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 And, no doubt, with a majority of sex workers still criminalised in Victoria under outdated sex work licensing laws, the very system we live under seeks to oppress us in a range of ways.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.
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?
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?