In the 1970s illegal brothels masqueraded as massage parlors and street walkers proliferated the street areas around the notorious suburb of Melbourne, St Kilda. Victoria was the first state to legalize brothel based prostitution through the Melbourne and Metropolitan Planning Scheme with the objectives of controlling industry growth, reducing illegal activities, preventing criminal elements infiltrating the industry, preventing child prostitution, and making street walkers safe.
The Victorian model allowed licensed commercial brothels regulated under the 1994 Prostitution Control Act which became known as the Sex Work Act, and local government planning regulations. In addition single owner managed brothels with one additional sex worker were also allowed and exempt from the need to obtain a license under the Sex Worker Act. However these small brothels still needed local government planning approvals which were almost impossible to obtain, requiring appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, needing expensive legal representation.
The Sex Work Act also allowed escort agencies which could provide sexual services at customer premises, or just recently at hotels, although street walkers were still illegal under the Act.
Under this legislative regime, Consumer Affairs Policy of the Victorian Government gives the impression that this $500 million per year legal industry with over 3 million customers is a safe and reasonable job for women in Victoria. In Victoria prostitution is considered a consensual act between two people where one is used sexually by the other. In addition ’pimping’ is legalized by allowing non-sex workers who own and manage licensed brothels to benefit financially from prostitution. Sex workers are considered service providers without the guaranteed pay, protection, and benefits workers that other industries are afforded.
This situation appears to be institutionalized by the attitudes of the peak sex worker association, the Scarlet Alliance which sees prostitution as a legitimate occupation, parallel with the interests of the commercial brothel owners, who as mentioned are not sex workers.
This situation in the state of Victoria leaves sex workers as an exploited group by both government and commercial interests, where the sex workers themselves are seen as mere sex objects who generate commercial revenue. The current prostitution laws in Victoria maintain the industry as a vocation of oppression against individual sex workers who are unable to empower themselves and given no resources to cope with the trauma and violence of the job.
There is indeed an urgent need to put workers in charge of their own industry, so they can be free of the shackles of legitimized ’pimpism’ that the Sex Work Act enshrines.
Industry statistics indicate that only 10% of commercial brothel licenses are held by women. Through various legal devices to flaunt the law, six major entities appear to control the legal industry.
High licensing fees, extremely high capital requirements required to meet planning regulations to develop a brothel, and a tendency of local councils to reject new applications, which require expensive legal representation make it almost impossible for sex workers to own and operate a legal brothel. In addition, the economics of the industry really require operators to own the premises they operate from, because the owners of premises with planning approvals charge sex operators who wish to lease these premises exorbitant rents, allowing only marginal returns to the operators.
Obtaining the necessary permits to operate exempt brothels from the Sex Work Act are so difficult, most sex workers opt to open illegal brothels under the guise of a massage parlor, thereby going outside the law. They run the risk if prosecuted of having all their assets forfeited by the state, a penalty primarily reserved for drug trafficking. In addition the proprietors of licensed commercial brothels proactively seek to close down these illegal brothels, due to the competition they give the legal industry, as most customers tend to visit both legal and illegal brothels. This brings a situation where the legalized pimps of the industry are the worst enemy of the weak and unprotected sex workers.
Those sex workers who opt to work within licensed commercial brothels usually work 12-14 hour shifts where up to 60% of money paid by clients goes to the brothel. The sex workers are given no assistance in handling the specific occupational issues related to their work by the licensed brothels.
Neither the government, sex worker peak body, or brothel recognize the social and economic inequality of sex workers. A recent Consumer Affairs of Victoria Report into the Brothel Industry concluded that the major driver for women entering the industry was financial need. Prostitution was particularly attractive to single mothers, students, and young indigenous people, where opportunities for other work are limited by the lack of training and skills. The young are particularly vulnerable.
Although those advocating the legalization of prostitution highlight issues like job flexibility and higher financial returns than other forms of work, the physical and emotional costs, violence and stigma are huge costs for the individuals concerned. Sex work can be extremely destructive upon a person’s sexuality, where dissociation from mind and body is often necessary to cope, which can lead to alcohol and drug dependency. Many sex workers have deep psychological issues that need urgent attention, not to mention assistance in financial planning and management. Prostitution in many cases is a route to poverty rather than out of poverty, often inducing sex workers into pastimes like gambling as a means to cope with the stresses of handling up to 20 customers a day.
These are areas of concern totally missing from the Victorian approach to prostitution. Legislation that was seen as a solution, now appears to be the cause of the problem.
There is a deep assumption in the Victorian law that society needs to be protected from sex workers as they are social misfits who shouldn’t be seen. This assumption makes it so difficult for sex workers to acquire licenses, that they must flaunt the law and operate illegal brothels to survive, with the consequent legal risks attached. Most importantly the law is keeping these 25,000 people on the fringe of society where they are open to violence and exploitation, where sex workers have the mere status as sex objects for a multi-million dollar industry. The laws have allowed male domination in what should be and industry primarily operated by females. The laws have created legitimate pimps who profit off the earnings of prostitution, where other models like setting up sex worker cooperatives could have been considered.
The laws have protected licensed brothels and made illegal brothels owned and operated by sex workers themselves vulnerable and marginal. The barriers to entry are now so high, sex workers cannot aspire to operate their own premises legally.
The immorality of the Victorian prostitution laws lies in that they allow others to exploit vulnerable sex workers. The only thing the Sex Work Act has achieved is to replace the word pimp with the phrase ’legitimate business operator’, which has inflicted unnecessary pain and suffering on the victims of the sex industry, the sex workers themselves.
Any legislation that empowers employers over employees should be subject to social scrutiny, and this should also be the case in the sex industry. With the state of Victoria allowing continued exploitation of the vulnerable in society, one has to ask on what moral grounds the Premier of Victoria Denis Napthine refuses to review the State’s sex laws.
Murray Hunter is associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, and consultant to Asian governments on community development.
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