approach or something along the lines of the legislative model adopted by the Northern Territory?

Whether Fiona’s report is published is left up to the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation, Melissa Horne, to decide.

30 September 2020: A Ministerial Reshuffle Raises the Question: What is Sex Work?

Martin Foley is appointed Minister for Health following the resignation of Jenny Mikakos. Revelations from hearings at the Inquiry into the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Program led former Minister for Health, Jenny Mikakos, to resign from her ministerial portfolio and from parliament altogether. 

From the perspective of sex workers, Martin Foley is a desirable person to be appointed Minister for Health. One of the longest serving members of parliament, Mr Foley’s state electorate of Albert Park includes Melbourne’s ‘red light’ district of St Kilda, contains the highest number of licensed brothels in the state and has a high concentration of private escorts (both female and male). A long term public advocate of sex workers’ rights, Mr Foley also retains the Minister for Equality portfolio, a portfolio often associated with LGBTIQ rights. 

Mr Foley has facilitated funding boosts to StarHealth community health centre in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. StarHealth runs Victoria’s government funded sex worker support program, RhED. He also helped deliver funding to the much anticipated seven-story Victorian Pride Centre, located in St Kilda. Scheduled to open in 2021, the Centre will house LGBTIQ related organisations and sex worker groups. 

The Minister for Health plays a role regulating the sex industry. Matters pertaining to public health, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and now coronavirus, are managed by the Department of Health and Human Services Victoria (DHHS), and sex workers are often the focus of public health concerns. DHHS also funds sex worker related programs. At present these programs include community health program RhED and feminist charity Project Respect.

DHHS’s regulatory role overseeing the sex industry reminds us of a fundamental, and yet unresolved question: for the purposes of government regulation, how are we to view the sex industry? Is there a single answer? No government in Australia, or the world, has yet been able to satisfactorily or clearly answer this question. Here in Victoria, over time and at present, various government departments and competing narratives provide an array of possible responses.

For the purposes of regulation, governments can view and regulate sex work as one or more of the following:

  • criminal activity to be eliminated by police (to a certain extent Victoria adopts this approach)
  • a form of counselling or therapy 
  • a medical or health service, like nursing
  • massage, a largely unregulated industry
  • a form of alternative therapy similar to acupuncture, Reiki, reflexology (an activist even once suggested that, as a service, sex work could most closely be compared to colonic irrigation)  
  • a licensed business similar to real estate agents, funeral directors or used car salesmen (this best reflects Victoria’s current approach)
  • a provider of entertainment services (similar to casinos, gambling venues, nightclubs)
  • adult entertainment (similar to strip clubs, peep shows)
  • exploitation of women where charities need to be funded to rescue women, helping them to escape the industry
  • a public health threat requiring laws that criminalise HIV positive workers, mandatory STI testing and a lead role for health authorities

No doubt Mr Foley’s own views on the sex industry will be considered throughout the law reform process. 

We welcome Minister Foley to his new portfolio and look forward to working with him to further the legal and human rights of sex workers.

27 August 2020: Crossbench Flexes Its Muscles

Fiona Patten Crossbench Victorian Parliament

The crossbenchers in the Upper House have flexed their muscles, forcing the Premier to the negotiating table. This demonstrates the collective power the crossbench wields over the Victorian Government. 

Earlier this week Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews indicated his desire to extend Victoria’s State of Emergency by 12 months, so that coronavirus restrictions can continue well into 2021. Victorian legislation must achieve a majority vote in both houses of parliament. The Victorian Government lacks a majority in the Upper House, and so must receive the support from the opposition, crossbench, or both in order to pass legislation. 

So, what is, who is the crossbench? It is a collection of members of parliament in the Upper House who are not part of the government or opposition. Victoria’s current crossbench is unusually large and unusually diverse. We have:

  • an animal rights party (yes, Andy Meddick is vegan)
  • a party favourable to sex workers’ rights (Fiona Patten’s Reason Party)
  • a party for taxi drivers
  • the Greens
  • a party about population control and limits on immigration
  • a party about law and order and the rights of victims of crime
  • a libertarian party
  • Shooters, Farmers and Fishers Party Victoria (the name gives you a clue)
  • a number of independents (including Adem Somyurek, expelled from Labor earlier in 2020)

It appears the crossbench united in their opposition to the government’s plans to extend the state of emergency by 12 months. This forced the government to the negotiating table and an amended bill seems likely. This incident is a reminder of the power the crossbench yields when it is united in its opposition to the government. 

If a sex work decriminalisation bill is tabled during this term of parliament, the crossbench will be crucial to its success.

6 August 2020: The Domino Effect

What is the domino effect and how does that relate to Victoria’s Sex Work Review?

Many of us as kids remember board games from days gone by, including dominos. Just like domino tiles, things in politics can also push over what’s next door. Look at progressive law reform in Australia over the last decade – safe access to abortion clinics is a great example. Over the last decade, most Australian jurisdictions have enacted legislation that prohibits intimidation or harassment of people within certain zones around abortion clinics. Such laws were introduced in response to regular anti-abortion protestors who would pray outside clinics and harass women entering them, trying to change their mind about abortion. 

Safe access zone laws are a great example of state legislation introduced in one jurisdiction, creating a domino effect, with most other states following suit. 

2013 Tasmania first jurisdiction to enact safe access zone legislation

2015 ACT and VIC enact safe access zone legislation

2017 NT enacts safe access zone legislation

2018 NSW enacts safe access zone legislation

2018 QLD reviews its abortion laws

2020 WA and SA introduce safe access zone bills

One reason safe access zone laws are becoming accepted is their success at achieving their stated goals. A recent High Court challenge to safe access zones was easily defeated, affirming their status as constitutional.

Victoria’s Sex Work Review must be examined in the context of what other jurisdictions are doing. Last year the NT decriminalised sex work. This year Queensland’s sex work decriminalisation campaign continues to develop. And 2020 sees South Australia table another bill to decriminalise sex work. 

If Victoria successfully decriminalises sex work it will likely increase pressure on other jurisdictions to follow suit. Images of childhood domino games have never been so relevant.

24 July 2020: Social Distancing and Sex Work

Restrictions sex work

How to have a sex work booking AND practise social distancing at the same time! Only in Victoria …

We know Victoria’s sex work laws are often weird, to put it mildly. They get weirder when it comes to what is defined as sex work. Picture this scenario – a client and a sex worker are in a room together. He’s fully dressed. They’re standing (or sitting) 1.5 metres apart from each other, as per the Covid Restrictions on social distancing. They’re talking dirty and he reaches down to have a rub of his Victorian manliness, on the outside, note, he’s not even putting his hands inside his pants. At no time do the two people touch each other. Does this count as sex work? Surely not. 

Well, no, everywhere else in the world, it wouldn’t.* 

But in Victoria, it does! See our What is Sex Work page for the legal definitions of what constitutes sex work.

Hence, we applaud any recommendations in Fiona Patten’s Review to legally redefine sex work, cos we don’t think that the scenario above ought to be considered sex work

How did a definition like this come about? This legal definition of sex work was designed to cover grey areas when it came to regulating activities taking place in strip clubs back in the bad old days. 

 *note: We make this claim with the disclaimer that we haven’t examined the entire global body of sex work laws, so don’t quote us. An equally odd definition of sex work may exist in another jurisdiction’s legal code. Who knows? Let’s know if you find something.

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.

1 July, 2020: Welcoming the new Minister for Consumer Affairs

Whenever there’s a problem with sex industry regulation, the most common instinctive response is for someone in authority to point the finger at someone else and say “That department is responsible”. There’s a fierce bout of finger pointing in multiple directions. And the finger is often pointed at suburban police stations, SICU, St Kilda Police Station, DHHS, Consumer Affairs Victoria, local councils, WorkSafe…

But the role of the Minister for Consumer Affairs is clear. The Sex Work Act states the Minister for Consumer Affairs is the relevant minister for regulating sex work.

Last week the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, appointed Melissa Horne as the next Minister for Consumer Affairs. Minister Horne is relatively new to parliament, having been elected in 2018. However, she’s not entirely new to politics, being a long term member of the Labor Party and having grown up with a dad in the Federal Parliament. 

A Member’s inaugural speech often reveals something about their core values and motivations. Minister Horne’s inaugural speech focuses on core values of fairness, and an acknowledgement of the many people who have inspired and shaped her: other activists, MP’s, her family, and the Labor Party itself. Key themes running through her political life include education and public transport: traditional Labor issues.

Her electorate of Williamstown, the location of Melbourne’s first sea port, is in a beautiful part of Melbourne, boasting historic buildings, old industrial areas and unassuming suburbs Australia is known for. Five of Victoria’s 89 licensed brothels are found in Minister Horne’s electorate. Williamstown is known for its public housing blocks, ghost tours, and a ‘colourful’ history. In the gold rush days Williamstown was notorious for  its number of pubs, sailors, and ‘ladies of the night’. Lantern Ghost Tours still delight curious sightseers with wild stories of crime and debauchery. 

Sex work is by its very nature a contested occupation, with opposing narratives about how it ought to be regulated or, as some would prefer,  abolished altogether. The new Minister will be tasked with finding a legislative solution amongst the various views and divisions.

We welcome Minister Horne to her new portfolio and look forward to working with her to further the workplace safety and human rights of sex workers.

30 June 2020: Reflecting on Marlene Kairouz

In Victoria, the Minister for Consumer Affairs is responsible for regulating the sex industry. One of the responsibilities of the Minister is to appoint members of the Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee, in which key stakeholders provide recommendations to the Minister about issues relating to the regulation of sex work. 

The former Minister, Marlene Kairouz, held the position for four years from 2016–2020. It was disappointing that the Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee did not meet during Minister Kairouz’s time as Minister. The Minister is responsible for appointing members and by law, the Committee was meant to have met regularly. 

The Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee was one mechanism to keep the government in touch with key sex industry stakeholders. MP’s, along with the general public, don’t necessarily understand the needs and concerns of sex workers. With the media always keen to simplify sex work and misrepresent sex workers, governments need to make deliberate and repeated efforts to speak to, listen to and consider the views of sex workers. Unless people have visited brothels or have friends who are sex workers and who are open about what they do,  how could anyone be expected to understand our industry?

The sex industry will benefit if the Committee is reinstated. Later in 2020, we sincerely hope this will occur.