For sex workers around the world, the legality of their profession remains a life or death issue. Here in Australia there is a complex web of state legislation and regulations that means the lawfulness of sex work varies significantly. In Victoria specifically, there is an election on the very near horizon – and the issue is being contested yet again. The somewhat murky positions of the various parties present a challenge for voters who are interested in women’s rights at work.
Historically sex work has taken place in the shadows. These are transactions which are regularly forced underground because they’re considered seedy at best and criminal at worst. A failure by governments and the community to view sex work simply for what it is – work – has restricted the rights of women and put their safety at risk. A mixture of prejudice, stereotyping, moralising and sexism render the issue a politically charged powder keg that our elected representatives are justifiably wary of touching.
Gala Vanting has been a sex worker for over a decade, living and working in numerous state jurisdictions during that time. She’s a dominatrix who specialises in BDSM and also works as an advocate, media maker and writer. During our long phone conversation and extensive email exchange, she reveals a sharp wit and detailed understanding of the political and policy issues associated with her work. Gala explains that amongst feminists, there can be an inaccurate perception that sex work is inherently exploitative of women.
“There’s a perception of victimhood that’s associated with all sorts of things; patriarchy, economic disadvantage,” Gala tells me. “A sex worker can’t speak for herself because she’s lost all her agency. She’s being silenced and controlled so even when she says she chooses this work, it’s not believed… We need humanisation of the work that we do. Public opinion amounts to slut shaming a lot of the time, and colludes with the stigma that says that we’re diseased, desperate, lower class, money-hungry”. She says frankly, “Most of us are in it for the money just like most people who have jobs do it for the money”.
I ask Gala about her work and why she does it. Her answer is straightforward and simple: It is how she makes her living. “I was born this way?” she asks with a jocular tone. “No, I feel like this job is a natural manifestation of my politics. I am in control of my hours, I decide who to engage with. It also bolsters other career pursuits. It makes [things that I love, like writing] financially possible”.
“While recognising that of course exploitation and trafficking exist, Gala utterly rejects the pigeon-holing of sex workers as victims.”
Sex workers’ clientele tend to be demonised in the public conversation, just like those whose services they buy. Gala sighs as she delves into the stereotypes yet again. “Our clientele are seen as perverts, or sex offenders or pathetic, lonely guys; the embodiment of patriarchy. That ignores a lot of what sex work clients do seek from us. There are plenty of examples of what people want that isn’t putting your d*ck in something… I end up seeing a lot of beta males who don’t have the confidence to go to a bar and pick up a girl”.
I ask Gala about the sex work as therapy narrative, hoping she’ll explore the importance of purchasable intimacy for members of the community who might otherwise never experience it. She doesn’t comply, dryly cautioning me “let’s not over-sentimentalise the exchange, it’s not charity”. Gala does, however, make mention of the diversity of her clients and the importance of compassion. “These are negotiations but also real transactions. These people are diverse humans with diverse needs that sex workers are excellent at understanding and providing for”.
While recognising that of course exploitation and trafficking exist – as they do in many indusries – but Gala utterly rejects the pigeon-holing of sex workers as victims. Gala is blunt: “I don’t want to quit my job. My job is fine”. She goes on to explain “Like everyone, my work is better some days than others. It pays my rent.” Gala isn’t an individual whose been robbed of autonomy and choice. She doesn’t want your pity and she certainly isn’t looking to be rescued. If the legalities and stigmatization were eliminated as obstacles, Gala’s would be a job like any other. What Gala wants is the same workplace rights that everyone else in the economy enjoys and that, she says, requires sex work to be decriminalised.
There are a number of legislative models governing sex work in Australia. These exist on a spectrum from full criminalisation in Western Australia and South Australia, to licensing models that permit sex work in some settings and under specific conditions in Victoria and Queensland through to what is essentially decriminalisation in NSW. Ahead of the Victorian election there has been jostling at various party conferences about what approach should be taken regarding the future of sex work in that state.
At their last state party conference, Victorian Labor voted to decriminalise sex work in line with the NSW approach, but little mention of the policy has been made since by the Andrews Government. By contrast, the Victorian Liberal Party passed a motion at their respective conference, in favour of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Nordic model’. This controversial approach has been ruled out by Opposition Leader Matthew Guy but no further clarification has been offered around this internal clash of positions. The Greens have a policy of decriminalisation however there has been significant disquiet within their own house including murmurs of support for the Nordic model.
So, what is this famous Nordic model and what makes it both so appealing and controversial? Essentially this approach involves shifting the criminalisation of sex work from the seller, to the buyer. That is, the purchase of sex work – rather than its provision – becomes the criminal act. Sweden passed laws to this effect back in 1999 and other Nordic countries have flirted with similar schemes.
“Sex work is a labour issue and an economic justice issue.”
At first glance, the concept can sound rather appealing, particularly from a feminist perspective. Proponents of such laws are heartened by the fact that it criminalises the behaviour of men paying for sex, rather than punishing the women who sell it. The problem with this analysis is that regardless of which party’s behaviour is criminalised, the transaction falls apart. This in turn annihilates a sex worker’s livelihood and forcing her to work, once again, outside the law – and without its protection.
Jane Green from the Vixen Collective explains further that “the Nordic model criminalises not just clients but also third-parties… This includes brothel owners, managers and security, “as well as those perceived to be living off the earnings of sex work. In reality the application of these laws has meant that sex workers working together in small groups, or even in pairs have been prosecuted”.
Furthermore, this kind of law continues to reinforce the idea that sex work is inherently sordid, bad and undesirable. In France researchers have found that the so-called Nordic model is actually more detrimental to sex workers than criminalisation of the service they provide. In one study, researchers found that more than 40 percent of sex workers experienced more violence under such laws, while 70 percent had seen a deterioration of their relationship with police and almost 80 percent had lost income. International advocacy organisations including Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International have all expressed concern about the Nordic approach and support the decriminalisation of sex work as the best legal framework.
Gala says that “sex work is a labour issue and an economic justice issue”. She worries that fresh chatter about criminalising sex-seekers may further endanger the lives of sex workers, who already operate outside the law in many jurisdictions. “Having worked in both criminalised and decriminalised states, I can attest to a marked improvement of my income and business costs when [sex work is] legal. My options for where and when I can work, my control over my working environment and how I’m represented to potential clients, and my sense of safety are all better under decriminalisation.”
Decriminalisation means one simple but revelatory and life changing thing for sex workers: Their work is lawful and therefore they benefit from the same protections as other workers in the economy. It means the legal status of their work can’t be used against them in a custody battle or applying for a rental property. It means they can complain to authorities and seek police assistance when required. It means safety, security and a better life.
Gala says that for voters who care about women’s rights and workers’ rights, decriminalisation is the only acceptable legislative path forward. “For people who believe that women are the experts on their own lives, this one is really a no-brainer. Women are experts in their own well-being, and just because a woman is a sex worker doesn’t make her any less so”.
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