16 June 2020: Marlene Kairouz Resigns

Today Marlene Kairouz resigned as Minister for Consumer Affairs. Ms Kairouz was responsible for regulating the licensed portion (as little as 20%) of Victoria’s sex industry. We take a look at her time in the role and the challenges her predecessor will face. 

The Minister for Consumer Affairs is responsible for Consumer Affairs Victoria, which licenses and regulates a range of businesses, from builders, tradespeople and real estate agents to brothels. Consumer Affairs Victoria interacts directly with the sex industry by administering Victoria’s notorious licensing system of sex work regulation. This system is despised by both sex workers and sex industry businesses. Years of frustration with this unworkable licensing system is what ultimately led the Victorian government in 2019 to announce a sweeping review of the system. 

The Victorian branch of the Labor Party has long been known to have factions and divisions. Recently sacked Minister for Local Government Adem Somyurek was described by Channel 9’s “60 Minutes” as ‘a factional kingpin’. Marlene Kairouz, also caught on camera on the 60 Minutes episode, was close to Mr Somyurek and aligned with him in the right faction of the Labor Party.  Adem Somyurek was Marlene Kairouz’s representative in the Upper House, after all. Any questions in the Upper House about sex industry licensing and regulation were directed to him. Now that Mr Somyurek is gone from cabinet and the Labor Party itself, investigations by IBAC and Victoria Police are likely, and the people closest to Mr Somyurek will be in the spotlight. 

Marlene Kairouz, whilst gone from the cabinet, retains her membership in the Labor Party and her Lower House seat of Kororoit in Melbourne’s western suburbs. She maintains her innocence of any wrongdoing:

“I look forward to the opportunity to clear my name and am confident any investigative process will do so.”

In resigning of her own volition, Ms Kairouz appears to have approval of the Premier. Of her decision to resign, he said,

“I would refer you to those statements and I believe they have both made the appropriate decision.”

Mr Andrews said he did not ask Ms Kairouz to resign and had not spoken to her prior to her decision to do so. 

It’s only fair that MP’s are given the benefit of the doubt, and we wait for any investigative process to unfold before judging individuals. But as sex workers’ rights activists, our core duty is to fight for the human rights, legal rights and interests of sex workers in Victoria. This is part of our Purpose, as outlined in our constitution. 

Former Minister Marlene Kairouz, despite her former portfolio responsibility for licensing the sex industry, was not particularly engaged with the sex industry. She was responsible for regulating dozens of other types of businesses; perhaps her focus was on more conventional industries. Victoria’s Sex Work Act places many unreasonable burdons on sex workers, much to the anger of the sex industry as a whole. Section 67 of the Act places a burden on the Minister for Consumer Affairs – it requires the Minister to appoint a Ministerial Advisory Committee relating to the sex industry. The last time this Committee met was 3 March 2014. 

In contrast to sex workers who may breach the Sex Work Act, the Minister doesn’t face criminal penalties for failing to comply with the Act. In fact, Ministers don’t face any penalties for failing to comply with section 67. 

In 2019, the government quietly passed a consumer law Bill which amended a small number of sections of the Sex Work Act. Both Marlene Kairouz and Adem Somyurek read in the bill (in their respective houses of parliament), with Mr Somyurek answering questions about the sex industry sections of the Bill. 

SWLRV identified a lack of consultation with sex workers in the lead up to the bill being read. We also publicly identified unsupported statements made by these two Ministers in 2019 as part of our submission to OVIC regarding freedom of information matters. 

The new Minister for Consumer Affairs will face the difficult task of sex industry reform in Victoria. On 30 September Fiona Patten will hand her recommendations regarding reform to the Minister. Whether or not Fiona Patten’s report and recommendations are made public is at the Minister’s discretion. The Minister will also need to decide whether they want to reinstate the Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee as required in section 67 of the Sex Work Act

Sex work decriminalisation is always incredibly complex and the details will be contested, both within and outside of the sex industry. And this will happen during a global coronavirus pandemic, with a shrinking economy, rising unemployment, and a polarised political landscape where voters have record low levels of trust in government, and while government debt rises. 

Sex industry reform was never going to be easy.

3 June 2020: A Healthy Dose of Self-Criticism?

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.

1 June 2020: The issue of Discrimination

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. 

https://sexworklawreformvictoria.org.au/financial-institutions-which-ones-discriminate/

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.

26 April 2020: 35 Years After Marcia Neave’s Inquiry

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?






24 April 2020: Will we hear from clients?

Who will make submissions to Fiona Patten’s Sex Work Review? We certainly hope to hear from a diverse range of sex workers, but it’s inevitable that anti-sex worker voices will be heard too. Last year the Northern Territory called for submissions on sex work reforms and a good percentage of the submissions came from Christian or radical feminist groups. These groups tend to favour the Nordic Model, which demonises clients, portraying them as one-dimensional violent misogynists. 

So will there be room in the inquiry to hear from clients? After all, there would be no sex industry without them. In certain circumstances, clients, like sex workers, are criminalised by Victoria’s sex work laws, and they, too, are arguably stigmatised. We seldom hear from clients in debates about sex work issues. Their voices are left out. Is it time to start listening to clients and encourage their voices to be heard?