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.

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.