Sex workers, fundamentalist Christians and radical feminists
Humanists Victoria Public Lecture by Kitty Galore and Lisa Marie Dallimore, Sex Work Law Reform Victoria, at Balwyn Library on Thursday 26 September 2019
The evening began with a representative of Sex Work Law Reform Victoria (SWLRV), asking the audience two questions:
- How much do you know about the sex industry in Victoria? – Most agreed they knew next to nothing.
- How many sex workers do you know and how many sex workers have you met? – Most said none other than Fiona Patten, State MP who addressed a Humanists Victoria meeting earlier in the year.
After commenting that SWLRV members could see why Humanists would welcome Fiona Patten’s contributions, as she works to have the influence of religion removed from public life. It was then explained that SWLRV was a not-for-profit organisation working to achieve safety, equality and justice for those working in the sex industry. The evening would focus on unravelling the connection between sex workers and the Christian right and radical feminism.
Kitty G (pictured) was introduced as a modern day, self-employed sex worker, who was savvy with modern media and who had a leading role in the 3CR radio show ‘Behind Closed Doors’ – Australia’s only sex worker radio program. She began by describing herself as boring as she goes to bed early, gets up early, studies, likes gardening and has two dogs. Kitty was quiet and well-spoken and confessed that she believes in God. She then added ‘the same god that Christians believe in!’
She then posed a question: ‘How do I live with myself?’ Her answer was that she tries to lead an ethical life, as her parents taught her. She said that she likes to think of herself as ‘polite and well mannered’, and believes she runs a legitimate business, offering set services for a set price, and for an allotted time, based on bookings.
Lisa-Marie began by saying there were about 10,000 sex workers in Victoria, i.e., more sex workers than dentists. Around 80% are female, 20% are male with a handful of transgender workers. Just over half of all sex workers are migrants. The vast majority of sex workers are self-employed, with the others working either in a brothel or for an agency. Only a tiny number were street-based sex workers, and their numbers are decreasing every year.
Lisa-Marie said that, generally, the public are fascinated by sex workers, but they know very little about the industry. Most people have had their views formed by historical notions and more recently by media representations. This is starting to change as more sex workers are becoming vocal as they demand to speak for themselves.
Lisa-Marie went on to explain that there was a growing interest from sex workers to claim workers’ rights, to demand the repeal of criminal laws associated with sex work and the removal of criminal penalties. SWLRV was just one of the many groups across the world agitating for rights for sex workers. Its main aim was to gain sex workers the same labour rights as other workers. The slogan they do this under is ‘Nothing about us, without us’. The symbol associated with their campaign is a red umbrella. SWLRV are calling for the end to criminal penalties for what consenting adults do in private. Sex workers demand the same rights as other workers, no penalties, plus access to services like health as with other workers.
Lisa-Marie then spoke about the two distinct groups that are opposed to the aims of SWLRV and who agitate for more controls of sex workers. The first are religion groups, particularly fundamentalists, who believe sex should only take place between a man and a woman. They actively lobby to further criminalise the industry, in the hope that this will reduce the number of sex workers.
The other group sharing similar views are the radical feminists. They maintain that all sex work is male violence against women and they believe efforts should be made to reduce sex services available to men by women. Some of the most vocal radical feminists are from Melbourne University, RMIT and the local publishers, Spinifex Press.
Both these groups want to make it illegal to purchase sex from a sex worker. This is known as the ‘Nordic model’. It originated in the Scandinavian countries and is now law in Sweden, Norway and Northern Ireland. So, the sex worker isn’t charged, but the client risks arrest and criminal prosecution. This means that the religious right and the radical feminists are in opposition to groups advocating for sex workers rights and decriminalisation, such as SWLRV.
Lisa-Marie went on to explain that these two groups are calling for the adoption of the Nordic model. This results in people who don’t know much about the sex industry often thinking that the Nordic model is a good idea, but that’s because they haven’t spoken to sex workers themselves. The Nordic model is opposed by Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation and the medical journal The Lancet.
Lisa-Marie explained that under the Nordic model, your safety as a sex worker is in direct conflict with your client as a result of a law that makes you unsafe. And even though the advocates of the Nordic model claim to have the interests of the sex worker at heart, she claimed they do not. For what the Nordic model does is make it very difficult for sex workers to screen clients or to put in place safety protocols about where and how they work.
These two groups come together whenever there are moves to decriminalise sex work. They claim to care for the welfare of sex workers. Their real aim is to control sex work as they ignore the fact that not all sex workers are women. Further, these groups operate from a paternalistic rescuing stance when it comes to dealing with sex workers. In their rhetoric, both groups continually conflate human trafficking with sex work and on their agenda are laws that make sex workers unsafe.
So, whenever a government is considering decriminalising sex work, we inevitably hear the voices of the religious right and the radical feminists—in submissions, on radio, on panel shows—calling for the introduction of the Nordic model.
For example, Lisa-Maria showed a slide that listed how many religious groups had submitted to the 1985 Marcia Neave Inquiry. But thirty years later, in submissions to a NSW Inquiry into the Regulation of Brothels, there was a shift in the language as applied to sex work to more of a feminist argument about male violence against women. Lisa Marie showed a slide that listed various groups, including the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia, Nordic Model Australia Coalition, Collective Shout (a feminist coalition), along with various religious groups.
Her next slide referred to the Victorian Sex Work Act 1994, which has provision for a Sex Work Ministerial Advisory Committee. Those mandated to be on this Committee include representatives of sex workers and ministers of religion! Lisa-Marie then added we might be interested to know that this Committee has not met since 2014, and are therefore not getting access to the Minister of Consumer Affairs. She then spoke of Project Respect, a Melbourne-based organisation to help women being exploited or trafficked for sex work. This group advocates the Nordic model.
In summary, Lisa-Marie pointed out that the current laws relating to sex work in Victoria are complex and contribute to making it unsafe for sex workers. More concerning is that these laws reveal a greater influence of religious lobby groups, rather than representative bodies like SWLRV. Furthermore, many of the religion-based groups get government funding, which SWLRV does not. Her final point was that sex work laws vary across the States. South Australia is considering decriminalisation, as is Northern Territory. New South Wales has already decriminalised sex work, as has New Zealand.
At the conclusion of the talk, a panel consisting of the above two speakers, another woman and two men answered questions put to them by audience members. The panellists were either sex workers or former sex workers, and all were active supporters of SWLRV.
For more information, visit the Sex Work Law Reform Victoria web site.
Report by Rosslyn Ives