Sex Workers’ Voices Victoria is a pop-up project led by by The Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University Melboune in the run up to the Victorian Government’s Sex Work Decriminalisation Review, chaired by Fiona Patten MP. The aim of the project is to support sex workers to develop and describe their vision of how decriminalised sex work should look in Victoria.
Yesterday Sex Workers’ Voices Victoria hosted the first of its Community Conversations with sex workers who live and/or work in Victoria. The subject for discussion was Laws and Regulations. Two members of Sex Work Law Reform Victoria’s core group took part. Over 20 sex workers joined us for a dynamic and detailed discussion about the general legal issues around sex work as well as some of the finer points of law. There are so many different ways of working, and figuring out a comprehensive regulatory model will keep a lot of people busy for a while yet. The important thing is that sex workers keep informing the process. We were lucky to have such a wide range of workers, including gender-diverse and migrant workers, all with different experiences of sex work share their perspectives and expertise.
As we know, the laws regulating sex work vary across each Australian state; many of our participants had worked interstate, and they shared their knowledge and observations about the practicalities of working in other places. We heard from someone with substantial experience of doing sex work in other countries and they compared their working life here to working in overseas settings.
One thing came out strongly: no matter how differently various jurisdictions, local or international, regulate sex work, decriminalisation is best practice. The other thing is an ever growing appreciation of how complicated this whole business is: the business of sex work and the business of regulating it.
The conversation went so well that nobody wanted to finish at the scheduled end time and we went 30 minutes over. We could easily have kept going.
Our job now is to work out what will constitute best practice when it comes to decriminalisation in Victoria.
Greatly looking forward to the next Community Conversation.
Sex workers often point to the police and the government as being the sources of our problems. And, no doubt, with a majority of sex workers still criminalised in Victoria under outdated sex work licensing laws, the very system we live under seeks to oppress us in a range of ways.
Victoria Police, like all police forces in Australia, get a bad review by most sex workers. But when you read the horror stories from sex workers in the USA, you can’t help but feel that, by global standards, Victoria Police are doing a better job than most.
Fiona Patten’s Sex Work Review will consider ‘sex worker advocacy for safety and wellbeing’. And this raises the question of how successful we’ve been in fighting for our own rights.
Are sex workers powerless beings swept up by the currents of society, with no agency to determine the direction of their industry or their rights’ based movement?
Activists from all walks of life have proven to be poor at self-reflection and criticism. What role have sex workers themselves played in reducing Victoria to the point where we lag behind the other states when it comes to law reform?
Ever since the sex workers’ rights movement formed in Australia in the late 1970’s, Victoria has stood out, but not always for the right reasons. In the 1980’s we were world leaders when it came to peer-led activism and engagement with government. We secured funding to support our much needed activism. But along the way mistakes (and some big mistakes) were made. And that’s not something our community wants to talk about. Talking about blow jobs, threesomes, and all types of kinky sex acts is normal for us. But if you dare mention that we may have made mistakes or got things wrong… Now that’s taboo.
Today Victoria stands out as the Australian state with a highly fractured sex workers’ rights movement. Fingers crossed this Review can reset the entire state of affairs.
Will Fiona Patten consider the issue of discrimination against sex workers?
Fiona Patten’s ‘Review to make recommendations for the decriminalisation of sex work’ will consider many aspects of the sex industry, including:
- workplace safety including health and safety issues and stigma and discrimination against sex workers.
So do sex workers experience discrimination? Most people don’t notice sex workers in society, as we are largely invisible. Our survival strategy is to remain under the radar. You probably know a few people who are sex workers, but you may not know that they are sex workers. And if you don’t know a sex worker well enough for them to share their personal experiences with you, how could you know whether sex workers experience discrimination?
Even many sex workers don’t realise the extent of the discrimination they could experience. This is because many of us hide our occupation. When filling in our tax return, we say “make-up artist” or “personal trainer”. When applying for a business bank account, most of us don’t dare say our occupation is sex work. We do this to avoid the discrimination we fear.
Perhaps many people distrust sex workers; they may not believe us when we say we experience discrimination. But do you believe the banks? Their own policies lay out how they discriminate against us, and our website now systematically identifies the extent of this formal discrimination.
This is an issue that the Review must consider. That, and the issue of how adequate Victoria’s anti discrimination laws are in offering sex workers a remedy when such discrimination occurs.
Recently we heard someone describe Fiona Patten’s Sex Work Review as a once-in-a- generation opportunity for sex workers to have a say and reshape sex work regulation in this state. Who was fighting for sex workers a generation ago?
It was 1985 and The Hon. Marcia Neave AO chaired the Victorian Inquiry into Prostitution, a landmark inquiry that put Victoria ahead of most of the world at the time. Reading over hundreds of pages of Marcia Neave’s reports, it becomes clear that most of her recommendations were largely in line with the principles of decriminalisation.
Working with Marica Neave in the 1980s was Cheryl Overs, sex workers’ rights activist and founder of the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria. The 1980s was an exciting and radical time for Victoria.
In 2020 Marcia Neave continues her work in law and public policy as the newly appointed Chair of Justice Connect. Cheryl Overs continues her academic career as Senior Research Fellow at the Michael Kirby Centre at Monash University.
In 2020 will Fiona Patten be able to revive some of that earlier excitement and sense of hopefulness inspiring sex workers in the 1980s?