By Dr Caroline Norma
Over the last three decades, the sex industry has managed to forge for itself a near regulation-free operating environment in Australia. Its first success was in New South Wales in the late-1990s, when the state government removed almost all laws and restrictions on the commercial operations of prostitution businesses. As a result, most brothels and “massage parlours” in Sydney do not now register themselves with local government. In 2020, most regulations were lifted off the sex industry in the Northern Territory, and the words “brothel” and “escort agency” no longer feature in any Territory administrative document. In Victoria, too, in 2021, sex industry deregulation was undertaken so thoroughly that alcohol consumption on the premises of sex businesses will soon be permitted.
All over Australia, advocates of “sex work” campaign for reduced government intervention in sex industry operations in the name of removing “stigma” from “sex workers.” In this approach, deregulation is a means of humanising sex workers, because it affords them the dignity of work and individual agency. Unlike the workforces of other industries, less rather than more government regulation is believed to deliver those rights.
The Queensland government has recently joined its eastern seaboard counterparts and started efforts to deregulate the business of prostitution in that state as well.
Earlier this year, it directed its Law Reform Commission to seek public comment on a framework for industry decriminalisation. The Commission’s 250-page consultation paper, “Framework for a decriminalised sex work industry in Queensland” explains from the outset what motivates its laissez-faire approach: “Decriminalising sex work may … reduce the financial burden on the criminal justice system, and allow police to focus on other crimes.” Indeed, the Queensland government, in its Terms of Reference drafted for the Commission’s work, included the requirement that it must “limit … the administrative and resource burden on government and industry.”
Cheap and expedient solutions to problems of female sex trading is an unexpected aim of Queensland’s Labor government, especially given the sex slavery case uncovered in Brisbane last year, but it’s a neoliberal aim that infects nearly all governments in Australia.
Notably, however, no similarly expedient approach is taken towards non-commercial forms of sexual violence in Australia. In the wake of #MeToo, the Victorian government made consent education mandatory in public schools, and the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority strengthened its guidance on teaching about “respectful relationships” and consent in its proposed kindergarten to year-10 national health and physical education syllabus. A national framework for preventing violence against women, titled “Change the story,” is widely promoted, and the CEO of the organisation drafting the framework echoed the widely held view in Australia that “using the education system as a catalyst for generational and cultural change … is one of our best strategies to prevent violence against women and girls.”
But when it comes to prostitution, Australian governments are inexplicably in favour of commercial sexual transactions that are far from “respectful” to the women involved.
This contradiction in the official Australian response to commercial verses non-commercial forms of sexual abuse and exploitation has long puzzled many (though certainly not all) feminists. Recently, two feminist organisations — Collective Shout and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia — joined forces to see whether Australia’s media was contributing to the lopsidedness.
Their 2022 report, “Side Hustles and Sexual Exploitation,” is the outcome of a research project designed to answer the question: “How did the Australian news media report and comment on the sex industry during the COVID-19 pandemic?” Over a one-year period, 11 Australian news sources were mined for over four hundred articles directly addressing topics related to the sex industry. This dataset was analysed in detail, and its forensic examination generated the extraordinary finding that Australia’s “media was not only reporting about the sex industry but actively promoting it.”
The report’s authors write that “[p]revious media narratives … have rarely gone so far as to suggest women should be entering the industry,” but that, at the height of the COVID pandemic, Australia’s media framed prostitution as “a form of individualised work” and pushed a “promotional narrative” that represented “a significant escalation on previous decades of reporting.”
In other words, during a time when many Australian women found themselves impoverished by lockdowns and facing difficult household situations in close proximity to male partners for months on end, media outlets were presenting an industry that trades in sexual exploitation as a viable means of escape. According to the report, “the position of the sex industry as a financial last resort was trivialised, or even celebrated, by the Australian media during the first year of the pandemic.” Financial problems combined with housing stress among women produces circumstances in which women become more vulnerable to sex industry recruitment. Australia’s media did little to reduce this vulnerability as jobless — and sometimes newly homeless — women emerged from lockdowns and found themselves floundering in the new post-COVID world.
In that same year, the Queensland government busied itself preparing to deregulate the state’s sex industry.
Unlike other states, Queensland has international tourism destinations and airports, like the Gold Coast and Cairns, as well as major mining operations with large populations of fly-in-fly-out workers. Men who visit the state for leisure and work, and well as local men who drink, gamble, and buy sex acts from women, are, however, barely mentioned in government efforts to lift regulation off the state’s sex industry.
As in the case of the media, researchers found that “sex buyers remain largely invisible in discussions about the sex industry, and are only ever mentioned when they have committed a violent crime against a prostituted person.” The Queensland Law Reform Commission report erases sex buyers almost entirely, as if prostitution were an issue like abortion that aims to secure female bodily autonomy. The research report authors note that concealing the reality of male sexual entitlement that drives the business of prostitution currently obstructs “an honest reckoning by the news media with the realities of the sex trade” in Australia.
This failure to reckon honestly with “the realities of the sex trade” has led Australian state governments — most recently that of Queensland — down a path of legislatively supporting pimps and sex buyers while creating no exit programs to help women get out of prostitution.
Australia’s media bears a great deal of responsibility for this public policy disaster.
The “Side Hustles and Sexual Exploitation” report finds that journalists “push for full decriminalisation as a legislative solution” to problems associated with prostitution, and fail to mention, let alone describe, alternative policy models that attempt to reduce the size of the sex industry by criminalising sex buyers and through educating the public about prostitution’s harms in the style of Australia’s “respectful relationships” program.
While other countries learn the lessons of COVID-19 in terms of structural vulnerabilities that underpin whole populations of women and children, Australia is going in the different direction of sex industry deregulation that will see single mothers in particular rely upon pimps and sex buyers for their post-COVID livelihoods.
Dr Caroline Norma lectures in the Master of Translating and Interpreting degree at RMIT University in Melbourne, and is the author of Comfort Women and Post-Occupation Corporate Japan and The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars.