Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: I take the floor to speak to the Hon. Michelle Lensink’s bill, the Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill. Given that it seems to be the will of the chamber to refer this bill to a select committee, despite the fact that I think many of us in this chamber would argue that we have already had several committees inquire into this very issue, I accept that this is the will of the chamber. There are some new members in this place since those committees reported so I accept that this will be referred to a committee and therefore I will not speak at length because I look forward to seeing what the committee comes up with. However, I would like to put a few points on the record.

As has been pointed out, sex work has existed for as long as commerce has, and to somehow assert that decriminalising it now in 2015 will instantly result in an amoral society and the collapse of the institution of marriage, amongst other things, is, I believe, inaccurate. Western countries and states of Australia which have decriminalised sex work have no greater rate of marriage breakdowns or divorce than those in which it remains illegal. As for an amoral society, to me, the signifier of a just, fair and ethical society is one that acknowledges the difference and diversity amongst us and protects those who need protection. What consenting adults choose to do in the privacy of their own homes or other premises, wherever it is legal and safe, is, frankly, of little consequence to me.

That some people in our community may choose to engage the services of a sex worker seems of no more great significance than someone seeking other forms of physical, emotional or psychological support. I am far more concerned about the morality of this country if we remain unmoved or unfeeling in the face of an image of a lifeless body of a young boy on a beach in Europe, a victim of a bloody, senseless struggle that we were lucky enough not to be born in the midst of ourselves. How we respond to millions of refugees seeking refuge somewhere safe, and other major issues, should be the major discussion that we have around the morality of our nation, not one about people of age engaging in a consenting transaction.

I would like to thank the many organisations and individuals who have written to me about this issue. In particular I would like to thank the work of three peer-led industry organisations specifically working to advocate for and on behalf of sex workers: SWAGGERR, sex workers gaining empowerment rights and recognition; SA SIN, the South Australian Sex Industry Network; and the Scarlet Alliance. These organisations have continued to fearlessly and honestly advocate on behalf of workers.

I would like to thank and acknowledge in particular the work of a New South Wales based organisation, Touching Base, an industry that trains sex workers to work with people who have a disability. I hasten to add though, of course, that this is not a huge part of the industry, but to mention it perhaps does highlight the stereotypes that currently exist. I am keen to put this particular issue on the record because I feel that it has been blown out of proportion in the last few years.

Whenever we talk about this issue, despite the fact that I see it as an industrial relations issue and a workers rights issue, I am often asked about the disability angle, if I may call it that, because, of course, how could Kelly Vincent have any view on any issue other than disability? My response is this: the decriminalisation of sex work will have the same implications for people with disabilities as it will for any other population, that is, creating a society in which the diverse needs and interests of different people are respected and autonomous adults have the right and the freedom to go about living their lives and meeting their needs in the way of their choosing.

I have certainly been contacted by constituents with a disability who may use a sex worker, particularly people who have acquired disabilities—either they have a degenerative disability or maybe acquired a disability through a car accident—who may engage the services of a sex worker to perhaps learn about what is now physically possible for them post accident or post acquisition of the disability.

From my liaising with these constituents, this has not stopped them from going on to other relationships or maintaining other relationships. Therefore, I do not buy into the idea that just because one or two people with disabilities may happen to choose to use the services of sex workers this somehow sends a degrading message about all people with disabilities. I think the true degrading message is telling people with disabilities that we cannot do something just because other people with disabilities are afraid of how it might make them look.

I came into this place to ensure choice and control for people with disabilities in all aspects of their lives, and I will continue to do that. What has not been reported so much in the media, though, in recent years, because it is not so easy to cover in a headline, is the fact that to me the issue of people with disabilities engaging sex workers is a mere drop in the ocean of the actual issues I am concerned about. People who have actually followed my work over the years would know that I am gravely concerned about the broad societal infantilisation of people with disabilities, the denial of freedom of choice, and the denial of basic rights and knowledge that other people in our community take for granted.

A great example of this is the denial of access to sex education in schools. Anecdotally, it would appear to me from my contact with constituents that many people with disabilities miss out on sex education in schools, which other students take for granted, for a variety of reasons. I myself was one of them, because in my school, as I believe is still often is the case, sex education was part of the physical education or PE curriculum in which I did not participate because it was too physically inaccessible to me.

The denial of opportunity to engage in this education is of concern, but what is also of concern to me is that, even when we do get access to this information, when our right to this information is on some level respected, it is still often not presented in a way that may be accessible to us. For example, it may be targeted to an audience with a presumed level of literacy or it may presume a level of prior knowledge, which is not true of everyone. This could be because of a disability or because of other reasons. There are cultural considerations that people do not learn the same things at the same time, for example, so there are very significant considerations.

The crux of the issue is the fact that when we talk about denying people with disabilities the right and the freedom to express ourselves sexually in the manner of our choosing—and that could be choosing no sex; there is as broad a spectrum of sexuality in the disability community as any other—when society denies us these opportunities, this knowledge, this education, I think this is often done under the false pretence that this keeps us safe, that the options are either to keep us uneducated or we are out rampantly engaging in unsafe sex every night of the week. But it is my very unfortunate observation, both personally and through my work, that the opposite is true.

Denying people this education and this freedom to explore experiences that many other people would take for granted as a natural part of their lives does not keep us safe because nothing about denying us that education, knowledge and right will take away our need and desire to enter into these situations, that is, sexual and/or intimate relationships or other friendships, if that is what we desire.

All it does is minimise our ability to negotiate these relationships safely. So I will continue to speak out about the need for a broader discussion around the diversity that exists in the disability community in terms of needs relating to sexuality, and I will continue to make the point that access to sex work is a very small part of that discussion but, nonetheless, a valid one. In any event, I am perhaps getting off the topic just a little.

This evening, a dinner was hosted in Parliament House where representatives from sex worker advocacy organisations came to present some of the issues they are facing, and I am pleased to say we had a pretty broad representation from a variety of parties who were very interested in engaging with the relevant issues with the people who are most affected by them. They gave us some facts during this briefing. It is certainly not the first time, I am sure, that these will be put on the record, but I would like to do so now. These points have to do with the composition of the sex worker industry in the state of South Australia specifically.

As has been said by previous speakers, about 2,000 sex workers in any one year are working in South Australia, but not all work year-round. About 90 per cent of sex workers are women and about 5 per cent are male and I understand that that percentage is increasing. Of the 2,000 sex workers statewide, there are 16—that is right, 16—who regularly engage in street work and there are 10 brothels. So decriminalising sex work will not mean that suddenly we find a thousand brothels popping up next to every school. Sex workers, like every other form of commerce or business, operate where they can successfully and respectfully conduct business.

As there should be, and has already been mentioned by previous speakers, there are strict international human trafficking laws in relation to all industries in Australia already in place and that is why they are not specifically dealt with in this bill, just the same as the idea of a minor engaged in sex work is not dealt with in this bill because that is already illegal. Sex with a minor is already illegal and therefore does not need to be specifically dealt with again in this bill.

It is my understanding from my research and discussions that there has never been one single conviction under these laws in relation to sex workers being trafficked in this country. Of course, trafficking is a very serious issue and we should have the mechanisms to deal with that and we do. We already have strict international human trafficking laws in relation to all industries in this nation. I hasten to make the point too that decriminalisation does not mean no regulation.

The argument has been made tonight that this will take away all the ability of the police, for example, to investigate brothels or to take any action for the health, safety and wellbeing of sex workers. That is absolutely untrue because laws protecting workers still exist and the police still have the ability to enter into discussions with workers if there is concern about a breach of law, such as any violence or sexual offences, things that are already unlawful under the laws of this nation, and rightly so. The ability for sex workers to seek out the support of police and other mechanisms if they need to will very much still be there.

Additionally, I would note the submissions and views of a number of progressive human rights and women’s rights organisations, many of which are staffed by women and advocate fearlessly and independently on behalf of women on a large variety of issues, one of which is sex worker rights. The submissions in support of decriminalisation include those from Amnesty International, Soroptimist International of Australia, YWCA, Zonta, Business and Professional Women and the Working Women’s Centre.

I would also note the submission of organisations like FamilyVoice, representing a voice for family, faith and freedom, and of a number of individuals who have contacted my office urging me to vote against this bill. I have certainly read the emails and correspondence and appreciate very much that they have taken time to express to me their views. But, on this issue, I have to disagree with their perspective.

With respect, I would suggest that there are few or no well-researched statistics or evidence put forward to me that can convince me that we do not need reform of this industry in this state. I understand that there are moral objections and there are moral considerations for many people, but I feel I cannot, as a member of this parliament who takes their job very seriously, put the discomfort of some before the health, safety and wellbeing of workers—all workers—in this state.

This is essentially an issue of workers’ rights. To keep these workers safe, we need to decriminalise. If we decriminalise sex work, a worker need not be afraid to report incidents such as rape to the police, which I understand is currently the case because workers understand that if they reveal their profession they face risking conviction rather than protection.

If we decriminalise sex work, we ensure that devices such as condoms are used for safe sex rather than as evidence by police in a court against sex workers to demonstrate they are engaging in illegal work. That is right: sex workers already use condoms as a normal part of their duties and, when they do that, they are penalised for trying to engage in their work safely because these condoms, under criminalisation, can be used as evidence that the person is engaging in sex work.

So here we are with many detractors of this bill asking that we request workers to engage in work safely, to engage in safe sex, which they are already doing, I understand, at higher rates than the general population, yet, at the same time, we want to take away those devices that do keep them safe and use them as evidence against workers.

If we decriminalise sex work, we can ensure that if it ever were to happen in this state, a person trafficked from overseas in servitude, forced to be a sex worker, could report this to police without fear of prosecution. At present, it is my belief that none of these measures can work effectively in South Australia while sex work is illegal.

I would also argue that we should take note of the well-researched, credentialled reports that have appeared in The Lancet and that are endorsed by international bodies such as the United Nations, and they call for the decriminalisation of sex work. An unprecedented study, called ‘Sex work and the law’, issued less than three years ago by the UN Development Programme (UNPD), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) stated:

Criminalisation increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination, limits access to sexual health services and condoms. Removing legal penalties from sex work allows HIV prevention and treatment programs to reach sex workers and their clients more effectively.

The report clearly distinguishes between adult consensual sex work and human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Where sex work has been decriminalised, this report suggests that there is a greater chance for safer sex practices through the occupational health and safety standards across the industry, and furthermore there is no evidence that decriminalisation has increased the number of people participating in sex work as workers.

I said I would be brief this evening, as I respect that this bill will be referred to a committee. While I may have some views on whether that is the right way to go, I look forward to the report of that committee and to this parliament making the right decision to protect all workers.